The brief relationship between Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Mary of Teck is a nice little tale of what could have been, except that how events unfolded was better for all. Albert Victor was the eldest son of the Prince and Princess of Wales, and, as such, second-in-line to the throne on which his grandmother, Queen Victoria, sat. Born two months prematurely on January 8, 1864, he grew into a young man of questionable virtue and value, a fact which opened the opportunity for a penniless young woman with fading ties to the British monarchy to find herself primed to become the UK’s next queen consort.
In November 1891, Mary of Teck was issued an invitation (or summons, more accurately) to join Queen Victoria at Balmoral Castle in the Scottish Highlands. Mary was the eldest daughter of Francis, Duke of Teck (an Austrian) and Mary Adelaide of Cambridge, Duchess of Teck. Mary Adelaide was a first cousin of Victoria’s, as discussed in last week’s post here, and was herself a granddaughter of George III. Unfortunately, she had neither the fortune nor looks to offer much advancement, but she was close to her cousin and possessed enough charm and charisma to ingratiate herself to the British public. In exchange for carrying out engagements on the Queen’s behalf, who preferred privacy and isolation in the three decades since her husband’s death, she received a small allowance from Parliament and she and her family lived rent-free at the White Lodge in Richmond.
There was little doubt as to what the invitation meant – a chance to audition for the hand of Albert Victor. The man himself would play little part in the matter, but the approval of the Queen was paramount. As Victoria’s younger cousin, Mary was no stranger to her more powerful kin – she would have spent considerable time with the Queen and known the Wales children well, including Albert Victor. Her impressions of him were far from favorable. Albert Victor, known as “Eddy” to his family, was neither intelligent, hardworking nor intellectually curious. He was also unkind, and in childhood he had actually bullied Mary, despite her having been a good three years younger than him. Some of his developmental issue may well have stemmed from his premature birth – in addition to what may have been un-diagnosed learning disabilities, he also had hearing problems which he inherited from his mother, Alexandra of Denmark.
He and his younger brother, George, entered the Navy in their mid-teens, however while the transition did wonders for George, it did nothing to improve Albert Victor’s outlook. By many reports of his personality, it’s possible that he suffered from mood disorders, which, if he did, were certainly not helped by the heavy drinking he picked up as an adolescent. Like his father before him, he developed a taste for prostitutes, however unlike his father, rumors of homosexual relationships followed him, raising the possibility that he was bisexual.
Two years previously, in 1889, a police raid on a high-end male brothel in London led to the discovery of one of Albert Victor’s close friends, Lord Arthur Somerset, and the persistent gossip that the young prince had also been present, but the police covered it up. The rumor spread through London, but the Palace never issued a denial, only strengthening the theory for many. Albert Victor’s association with brothels did permanent damage to his reputation – to this day he is linked to the Jack the Ripper case, with many genuinely believing him to be a likely candidate for the depraved serial killer.
The murders began in the summer of 1888 when a middle-aged prostitute was strangled and disemboweled in London’s East End. Over the next several weeks, four more women were murdered in similar circumstances and the story caught the attention of the press, with salacious headlines running around the globe. Even Queen Victoria, occasionally a bit of a prude, took an active interest in the situation. The only eyewitness to Jack the Ripper described a man of medium height with a small, blonde moustache, wearing a deer stalker’s hat and “collars and cuffs.”
Not only does the description match one of Albert Victor, the last bit is slightly damning in its specificity, even if only coincidentally. The Prince had a notably awkward appearance, featuring disproportionately long arms and legs, which he tried to cover up with high collars and wide cuffs. His father, himself a stylish man, loved to mock him for it and gave him the nickname “Collars and Cuffs.” The detail released in the Jack the Ripper case led to accusations that the killer was none other than Albert Victor, already believed to associate with prostitutes.
He was almost certainly not the killer, but the gossip made it all the more important to his parents and grandmother that he settle down as quickly as possible. In 1890, he fell in love with his first cousin, Alix of Hesse, the youngest surviving daughter of Queen Victoria’s deceased daughter, Princess Alice. He proposed marriage to her, but Alix turned him down on the grounds that she didn’t love him – it was a huge disappointment to the Prince and Princess of Wales and Queen Victoria, but her grandmother didn’t fault her, acknowledging that her own marriage had been a success because she had loved the late Prince Albert. Alix, of course, would go on to marry the Princess of Wales’s nephew, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and go down in history for very different reasons.
