Downton Abbey has arrived in cinemas around the world, treating viewers to sumptuous 1920s fashion, upstairs/downstairs drama, and sweeping scenes of Highclere Castle. The film sees the Crawleys honoured by a 1927 royal visit from the current Queen’s grandparents, King George V and Queen Mary. The royals stay overnight at the fictional country estate during their Yorkshire tour to Harewood House, the home of their only daughter, Princess Mary, and son-in-law, Viscount Lascelles.
The Downton Abbey household faces various struggles during the royal visit, as the family and their servants encounter imperious royal household staff and the prospect of frequent changes of clothing in keeping with their important guests. But some viewers might have spotted that, hidden inside one storyline, there is a reference to a real historical controversy.
During the royal visit, some characters notice the mysterious disappearance of small items from the house: a paper knife from the library and a miniature cupid from the drawing room mantlepiece. The search for these items prompts a question from one of the characters: “What if people were to think that Her Majesty was light-fingered?”
This reference has revived a longstanding debate concerning Queen Mary’s reputation: whether she should be considered a kleptomaniac (someone with an inability to control the urge to steal items that are generally of little value or use).
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There are accounts of the queen admiring a choice object in a stately home and making clear that she would be pleased to receive it as a gift or purchase it for a nominal sum. Stories of these conversations spread among the elite, leading to certain aristocratic families hiding their most prized possessions from view during a royal visit to avoid pressure to give or sell these items to the queen. While Queen Mary was certainly acquisitive, and pressured aristocratic families and London antique dealers alike to contribute to her collections of gems, figurines and miniatures, her behaviour did not match the definition of kleptomania. While a kleptomaniac experiences a recurrent inability to resist the impulse to steal unnecessary items of little value, Queen Mary focused specifically on acquiring antiques, jewels, miniatures and figurines with the goal of restoring and expanding the royal collection.
Who was Queen Mary?
The future Queen Mary was born Princess Mary of Teck on 26 May 1867 at Kensington Palace in London. Her mother, Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge, was a granddaughter of King George III and a first cousin of Queen Victoria, while her father, Duke Francis of Teck, was the son of Duke Alexander of Württembergin the south of what is now Germany.
Despite these illustrious connections, the future Queen Mary’s place in the extended family of Europe’s royal houses was tenuous. Her paternal grandfather had contracted a morganatic marriage to a commoner, Countess Claudine Rhédey von Kis-Rhéde (though she was of noble birth),which removed his son and grandchildren from the Württemberg succession. Her parents were also constantly in debt and the family moved to Italy to escape their creditors, where Mary developed a strong interest in art and architecture.
Queen Victoria admired Mary’s steady character and considered her a suitable bride for her grandson Albert Victor. Mary’s parents’ debts and grandfather’s morganatic marriage did not deter the queen from encouraging the match, which was considered controversial in certain European ruling houses. After Albert Victor died of pneumonia in 1892, soonafter his engagement to Mary, Queen Victoria encouraged a marriage between Mary and Albert Victor’s younger brother, the future King George V. The marriage of George and Mary in 1893 changed Mary from a princess on the margins of royal life to the future queen of the United Kingdom and its empire and dominions. As Duchess of York, Princess of Wales and then Queen consort, Mary combined a reverence for the royal family, which had transformed her circumstances, with a longstanding appreciation for art and culture.
Mary was concerned by the extent to which pieces from the royal collection had passed into private hands though gifts or sales and she was determined to retrieve these items. Her focus on restoring the Royal Collection to its previous scope prompted her pressure on aristocratic families to give or sell her pieces with connections to the royal family.
As a collector, Mary focused on miniatures, figurines, enamelwork and gemstones. She admired the work of Peter Carl Fabergé and purchased examples of his work, including three of the famous Fabergé eggs, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolutions of 1917. Indian art and antiquities were also of interest to the queen. An antique dealer in Delhi noted that when he sent the queen Jaipur enamels and jade elephants, she “bought ’em all”.
While Queen Mary was known for her personal frugality, sometimes choosing inexpensive gifts or economising on household expenses, she was nevertheless a cultural patron. The Honourable Margaret Wyndham, Woman of the Bedchamber, credited Queen Mary with “saving the Royal School of Needlework from bankruptcy” by donating “thousands of pounds”, while Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, designed by architect Sir Edward Lutyens, was originally exhibited at the 1924–25 British Empire exhibition.
The history of Queen Mary’s collection
Queen Mary’s official biographer, James Pope-Hennessy, recognised Queen Mary’s passion for collecting and preserving royal history, writing that: “This potent interest in family history, which became a guiding factor in later years when, as Queen Mary, she was constantly adding to the Royal Collection pictures and objects of family interest bought out of her own private purse, was first imbibed from her mother, who never forgot she was a granddaughter of King George III.”
Pope-Hennessy’s interviews for his book, recently published with an introduction by Hugo Vickers as The Quest for Queen Mary, mention compulsive purchases and acquisitions of items of uncertain monetary value, rather than thefts.
Her children struggled to manage her expanding collections. Lord Claud Hamilton told Pope-Hennessy: “She bought family things chiefly, and up to the end would insist on e.g. saddling [her third son] the Duke of Gloucester with a vast and impossible silver tea urn because it had belonged to [Queen Victoria’s uncle] the Duke of Cumberland.”
Queen Mary’s collections, when valued after her death in 1953, were deemed to be worth comparatively little as works of art, but were significant for their connections to royal history.
Anne Edwards, a more recent biographer, notes that London antique dealers complained that they went without payment from the queen and that: “This led to a story that still proliferates that Queen Mary was a kleptomaniac, an accusation never substantiated and thoroughly untrue.” Descriptions of Queen Mary as a “kleptomaniac” who snatched possessions from stately homes and hid them in her handbag are largely confined to popular books of royal foibles and scandals. Queen Mary’s biographers have presented far more nuanced accounts of her character, personality and interests in art, culture and royal history. The queen’s contemporaries, including the future Queen Elizabeth II’s governess Marion Crawford, noted that she did not even carry a handbag during her royal visits.
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Despite the reference to this scandalous aspect of her reputation, the portrayal of Queen Mary in Downton Abbey is ultimately a sympathetic one. The queen intervenes at key moments to help characters and smooths over an awkward moment during the royal visit. What’s more, the film presents its own theory concerning why small items went missing in stately homes that received a visit from queen – and it’s certainly not because Mary was a kleptomaniac.
Downton Abbey may represent a turning point in representations of Queen Mary in modern popular culture as the queen’s positive qualities on her royal visits are emphasised in the film above a reputation for being “light-fingered”.
Dr Carolyn Harris is an instructor in history at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies and the author of three books: Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada; Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette and Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting.