Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (579)
Feelings of love
Professor Yunan Labib Rizk reveals how Egyptians felt about that greatest of love stories: King Edward VIII and Wallace Simpson
"After long and anxious consideration, I have determined to renounce the throne to which I succeeded on the death of my father and I am now communicating this, my final and irrevocable decision. Realising as I do the gravity of this step, I can only hope that I shall have the understanding of my people in the decision I have taken, and the reasons which have led me to take it.
"I will not enter now into my private feelings, but I would beg that it should be remembered that the burden which constantly rests on the shoulders of the sovereign is so heavy that it can only be borne in circumstances different from those in which I now find myself.
"I conceive that I am not overlooking the duties of a sovereign that rest upon me when I declare I am conscious that I can no longer discharge this heavy task with efficiency or with satisfaction to myself.
"I have accordingly, this morning, executed an instrument of abdication, which states:
"I, Edward the VIII, of Great Britain, Ireland, and the British Dominions beyond the Seas, king, emperor of India, do hereby declare my irrevocable determination to renounce the throne for myself and my decedents, and my desire to that effect should be given to this Instrument of Abdication immediately.
"In token whereof I have hereunto set my hand this 10th day of December, 1936, in the presence of the witnesses whose signatures are subscribed."
The signatories were the king's three brothers: the dukes of York, Gloucester and Kent.
The foregoing abdication announcement, broadcast to the world that day, marked the climax of the drama of the relationship between King Edward VIII and the American divorcee Mrs Wallace Simpson whom British regal tradition prevented he marry. This famous love story has been the subject of numerous studies and inspired innumerable novels and films. Little is known, however, is the Egyptian opinion on the affair and the popular reaction to its culmination, for which we turn to Al-Ahram.
The story opens in Al-Ahram in the form of a letter to the newspaper appearing in the 24 July 1936 edition under the headline: "The question of the marriage of King Edward VIII." The author, Kamel Samuel Masiha, relates that in the opinion of the British press, the royal families of Europe were virtually devoid of suitable spouses for the British monarch. Nevertheless, there was a solution that those writers felt would meet the great satisfaction of the British people. This was "to marry a British woman of the aristocratic class who would be suitable to become queen of England." Meanwhile, Masiha continues, the king was fed up with all the rumours and pressure regarding his marriage. However, "he has no intention of marrying simply to put an end to the business, and he refuses to marry for political ends or for any other such considerations that have customarily influenced monarchs' decisions to marry or their choice of spouse."
The publication of his letter in Al-Ahram encouraged Masiha to send in another yet longer one. Appearing on 5 August under the headline, "King Edward VIII: the public and private life," it observes: "In sum, Edward VIII is a beloved king. Even upon assuming the throne he had the forcefulness and unique and extensive expertise that equipped him for the enormous undertaking of ruling an empire as great and vast as the British Empire. Perhaps the most fitting description of him is that he never deviates from the maxim of every prince of Wales: 'I will lay down my life for the sake of my country.'"
It is impossible to say what prompted Masiha to send in those two letters to Al-Ahram. One strongly suspects, however, that he was influenced by the gossip that had already spread well beyond England's shores on the amorous relationship between the British king and an American woman -- married to a Briton -- who had recently filed for divorce. Indeed, at that very time, in August 1936, Mrs Simpson was on a cruise with Edward in the eastern Mediterranean. It was not long afterwards, on October 27 to be precise, that she obtained her divorce from Ernest Simpson.
Even so, the Egyptian press lagged more than a month behind other newspapers of the world in its coverage of this famous 20th century love story. The reason for this, as Al- Ahram reported, was that the Ministry of Interior had instructed the press not to publish news about the British king. The order raised eyebrows in Britain, and in Egypt several parliamentary representatives joked that even the Egyptian Ministry of Interior could not keep foreign newspapers from publishing whatever they wanted about the affair.