As for Albert Victor, he also had a romance with Princess Helene of Orleans, a French Catholic. Because it was impossible for Albert Victor to marry a Catholic, the option was put forth that either Helene convert or Albert Victor give up his place in the line of succession. It’s unclear how seriously the second option was taken – Albert Victor’s failings were widely acknowledged by his family, and certainly there may have been chatter that George was better suited for the role, but the idea of the Prince stepping down would have been akin to the Abdication Crisis of 1936, except executed long before the young man took the crown. Regardless, the Pope refused to condone such a match and it’s unlikely that Parliament would have allowed such a scheme to go forward. By the summer of 1891, the relationship was over.
Soon after, it was clear that Albert Victor’s health was failing, though it’s unclear what the exact medical problem was. It was against this backdrop that Mary of Teck was summoned from London for Balmoral, with the understanding that as a penniless young woman in need of a good match, she could be persuaded to take on the task that was Albert Victor. She and her brother, Adolphus, arrived at the Castle by noon and were greeted by the Queen’s youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice, whose family lived with the Queen, who took them to her mother. After a few minutes of small talk, they were escorted to lunch, where they were joined by Beatrice’s two eldest children, Alexandra and Ena (the future Queen Victoria Eugenie of Spain). Mary, for her part, disapproved of children joining adults at the table.
Over the next few days, Mary was in close proximity to the Queen. The two went for daily walks, took their meals together and Mary would have seen how Victoria handled her monarchical responsibilities and correspondence. It was her first insight into a way of life that would end up dominating her own, the structure of which she defended until her dying breath. We don’t know what Mary and Victoria talked about, but by the time Mary left Balmoral, the Queen had given her approval for her engagement to Albert Victor, thus pushing her forward as the preordained future consort. Victoria wrote to her eldest daughter, the Dowager Empress of Germany:
“You speak of Mary of Teck. I think & hope that Eddy will try & marry her for I think she is a superior girl. Quiet & reserved *till* you get to know her well, but she is the reverse of overflachlich. She has no frivolous tastes, has been very carefully brought up & is well informed and always occupied.”
Soon after, the Prince of Wales wrote to his mother that Albert Victor had agreed to the match and a proposal was forthcoming. On December 2, Mary left for Luton Hoo, joining the Waleses for a large house party including Arthur Somerset, who had recently returned to England after going abroad to avoid prosecution from the brothel raid. On December 3, Mary joined a luncheon for the shooting party, however Mary despised blood sport and likely didn’t much enjoy herself. That evening she joined a county ball and danced in a gown so lavish it attracted the horror of at least one other guest who called it “monstrous.”
In the middle of the dancing, Albert Victor asked Mary to join him for a walk. He led her upstairs to an empty bedroom in which a fire was roaring, indicating the setting was all pre-arranged. The prince delivered a dutiful and memorized proposal and Mary, equally as dutifully, accepted. In her diary she wrote:
“To my surprise, Eddy proposed to me during the evening in Mme. de Falbe’s boudoir – of course I said yes.”
She wrote of spending the rest of the evening with “suppressed excitement” and “waltzing” around her bedroom after she told her girlfriends. Mary didn’t love her cousin, but she knew that she had just landed the most eligible bachelor in Britain and ensured her family’s financial security for life. For a practical young woman, this was reason enough to celebrate.
The engagement was quickly announced. That afternoon Mary returned to London and was greeted by cheering crowds for the first time in her life. In response, she waved and smiled, apparently quite comfortable with the heightened attention. She, her parents and her brothers then traveled to Marlborough House for luncheon with the very relieved Prince and Princess of Wales and Albert Victor.
The next day the couple traveled to Windsor Castle to spend a week with Queen Victoria, a visit neither was likely looking forward to. Albert Victor was in a foul mood, having just learned that his former teacher (with whom he may have had a less than platonic relationship) was committed to a mental institution and he believed news of his engagement might have caused it. Even so, everyone got through it and when Mary returned home on December 13, a letter from the Queen was waiting for her:
“Marriage is the most important step which can be taken & should not be looked upon lightly or as all roses. The trials of life in fact begin with marriage, & no one should forget that it is only by mutually giving to one another, & by mutual respect & confidence as well as love – that true happiness can be obtained. Dear Eddy is a dear, good boy […]”
He was not, and by now Mary was realizing exactly what she was taking on. Albert Victor spent two days with the Tecks when they returned from Windsor, during which time she cried to her mother, unsure whether she could go through with it. Her mother’s practical response was that she quite simply didn’t have a choice.
The wedding was set for February 27, 1892 and Queen Victoria arranged for the young couple to be given apartments in St. James’s Palace for the start of their married life. The day after Christmas, Mary and Albert Victor attended a dance hosted by the Prince’s sister and Mary’s friend, Louise, Duchess of Fife. Mary wrote, “We danced to a most lovely Viennese band which played several things out of the lovely Cavalleria Rusticana. It was a charming little fete & we all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.”
