[Note: This post was up on the site for a couple hours on Monday morning, but after all the activity surrounding Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s engagement, I yanked it to save for another day. So, for those of you who already read it, surprise! Here it is again on a calmer day :)]
Mary Adelaide of Cambridge is a bit of a forgotten figure within the British Royal Family, but she was an interesting character in her day and dynastically important. She was Queen Mary’s mother and, as such, a direct ancestor of the current Queen and her descendants. In many ways she’s an interesting parallel to her first cousin, Queen Victoria – both came about from the royal marriage push after Princess Charlotte of Wales’s death, both battled very Hanoverian appearances and both became matriarchs of their own branches of the family.
Mary Adelaide was born on November 27, 1833 in Hanover, Germany, 14 years after Victoria was born at Kensington Palace to Edward, Duke of Kent and Victoire of Saxe-Leiningen. Mary Adelaide’s father was another son of George III, the Duke of Kent’s younger brother, Prince Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge. In the spring of 1818 he married a German second cousin, Augusta of Hesse-Cassel. Their eldest son, George, born in 1819 was briefly considered as a potential match for Victoria before her marriage to Prince Albert in 1840. A second child, Augusta, was born in 1822.
Born during the reign of her uncle, William IV, Mary Adelaide spent her first years in Hanover while her father acted as Viceroy on behalf of his brother. When William died in 1837 and the 18-year-old Victoria ascended the throne, the next eldest brother, Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, took over in Hanover due to the country’s Salic Law, which prohibited women from ruling. The Cambridges duly returned to England and settled in Kensington Palace.
Without siblings and with few legitimate cousins, the Cambridges were some of what little family Victoria had prior to her marriage. Mary Adelaide served as something in-between younger sister and daughter to the young queen – indeed, she ended up closer in age to Victoria’s elder daughters than to her cousin herself.
In 1843, when Mary Adelaide was 10, her elder sister married their cousin, Frederick William of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, and eventually became Duchess in 1860. The marriage produced two sons, but while Augusta spent most of her time in Germany, she returned to England frequently to visit her mother and sister.
Meanwhile in 1847, her brother, George, secretly married Sarah Fairbrother, the daughter of a servant in Westminster. The marriage scandalized court and Victoria refused to acknowledge it, a situation not helped by the fact that the couple already had two illegitimate children. Unfortunately the match wasn’t quite the stuff of epic romance – George cheated on Sarah continuously and ended up dedicated to a long-term mistress with whom he struck up a relationship in 1849.
Mary Adelaide’s father died on July 8, 1850 at the family’s house in Piccadilly. George became the new duke, however his wife wasn’t allowed to assume the title of duchess. None of this helped Mary Adelaide’s marital prospects, however the biggest stumbling block for the young woman was her weight. She was nicknamed “Fat Mary” in her 20s and her girth, even in comparison to Queen Victoria, was considerable. Normally her lineage would have helped to counterbalance this, but she had no fortune to recommend her, only her familial ties to the Queen.
By the early 1860s, Mary Adelaide was approaching 30 and still unmarried, while Victoria had given birth to nine children in 21 years of marriage and was widowed in 1861. Widowhood plunged Victoria into grief, but her inability to focus on her duties as monarch opened up considerable time to focus on the personal lives of her children and extended family. Taking pity on her spinster cousin, Victoria arranged a marriage for Mary Adelaide with Francis of Teck.
Mary Adelaide might not have been a huge catch, but neither was Francis. He was four years younger than his bride, penniless and the product of a morganatic marriage. She wasn’t “wowed,” but she was also desperate to marry and the match moved along. As for Francis, the pairing was a dream come true – plucked from minor German royal obscurity, he suddenly had close ties with the British Royal Family. The two were married on June 12, 1866 in Surrey. Unfortunately for Francis, it wasn’t until after the wedding that he realized Mary Adelaide didn’t come attached to an inheritance.
The couple chose to reside in London because Mary Adelaide received a small annuity from Parliament in exchange for carrying out royal duties on Victoria’s behalf. Money was constantly tight, but Mary Adelaide was charming, extremely popular with the public and very good at wheedling extra loans out of her cousin. The downside, however, was that the Tecks weren’t very popular with the rest of court or the rest of the family.
The biggest snub came when Mary Adelaide requested that Francis be styled HRH as her husband, but Victoria rejected her. Instead, he remained His Serene Highness until 1887 when he was finally elevated to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Their first child, Mary, was born on May 26, 1867 in Kensington Palace, in the same bed and bedroom where Victoria was born back in 1819.
Notably, Queen Victoria made a point of visiting the infant. While out to see her recently-born grandchild, Princess Louise, eldest daughter of the Prince and Princess of Wales, she made a detour on her way home to visit the Tecks and declared Mary a handsome child – a far cry from how she described Louise (“puny and pigeon-breasted”). Later on she wrote in her diary:
“It seemed strange to drive into the Courtyeard and to get out at the door, the very knockers of which were very old friends. My dear old home, how many memories it evoked walking through the well-known rooms!”
Little did anyone know then that the infant Mary would end up marrying the future George V and redeeming the Tecks in Great Britain. Indeed, the embarrassment the girl felt over growing up in the fringes of the RF and in relative poverty (again, relative) was a driving factor in how she handled herself as Duchess of York, Princess of Wales and Queen Consort. But that we will save for another day!