Finally, on 3 December, Al-Ahram featured its first full length report on the subject. It wrote that the American press was so full of gossip on the relationship between the king and Mrs Simpson that Americans had begun to believe that he was determined to marry her as soon as his coronation ceremonies were over. "That the British press was so silent on the matter lent it even greater weight. The relevant authorities in London have made no reference whatsoever to the reports in the American press."
However, following Bishop Blunt's speech to the Bradford Diocesan Conference on 1 December, silence was no longer an option. Laden with innuendo, the speech concluded that in his personal beliefs and convictions, Edward was his own man, subject only to his conscience. "However, in his public capacity, he represents, through his coronation, the British people's belief in the monarchy. Regardless of how much or how little the coronation means to him, to the people it means that they have trusted the British monarchy to the care of God in whose hands resides the power over the hearts of kings."
The story was out in the open now, and splashed across the front pages. From the gush of articles that appeared in the British press, which Al-Ahram pursued assiduously, it was obvious that Britain's conservative government had no intention of allowing an American divorcee to become queen of England and that the king would have to choose between the throne or love. The Labour, Liberal and other parties, and the majority of British opinion agreed.
On 10 December 1936, the House of Commons held its "most momentous session since the war", as Al-Ahram described it. At 3.35 Prime Minister Baldwin commenced a lengthy address in which he reviewed the developments that led to what became Al-Ahram 's banner headline: "King Edward VIII abdicates!"
Baldwin seemed pale and weary as he delivered his speech, relates Al-Ahram 's correspondent in the British capital, who was seated in the visitors' balcony during the session. But the speech was greeted with loud applause. The prime minister said that the question of the king's amorous relationship came to his attention in mid-October when he received a huge number of letters from British citizens, Americans of British origin and British subjects in the dominions "all expressing their consternation over the reports in the American press at the time of the proceedings of Mrs Simpson's divorce. I felt it my duty to caution the king, for which purpose a confidential meeting was held in Fort Belvedere on Tuesday, the 20th of the same month."
In that meeting, Baldwin informed the king that the British monarchy was a unique fabric and that the crown was undoubtedly more secure than ever. However, he added, "this feeling which is based on the respect that has developed over the past three centuries will not stand up long against criticism." With typical British aplomb the king remained silent; nor did the prime minister ask for a response since, in all events, the courts had not yet resolved the question of Mrs Simpson's divorce.
A more crucial meeting between the prime minister and the king took place on 16 November, in Buckingham Palace this time. Mrs Simpson had just been granted her divorce. Baldwin told the king that this marriage would be "unacceptable". In his speech to the House of Commons he relates, "I drew His Majesty's attention to the fact that the status of the wife of a king is different to that of the wife of an ordinary citizen, and that this was part of the price a king had to sustain -- that his wife would be queen and that his queen would be the queen of the country and, therefore, that in his choice of queen the voice of the people must be heard."
In this meeting, Edward declared his determination to marry Mrs Simpson even if that meant giving up the throne. That evening he informed the queen mother of his decision and the following day he informed his brothers the dukes of Gloucester and York. In the course of subsequent meetings with Baldwin that week, the king proposed a compromise, which was to seek the parliament's approval of his marriage with Mrs Simpson morganatically. Although Baldwin did not express his personal opinion on the idea, he did voice his belief that he strongly doubted parliament would approve.
His was correct. In another meeting a week later, he informed the king that opinion in parliament and the dominions was such that the king would stand no chance of securing the parliamentary act he wanted. Edward told Baldwin that the answer did not surprise him and asked what was to be done. The prime minister answered that the situation was clear. Either Edward renounce all thought of marrying the American divorcee and remain king or give up the throne and marry her. The king was steadfast. But his response, as Baldwin told parliament, reflected his maturity and great and vast experience in life. He said that he wanted to go, but with dignity, with the least possible trouble to his government and his people and under circumstances that would cause the least possible difficulty to the ascension of his brother.
