George, Mary & Britain’s Last Delhi Durbar


George V ascended the throne following the death of his father, Edward VII, on May 6, 1910. Though the royal house was still branded “Saxe-Coburg-Gotha” and not yet Windsor, his reign was a remarkable step towards modernity and away from the stifling Victorian atmosphere that had so defined his grandmother’s reign. George and his wife, Mary of Teck, had long established themselves as not only reliable members of the Royal Family, but two who didn’t put much stock in formality or ceremony. While Edward VII had never allowed guests to sit while he was standing or retire to bed before he and his wife, Alexandra, George quickly did away with such practices, instilling a more “country home” environment into his residences.

And while his father had always kept a close eye on the machinations of Western Europe, tied so tightly to the family thanks to the intermarrying of cousins, George was more concerned with the longevity and health of the British Empire. It was from these instincts that he hashed out a plan to follow up his coronation in Westminster Abbey with one in Delhi and a royal tour to each of his dominions. As Prince of Wales, he had conducted a successful tour of India in 1904, while his father had made a similar trek in the 19th century. Indeed, it was only Queen Victoria, the first British Empress of India, who never made the journey.

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On September 8, 1910, George wrote to Lord Morley, Secretary of State for India:

“I am convinced that were it possible for me, accompanied by the Queen, to go to India and hold a Coronation Durbar at Delhi, where we should meet all the Princes, officials and vast number of the People, the greatest benefits would accrue to the Country at large. I also trust and believe that if the proposed visit could be made known sometime before, it would tend to allay unrest and I am sorry to say, seditious spirit which unfortunately exists in some parts of India.”

Look, imperialism was well on display here, and while I’m certainly not going to offer a defense, I do think this particular visit is worth assessing given the ongoing relationship between Britain and India, and the fact that we are in our final month of the UK-India Year of Culture.

Morley responded four days later, writing:

“The cost of such a proceeding with all the grandeur of it, would be great, and would presumably have to be borne by India. Apart from the general body of Indian taxpayers, the Princes and ruling Chiefs would no doubt be eager to demonstrate their loyalty on the scale and splendour natural for such an occasion and this splendour would be very costly as the last Durbar only abundantly proved. Again stress may be laid on embarrassments that might arise to public business at home, from the absence of the Sovereign from home for so long a time and such immense distance.”

The last Delhi Durbar had been carried out in 1903 to commemorate the accession of Edward VII and Alexandra of Denmark, however neither had actually shown up. Instead, the King’s younger brother, Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught, represented him to considerable public disappointment. Pictured below:

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Despite the hesitation Morley outlined, a formal proposal was submitted to the Cabinet on November 8 and accepted, though with strong reservations expressed over cost. Indeed, figuring out the logistics of how George and Mary could attend in person took a year, stretching far beyond their coronation at Westminster on June 22, 1911.

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In Britain, the coronation is a religious ceremony and one taken seriously given the monarch’s role as Head of the Church of England. The Delhi Durbar, given the significance of a “second crowning,” raised the question of whether it too would be religious and if so, how would the government navigate such an event before an audience primarily made up of Muslims and Hindus.

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Then there was the matter of the crown itself. George couldn’t be re-crowned with the exact same crown since that can’t leave England by law. Thus an entirely new crown had to be made, as well as a place to house it found. The idea of leaving it in Delhi was considered, but ultimately rejected since it might offer a temptation to possible usurpers. Instead it was decided that it would return with George and Mary and be given a place of prominence within the Tower of London.

The finances also settled, George and Mary prepared to sail via the Medina, accompanied by government officials and members of their court. The only family member who came with them, however, was Mary’s brother, Adolphus, the Duke of Teck. Their eldest son, David, requested to join them, but was rebuffed on the grounds that he needed to focus on preparing for his entrance to the University of Oxford. He was on hand with his younger brother, Albert, to see their parents off on November 11, 1911 from Portsmouth.

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A farewell luncheon, also attended by Queen Alexandra, was held before the ship set off, however the moment it departed a violent storm broke. George wrote to his mother, “I shall never forget that moment, when I saw you waving from the window of the railway carriage as we slowly steamed away from you into the wind and rain.”

The storms didn’t abate for five days, which kept Mary in her rooms. George, on the other hand, frequently made his way to the deck, unfazed. They landed at Bombay on December 2 to high temperatures and the sound of 101 guns going off. George, well-remembered from his past visit, was cheered and immediately adored, but Mary was more of a mysterious figure. Wearing a high and ornate hairdo topped with a straw hat covered in fake flowers, she looked nearly 10 inches taller than she normally was and dwarfed her husband – no one knew quite what to make of her.

