16-27 November, 1936: The Crown in Crisis;
Something will be done
Although Wallis Simpson had been granted her decree nisi at Ipswich Assizes following a twenty-minute appearance in court on the 27 October, she and the King were not yet free to marry. Under the divorce law of the time, the decree could not be made absolute for six months, which meant that Wallis would be under the ‘surveillance’ of an official known as the King’s Proctor until 27 April 1937. If, during that period, she was found in compromising circumstances with any man she could be hauled back into court and, the decision went against her, she would be forever unable to divorce her husband in an English court. Although there had seemed little doubt that it was Wallis’ adultery with Edward that precipitated the breakup of her second marriage, her husband Ernest had agreed to save her ‘blushes’ by being caught in flagrante by staff at the Hotel de Paris near Maidenhead in July, with a Miss ‘Buttercup’ Kennedy. In reality, obtaining the decree absolute was a mere formality, and the couple showed no reserve in the conduct of their relationship over the next six months.
On 16 November Edward invited Baldwin to Buckingham Palace and told him he intended to marry Mrs Simpson. If he could do so and remain King, then ‘well and good’ he said, but if the governments of Britain and the Dominions were opposed, then he was ‘prepared to go’. He did have some prominent supporters in taking this stance, among them Winston Churchill, who was shouted down by the House of Commons when he spoke out in favour of Edward. What crime has the King committed? Churchill later demanded, Have we not sworn allegiance to him? Are we not bound by that oath? At the time of the King’s meeting with Baldwin, however, Churchill may have thought, with some justification, that Edward’s relationship with Mrs Simpson would fizzle out, just as his earlier liaisons had done, and before either the coronation or the wedding could take place in the spring.
Travelling overnight, the King’s train pulled into Llantwit Major before dawn on 18th November. After breakfast, the King set off by car on his tour of the Vale of Glamorgan and the valleys. On the first day, he visited training centres in the Vale where young men and women from the valleys were being trained before being transferred into domestic service and other trades in England. Then he toured some of the valleys and pit villages where the collieries stood idle and so did their miners, in front of him. Almost every conversation ended with the polite request for him to tell Whitehall to do something to bring jobs back to the valleys. His black bowler hat made him look like a mines’ inspector, a point picked up by The South Wales Echo in one of its cartoons lampooning the inaction of Baldwin, Chamberlain and Brown, the Minister for Labour, hated for his role in the introduction of the Means Test and Transitional Benefits.
It was in Dowlais, during a tour of the derelict steelworks, shut down six years earlier, that he made his remark, terrible, terrible, something will be done about this! This was also how the newsreels reported it at the time, showing the marvellous reception of his long-suffering subjects in the depressed area. The King had brought hope to replace despair. Nine thousand men had worked making steel; now there was nothing but the wreckage of the old works, and no other industry to take them on. In 1936, 75% of the Dowlais men were unemployed. The demonstration that met him was largely spontaneous and supportive and, as he looked over the derelict site, some of the men began singing Crugybar, the Welsh Hymn. It was then that he made his impromptu speech, often misquoted, as ‘something must be done’. As in the Jarrow Crusade, these four words were frequently on the lips of advocates of the distressed areas, and had been used elsewhere on this visit by the King, responding to pleas from the people. However, this time what he said was different markedly different in tense and tone, context and subtext.
It may well have been an attempt to head off the kind of criticism that Ellis had suggested might accompany his visit, rather than an attempt to embarrass the government. His use of will rather than must, the manner in which he directed the remarks to the politicians alongside him, and his insistence that the steelworkers must stay here, working reflected his determination to see to it that his government would change its policy from one of sole reliance on transferring the unemployed to other areas to that of attracting new industries, as advocated by Malcolm Stewart and many others. This was a direct challenge not only to Brown, but also, through him, to Chamberlain and Baldwin.It was fighting talk, not the resigned remark of a monarch who was about to give up the throne. Whatever the case, the King’s visit did indeed acquire a political significance, though opposite in nature to that which Ellis was expecting. It certainly did not endear him to a Cabinet that was now beginning to discuss the constitutional crisis and the distinct possibility that he would be forced to abdicate. The coalfield communities turned the whole event into another mass demonstration. The publicity given to it and to Edward VIII’s remarks also, certainly, had an important impact in quickening the process of industrial redevelopment. Something was, eventually, done, but not at the dicta of the King and only after his abdication. For the time being, though, his visit re-energised him, and he began to think that he might put up a fight for the throne, the woman he loved, and his people, against the politicians who seemed to wish that all of them would simply go away, rather than trying to find unorthodox solutions for unusual circumstances. Even those who knew that he didn’t have the power to change the hard hearts of politicians were nonetheless grateful that he had taken the trouble to survey the depressed valleys with his own eyes.
Playing the Good King
On his return from South Wales on November 20th, the King felt buoyed up by his popularity and his ability to demonstrate empathy with the sufferings of his people. Ramsay MacDonald, Lord President, who knew South Wales well as Labour MP for Aberavon from 1922 to 1929, commented that these escapades should be limited… They are an invasion into the field of politics and should be watched constitutionally. Geoffrey Dawson called his comments at Dowlais monstrous…a constitutionally dangerous proceeding that would threaten, if continued, to entangle the Throne in politics.
The Beaverbrook press, by contrast, allying itself with Churchill, was keen to make political capital out of the visit, contrasting his care for the plight of the unemployed with the indifference of the government under the headline, “The King Edward Touch”. It continued to trumpet its praise:
Never has the magic of personal leadership been better shown than by the King’s visit to south Wales. As few ministers have done, the Sovereign examined their plight and drew from them the tale of their trouble.
