ON SUNDAY, May 30, 1937, a few minutes before Evensong at St Paul’s Church in Darlington, the Reverend Robert Anderson Jardine received a telegram that put him on edge.

Evensong sung, he and his wife, Maud, hurried away from the North Road church and disappeared from town.

On Tuesday, June 1, a rumour whistled round Darlington that he was holed up in a chateau in France, surrounded by the world’s media, where he was apparently going to marry the ex-king Edward VIII, now known as the Duke of Windsor, and his twice-divorced American lover, Wallis Simpson.

Loading article content

“The news has come as a complete surprise to Darlington people,” said the now-defunct Evening Despatch. “Mr Jardine has been in Darlington for ten years, and is well known for his unusual views.”

His unusual views in this case was that no one should be denied a Church of England blessing – even if the Archbishop of Canterbury had been one of the most strident voices driving the immoral king off the throne because of his carrying on with the socialite Simpson (there is a theory that Jardine was put up to the wedding by the Bishop of Durham who was locked in mortal combat with the archbishop).

He’d telegrammed his unusual views to the Chateau de Cande, near Tours, and the royal couple, who had caused the greatest royal scandal of the 20th Century, had replied requesting his immediate presence.

And so, on Thursday, June 3, the railwaymen’s vicar from Darlington – he was nicknamed the “poor man’s parson” by the press – officiated at the most controversial royal wedding of the century. It took him just 20 minutes.

The duchess gave him a slice of cake to take home; the duke gave him a pair of inscribed cufflinks, and a glass of champagne.

But the vicar had to get back to Darlington – he had to marry George Gamble and Doris Haylett at his church on Saturday, June 5. So he quickly left the chateau – the duke shouting “Goodbye, Jardine”, after him – and motored through the night with Maud.

“Pressmen, photographers and cameramen were after us like wild dogs, but we gave them the slip,” he said later.

They were waiting for them at St Paul’s on Saturday morning. Seven hundred were crammed inside the church and hundreds more – including TV cameramen from America – lined North Road, hoping to get a glimpse of the controversial cleric in matrimonial action.

At the end of the service, he told the new Mr and Mrs Gamble: “I shall now put this book away and it will not be used any more after today. You have had exactly the same service, word for word, as the duke and duchess at the chateau.” And he gave them his slice of wedding cake before retiring to his rectory to read the 4,000 letters and telegrams that had arrived in his absence (all but four were supportive).

A fortnight later, he announced from his pulpit he was resigning and he and Maud immediately embarked for America onboard the Queen Mary for a lecture tour, where he was billed as “the Duke’s vicar”.

He lived out the last 12 years of his life in Texas, still coloured by controversy. American bishops boycotted him and accused him of being a fame-hungry mercenary. He, though, just loved to talk about his involvement, exactly 80 years ago today, in what he called “the greatest romance that has ever taken place”.

His church, beside Northlands Methodist church, burned down in 1973 and has been replaced by flats, although his rectory still stands.