“You are a member of the British Royal Family. We are never tired, and we all love hospitals.” – Queen Mary to a complaining Princess.
I would argue that Queen Mary, Queen Consort to George V, was the making of what we see at work today – a modern Royal Family. Her dedication to her duty, her belief in the Royal Family and what it stood for, and her tireless efforts towards posterity, make her one of the great Queen Dowagers that this country has seen.
Firstly, a distinction is in order. The term “Queen Mother” applies to a Queen Consort who also is the mother of a reigning Monarch. So – Mary of Teck, between the death of her husband and the death of her son George VI, was the Queen Mother. Upon the accession of her Granddaughter Elizabeth II, Queen Mary became the Queen Dowager… all thoroughly confusing and it goes deeper than that but I always found that little ditty interesting.
Mary was born into, by royal standards, poverty. This is if you consider huge houses, apartments in London and everything on account poverty. Her mother, kindly named ‘Fat Mary’, had married Francis, Duke of Teck. Fat Mary, who in all fairness was pretty large, had married into a family that had been lowered in Royal status by her father-in-law (Duke Alexander of Württemberg) after marrying below himself. Francis, Fat Mary and their children were accorded the honorary Serene Highness, which was looked upon by other Royal families as a poor man’s title. All of this becomes even stranger, when one realised that Fat Mary was the Granddaughter of “Mad” King George III. Despite this direct link to the British Royal Family, Mary and her family were seen as below the border of Royal worth.
However, this did not stop the social climbing Duchess of Teck. Mary had her eyes on the prize – to take her family out of obscurity and redeem the name of “Teck”. Her aim was to marry her pretty, sweet and eligible daughter into the British Royal Family’s upper echelons.
Queen Victoria’s grandson, Prince Albert Victor, was quiet, timid and a little odd. He was respected yes, but there was always something about him that wasn’t quite right (rumours persisted for some time after his death that he may have been “Jack the Ripper” but it’s pretty clear he wasn’t). Queen Victoria was especially fond of Princess Mary, or May as she was known. Her engagement to Prince Albert, who was destined to become King of the United Kingdom, came from Victoria’s love of the young girl, and that overarching duty which would be a stalwart throughout May’s life.
Unluckily (or luckily depending on how you look at is) Albert died of influenza in 1892. Queen Victoria, determined to embrace young May to the Royal bosom, arranged for May to marry Albert’s brother, George, who would later reign as King George V. May’s agreement to this arrangement is another clear display of her devotion to duty that she took so seriously.
The marriage, whilst initially distant, quickly grew into a warm and loving partnership, and when George came to the throne in 1910 the now Queen Mary was George’s strength and support during a reign that would see the Irish War of Independence, World War One and the rise of a Labour Government.
Mary’s love affair with the Indian Subcontinent began in 1911 during her Delhi Durbar where she and George were pronounced and crowned Emperor and Empress of India. The royal couple’s extensive travels to distant parts of the Empire is mirrored by her granddaughter’s devotion to the Commonwealth today. Whilst other monarchs had travelled, King George and Queen Mary remain the shining example of devotion and dedication to the people they reigned over. Queen Mary is known to have said: “When I die, India will be found engraved on my heart.”
During the horrors of the Great War, Mary was integral at maintaining the Spartan conditions at Buckingham Palace as a show of support and unity with the people who were suffering due to the prolonged war of attrition in France, and the effects of the blockade of British trade by the German Navy.
Mary’s support of her husband continued into the King’s frailty. As the King’s life came to a close, the Queen was always by his bedside, assisting in the administration of his medicines and ensuring that she was nearby the man she had been married to and devoted to for 43 years. The King finally died in January 1936, and Mary was there for the official handing over of the Royal Authority to her eldest son, Edward VIII.
Her mettle was truly tested during the less-than-a-year reign of her extravagant son. The affairs that Edward had enjoyed before he became King were abhorrent to the Queen, who believed in stoicism and duty came above all else. As the torrid details about his affair with American socialite Wallis Simpson was bandied around Parliament and the newspapers, Mary threw herself into her work. Visiting mines, hospitals and charities for the poor – doing everything her son should have been doing. It would be easy to mistake Mary for the Monarch, and Edward for a functionary of the Royal Family. She was never known as ‘Queen Mary, the Queen Mother’ during her time as Queen Mother. Rather, she was always referred to as Her Majesty, Queen Mary – further enhancing her role as the power behind the throne.
When the constitutional crisis finally came to a head, Mary, whilst being supporting of her wayward son, refused to meet or interact with Wallis and would often stiffen if the subject was brought up in her presence. Finally, the King chose his feelings over his duty towards the throne and his people. His abdication formally announced and confirmed in December 1936, elevated his younger brother, now George VI, to the throne. With this, Mary was the support and strength that the new King needed. As a show of support for her son, who never wanted to become King in the first place, Mary broke Royal Dowager protocol and attended the coronation of her son in 1937.
Living through a Second World War, Mary fought her own conflict at her refuge – against the invading forces of ivy! Mary hated ivy, and Badminton House, where she spent the duration of the War, had a lot of it! This led to conflict between the intimidating Queen and her niece the Duchess of Beaufort. Unsurprisingly, Mary won!
During both the First and Second World Wars, Mary went to extreme lengths to maintain the Royal Collection, often demanding that pieces that had been loaned out be returned. Her strong and domineering character meant that today’s Royal Collection is of the highest standard in its history, and we have this most dutiful of Queens to thank for her tireless work for posterity.
When King George VI died in 1952, Mary became the Queen Dowager, but once again was never referred to as such. She had been a huge influence on her granddaughter, now Queen Elizabeth II, and continued to be so in the final year of her life. She died on the 24th March 1953, just a matter of weeks before the coronation of our current Queen.
In my opinion, whilst certainly not in the same league as Eleanor of Aquitaine or Margaret Beaufort in political terms, Queen Mary is by far and away the most influential Queen Mother that this country, in all its long history, has ever seen. The men on the fields of the Somme, the reluctant and terrified King George VI, the Empire, the Commonwealth, the Royal Family today, you, me, and future generations all owe Queen Mary a huge debt of gratitude.