Acorns and Oak Trees
George Austin on some Royal liasons
Archbishop Runcie commented to biographer Humphrey Carpenter that ‘it is a terrible reflection on public life today that someone like Austin can become a well-known spokesman on such matters.’ ‘Such matters’ were royal matters, and of course he was quite right. In a Church run by the right sort of chaps it was not proper for a shopkeeper’s son, a grammar school boy who had attended a Welsh university and lacked the benefits of Cuddesdon and Westcott House, to comment on matters above his station in life. I was so ashamed of my precocious behaviour that I had a T-shirt made with Runcie’s words inscribed on it – appropriately in purple ink.
It had all begun with an innocent remark on the BBC’s Today programme. There had been rumours of Prince Charles’s affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles and Peter Hobday asked me if, should it be true, there would be problems for some Christians. I answered that, yes, for some Christians that would certainly be the case. I could not of course say that this would be for all who professed and called themselves Christian because even ten or twelve years ago liberalism was gathering apace, especially in the Church of England.
Hobday went on to press me about the nature of those problems. I replied to the effect that some Christians would feel that having broken solemn vows made before God in Church to be faithful to one woman, he would one day be asked to make solemn vows before God at his coronation in Westminster Abbey.
It seemed a fairly obvious comment to make and I was slightly surprised when all hell broke loose. A telephone poll of bishops in one newspaper disclosed that of all the bishops approached, only two were at all in agreement, whereas most of the archdeacons supported me. Now, should I wonder why that was?
But the long-term result was that, so far as the press were concerned and to the annoyance of the episcopate, I became the churchman who would break taboos and comment on royal affairs.
I sinned yet again when the BBC phoned recently to say that with the release of a Special Branch report, hidden for more than 60 years, a story was about to break of a liaison between the Edward VIII’s mistress, Wallis Simpson, and the son of the vicar of St Martin’s, Coney Street, in York. Would I care to comment on the next day’s Look North local news programme? I fear I could not resist the temptation, and I observed that the story had all the marks of the Thirties.
It read like something out of Jeeves and Wooster, even to the name of the man, Guy Trundle, who had dared to have what the police described as ‘intimate relations’ with Edward’s lady friend. He was ‘handsome’, ‘very attractive to women’, ‘a good dancer’ – no wonder The Times report used that delicious phrase, ‘lounge lizard’. What is more, this awful cad was a mere car-salesman. What a frightful bounder! Mind you, he did have a flat in Mayfair.
All quite hilarious, but with immensely serious undertones. For the crucial question is: Why was the report not passed on to the King? Surely this would have meant an end to his relationship with Mrs Simpson and that he would not have abdicated? All the previous evidence suggests that the Prime Minister wanted Edward to be King.
But there are always – as the Queen is supposed to have said recently – ‘dark forces’ at work, not least in matters like this, where the public, and maybe even close associates who might be thought also to be in the confidence of those under investigation, are fed only such information as serves the real intent.
Queen Mary certainly hoped that the throne would pass not to her eldest son, but to Bertie, the Duke of York, who following the abdication of Edward VIII did in fact succeed as George VI. Stanley Baldwin, who was Prime Minister at the time, was a pretty disastrous politician. His first premiership was marked by a return to the gold standard in 1925, but he was forced to abandon it in 1931 because of the Great Depression. He presided over the General Strike in 1926 and a year later brought in the Trade Disputes Act, which restricted the rights of trade unions.
After losing the 1929 election he returned to power in 1931, and in 1935 approved the Hoare-Laval Pact, which condoned fascist Italy’s annexation of Ethiopia, only being forced to back down in the face of public opinion (watch out, Tony Blair!). All the time, Baldwin resisted demands for rearmament, and was much criticized for failing to recognize the threat from Nazi Germany.
But there were those in positions of considerable authority, not least in the armed forces, who were recognizing the dangers to come. It is not impossible that it was a deliberate action of the part of the intelligence services and the military that even the Prime Minister was not informed of a fact that might have prevented the abdication crisis. After all, it is clear that Wallis Simpson was not the most chaste of women, and there are even rumours that she was involved with von Ribbentrop, then the German Ambassador in London and a close associate of Adolf Hitler. Hitler certainly courted the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s support after the abdication.
A king sympathetic to Nazi Germany would then have ruled Britain and after Dunkirk that might have been enough to allow the views of powerful voices in Parliament to bring about a negotiated peace. Since Germany had lost German East Africa and what is now Namibia to Britain, such a peace settlement would almost certainly involved handing over these and probably other parts of the British Empire, especially in the Third World.
Hitler would have been able to concentrate his forces on Soviet Russia and beyond, and he may well have been successful in his dream of a Third Reich to last a thousand years. The Jewish people would have been annihilated, East Europeans and black Africans enslaved, eventually suffering the same fate as the Jews, while in South Africa apartheid would have continued without challenge. Fantasy? I don’t think so.
And it would be all because a vicar’s son from York had ‘intimate relations’ with an American divorcee. ‘A butterfly flapping its wings in Tokyo…’ – I’ve never understood the chaos theory, but it does make one wonder just how far one minor unrelated action might have a cataclysmic effect far beyond itself. And that should give all of us pause for thought.
George Austin is a retired archdeacon.