Like all the daughters of George III and Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Princess Mary’s life was a little bit tragic and a little bit mundane. Born in April 1776, Mary was the first of her parents’ children to arrive in the middle of the American Revolution. Ten other children preceded her in the royal nursery, but few of them would be able to match Mary in confidence or spirit, both of which may very well have stemmed from the fact she was early on considered the most attractive of her siblings.
Mary was the eldest of the younger set of princesses, which included her sisters, Sophia and Amelia, while the older princesses, Charlotte, Augusta and Elizabeth often lived separately. Indeed, Mary and her younger sisters were the beneficiaries of a by far more relaxed environment. Though they spent less time with their parents, they were surrounded by governesses, pets and the outdoors as they grew up in the nursery.
This ideal fell apart in 1788 when the first bout of George III’s mental illness manifested itself. George and Charlotte’s marriage never quite recovered, Charlotte became a nervous wreck and the Prince of Wales, by now an adult and living separately from the family, briefly feuded with his mother over assuming the responsibilities of Regent. Mary’s day-to-day existence was mostly unaltered, but she was certainly affected by the household tension and the change in her father. At one point, as the King was recovering towards the end of the year, his physicians encouraged the slow introduction of familiar faces and activities – Mary and Amelia were presented at a window as their father walked by on the grounds below. He looked up, saw them and promptly threw his gloves and cane on the ground, running back into the house in tears.
By the following year George recovered and resumed work, however one consequence of his illness was that the matter of marrying off his elder daughters to appropriate German princes was entirely dropped. Charlotte, Augusta and Elizabeth – 24, 22 and 20 in 1790 – were of age to make matches of their own, but their father was uninterested and their mother hated the idea of parting with any of them. By the time Mary appeared at court in March 1791 as a 15-year-old debutante, her presence only highlighted how long her sisters had been “withering on the vine.” Even so, Mary’s beauty, charm and love for dancing and fashion was remarked upon by everyone, including her brother, Frederick, the Duke of York, who wrote to Augustus, the Duke of Sussex, that:
“You would hardly know your younger sisters, they are so much grown and so much improved, particularly Mary.”
Unfortunately for Mary her appointed escort for the evening was her other brother, William, the Duke of Clarence, who turned up to the event too drunk to dance, forcing her to spend much of the evening on the sidelines. There was, however, another young man who took notice of her that evening – her cousin, Prince William of Gloucester. William was the only son of George III’s younger brother, William, Duke of Gloucester, and a product of his scandalous union with the illegitimate Maria Walpole. The marriage had horrified Mary’s father and prompted a breach between the brothers, but their son was nonetheless considered legitimate and William would eventually inherit his father’s titles.
In the interim, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York were concocting a match between Mary and the Crown Prince of Prussia that would complement York’s marriage to Princess Frederica of Prussia. Mary’s match came to naught, but Frederica did join the British Royal Family that autumn.
The rest of Mary’s adolescence played out much the same as her childhood, except with a few more diversions in the form of public appearances. The family was excited for the Prince of Wales to finally marry their cousin, Caroline of Brunswick, in 1795 and when the marriage immediately turned sour, the Prince’s younger sisters were nonetheless excited by the birth of their niece, Princess Charlotte, in 1796. In 1797, the eldest of them, Charlotte, finally concocted a match of her own and left England to eventually become the Queen of Württemberg.
It was during this time that Mary met Prince Frederick of Orange, son of William V and grandson of George II’s daughter, Princess Anne. The Dutch Royal Family was then living in exile and Frederick spent considerable time in England where he met Mary, then 19. The two quickly fell in love and Frederick even appealed to George III for approval to propose marriage, however the King felt strongly that his fourth daughter shouldn’t marry until her elder sisters did. Without any reasonable prospects for Augusta and Elizabeth on the horizon, the idea of marriage was firmly put on ice. Unfortunately, Frederick died at just 24 in 1799 and Mary was devastated. In a concession to the Princess’s genuine feelings, she was allowed to wear mourning for him.
Mary’s attentions returned to her siblings. She was closest to her sister, Amelia, who suffered from poor health for most of her life. Starting in the 1790s, Mary would accompany Amelia to take the air in seaside retreats, most frequently to Weymouth. Amelia’s illness eventually took her life in 1810 when she was just 27, but while her death devastated Mary and the rest of her family, it incapacitated her father. His final decline is believed to have stemmed from grief over the loss of his favorite daughter and by the following year the Prince of Wales assumed the role of Regent.
Mary wrote of her father in 1812 that:
“No one that really loves the King ought to pray for his life being prolonged a moment in so deplorable a state.”