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The couple left for Delhi four days later, traveling by Imperial train, and entered the city through the Gate of the Elephants. Mary later wrote to her aunt:

“It was a wonderful sight. George rode and I followed in a carriage with the Mistress of the Robes and Lord Durham – very grand and I felt proud to take part in so interesting and historical an event, just the kind of thing which appeals to my feelings of tradition – you will understand.”

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There was, however, one blip which Mary likely wasn’t aware of at the time. George had entered the city riding a horse and not an elephant, as was tradition, and given that his outfit was no more ornate than that of any other man in his party, not everyone recognized him and the response from the crown was notably tepid. The royal party traveled to a tent city, the most elaborate of which had been built for George and Mary. The next five days were spent in a series of ceremonies, processions and formal meetings, while Mary was presented with a large emerald set in diamonds. Mary responded:

“The jewel you have given me will ever be very precious to my eyes and whenever I wear it, though thousands of miles of land and sea separates us, my thoughts will fly to the homes of India, and create again and again this happy meeting and recall the tender love your hearts have yielded me. Your jewel shall pass to future generations as an Imperial heirloom, and always stand as a token of the first meeting of an English Queen with the ladies of India.”

Indeed, the stone remains a part of the Royal Collection today, however Queen Elizabeth II has only worn it on a handful of occasions due to its weight, all of which have been in the last decade. Queen Mary, on the other hand, wore it often.

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The Durbar itself took place at noon on December 12 in two concentric ampitheatres, one larger one for general attendees and a smaller, grander one for the VIPs, including the princes. After it was discovered the older gentlemen escorting George and Mary to the ceremony were unable to carry the umbrellas secured for the occasion, a makeshift awning was made to cover the carriage and protect the couple from the sun. Each wore their formal coronation robes, while George also wore the Imperial Crown, covered in 6,170 diamonds, as well as rubies, sapphires and emeralds.

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George and Mary received homage from every native prince, including the Gaekwar of Baroda, Emperor Sayajirao III, who approached them without any jewelry and after offering a single bow, turned his back to retreat. This can certainly be seen as a sign of what was to come for even at the time it was widely interpreted as protest of British rule.

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The King and Queen then walked to the royal pavilion where George announced the country’s capitol was moving from Calcutta to Delhi.

The next day George wrote to Queen Alexandra:

“[It] was the most wonderful and beautiful sight I have ever seen and one I shall remember all my life. We wore our robes and I the new crown made for the occasion. May [Mary] had her best tiara on … I can only say it was the most magnificent, the clothes and colours were marvellous … I had six pages and May had four to carry all our robes, they were either young Maharajas or sons of Maharajas and all wore beautiful clothes of white and gold with gold turbands and they did look nice.”

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The height of ceremony over, George left Delhi on December 16 for a 40-day shoot in Nepal (God help us all), while Mary toured Agra. They were thus apart for Christmas, which disturbed George far more than his wife. He wrote from Nepal:

“Each year I feel we become more and more necessary to one another and our lives become more and more wrapt up in each other’s. And I am sure that I love you more each year and am simply devoted to you and loathe being separated from you even for a day.”

Yeah, that’s nice and all, but it might also speak to why Mary had no problem with a few weeks off. He also noted that:

“[I am] very proud of being your husband feel that our coming here to India as the first Emperor and Empress has certainly proved itself to be what I always predicted, a great success and one which will have far-reaching effects and I trust lasting effects throughout this great empire.”

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On December 29, the two met in Bankepore and then traveled to Calcutta, which Mary deemed “too European.” Then it was back to Bombay and on board the Medina, which carried them home. When George delivered his farewell speech to India he broke down in tears, writing later to his mother that he realized he would never return and “the thought was too much for me.”

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Luckily for George, he didn’t live to see the partition of British India into India and Pakistan. That particular event took place in 1947 during the reign of his son, George VI, and was overseen by Lord Louis Mountbatten, a son of the Marchioness of Milford Haven and devoted uncle to the Duke of Edinburgh.

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Nevertheless, India remains the largest Commonwealth country by population and has been visited by Elizabeth II three times, in 1961, 1983 and 1997. The last trip was notably contentious and likely worth covering at some point. Its most famous visit, however, probably came from the late Princess of Wales in 1992 when she was photographed sitting in front of the Taj Mahal, however it is her ex-husband, the Prince of Wales, who is known for being the family’s Indophile. He has visited the country nine times since 1975, most recently this past October for a brief stint with the Duchess of Cornwall. Even the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, still so new to taking on serious royal duties, toured the country together in the spring of 2016.

As for George and Mary, it was a dream come true and the power of the Durbar was one issue George appeared to have been right about.

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