Everything you need to know about King George V‘s wife Queen Mary, born Princess Victoria Mary Augusta Louise Olga Pauline Claudine Agnes of Teck….
An unconventional upbringing
Queen Mary wasn’t always known as Mary. Born at Kensington Palace on 26 May 1867,
she was christened Princess Victoria Mary Augusta Louise Olga Pauline Claudine Agnes of Teck. But until 1911, she was always known as ‘Princess May’.
Her mother, Princess Mary Adelaide, was Queen Victoria’s first cousin, meaning that May was a great-granddaughter of George III. Her father, the German nobleman Francis of Teck, was inferior to his wife in social standing. Her parents perennially lived beyond their means, and so her upbringing was sparser than might be expected. It was hardly a deprived childhood, but it did affect the young princess. When she was in her teens
May was a sharp young woman, learning to speak French and German fluently. She loved to read, and was constantly on a mission to expand her mind. But what future could she look forward to? Unfortunately, her options were limited. Her parents’ marriage had been morganatic (socially unequal), which meant she would not be accepted by one of the prime Protestant families in Germany, where this was taken extremely seriously. With the family’s financial concerns, there was no dowry of any significance available either, which ruled out even more potential suitors. May seemed destined to live in limbo: too royal for most, and not royal enough for the rest.
Finding a match
Fortunately, Queen Victoria decided that she didn’t care about the marital status of May’s parents. In 1891, the queen and her heir, Edward, Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII), were searching for a bride to marry his wayward son, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale. Known to his family as ‘Eddy’, the thought of this inept young man one day sitting on the throne as things stoof was alarming, and it was hoped that an intelligent young woman might be found in order that she might ‘fix’ him. May seemed perfect.
Did May love Eddy? Perhaps not, but this was the best offer she was likely to get. All her life May had wondered how she might do some good in the world and make the most of her abilities, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity. The influence she might wield as a future queen would be immeasurable. She was at the very least content, as was her husband-to-be.
Unfortunately, a few weeks before the wedding, Eddy contracted a violent strain of flu that was swept the world for nearly two years, and passed away on 14 January 1892, aged 28. It must have seemed like the end of the world for May, who was by now in her mid-20s. What was she to do now? The Prince of Wales remarked that her fate appeared to be to have become a widow before she was a wife.
Almost immediately, the families began to consider the prospect of her marrying Eddy’s younger brother, Prince George. But to the two young people, this option seemed both desperate and disrespectful, and so for more than a year they kept up a friendly correspondence while they came to terms with their loss and George prepared for an unexpected life on the throne.
Finally, in 1893, they decided that they would marry, and Queen Victoria and her extended family rejoiced. An heir came almost immediately, with the birth of their first child, Edward (known to the family as ‘David’), in 1894. More children followed: Albert in 1895, Mary in 1897, Henry in 1900, George in 1902 and John in 1905.
Devoted to duty
Princess May, now Duchess of York, was no stranger to the type of philanthropy that would be part of her official role. Her mother had raised her offspring to be conscious of those less fortunate than themselves. Their used toys had gone to children’s causes, and she had, as a girl, handed out food packages to women’s shelters. Now she was free to scale up these endeavours accordingly, as well as choose to become the patron of new ones.
Imperial tours were also a feature of May’s early married life as she travelled the world with her new husband. Exhausting though these trips were, her enquiring mind was satiated by new experiences and cultures. As Princess of Wales, her favourite tour was perhaps an eight-month trip to India in 1905/06. Even on her death bed nearly half a century later, she would have a book about the country read to her as her health declined.
However, the commonly held idea that May lived a subdued life under the yoke of her gruff and unfeeling husband – who was crowned King George V in 1911 – is completely unfounded. On his accesion, she needed a new name. May was not official enough, and her first name, Victoria, was considered inappropriate. It was a mere ten years since the death of her mother’s cousin, after all, and she had named an epoch. In her mid-forties, at least publicly, she now became ‘Mary’.
If anything, it was she who wore the trousers at Buckingham Palace, and King George did as he was told with a smile and the odd quip to anyone witnessing one of his transgressions. His Queen was a feminist in her own way, and refused to be discounted from certain roles and appearances on the basis of her sex. She was never militant, though, and was not at all impressed by the sight of women clinging to the front of her motor car in the name of female suffrage.
During the First World War, Queen Mary once again refused to be pigeon-holed into traditional roles. She did more than her fair share of hospital visits throughout the conflict, but she was keen to see how the war was actually being conducted, culminating in a trip to the Western Front in 1917. She was utterly tireless in her efforts to raise money and support troops, so much so that at one point in 1917, she suffered a collapse and was diagnosed with exhaustion. Despite being ordered to cut back on her duties, she carried on.
Throughout his reign, George never tired of telling her, or anyone else within earshot, that he would be lost without his wife’s guidance, her unwavering support, and her commitment to their roles as king and queen.
Loss and heartbreak
After the war ended, Queen Mary continued to be her husband’s rock, particularly during the 1926 General Strike and in the years after 1928, when a chronic lung problem began to take a severe toll on his health. During his 1935 Silver Jubilee, the king spoke again of his appreciation for his wife, telling his speech writer: “Put that paragraph at the very end. I cannot trust myself to speak of the Queen when I think of all I owe her.” When George passed away in January 1936, Queen Mary wrote that her heart was broken; for they had been married for more than 40 years.
The king’s death was swiftly followed by the heartache of the constitutional crisis caused by the abdication of her eldest son, David, who reigned briefly in 1936 as Edward VIII. She never did come to terms with his decision, but she continued to hold her duty as a senior royal dear, helping her second eldest son, Bertie, reign as King George VI. She also took an active role in the upbringing of his two daughters, the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.
During the Second World War Mary was sent to Badminton House in Gloucestershire for her safety, wholly against her will. Nevertheless, her remote proximity to London and Nazi air raids did not dampen her enthusiasm for doing her ‘bit’. She collected supplies for the war effort, visited troops and workers, and generally recreated her original First World War role from her West Country base.
Queen Mary lost three of her sons during her lifetime. The first heartbreak came with the death of 13-year-old Prince John in 1919, who suffered a fatal seizure a few weeks after the Armistice. The next tragedy came in 1942, when Prince George, Duke of Kent was killed in an air accident at the age of 39. Both losses affected the Queen badly, and in 1952 she was again left shattered by King George VI’s premature death after a long illness.
By the beginning of 1953, Queen Mary’s own health was failing. She told her granddaughter Princess Elizabeth, shortly to be crowned Queen Elizabeth II, not to stifle any celebrations on her account. On 24 March, 10 weeks before her Elizabeth’s coronation, she passed away at the age of 85, and was buried alongside her beloved husband at Windsor.
Alexandra Churchill is a historian of the First World War and author of In the Eye of the Storm: George V and the Great War (2018)