Mary of Teck (1867–1953)
Mary of Teck (1867–1953)
Beloved queen of early 20th-century England and grandmother of Elizabeth II . Name variations: Queen Mary; May of Teck; Victoria Mary of Teck; duchess of York; princess of Wales. Born Victoria Mary Augusta Louise Olga Pauline Claudine Agnes on May 26, 1867, in Kensington Palace, London, England; died on March 24, 1953, at Marlborough House, London; daughter of Francis, duke of Teck, and Mary Adelaide (1833–1897); betrothed to Albert Saxe-Coburg, duke of Clarence and Avondale (son of Edward VII and Alexandra of Denmark ), in 1891; married George, duke of York, later George V, king of England (r. 1910–1936), on July 6, 1893; children: Edward VIII (1894–1972), duke of Windsor; Albert, later George VI (1895–1952), king of England (r. 1936–1952); Mary (1897–1965), princess royal; Henry Windsor (1900–1974), 1st duke of Gloucester; George (1902–1942), 1st duke of Kent; John Windsor (1905–1919).
Betrothed to duke of Clarence, the future king of England (1891); duke of Clarence died (1892); married duke of York and became duchess of York (1893); first child born (1894); became princess of Wales (1901); crowned queen of England (1911); became queen mother and saw son abdicate throne (1936).
Queen Mary of Teck, who was the wife of King George V, the reigning English monarch from 1910 to 1936, was an extremely popular royal figure in her day, and serves as a historical link of sorts between the rigidly protocol-bound age of Queen Victoria and the modern, Diana -dominated House of Windsor. Hand-picked by the imperious queen, who ruled for over six decades, as a bride for Victoria's grandson, Mary lived to see her own granddaughter, the princess and future queen Elizabeth (II) , give birth to a new heir to the throne, Prince Charles. She has been called "one of the most regal and dignified, even formidable, figures ever to grace the throne." Her devotion to duty, loyalty to the monarchy, and genuine courtesy to, and interest in, her subjects were legendary, and survived the crises of two world wars, unexpected deaths in the family, and an unprecedented abdication.
Mary of Teck—called "May" because of the month of her birth—was born in Kensington Palace in 1867, in the same bedroom in which Queen Victoria had been born. She was the daughter of Prince Francis, a member of the Austrian royal house who was also the duke of Teck, and an English princess, Mary Adelaide , who was the cousin of Queen Victoria and the granddaughter of King George III. Mary was quite shy as a child, and undoubtedly suffered because of her parents' lifestyle: they were impoverished royals who often lived far beyond their means and depended on Queen Victoria for support. They maintained close ties with the German royal house, and Mary of Teck spent holidays with her German cousins. She was not formally educated beyond what was thought necessary for a young woman of the upper crust to be taught by her governesses (which in her case included European history, the French and German languages, and needlepoint, all of which she mastered), but she possessed a large measure of intelligence and an excellent memory, and added greatly to her own education through reading and general curiosity. In 1883, her parents were sent by the queen to Italy, where at the time one could live very cheaply, because she was tired of paying their debts. Mary of Teck liked Italy a great deal, and did not mind living simply. When the family spent a year in Florence, she used the opportunity to gain a wealth of knowledge about art and art history by visiting its museums and churches full of Renaissance treasures; she would remain a lover and collector of art throughout her life.
Such an intellectual capacity made Mary of Teck somewhat suspect in royal circles, but she was nevertheless a popular young woman in society after she was formally presented at court in the mid-1880s. Her parents, naturally, were very interested in engineering a good match for her, but had little dowry to provide. Not until Mary was 24 did a marriage proposal come about, urged by none other than Victoria. The queen thought the sensible Mary would be a suitable bride for her undisciplined, playboy grandson Albert, duke of Clarence, who was known as "Prince Eddy." He was also second in line to the throne, behind his father. Mary accepted the proposal, the match was announced in December 1891, and a date was set. While the engaged couple was staying with his family at their royal castle at Sandringham the following month, Eddy caught a cold. The cold developed into influenza, and he became delirious; Mary helped to nurse him before he died. A year later, she accepted the marriage proposal of his brother George, the duke of York, who was the new heir to the throne.
They were married on July 6, 1893, in St. James's Palace Chapel, and Mary of Teck became the duchess of York. The marriage was by most reports happy, and the couple remained devoted to one another for the four-plus decades of their union. Over the next 12 years they had six children: Edward (called David), the heir to the throne, who was born in 1894; Albert, born in 1895, who would later be king of England as George VI; Princess Mary , born in 1897; Henry, the first duke of Gloucester, born in 1900; George, the first duke of Kent, born in 1902; and John, born in 1905, who was epileptic and died of an attack at the age of 13. Like other royals and members of the upper class in that era, Mary and her husband left the upbringing of their children to the staff, and she was said to have remained distant from them throughout their lives. After the nanny in charge of their first few children had a severe nervous breakdown, it was rumored that the woman had been mentally unstable for some time.