Now that the news was out and, moreover, that Mrs Simpson had secured her divorce and became theoretically eligible for marriage into British royalty, the public was eager to have its say. It was not very sympathetic to the king's plight, and even less so after the statement issued by Mrs Simpson from Cannes and relayed to parliament : "Over the past few weeks, Mrs Simpson has been keen to avoid any action that might harm His Majesty or the throne. This determination remains unchanged. She has said that if it would help solve the problem, she would like to withdraw from a position that has become intolerable."
The British press cheered Mrs Simpson. One newspaper praised her selflessness and proclaimed that this now paved the way for the king to set aside his personal feelings and fully undertake the duties of his lofty station. Another wrote that she had performed a great service, thereby winning the gratitude of the Empire. "It now remains for the king to complement the process of self-denial that she initiated." We might have the luxury of hindsight in determining that the over 40- year-old divorcee was not sincere in her willingness to renounce marriage with a man who was only two years older than she, even if only a former king. This did not apply, however, to official circles in London who, according to Al- Ahram 's correspondent in the British capital, gave little credence to Mrs Simpson's declaration.
The correspondent himself was infected by the general mood. In his opinion, the British public was correct in rejecting the appeals by some newspapers on behalf of the king and in opposing his marriage to a woman who had two living ex-husbands. Indeed, so strong was public opinion on this matter, he added, that the newspapers were compelled to change their original positions.
Similarly, the controversy created unlikely political bedfellows. Labour Party chief and opposition leader Aitley declared his support for the position of the Conservative government, to the extent that he agreed that in the event that the king dismissed the current government he would not accept an invitation to form a new one. Edward was only too well aware that this would compel him to call for new elections, which in turn would bring in one of the two major parties, and that he would not be able to dismiss the government a second time. Obviously, Baldwin and Aitley had the support of their parties and hence parliament. Indeed, parliament was so adamantly set against the king's marriage with Mrs Simpson that it refused so much as to contemplate a morganatic marriage bill.
The British press, too, had little sympathy for the king. Growing increasingly impatient as the crisis over the king's romance dragged on, The Times wrote, "events, not people, are what require that a resolution not be postponed indefinitely. The dilemma posed by the king can only be solved by the king." Echoing this belief, The Daily Telegraph observed, "The king has been under no pressure from his cabinet." The Morning Star was more direct: "The king represents the spirit of the Empire. How would the public feel if he in whom the nation has placed its trust declared that he was not prepared to give up anything less than the sacrifice made by thousands of men during the Great War?" Finally The Daily Mail : "If through the behaviour and determination of the king his subjects lost the benefits of his vast knowledge of the Empire, the nation will greatly mourn that loss."
The adversity to the pull of the king's heartstrings spread to the dominions. Australians prayed that the king would sacrifice his romantic passion in the interest of safeguarding the unity of the empire. His abdication would be a great loss, they felt, but the compromise solution he wanted was too disgraceful to think about. The same sentiments were echoed in Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, representatives from which would be the first to pay homage to Edward's successor, George VI.
The only exception inside England to the general mood was a group of students who took every opportunity to chant the national anthem and cheer to the long life of the king. Not that there protests in favour of the king's freedom to choose his spouse would have the slightest impact on the elected government or the fervour of the general public. Abroad, the only note that jarred with the sentiments of the British public was to be heard in the US. The Americans, notorious for rebelling against tradition, were proud that the British monarch had fallen for an "American beauty" and their hearts went out to him. According to one American newspaper, if Edward VIII were to immigrate to America and nominate himself as president he would sweep the polls.
In Egypt, meanwhile, reaction to Edward's plight was motivated by completely different considerations. For one, the British constitutional crisis deferred ratification of the Anglo- Egyptian treaty. Finally reached in August after long and arduous negotiations, the treaty had been approved by the parliaments in each country and ratified by the Regency Council in Egypt. Only the British monarch's signature was lacking. According to Al-Ahram, the standoff between the king and his government over the marriage issue was such that the government could not ask the king to sign the treaty. However, it adds, "the wheels of government in a great nation such as Britain cannot be halted for more than a week or two at the most."
