Biography of Mary of Teck, Royal British Matriarch

The matriarch of the House of Windsor

Photograph of Mary of Teck in court regalia
Mary of Teck in court regalia, circa 1912.

  Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Born Victoria Mary Augusta Louise Olga Pauline Claudine Agnes of Teck, Mary of Teck (May 26, 1867 – March 24, 1953) was Queen consort of England and Empress of India. As the wife of King George V, she continued the Windsor dynasty as the mother of two kings and the grandmother of a queen, while maintaining a reputation for formality and dignity.

Fast Facts: Mary of Teck

  • Full Name: Victoria Mary Augusta Louise Olga Pauline Claudine Agnes of Teck
  • Occupation: Queen of the United Kingdom and Empress of India
  • Born: May 26, 1867 in Kensington Palace, London, England
  • Died: March 24, 1953 in London, England
  • Parents: Francis, Duke of Teck, and Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge, who was a granddaughter of King George III. 
  • Spouse: King George V (m. 1893-1936)
  • Children: Prince Edward (later Edward VIII; 1894-1972); Prince Albert (later King George VI; 1895-1952); Mary, Princess Royal (1897-1965); Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester (1900-1974); Prince George, Duke of Kent (1902-1942); Prince John (1905-1919).
  • Known For: A distant cousin to the royal family, Mary of Teck wed the future George V and became a queen known for dignity and strength in the face of upheaval and even war.

Early Life

Mary of Teck was christened Princess Victoria Mary of Teck and, although she was a royal of the Germanic state of Teck, she was born in London at Kensington Palace. She was the first cousin, once removed, of Queen Victoria. Her mother, Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge, was Victoria’s first cousin, since their fathers were brothers and both sons of King George III, and her father was Prince Francis, Duke of Teck. Mary was the first of four children, and she grew up with the nickname “May,” both as a diminutive of Mary and as a reference to the month she was born in.

Mary was the only daughter in her family, and from an early age, she was brought up in a cheerful but strict fashion. Her childhood companions were her cousins, the children of Edward, then Prince of Wales. Princess Mary Adelaide was an unusually hands-on mother, but Mary and her brothers also had the best education befitting members of the royal family, even minor ones. She also accompanied her mother on charitable ventures from an early age.

Princess Mary of Teck posing while reading a book
A Richard Speaight photograph of Princess Mary of Teck while Duchess of York, circa 1900. The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

Despite their royal heritage, Mary’s family was neither wealthy nor powerful. Her father came from a morganatic marriage and thus had a lower title and little to no inheritance, which resulted in him landing into a lot of debt. Because of their precarious financial situation, the family traveled throughout Europe extensively during Mary’s formative years; she became fluent in French and German as well as her native English. When they returned to London in 1885, Mary took on some secretarial duties for her mother, helping with correspondence and arranging social events.

Debutante and Wife

Like other women of the aristocracy and royalty, Mary of Teck was presented as a debutante at the age of eighteen in 1886. At the time, the royal family was seeking a match for Prince Albert Victor, the eldest son of the Prince of Wales and thus a future king. Queen Victoria was personally fond of Mary, and Mary had a particular advantage over any other potential brides: she was a British princess, rather than a foreign one, but she was not directly descended from Victoria, so she would not be too closely related to the prince. The couple, who were only three years apart in age, became engaged after a lengthy courtship in 1891.

Unfortunately, their engagement only lasted six weeks before Albert Victor fell ill in an influenza pandemic. He died from his illness, before they had even set a wedding date, devastating Mary and the entire royal family. Albert Victor’s brother, Prince George, Duke of York, became close with Mary over their shared grief. With his brother’s death, George became second in line for the throne, and Queen Victoria still wanted Mary as a royal bride. The solution was for George to wed Mary. In 1893, he proposed and she accepted.

