Bishop Blunt and the Abdication Crisis
(First published in 1986 in volume 2, pp. 54-64, of the third series of The Bradford Antiquary, the journal of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society.)
On 1 April 1982 the Blunt family grave in Calverley churchyard was vandalised and in its account of the incident the Bradford Telegraph & Argus reminded its readers that Dr. Blunt 'was reported nationwide when he criticized King Edward VIII in a speech which sparked off the abdication crisis of 1936'. It is a sad fact that so long after the Abdication, Alfred Blunt is remembered by most people only because of a few remarks he made on that fateful day in December 1936. As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of a crisis which turned the attention of this country and indeed the whole world, for a time at least, upon Bradford, it seems appropriate to set the speech in its context and look once again at the man who made it.
Alfred Walter Frank Blunt was born at St. Malo in France in 1879 and counted among his distinguished ancestors Henry Chichele, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1414 to 1443. The death of his father, the Chief Civil Commissioner of the Seychelles, in 1881, led to the family's return to St. Malo, where they lived until they came back to England in 1887.
From Marlborough Alfred Blunt went to Exeter College, Oxford, where he graduated with firsts in Classical Moderations and Literae Humaniores. Mter a short period as a master at Wellington College he returned to Exeter as Fellow and Tutor, astonishing everyone by his decision to seek ordination, which took place on 25 September 1904. In 1907 he left Oxford to become curate at Carrington in Nottinghamshire. Eighteen months later he became Vicar of Carrington and his ministry there gave him the opportunity to put into practice the theories of the Christian Social Union, with which he was associated at Oxford. At this time, too, he revealed himself as a strict disciplinarian in matters connected with church worship and developed the talent which was to make him one of the outstanding preachers in the Church of England.
In 1917 Blunt became Vicar of St. Werburgh's, Derby. During this period he moved closer to the Labour movement through his growing friendship with J.H. Thomas, J.P. for Derby, and joined the Labour Party after the General Strike of 1926. From 1920 he was also Rural Dean of Derby, but among all his additional duties still found time to write nine books on theology and biblical exegesis.
By 1930 a number of bishops felt that the time had come for Canon Blunt to move on to 'higher things' and through J.H. Thomas his name was made known to Ramsey MacDonald, the Prime Minister. Accordingly, when the Bishop of Worcester died the vacancy was offered to Blunt. After much soul-searching he accepted the offer, only to write two days later stating his refusal to live at Hartlebury Castle, and intimating his intention to sell it. Three weeks later, after visiting the castle and discussing the matter with the Archbishop of Canterbury, he decided to live there for a short time as an experiment. Within three days, however, he withdrew his acceptance, saying, 'My wife's doctor, a neurologist … has absolutely and emphatically forbidden me to take her to an isolated place in the country like Hartlebury', but he asked the Prime Minister not to publish the reason.1 MacDonald, being resolved to find Blunt a seat on the bench of bishops, resolved the matter by translating Perowne from Bradford to Worcester and offering the vacant see to Blunt.
Before he could be consecrated and enthroned Canon Blunt suffered a nervous breakdown brought on by years of overwork and the mental struggle over Worcester. He went to Littlehampton for a period of convalescence, but became so depressed that he felt he must give up the bishopric. However, Archbishop Temple refused to let him back out and he was consecrated at York Minster on 25 July 1931. He then set out for a month's cruise to the Greek Islands, leaving a short time to prepare for his enthronement on 23 September, but being taken ill after leaving Marseilles he had to spend most of his holiday in Athens. This led to another delay, during which there was another attempt to resign, and his enthronement did not take place until 30 November 1931.
