Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge was born on 27 November 1833 in Hanover, Germany. She was a granddaughter of King George III and great-grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II.
Her parents were Prince Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge, the youngest surviving son of George III, and Princess Augusta of Hesse-Cassel. She was the youngest of the couple’s three children.
She was christened Mary Adelaide Wilhelmina Elizabeth on 9 January 1834 and spent her early childhood in Hanover, where her father acted as viceroy, representing his brothers, George IV and later William IV.
When Mary Adelaide was three years old, in 1837, her first cousin Victoria ascended the throne. Victoria was prevented from also ascending the throne of Hanover by Salic law, which barred succession “to or through a woman”, so her uncle, the Duke of Cumberland, succeeded as King of Hanover and moved to Germany.
A viceroy was therefore no longer needed, so the Duke of Cambridge and his family moved back to London and set up residence at Kensington Palace, where Princess Mary Adelaide spent the rest of her youth.
Princess Mary Adelaide became known for her good humour and devotion to charity, which gained her the nickname of the original “People’s Princess”. Praised as setting the tone for the modern Royal Family with her “common touch”, she also acquired a rather more unflattering nickname, that of “Fat Mary”, because of her wide girth (as a young woman, she was estimated to have weighed around 250 pounds, or 115 kg).
Still unmarried at the age of 30, she seemed destined for a life of spinsterhood, until her cousin Queen Victoria set to the task of finding her a suitable husband.
The Queen’s choice fell on Francis, Duke of Teck, who was four years younger than Mary Adelaide but not particularly eligible. The product of a morganatic marriage, therefore without succession rights (his father was the Duke of Württemberg), and with limited means compared to other European princes, he seemed nonetheless the only possible match for Mary Adelaide.
They were married on 12 June 1866 at St. Anne’s Church, Kew, Surrey.
The Tecks had one daughter, Princess Victoria Mary, known in the family as May, born in 1867, who went on to marry the Duke of York in 1893 and later became Queen Consort of the United Kingdom and had three sons, Prince Adolphus, Prince Francis and Prince Alexander.
The newly-married Duke and Duchess of Teck took up residence in London, where the Queen had provided them with an apartment at Kensington Palace and where they could count on the £5,000 of parliamentary annuity Mary Adelaide received to carry out royal duties.
Princess Mary Adelaide was a devout Anglican who prioritised charitable giving and became one of the best-known royal philanthropists, giving away at least a fifth of her annual parliamentary allowance to various charitable causes, including Dr Barnardo’s, the NSPCC, St John’s Ambulance and an array of London hospitals, Christian associations and asylums.
She regularly patronised local fundraising fȇtes and bazaars, attending them and acting as shop-woman to boost trade, as well.
Contemporary sources described her as “arguably the hardest working member of the Royal Family”.
She was particularly assiduous in her work for the Needlework Guild, which recruited middle-class ladies to sew clothes for the poor, and was recognised as having the “common touch” while visiting ordinary workers in London.
Despite their modest income, Mary Adelaide had expensive tastes and loved fashionable clothes and jewellery, some of which remain in the Royal Collection to this day; this, coupled with her generous charitable endeavours, led to debts building up and the Tecks were forced to flee Britain in 1883 to avoid their creditors.
They travelled to Florence, Italy, and also stayed with relatives in Germany and Austria.
The Tecks returned from their self-imposed exile in 1885 and continued to live at Kensington Palace and White Lodge in Richmond Park.
Princess Mary Adelaide was able to see her eldest daughter, Princess Mary, marry the Duke of York on 6 July 1893, but she never saw her crowned Queen. She died of heart failure at White Lodge on 27 October 1897, leaving a legacy of good works and tireless giving that the current Royal Family would be proud of.
She is buried in the Royal Vault in St George’s Chapel, Windsor. She was survived by her husband and all her children.