As in Britain, newspaper columnists were eager to have their say. Ahmed El-Sawi of "Short but Significant" described the British crisis as a struggle between the heart and the mind. "If the king defers to the dictates of his heart he will have to abdicate, which may cause problems both for his nation and his person. On the other hand, if he obeys the ruling of his mind, he will have to live without a heart, presiding over ceremonies, inaugurating buildings and signing documents like an automaton." Even so, El-Sawi came down against the dictates of the heart. The king was a symbol, he said. "In the past he was regarded as the embodiment of divine right and as such a world apart from ordinary people. Custom and tradition thus decreed that he be laden with a host of burdens and restrictions. Any deviation from this code would mean his descent to the level of his subjects, which inevitably would taint the glory of the crown."
Tawfiq El-Hakim arrived at the same conclusion, but through a different route. Under the headline, "does the king not have a heart?" El-Hakim envisions a world so beguiled by the lure of romance that wives will leave their husbands, husbands their homes and daughters their families, all in the pursuit of the fulfilment of dictates of their heart. "When asked to account for their actions, they will say that this is the right of love. In the rush of this romantic wave they will forget the old maxim which states that man does not live for love alone but also for duty."
Not that Egyptian opinion was without its romantics. Under the headline, "From the depth of the heart: Love and kings," Kamel Bulis, "doctorate in Law from Oxford," brought to his aid Lord Byron. The British poet had observed that man was the most wretched of God's creatures when assaulted by unrequited love. Such a man is doomed to a state of constant turmoil fueled by a heart broken by the thirst for love, "a thirst that cannot be quenched by all the oceans and all the rivers on earth."
Another writer, who gave only his initials, A M, as a clue to his identity, contributed two lengthy articles on the subject. That Al-Ahram featured these on its front page leads us to suspect that the author was Aziz Mirza who would eventually become the newspaper's editor-in-chief. Edward VIII's determination to marry the twice-divorced, non-aristocratic Mrs Simpson, he wrote, was a departure from the traditions of the British throne unprecedented since the era of its first monarchs. "This peculiar circumstance has sent a violent tremor throughout the entire British Empire." Nevertheless, A M had the highest regard for the British constitution, "which all parties, from the king and his government to the parliament and the press must respect." He had no doubt that they did and that the crisis would be resolved in accordance with the constitution. Perhaps in what was meant to be a word to the wise in Egypt, he concludes, "if the British gave latitude to personal factors, the private interests of King Edward VIII would have been placed above all other considerations and he would not have had to make all those great sacrifices."
There remain two items of note, albeit on the margins of the Egyptian edition of the royal love story. The first is that the Egyptian press, including Al-Ahram, reported that the woman who was at the centre of the British constitutional crisis was on her way to Egypt. The source of this report was the branch of a German shipping company in Alexandria, which announced that it had received a telegram from its head office notifying it that Mrs Simpson was on board the SS Athena bound for Egypt. Although Al-Ahram at first thought that the heroine was seeking refuge from her plight in the sunny climes of the Nile, it soon began to doubt the veracity of the rumour. Its suspicions proved correct.
The second item was the "conspiracy theory" that gained some credence among a class of Egyptians who automatically mistrusted everything that emerged from the West, including its love stories. The theory, the source of which was a British lord, had it that Edward VIII was the victim of a plot to depose him. The story, naturally, proved to have no substance to it whatsoever.
The closing scene of the Al-Ahram version of the king and Mrs Simpson appears on 8 June 1937. The final page of this edition features a large photograph of the famous couple just betrothed in a civil ceremony in a French village. From there they set off on their honeymoon and what we assume was a blissful conjugal life away from the public glare.