by Claudia Willetts
The life of Queen Mary presents an unparalleled link with the past, according to Marguerite Peacocke in Queen Mary: Her Life and Times. Her great-grandfather was King George III, making her mother Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge first cousin of Queen Victoria. It was in recognition of this proximity to the Crown that Queen Victoria granted Queen Mary’s parents tenancy of the Kensington Palace apartments where she herself had been born, for the birth of their first child Princess Victoria Mary of Teck, 26 May 1867. Her family called her May for the month in which she was born, and thus she acquired the affectionate if unofficial title of Princess May.
SW Jackman in The People’s Princess: A Portrait of HRH Princess Mary, Duchess of Teck, remarks that though the family was chronically impecunious, her mother saw to it that her children shared her devotion to many charitable activities, and in this she embodied the new function of royalty in an increasingly bourgeois society.
Late in 1891, at the age of twenty-three, Princess May became engaged to the eldest son of Edward Prince of Wales, the heir presumptive to the throne. Barely a month later, her fiancé died of influenza. James Pope-Hennessy writes in Queen Mary 1867-1953, that the bereaved, desolate and romantic figure of Princess May dressed in deepest mourning, became the symbol and centre of the nation’s grief. The most touching moment occurred during the funeral when Princess May’s bridal wreath of orange-blossom was laid upon the coffin. Following a suitable period of mourning, it was decided that the late Prince’s brother Prince George, who was twenty-six years old and unmarried, might propose to her as a kind of silver lining to the dark cloud, and she accepted him.
In 1901, Queen Victoria sent the Duke and Duchess of York (as the couple were then known) on a tour around the Dominions in appreciation for participation in the Boer War, as recorded in Queen Mary, by Sir Clement Kinloch-Cooke. In Canada the royal couple travelled by train from Montreal to Victoria and back again to Halifax. In Toronto, the author describes a State dinner where they shook hands with between two and three thousand guests, never appearing tired, but always manifesting signs of interest, bowing and smiling to all presented to them.
During the years of World War I, Queen Mary’s organising abilities developed, relates David Duff in Queen Mary. Within five days of war being declared she had laid a firm foundation for future relief efforts. In hospitals, she soon became an expert visitor. At home, she immediately stopped all luxuries and introduced a strict code of food and heating rationing which were practised in the royal apartments before the servants’ quarters. After victory in 1918, huge, appreciative crowds gathered to pay tribute to the conspicuous example set by their King and Queen in public service and private self-denial.
Mabell, Countess of Airlie speaks of the married relationship of King George V and Queen Mary in Thatched With Gold: Memoirs. The Countess who was a Lady-in-Waiting and lifelong friend of the Queen’s, notes that her devotion to the Monarchy demanded the sacrifice of much of her personal happiness. When the couple differed in opinion, she never argued with him or tried to press the point. Her style of dressing was dictated by his conservatism. She never wore a colour which the King did not like, and remained faithful to long full skirts during his life and long after his death. King George’s rough manner and oriental views on womanhood often hid his very real love and admiration for his wife. The Countess fondly reminisces that his eyes would light on her with pleasure when he entered the room.
Charles Clay writes in Long Live the Queen: Elizabeth II, that Queen Mary was the ideal king’s consort. She shared the confidences, supported the burdens, halved the sorrows, doubled the joys of King George V. Through six reigns (Queen Victoria through to Queen Elizabeth II), Queen Mary was a grande dame, the very symbol of royalty, and the author quotes Sir Winston Churchill’s comment that “She looked like a Queen, she acted like a Queen”.