For Bradford the change was a considerable one: the new bishop was very different from the old. Dr. Perowne, a committed Evangelical, had served as his father's chaplain when he, too, was Bishop of Worcester. He was a traditional, orthodox, Church of England bishop - a man with charm, but somewhat remote from the common folk. Dr. Blunt, on the other hand, leaned strongly to the Catholic side, and owned to 'a liking for a certain amount of ceremonial'. The Anglo-Catholics, who had had a difficult time under Perowne, hailed the new man as their champion. He was a Socialist, a 'good mixer' in spite of his scholarship, and the kind of person who was known to share sandwiches at a parish function and offer to help with the washing-up. Peart-Binns quotes the views of two Bradford Cathedral canons on the differences between the old bishop and the new. One said, 'Dr. Perowne was a much better administrator' than Bishop Blunt and was probably more pastorally minded, but Bishop Blunt was a prophet'. The other said,
"… Blunt was a scholar with a deep knowledge of the Bible and Theology, and he had the true scholar's essential humbleness of mind, whilst Perowne was not well-versed in either Theology or Bible knowledge, and, as so often happens, he had something of an inferiority complex which tended to make him intolerant of question."2
A surprise testimonial to Dr. Blunt came from Canon Guy Waddington, one of the chief objectors to the bishop's involvement in the 1934 Anglo-Catholic Congress held in Bradford. In 1969 Canon Waddington recalled,
"Alfred Blunt was different in almost every way [i.e. from Bishop Perowne], in scholarship, churchmanship, and most noteworthy, I found, in his attitude to those who differed from him. So, after early disagreements and problems, I learned to appreciate not only his great scholarship, but his readiness to listen to other people's opinions. I was impressed by his humble-mindedness and I benefited a great deal by his kindly tolerance of one who has always been a bit 'difficult'."3
Soon the new bishop's views were being made known to his people through the monthly Bradford Diocesan News. He objected to the idea held by many people, then as now, that the Church should not concern itself with matters of social and international well-being. As early as March 1933 he wrote,
"Human society is organised on wrong principles; its guiding motives are self-seeking individualism and the dominance of money. God is a side issue in the life of very many.4
The decline in religious observa"nce and the pursuit of wordly comforts, so generally evident today, would certainly have brought much sterner condemnation from him.
Bishop Blunt sanctioned the use of special services to mark the Silver Jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary in 1935, permitting clergy to invite ministers of other denominations to preach or read lessons. Eighteen months later, by his remarks to the Diocesan Conference, he antagonized Free Church ministers and unwittingly, it seems, touched off the abdication crisis.
It was the bishop's custom to send a copy of his address to the Yorkshire Post before each conference and this he did, as usual, on the afternoon of 30 November. He regarded the Coronation as a serious act of dedication during a religious ceremony and was concerned about King Edward's casual attitude towards religion. This lay behind all that he said:
"In this as in any other sacrament, the benefit which God;s grace may effect is dependent on the presence of certain human conditions. The benefit of the King's Coronation depends, under God, upon two elements: firstly on the faith, prayer and self-dedication of the King himself; and on that it would be improper for me to say anything except to commend him and ask you to commend him to God's grace, which he will so abundantly need, as we all need it - for the King is a man like ourselves - if he is to do his duty faithfully. We hope that he is aware of his need. Some of us wish that he gave more positive signs of such awareness."
"But let me emphasise one point which, I think, is very material for the proper understanding of the intention of the service. It is this, that on this occasion the King holds an avowedly representative position. His personal views and opinions are his own, and as an individual he has the right of us all to be keeper of his own private conscience. But in his public capacity at his Coronation he stands for the British people's idea of Kingship. It has for long centuries been, and I hope still is, an essential part of that idea, that the King needs the grace of God for his office."5
The main part of the address was about the religious nature of the Coronation as an act whereby the King dedicated himself to the service of the nation, and the people's response to this act of dedication. He was emphatically opposed to the suggestion of Dr. Barnes, the Bishop of Birmingham, that the Coronation should be separated from a service of Holy Communion, so that Free Church ministers could take part in it. When the first paragraph of this extract got into the local papers it caused the English press to break its agreement of secrecy regarding the King's affair with Mrs Simpson, and the whole question of Edward VIII's future was brought out into the open. Most people believed that Dr. Blunt was giving positive signs of his awareness of what was happening in royal circles and had chosen this way of bringing it to the nation's notice. In view of the explanation he gave in the Diocesan News the following January nothing seems to have been further from the truth.
The Telegraph & Argus on 1 December reported the speech almost verbatim, using the headlines:
"The Bishop of Bradford's reference to the King's 'need for grace'.
TRUE ASPECT OF THE CORONATION.
Why the Free Church should not take part."
Then the text was quoted, with the by-now famous paragraph first. The rest of the article was devoted to the bishop's views about the Coronation Service.
On 2 December the Telegraph & Argus leader related the bishop's remarks to the rumours about King Edward.
"Quite another matter is his reference - vague though it be - to King Edward himself. After stating that the King would abundantly need God's grace if he were to do his duty faithfully, the bishop added, 'We hope that he is aware of his need. Some of us wish that he gave more positive sign of his awareness'".
"A wide variety of meanings may lurk beneath this remark and many will probably feel that, lacking any degree of direct criticism, it had been better if it had never been expressed".
"On the contrary, others will consider that Dr. Blunt would not have committed himself in this manner had he not believed possible some action that might tend to imperil the sacramental aspects of the Coronation".
"Be that as it may, the Bishop of Bradford's speech. . . will at least direct public attention to the dedicatory side of the Coronation, which most of us may too easily overlook".
