Duchess of York (1893–1901)
The new Duke and Duchess of York lived in York Cottage on the Sandringham Estate in Norfolk, and in apartments in St James’s Palace. York Cottage was a modest house for royalty, but it was a favourite of George, who liked a relatively simple life. They had six children: Edward, Albert, Mary, Henry, George, and John.
As Duke and Duchess of York, George and May carried out a variety of public duties. In 1897, she became the patron of the London Needlework Guild in succession to her mother. The guild, initially established as The London Guild in 1882, was renamed several times and was named after May between 1914 and 2010.
Princess of Wales (1901 – 1910)
Queen Victoria died on January 22, 1901 and the Prince of Wales became King Edward VII. From that moment, the Duke of York inherited the title Duke of Cornwall and George and May were known as the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York until November 9, 1901, whereupon on the King’s sixtieth birthday, George was created Prince of Wales. The family moved their London residence from St James’s Palace to Marlborough House. As Princess of Wales, May accompanied her husband on trips to Austria-Hungary and Württemberg in 1904. The following year, she gave birth to her last child, John. It was a difficult labour, and although she recovered quickly, her newborn son suffered respiratory problems.
From October 1905 the Prince and Princess of Wales undertook another eight-month tour, this time of India, and the children were once again left in the care of their grandparents. They passed through Egypt both ways and on the way back stopped in Greece. The tour was almost immediately followed by a trip to Spain for the wedding of King Alfonso XIII to Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg, (George’s first cousin) at which the bride and groom narrowly avoided assassination. Only a week after returning to Britain, May and George went to Norway for the coronation of George’s brother-in-law and sister, King Haakon VII and Queen Maud.
Queen Consort (1910 – 1936)
On May 6, 1910, Edward VII died. Mary’s husband ascended the throne as King George V and she became queen consort. When her husband asked her to drop one of her two official names, Victoria Mary, she chose to be called Mary, preferring not to be known by the same style as her husband’s grandmother, Queen Victoria.
Queen Mary was crowned with the King on June 22, 1911 at Westminster Abbey. Later in the year, the new King and Queen travelled to India for the Delhi Durbar held on December 12, 1911, and toured the sub-continent as Emperor and Empress of India, returning to Britain in February. They were the only British monarchs to hold the imperial title to be crowned in India.
The Emperor and Empress of India at the Delhi Durbar
The beginning of Mary’s period as consort brought her into conflict with her mother-in-law, Queen Alexandra. Although the two were on friendly terms, Alexandra could be stubborn; she demanded precedence over Mary at the funeral of Edward VII, was slow in leaving Buckingham Palace, and kept some of the royal jewels that should have been passed to the new queen. The impetus for Queen Alexandra demanding precedence over her daughter-in-law was due to the influence of her sister, Dagmar, who was the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna and in Russia the Dowager Empress does take precedence over the Empress Consort of Russia.
During the First World War, Queen Mary instituted an austerity drive at the palace, where she rationed food, and visited wounded and dying servicemen in hospital, which caused her great emotional strain. After three years of war against Germany, and with anti-German feeling in Britain running high, the Russian Imperial Family, which had been deposed by a revolutionary government, was refused asylum, possibly in part because Emperor Nicholas II’s wife was German-born.
The German born Empress Alexandra was born a Princess of Hesse and By Rhine and was a first cousin to George V. News of the Emperor’s abdication provided a boost to those in Britain who wished to replace their own monarchy with a republic. The war ended in 1918 with the defeat of Germany and the abdication and exile of the German Emperor Wilhelm II, another first cousin to George V.
Two months after the end of the war, Queen Mary’s youngest son, John, died at the age of thirteen. She described her shock and sorrow in her diary and letters, extracts of which were published after her death: “our poor darling little Johnnie had passed away suddenly … The first break in the family circle is hard to bear but people have been so kind & sympathetic & this has helped us [the King and me] much.”
In the late 1920s, George V became increasingly ill with lung problems, exacerbated by his heavy smoking. Queen Mary paid particular attention to his care. During his illness in 1928, one of his doctors, Sir Farquhar Buzzard, was asked who had saved the King’s life. He replied, “The Queen”. In 1935, King George V and Queen Mary celebrated their silver jubilee, with celebrations taking place throughout the British Empire. In his jubilee speech, George paid public tribute to his wife, having told his speechwriter, “Put that paragraph at the very end. I cannot trust myself to speak of the Queen when I think of all I owe her.”
King George V and Queen Mary with Princess Elizabeth (Queen Elizabeth II)
Queen mother (1936–1952)
George V died on 20 January 1936, after his physician, Lord Dawson of Penn, gave him an injection of morphine and cocaine that may have hastened his death. Queen Mary’s eldest son ascended the throne as Edward VIII. She was now the queen mother, though she did not use that style, and was instead known as Her Majesty Queen Mary.
Within the year, Edward VIIII caused a constitutional crisis by announcing his desire to marry his twice-divorced American mistress, Wallis Simpson. Mary disapproved of divorce, which was against the teaching of the Anglican church, and thought Simpson wholly unsuitable to be the wife of a king. After receiving advice from the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Stanley Baldwin, as well as the Dominion governments, that he could not remain king and marry Simpson, Edward abdicated.
Though loyal and supportive of her son, Mary could not comprehend why Edward would neglect his royal duties in favour of his personal feelings. Simpson had been presented formally to both King George V and Queen Mary at court, but Mary later refused to meet her either in public or privately. She saw it as her duty to provide moral support for her second son, the reserved and stammering Prince Albert, Duke of York, who ascended the throne on Edward’s abdication, taking the name George VI. When Mary attended the coronation, she became the first British dowager queen to do so. Edward’s abdication did not lessen her love for him, but she never wavered in her disapproval of his actions.
Mary took an interest in the upbringing of her granddaughters, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, and took them on various excursions in London, to art galleries and museums. (The princesses’ own parents thought it unnecessary for them to be taxed with any demanding educational regime.)
During the Second World War, George VI wished his mother to be evacuated from London. Although she was reluctant, she decided to live at Badminton House, Gloucestershire, with her niece, Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort, the daughter of her brother Lord Cambridge. In 1942, her youngest surviving son, Prince George, Duke of Kent, was killed in an air crash while on active service. Mary finally returned to Marlborough House in June 1945, after the war in Europe had resulted in the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Queen Mary and the present Prince of Wales
In 1952, King George VI died, the third of Queen Mary’s children to predecease her; her eldest granddaughter, Princess Elizabeth, ascended the throne as Queen Elizabeth II. The death of a third child profoundly affected her. Mary remarked to Princess Marie Louise: “I have lost three sons through death, but I have never been privileged to be there to say a last farewell to them.”
Queen Mary died on March 24, 1953 in her sleep at the age of 85, ten weeks before her granddaughter’s coronation. Queen Mary let it be known that, in the event of her death, the coronation was not to be postponed. Her remains lay in state at Westminster Hall, where large numbers of mourners filed past her coffin. She is buried beside her husband in the nave of St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.