In the background, the deterioration of the Prince and Princess of Wales’s marriage meant that the King and Queen took an active interest in ensuring their granddaughter had some stability in her education. Throughout her childhood and adolescence, Princess Charlotte was sent to Windsor to take part in the frigid walks, sewing lessons and stilted conversation that made up the RF’s existence. Charlotte wasn’t a big fan of most of her aunts, but she took a liking to Mary, writing at one point, “She has been all kindness to me but otherwise you know I am always happy to quit the castle.”
By this point, of Queen’s Charlotte’s five remaining daughters, four were still unmarried. Now adults – and essentially spinsters – tension grew in the royal household as the women attempted to assert new levels of independence from their mother, who still chided them over who they socialized with and where they went when. In November 1812, the Prince Regent requested that his daughter join him for the State Opening of Parliament and that his sisters accompany her. The Queen was against it, but the Prince’s particular request, as Mary put it, “Made it quite impossible we could refuse going as we never ought to stop any amusement for Charlotte.”
Mary and Elizabeth resolutely accompanied Charlotte to the House of Lords, but upon their return the Queen told them she would never forgive them. The Queen’s reasoning was that supporting the Prince was disloyal to their father. Or, as Mary put it:
“She won’t allow that any of us feel for the King’s unhappy state of mind. Today the Queen still appears to very great disadvantage and when we are with her *cuts* at us very deep, but we do all we can not to mind it.”
It wasn’t until the women pleaded their case to the Prince Regent that they be allowed more independence that a situation was set up that allowed them to reside in London on their own from time to time, free from the constraints of their mother’s regime at Windsor. The Prince’s intervention on behalf of his sisters, as well as their influence over him, eventually rankled with Charlotte, who grew to resent her aunts despite their efforts to help her manage her turbulent parents as best they could.
In the background of this, Mary’s presence in London meant that she saw more and more of her cousin, William, Duke of Gloucester. There were rumors that his affection for her still lingered and that he proposed several times despite numerous rejections. As for why an “old maid” seeking more independence continued to turn down an offer to manage her own household, perhaps it can be gleaned from one description of him, which stated he was “a good man, but amazingly stupid, tiresome and foolish.”
And if that wasn’t enough, one of the King’s favorite equerries attempted to blackmail Mary over letters that she and Amelia had apparently written to his wife regarding Amelia’s ill-fated love affair with Charles Fitzroy. However the matter was dealt with, it was dealt with quietly.
The final break between Mary and Princess Charlotte came when Mary supported her brother’s attempts to marry his daughter to Prince William of Orange, which is notable given Mary’s own entanglement with a Dutch prince years before. Charlotte’s mother was against the match and though Charlotte briefly gave in to an engagement, she later backed out of it on the grounds that she wouldn’t live abroad as the future queen. George was livid and Mary, believing her niece needed to marry soon, took his side. Charlotte’s theory on Mary was that the older woman resented her for her youth and elevated position. While that may be true, there is more evidence that Charlotte resented that Mary in her 30s was still known as the beauty of the family and was angry over the easy relationship she had with the Prince.
In the end, Charlotte married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in 1816, but she was followed months later by none other than Mary herself. At some point, apparently, Mary give in to the requests of her cousin and agreed to marry William of Gloucester (now duke) at the rather astonishing (for the 19th century) age of 40. Lady Albinia Cumberland wrote a description of the event, which read:
“Well, the wedding is over! Dear Princess Mary looked most lovely and angelic – really. Her dress a rich silver tissue of dead silver … no trimming upon it – lace around the neck only. Diamond necklace. The hair dressed rather high. The diamonds put round the head, something in the form of a diadem. When everybody was assembled in the saloon, the Dukes of Cambridge and Clarence handed her in. She looked very modest and overcome. The Prince Regent stood at the other end to the Duke of Gloucester. She stood alone to the former, quite leaning against him. Indeed she needed support. I pitied the Duke of Gloucester for he stood a long time at the altar waiting till she came into the room, giving cakes, carrying wine, etc. … She then went to the Queen and her sisters, and was quite overcome, was obliged to sit down, and nearly fainted…”
Mary moved into her new husband’s home of Bagshot Park, not far from Windsor. Of him, she wrote:
“The Duke of Gloucester made so good a son himself that he enters into all my feelings in regard to my family and my wish to take my share of duty in the attendance of Windsor in illness or in any distress.”
Unfortunately, we don’t know what changed to make Mary suddenly accept her cousin if it is true he proposed before. We also suspect that William might have proposed to another woman shortly before he married Mary, but unfortunately there is little to work out about who she was or the nature of their relationship. Regardless, by all reports the new Duchess of Gloucester was happy and the marriage started off well. Charlotte’s read of it was:
“I have seen the Gloucesters twice. They seem very comfortable and happy. He is much in love, and tells me he is the happiest creature on earth. I won’t say she does as much, but being her own mistress, having her own house and being able to walk in the streets all delights in their several ways.”