There was further comment in 'City Topics'.
"THE BISHOP'S SPEECH:"
"Although the Bishop of Bradford, since his appointment in 1931, has generally made his diocesan conference address the vehicle for weighty pronouncements, there was no clue at the beginning of the proceedings at Church House yesterday that he was about to deliver a speech of national and not merely diocesan importance".
"But his audience had not long to wait; Dr. Blunt, with his customary directness, launched into the subject of his address without a single preambulary statement. The Bishop is a first-class speaker without notes, and in transcription a reporter can rarely find any sign of redundancy, or any non-essential phrase; but yesterday he read his speech from a typewritten manuscript, and made no departure from the text of it. There was no opportunity either to gauge the reactions of his listeners, for his address had no interruption, and afterwards there was no discussion".
This piece of reporting sets the scene in a dramatic way. The fact that the bishop now knew at least something about the relationship between the King and Mrs Simpson seemed to make him all the more determined not to be deflected from his original purpose. Contrary to his usual custom he read the speech so as not to alter a single word of what he had written many weeks before, and of course there were many other points the bishop wanted to press home besides those relating to the King. The audience listened quietly, and the address, which had begun without preamble, ended without allowing time for discussion or debate.
The Telegraph & Argus carried a quotation from the Yorkshire Post of that day in which the writer referred to the splendid example set to the new King by his father, George V.
"Deep disappointment must necessarily result if, instead of this continuity of example, there should develop a dispute between the King and his Ministers such as must almost inevitably raise a constitutional issue of the gravest character".
Reverting to the question of the King's 'need for grace', the Yorkshire Post also said,
"Dr. Blunt must have had good reason for so pointed a remark. Most people by this time are aware that a good deal of rumour regarding the King has been published of late in the more sensational American newspapers. It is proper to treat with contempt mere gossip such as is frequently associated with the names of European royal persons. The Bishop of Bradford would certainly not have condescended to recognise it. But certain statements which have appeared in reputable United States journals, and even we believe in some Dominion newspapers, cannot be treated with so much indifference. They are too circumstantial and plainly have a foundation in fact".
"For this reason an increasing number of responsible people is led to fear lest the King may not yet have perceived how complete in our day must be that self-dedication of which Dr. Blunt spoke if the Coronation is to bring a blessing to all the peoples and is not, on the contrary, to prove a stumbling block".
The Yorkshire Observer on 2 December printed the bishop's speech in full. The comment mentions his views on the Coronation Service and his opposition to Dr. Barnes, who wanted Free Church leaders to take part. The leader said,
"The bishop's references to the King himself raise directly the personal aspects of the responsibility of the occupant of the Throne to give a lead according to standards which can be generally observed and publicly proclaimed … So long as that Church is a State institution the King's conscience and his acts cannot be disassociated from his responsibility as its head".
On 3 December the Telegraph & Argus said,
"In view of all the circumstances, the Bishop of Bradford's statement that his remarks in his address had no reference to these rumours is amazing. . ."
On the same day the Yorkshire Observer quoted reports from other newspapers dealing with American revelations about the King, but they were very vague and there is no direct reference either to the King or Mrs Simpson The next day the paper carried separate pictures of the King and Mrs. Simpson, with quotations from other sources, but there was no further reference to the Bishop of Bradford.
In his biography, Blunt, Peart-Binns, quotes from the bishop's private notes:
"For one moment I appeared in the pages of history and became front page news in The Times; my part in the events leading up to King Edward VIII's Abdication has been absurdly exaggerated, and so completely misrepresented by the gossip columns of the Press and the current scandal-mongering of gutters and clubs alike, that I think it may be of interest if I set down what actually I had to do with the events".
"We (the Church) were all trying to key England up to approach the Coronation with some sense of religious education. I was planning to say something about it at my Diocesan Conference in December. Two circumstances gave me my line of treatment".6
Here Dr. Blunt mentions the Bishop of Birmingham's sermon in St. James's Palace Chapel, which suggested that the Coronation should be divorced from Holy Communion so the Nonconformists could take part. He also mentions Provost Mowll's report of a businessman's remarks, "You parsons are trying to make us take a religious view of the Coronation. What's the use when the principal actor in it has no use for that sort of thing himself?"
Blunt felt it would be a disaster if the King's attitude led people to approach the Coronation with the wrong attitude.