Over the holidays and in the new year, Mary spent her time wedding planning for a ceremony meant to take place at Windsor. One notable absence was that of her future brother-in-law, George, who was recuperating from a serious bout of Typhoid. And when the Queen’s half-nephew passed away in Germany on December 31, Albert Victor was deputized to attend and represent his grandmother, and he returned with a bad cold. The last blight on affairs was the anger of the Queen’s daughter, Princess Helena, who was insulted that her own unmarried daughter hadn’t been considered as a match for Albert Victor. The Queen, however, dealt with her daughter and the matter was resolved by the new year.
Days later, Mary and her family were invited to join the Waleses for a week’s visit to celebrate Albert Victor’s 28th birthday, but it was a dismal affair. Mary and her mother quickly caught colds, while Albert Victor’s unmarried sisters, Victoria and Maud, were suffering from the flu. The Prince and Princess of Wales were fighting, and George was still convalescing from Typhoid. Nevertheless, the Prince of Wales and Albert Victor went shooting each day, no doubt grateful for a reason to get out of the house. Notably, because George was not well, he spent his days indoors with the women and likely spent considerable time socializing with Mary.
On January 7, the day before the Prince’s birthday, luncheon was served and George escorted Mary to the table. The meal passed without commentary, but directly afterwards Albert Victor fell suddenly ill and took to his bed. Mary sat at his bedside and kept him company by reading aloud, while George responded to his brother’s birthday correspondence on his behalf. The next day, Albert Victor insisted on coming downstairs to open his presents (which, you know, I get), but the jaunt exhausted him and his fever spiked. His condition only worsened on January 9 and the Prince of Wales’s physician was sent for, but he failed to improve over the next few days. As of January 14, he was heard shouting at Lord Randolph Churchill and Lord Salisbury, neither of whom were in the house, and crying for his grandmother. Perhaps most awkwardly, in his feverish delirium, he called out for “Helene! Helene!”
By then, it was clear to the doctors that nothing could be done. For six hours in the early hours of the morning on the 14th, the Prince and Princess of Wales, their other children and Mary kept vigil until the Prince passed away at 9:35 AM GMT. Once he was proclaimed dead, Mary rose from her chair, walked to the side of the bed where the Princess of Wales stood and kissed Albert Victor on the forehead before silently leaving the room.
To this day there remains some raised eyebrows over Albert Victor’s death because it was, well, so very convenient. The Prince was long-suspected of being mentally unstable and both his family and court had long ago decided he was unfit to rule. The whispers say meaningfully that the immense pain he was seemingly under don’t fit the symptoms of influenza and instead point to poison. Given that he was surrounded by his family, then, the question is posed whether someone took matters into their own hands. This is highly unlikely. For one, the Prince and Princess of Wales loved their son and the Princess was devastated by his death – the idea that they approved his murder can be safely discredited. As for whether someone from within the family did? Well, in order for this to have been a familial scheme, it would have had to have buy in from either Queen Victoria or the Prince of Wales, and if either was interested in doing so, then one wonders why they bothered to engage him to Mary of Teck. In short, I think we can rule this out. As for whether someone was given a nod from within the government, again, I doubt it, but the conspiracy theory still floats in the ether.
The country fell into mourning and the focal point of sympathy was the “bereaved” Mary of Teck, who was believed to have lost her sweetheart, not to mention the chance to become queen. Mary attended the funeral, but otherwise returned to her parents’ house and resumed life as she had known it before her short-lived engagement. She was not, however, pushed out of the family. Instead, she continued to spend copious amount of time with the Waleses, including George, who had assumed his brother’s position as second-in-line to the throne. In a twist of fate that feels like the plot of some Edith Wharton novel, the two fell in love. Mary, still a firm favorite of Queen Victoria’s, was welcomed as a possible candidate for George’s wife and, unlike Katherine of Aragon three-and-a-half centuries before, since she had never married Albert Victor, there was little chance of it causing a public scandal.
George proposed in May 1893, after a suitable period of mourning, and Mary accepted. They were married two months later at St. James’s Palace in London and were duly named the Duke and Duchess of York. Less than eight years later they became the Prince and Princess of Wales when Queen Victoria died and her son succeeded her as Edward VII. And nine years after that, the couple ascended the throne as King George V and Queen Mary. The two successfully reigned for 25 years until George’s death in the winter of 1936. Mary, on the other hand, would live to see her granddaughter, Elizabeth II, ascend the throne in 1952. But all of that for another time.