The death of Queen Victoria in 1901, which brought Mary's husband one step closer to the throne, caused significant changes in their lives. The couple became the prince and princess of Wales and were sent by George's father, now King Edward VII, on major tours of the vast British empire to acquaint them with their future subjects. Mary's well-known robust health and energy served her well. She visited Australia with her husband for the first session of the former colony's Parliament in 1901 and made an arduous tour of India between 1905 and 1906.
King Edward VII died in May 1910, and George V was crowned in June 1911. Mary of Teck was now known as Queen Mary. The clouds of war were already gathering, however, and the outbreak of World War I in 1914 was made particularly difficult for the British royal house because of their close personal links with the royal house of the enemy, Germany. (George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II were first cousins.) Mary renounced her ties to her German relatives and devoted herself to the war effort at home. She launched the Queen's Work for Women Fund and Queen Mary's Needlework Guild, which sewed clothes for the poor, and worked extensively with the Red Cross. Like their subjects, the royal family ate rationed food and grew their own potatoes; King George locked up his wine cellar. They considered turning Buckingham Palace into a hospital, but this was vetoed by the government. Queen Mary also visited hospitals full of the warwounded. She became a beloved public figure because of her unflinching attention to these self-imposed war duties. Personal sorrow came in July 1918, only four months before the end of the war, when the Bolsheviks murdered Nicholas II, former tsar of Russia, and his wife Alexandra Feodorovna and their children; Nicholas was a first cousin and close friend of George V who had attended his wedding to Mary. At the war's end, George V changed the name of their royal house from the very German Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor, which it remains.
After the war, Mary of Teck supported the newly formed trade unions, met with the Indian nationalist leader Mohandas Gandhi, and maintained cordial relations with the first Labour government in Britain. She also lent her voice to help working women's causes, including the establishment of convalescent rest homes for them. In addition, the queen was known for her more domestic skills, and loved to sew. She created carpets based on antique designs, collected art, and, unlike her parents, was known to be a savvy household manager. Her husband was said to be dependent on her and her energies, particularly as he grew increasingly infirm with age.
The royal couple celebrated their Silver Jubilee in 1935, which was a great event in England in the midst of a world depression. Queen Mary, now 68 and a grandmother several times over, was cheered by massive crowds that assembled to pay homage to her and the king. He
passed away in January 1936, and their son David was crowned King Edward VIII later that year. Despite a deferential silence on the part of British newspapers and censorship of all mention of it in imported American newspapers, there were already rumors that the new king was involved with an American divorcée. This was a wholly unacceptable mate for a king of England, not least because he was the hereditary head of the Church of England, which frowned upon remarriage after divorce. Queen Mary, now the queen mother, intervened, and attempted to dissuade her son from the romance. No compromise could be reached, however, and amidst a worldwide frenzy of publicity King Edward VIII abdicated late in 1936 to marry Wallis Warfield . Although Mary received her son (now the duke of Windsor) when he returned to England after World War II, she never met his wife.
The abdication was a devastating blow to the house of Windsor. Mary's second son Albert and his wife Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon were crowned as King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, a change in status they had neither expected nor wanted, and to lend them the benefit of her popularity Mary appeared with them in public frequently during the difficult first years of their reign. (Once they got over their shock, the monarchs, particularly the new queen, proved to be immensely popular with their subjects.) Mary took an active role in the lives of her grandchildren, the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose , and spent a great deal of time with them. During World War II, Mary retired to Badminton, where she engaged in salvage work along with her servants and gave lifts to pedestrians on the country roads when fuel rations were drastic. Her youngest surviving son, George, duke of Kent, was killed in a Royal Air Force plane crash in 1942. After the war, she resumed her schedule of public engagements and kept them up until just before her death. She witnessed the wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Philip, made duke of Edinburgh, in 1947, and was thrilled with the birth of her great-grandson Prince Charles in 1949. Upon the death of her son the king in February 1952, Mary of Teck was one of the first to kiss the hand of the new queen, Elizabeth II, as "her old Grannie and subject." She died in March 1953, only a few months shy of Elizabeth's coronation, and was buried next to her husband in St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle.
The Concise Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford and NY: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Lofts, Norah. Queens of England. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977, pp. 174–180.
"Queen Mary," in British History Illustrated. October–November 1978, pp. 28–37.
Softly, Barbara. The Queens of England. NY: Bell Publishing, 1976.
Pope-Hennessy, James. Queen Mary 1867–1953. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960.
Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan
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