The wedding party of the future King George V and Mary of Teck in 1893
The wedding party of the future King George V and Mary of Teck in 1893. W. & D. Downey / Getty Images

George and Mary wed on July 6, 1893 at St. James’ Palace. In the time since their marriage had been suggested, they had fallen very much in love. In fact, George, unlike his notoriously adulterous father and ancestors, never had a mistress. Mary thus became the Duchess of York. The couple moved to York Cottage, a relatively small royal residence for a simpler life while they could and had six children: five sons and one daughter. All of their children survived to adulthood except their youngest son John, who died from epilepsy at the age of thirteen.

Mary had a reputation for being very strict and formal, but her family experienced her more playful and loving side as well. She and George were not always hands-on parents–at one point, they failed to spot that their hired nanny was abusing their oldest two sons–but their children, for the most part, had happy childhoods. As Duchess of York, Mary became the patron of the London Needlework Guild like her mother before her. When George became Prince of Wales upon Edward VII’s 1901 accession, Mary became Princess of Wales. The royal couple spent most of the next decade on tours of the empire and preparing for George’s inevitable ascent to the throne.

Queen Consort

On May 6, 1910, Edward VII died, and Mary’s husband took the throne as George V. She was crowned, along with him, on June 22, 1911; at that time, she dropped the “Victoria” from her name and was simply called Queen Mary. Her first years as queen were marked with minor conflict with her mother-in-law, Queen Alexandra, who still demanded precedence and withheld some jewels that were supposed to go to the reigning queen consort.

Photograph of Queen Mary of Teck in a formal gown and tiara
Queen Mary wears the Lovers' Knot Tiara in 1926, famous today as a favorite of Princess Diana and the Duchess of Cambridge.  Hulton Archive / Getty Images

World War I broke out soon after George V’s accession, and Mary of Teck was at the forefront of the home war efforts. She instituted an austerity drive at the palace, rationed food, and visited servicemen in hospitals. The war era also brought a bit of controversy to the royal family. George V refused to grant asylum to his cousin, Russia’s deposed Tsar Nicholas II and his family, in part due to anti-German sentiments (the tsarina had German heritage) and in part due to fears that the Russian presence would inspire British anti-monarchical movements. The Russian royal family was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

Throughout George V’s reign, Queen Mary was one of his most reliable and helpful advisors. Her extensive knowledge of history was an asset to his decision-making and his speeches. She had a reputation for stability, intelligence, and calm, which elevated her considerably as her husband’s reign was filled with upheaval across the British Empire. When the king was sick with ongoing lung problems, she cared for him. They were married for just over 25 years when George V died on January 20, 1936. His and Mary’s eldest son became Edward VIII.

Queen Mother and Final Years

Mary was one of the leading voices against Edward’s proposed marriage to Wallis Simpson, strongly disapproving of divorce and of Simpson’s character as a whole. Despite her love for her son, she believed he should put duty, not personal preference, first. After his abdication, she strongly supported her younger son, Albert, who became King George VI in late 1936. Her relationship with Edward was complicated: on the one hand, they seemed affectionate, on the other, he wrote after her death claiming she was cold and unfeeling always.

Queen Mary and family at the coronation of George VI
Queen Mary (center) at her son George VI's 1937 coronation. Also pictured (L-R): Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth II, and Princess Margaret. Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Getty Images

As the dowager queen, Mary retreated somewhat from private life but remained close with her family, taking a particular interest in her granddaughters Elizabeth and Margaret. She also spent time collecting art and jewels, especially those with a royal connection. She outlived two more of her sons when Prince George was killed in World War II and George VI died in 1952. The dowager queen lived to see her granddaughter become Queen Elizabeth II, but died before the coronation.

Mary of Teck died in her sleep on March 24, 1953 and was buried in St. George’s Chapel alongside her husband. She is remembered for her formal dignity and her intelligence, although an image of her as being quite cold and removed also persists.

Sources

  • Edwards, Anne. Matriarch: Queen Mary and the House of Windsor. Hodder and Stoughton, 1984.
  • Pope-Hennessy, James. The Quest for Queen Mary. London: Zulieka, 2018.