He himself later called his words the minimum humanitarian response that he could have made to the suffering he had seen, though he also added that the monarch should be able to play the role of the Good King, free to move unhindered among his subjects, and speak what is in his mind.
On the evening of his return from South Wales, Edward telephoned his brother, the Duke of Kent, and told him of his intention to marry Wallis, and make her Queen, Empress of India, “the whole bag of tricks!” This renewed self-confidence also sprang from his finding a new ally behind the scenes in the ample shape of Winston Churchill, whose motives for supporting the King were a mixture of personal ambition and political acumen. Churchill felt that Baldwin was slow to rearm because he was putting the interests of his party before those of the country. This was also why the PM would rather have the King abdicate than risk losing his popular mandate in an early election. On the other hand, Churchill realised that he needed a more popular cause than rearmament to revive his flagging fortunes. Backing the King would add to Baldwin’s discomfort and might lead to a new Conservative administration with Churchill at the heart of it. He was also a romantic, half-American himself, and held the monarchy in great reverence. In addition, he respected the King for his twenty-five years of service as Prince of Wales, before becoming monarch, almost as long as the time since Winston himself had first become a minister. The civil law allowed re-marriage. Why should the King, never married himself, not be able to marry the woman he loved, even if she had been married twice before? The answer to this, of course, lay in the attitude of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was not keen on anointing an adulterer in any case. He would far rather crown his far more virtuous brother. Churchill had little time for such stuffiness.
Above: Archbishop Lange
While Edward was in South Wales, Churchill put the case for a morganatic marriage. This would deny Wallis the title of Queen and preclude Edward’s heirs from taking the throne, the crown eventually passing to the Princess Elizabeth. Rather than putting the proposal directly to the King, he used Lord Rothermere’s son, Esmond Harmsworth. Lord Harmsworth took Wallis to lunch at Claridge’s and told her that if, on marriage, she became the King’s consort, but not his Queen, she might become ‘the Duchess of Cornwall’. She liked the idea, and telephoned the King on his special train in South Wales. On the following day, November 20th, Edward briefly discussed by telephone with Baldwin the possibility of Parliament passing a special Bill that would allow him to marry Mrs. Simpson without her becoming Queen. He told the PM that this was Wallis’ own idea, following Winston Churchill’s advice not to credit him with it. He also told Baldwin to submit the proposal, as his Prime Minister, to the British Cabinet as well as to all the Cabinets in the Dominions. Up until this point, the matter of the King’s relationship with Mrs Simpson had not been discussed even in the British Cabinet, though the politicians in the Dominions were already far more aware of the details of the ‘affair’ through their press, which was not fettered in its reporting. Baldwin had kept everything he could from most of his Cabinet colleagues, but had already used the freedom of North American press to his advantage in the Hardinge letter, which the King had received just a week beforehand, and which contained the confected reference to the negative reaction of Canadians. In fact, North American reaction was, by all the accounts of the time, quite positive towards the marriage, with many people looking forward to an American becoming Queen. Wallis must have been aware of this, even if she accepted that there was also some adverse reaction among a minority of fellow (North) Americans. The Hardinge letter should at least have alerted the King to the danger of trusting Baldwin to consider the morganatic proposal fairly and honestly, but apparently it did not. For his part, Edward had discussed the plan over the course of his weekend with Wallis at the Fort. On the Monday, he sent Harmsworth to Downing Street to discuss the details of the plan with Baldwin. This was a major tactical error.
Baldwin was ready for the proposal, having had the weekend to find a legitimate reason to oppose it and force the abdication. Baldwin had discussed it with Chamberlain over the weekend and both men knew of (and were suspicious of) Churchill’s motives in proposing the scheme. Perhaps most significantly, both men were from strong, middle-class Victorian church-going traditions in a country where church attendance had declined dramatically since the Great War. Baldwin rejected the plan at once and told Harmsworth that MPs would never pass the required act of Parliament. The young Lord, the epitome of aristocratic decadence to Baldwin, impetuously retorted that he thought they would, apparently failing to challenge Baldwin’s basic assumption that a special Bill was necessary.
Seventy years on, no such act of Parliament was deemed necessary for the current heir to the throne to marry the divorced Mrs Parker-Bowles with the proviso that she would become and remain the Duchess of Cornwall. In his brief discussion with Harmsworth, Baldwin also added what he believed to be ‘the truth’, for good measure; that the British people would never accept Wallis Simpson as the King’s wife, whatever her constitutional position. Drawing another lesson from more recent royal relationships, we now know that despite the strength of public feeling at the time of the Prince of Wales’ separation from Princess Diana, the outpouring of sympathy at her death, and the suffering of her two children as a result of these two events, the public seem to have accepted Charles’ marriage to his former mistress on the basis that she will not be made ‘Queen Camilla’. A morganatic marriage is now deemed both permissible and acceptable to the establishment, including the monarchy itself, as well as to the people: could it have been in 1936, especially given Edward’s popularity? Of course, the so-called sixties sexual revolution and the change in moral values over those seventy years needs to be accounted for, but the constitutional position of the monarch as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith has remained unchanged. So has that of the Church itself in respect of Divorce in general, although re-married couples can now receive a blessing in church, as Charles and Camilla did in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, following the registration of the marriage.
Above: Fort Belvedere, Edward VIII’s private quarters at Windsor Castle.