The 1936 Abdication Crisis – Part 7: The Last Straw

Duke and Duchess medalled


It was Lord Rothermere, Esmond Harmsworth, Lord Beaverbrook, David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill’s support for the morganatic “Cornwall proposal” alongside the King’s plan to appeal directly to the public that finally catalyzed the abdication.

Horrified by the dual proposal upon hearing it, and clearly alarmed that it had already gained such traction, Archbishop Lang wrote immediately to the Prime Minister, sending the letter by courier on the same day  – Wednesday November 25th 1936 – to 10 Downing Street. In his letter (now in the public domain) the Archbishop insisted that Edward must be removed swiftly. Lang wrote: “He must leave as soon as possible…The announcement should appear as a free act…I understand that you are seeing him tonight and, doubtless, you would make this plain.”

Accordingly Stanley Baldwin used his powers to prevent the King from making his appeal to the public as he had wished, ruling that such an action would be unconstitutional, because it would abrogate the constitutional prerogatives of the prime-minister and of parliament. The PM immediately announced this position to parliament, moving things with all haste towards a public broadcast from the King. The broadcast went ahead a little more than a fortnight later on December 11th 1936. It was not the broadcast Edward had intended, but the announcement of his abdication. He had signed the instrument of abdication the day before.

abdication speech

“At long last I am able to say a few words of my own. I have never wanted to withhold anything, but until now it has not been constitutionally possible for me to speak….And I want you to know that the decision I have made has been mine and mine alone. This was a thing I had to judge entirely for myself. The other person most nearly concerned has tried up to the last to persuade me to take a different course…I have made this, the most serious decision of my life, only upon the single thought of what would, in the end, be best for all…God bless you all! God save the King!” (Extract)

Was this a miscarriage of justice? Was the Prime Minister manipulated by the powers of the Establishment to re-conservatize the monarchy and the nation? Was Edward robbed of his right to be an “up to date King” for whatever his chosen tenure was to be, long or short?

uniformed d and d

The Duchess later wrote with surprising candour that she could never understand why Edward would choose to invite such trouble by forcing a crisis with the Prime Minister. By inviting the cabinet to consider the Morganatic/Cornwall proposal surely, she said, the King “would be putting his head on Mr.Baldwin’s chopping block.”

And what was the urgency? Why not be crowned and return to the question of marriage later? PM Baldwin, likewise, could not understand why the King was forcing a crisis by insisting on marrying Wallis. Why could he not keep Mrs Simpson discreetly as a mistress? The PM saw no constitutional problem with that and believed that the British public would accept it, since it was a time-honored royal tradition.

lang at number 10

Archbishop Cosmo Lang, leaving a late-night meeting with Prime-Minister Stanley Baldwin at 10 Downing Street, November 1936

For Archbishop Lang, however, even that scenario was unacceptable. In a confidential memo (now in the public domain)  Lang recalled discussing the PM’s suggestion at a private meeting on November 1st 1936. The two men differed. It was contrary to Church of England law for divorced persons to marry. So for the Supreme Governor of the Church of England to marry a woman who by then would be twice divorced was simply impossible.

As to the Prime Minister’s suggestion of tolerating a royal mistress, Lang felt it was untenable to anoint as King a man whose private, unrepentant adultery was known to the world. When PM Baldwin finally understood Lang’s position he wrote on November 13th warning the King that if he pressed his intention to marry Mrs Simpson it would pitch the King, the Government and the Church of England into an unavoidable crisis from which the King would emerge either government-less or crown-less. In the inevitable constitutional collision only Archbishop lang’s position was secure. This was the letter that had so alarmed The King’s Private Secretary Alex Hardinge and moved him to advise Mrs Simpson’s removal to the Continent – indeed to anywhere but Britain.

With the ball now firmly in Edward’s court, why then did The King force the question? Certainly he wanted to keep Wallis for life. The mistress proposal suited neither the Archbishop nor the King. But what about the suggestion made by Wallis and other friends that he should drop the relationship, if not permanently, at least until long after the coronation. Why force a crisis at that time?

Might the answer be that Edward was in truth not very perturbed by the prospect of losing the stand-off with the PM and the Archbishop? Is it possible that the crisis enabled Edward to achieve a freedom he had actually long desired, all the while appearing to be the victim of an Establishment coup?

younger wallis

Wallis Windsor in 1937 – by royal photographer Cecil Beaton

In his abdication speech Edward placed unique emphasis on the underlined words, “But you must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.”

Wallis looking wistful

Putting everything together, I wonder if his service as Prince of Wales through the 1920s and 1930s had given Edward an all too clear picture of what he would be up against in the conservatism of the Establishment. My reading is that Edward gauged that the freedom to do his Kingly duties in an “up-to-date” way as he would wish to do would in all probability be denied him with or without Wallis. I wonder if Edward simply did not want the job on those terms and felt defeated-in-advance of the contest. In that sense I wonder if, both for the King and for the Establishment, Edward’s proposal to marry Wallis Simpson presented a rather convenient peg on which to hang a whole number of concerns and issues.

Was this the case? With great deference and tact Kenneth Harris ever so subtly puts this question to the Duke in the 1969 interview below. By my reading the answer the Duke gives to the question is a clear “Yes.” (Listen to the full interview at the bottom of this post and see if you read it that way too.)

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