"So I planned my address to deal with these two points … Note the words, for they were carefully chosen. I did not deny that the King showed signs of grace. Indeed I thought - and think - the exact reverse, for much of his quality was too good to be due to anything but God's grace. Nor did I say that the King was not aware that he needed the grace of God; that was his own business and I had neither right nor knowledge to speak about it. But I did know that, so far as public acknowledgment of God in religious observance was concerned, the King had gone a different way from his father. Nobody could know that he valued the public observance of religion and I believed that to be a real weakness in his public attitude as King of England. My words referred to this and this alone. I wrote my address in October and had it typed by my Secretary, and put it aside for use in December when the Conference was to meet. At that time I had never heard of Mrs Simpson and knew nothing whatever of the King's 'affair' with her".7
He continues by saying that he was told about Mrs Simpson by the Bishop of St. Albans at the Church Assembly in November.
"For a moment I wondered whether I ought to alter the words I had written. I decided not to for the simple reason that as the words had no reference to the King's love-affair they could not be twisted to contain such a reference. Sancta Simplicitas! Next day the storm broke and the heather was afire. I had no idea that so much dry heather was lying about waiting to be kindled; nor did I know that for some time the newspapers had been straining at the neck for the moment to break the news …"
"I wrote without any reference to anybody, or hint from anybody or discussion with anybody".
He says that the only people who knew what he was going to talk about were his Secretary and the Yorkshire Post.
"By a standing arrangement, I always let them have my Diocesan Conference Presidential Address the afternoon before I deliver it … I did in this case what I usually do. They had the Address at 3p.m. and I had it back at 5p.m. Whether the Bradford office of the paper sent word to its Leeds office of what I was going to say … I have no means of knowing and never asked".8
Knowing their delight in a 'scoop' he did not believe they would have circulated it to the Northern Press.
Peart-Binns tells us that Arthur Mann, editor of the Yorkshire Post,said he was in London discussing the subject of the leader with its writer, Charles Tower, when the Leeds office sent him the salient points of Blunt's address and he decided, 'Here is our subject'. He had been told that at a private meeting at Lambeth, presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury, concern had been expressed about the King's desire to marry Mrs Simpson.
"On reading the bishop's words I rather naturally assumed that he had been inspired by higher authority to speak as he had done … The proprietors and Editors of the leading London newspapers had, as I knew, entered into an agreement not to allude to the subject. I was no party to this agreement and I thought the time had come for the silence to be broken and the issue squarely faced."9
Arthur Mann then says that when the leading article had been written extracts were sent to the Press Association for general circulation and before 8p.m. on 1 December every newspaper office in the country had received the quotation. He continues:
"When a day or two later Bishop Blunt, in a press interview, declared that he had never so much as heard of Mrs Simpson when he wrote his address I realised that I had read into the Bishop's words a wider significance than he intended to convey.
The bishop summed up the position in the Diocesan News of January 1937. He said,
"Three facts have become clear."
"1. The issue was raised by King Edward himself and not by anyone else. The Press revelation ended a period of silence and underground gossip … but in itself it made no difference to the eventual outcome."
"2. King Edward had made up his mind from the very first to abdicate if he could not make the lady he wished to marry his Queen. The suggestion of a morganatic marriage was made to him but he neither pressed it nor thought it possible."
"3. His projected course was impossible. The marriage would have have given bitter offence to large sections of opinion both in England and in the Dominions and would have immensely diminished the influence of the Crown."
Most people who knew Dr. Blunt respected him for his plain, straightforward speaking, and when he said that he had never heard of Mrs Simpson until after the address to the Diocesan Conference had been prepared they believed him. Any kind of equivocation was quite against the run of his character. Whether having been informed about 'the affair' he ought to have changed his speech is another matter. He thought that as his remarks referred only to the King's attitude towards the public observance of religion there could be no possible risk of confusion. 'Sancta Simplicitas'! The public and the press for the most part thought differently, and the storm broke.
We leave the last word on the subject to Peter Holdsworth of the Bradford Telegraph & Argus, who said, in one of his reviews,
"… from boyhood I knew Dr. Blunt and there never was a straighter, kinder or more lovable man. Years later when he told me that while writing that diocesan statement he was unaware of the Simpson affair, and was referring to Edward's need to display more support for the Church, I believed him totally."
"Nevertheless, he had not only bumbled into a minefield but had set it off."10
Thanks are due to the following authorities for permission to use quotations: the Editor, Yorkshire Post; the Editor, Telegraph & Argus, Bradford; Mr David Blunt (Bishop Blunt's private notes); and Mr J.S. Peart-Binns author of Blunt.
The above article could not have been written without constant reference to the biography of Bishop Blunt by Mr. Peart-Binns, and I am sure Miss Lister would have wished to thank him for all the information he has made available.
© 1986, Mary Lister B.D. and The Bradford Antiquary