In fact, Mary’s independent nature could rub her husband the wrong way and he preferred to keep her at home, or at the very least, to have a say in her comings and goings. Her sisters were pleasantly surprised when Mary was allowed to stay with her mother at Kew when she was ill, while William undertook a tour on his own. This all went down in 1818, marking Queen Charlotte’s final descent. By then, of course, Princess Charlotte had tragically died in childbed and three of Mary’s brothers – the dukes of Clarence, Kent and Cambridge – all quickly forged marriages in the hopes of securing the succession. New sisters-in-law changed the family dynamic somewhat, but it was the blood princesses who still ruled the day thanks to the Princess of Wales’s retreat to Italy.
Queen Charlotte’s daughters were called to her bedside on November 13 to take their leave of her, rounding up several months of visiting and care. Though the matriarch wouldn’t expire until the 18th, it marked the last day that she was able to converse with company. As such, Mary’s last received words to her mother were, “Had we better not leave you to be quite quiet?”
Mary and Augusta moved from Dutch House to the home of their brother, Adolphus of Cambridge, until the Queen’s body was laid to rest. She was eventually interred beside Princess Charlotte and the newborn prince who had cost his mother her life. King George, now completely incapacitated, never knew that his wife died.
Relations between Mary’s extended family continued to ebb and flow. She spent considerable time with her sisters, particularly Augusta, and the two would often travel to visit their brothers and their wives, including the Duke and Duchess of Kent once they moved into Kensington Palace with their daughter, Princess Victoria. The one blight on middle-aged domesticity was that Mary’s beloved brother, the Prince Regent, and her husband never got along and, when forced to choose sides, Mary chose her brother. At one point, she requested that William be allowed to shoot in the Great Park only to be denied. “I felt awkward making the request,” Mary wrote to the Prince, “But sometimes one cannot help being under the necessity of doing what in one’s heart one had rather not.”
Indeed, Mary continued to visit her brother on her own when she wanted to see him, while she and William also kept up a fairly nomadic existence by visiting family friends whenever possible. Mary and Edward of Kent were never particularly close, but the entire family was horrified when he unexpectedly took ill and died in January 1820, just eight months after his daughter’s birth. His death was followed just days later by that of the King himself. Finally, after nearly 58 years of waiting, the Prince Regent ascended the throne as George IV.
The new reign was marred early on by the intention of the Princess of Wales, now technically Queen Caroline, to return to Britain and take what she viewed as her rightful place. George tried repeatedly to find some means of divorcing her, but a full case ran the risk of uncovering embarrassments for the entire family. Mary was staunchly in her brother’s corner, while William, still at odds with George, sided with Caroline. As a result, while the trial went on, William insisted that Mary cease communicating with George, a fact which permanently soured relations between the couple and burned whatever chance there was of peace between the brothers-in-law.
The matter was only truly brought to an end with Caroline’s death in the summer of 1821. Even then, the only mark of favor that George ever bestowed on William as king was naming him governor of Portsmouth in 1827.
George died on June 26, 1830, aged 67, devastating Mary. The throne passed to his younger brother, William of Clarence, now William IV, and his wife, Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen. Childless, their heir was the now 11-year-old Princess Victoria, creating yet another situation in which a young, isolated girl was waiting in the wings for the crown. Obviously, it would go better for Victoria than it had Charlotte.
By then, the Gloucesters marriage had mostly broken down. William fell ill during a hunting trip in the autumn of 1834 and returned home just in time to pass away on November 30. As one of Mary’s maids wrote:
“Their marriage had not been a happy one, and she was not attached to the Duke, but she had been a most humble and obedient wife, though he plagued her much and could not bear her being of higher rank than him.”
The words smack of a sympathy that comes from mostly hearing one side of the story, but nevertheless, there is likely some truth in them.
During the last years of their marriage, William banished Mary to the top floors of their London home. Within a month of his death, she moved herself down to his quarters, re-decorated and established her own independent household. Princess Victoria, then 14, visited her aunt in February 1835, writing:
“She looks uncommonly well. She is in the deepest mourning and shows no hair at all from under her widow’s cap.”
In some ways that captures Mary’s spirit well – all the outwards sign of correctness and none of the sentiment.
She spent her widowhood spending time with her nieces and nephews, including Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge, the future mother of Mary of Teck. When William IV died in 1837 and was succeeded by the 18-year-old Victoria, Mary and her sisters spent time with the young monarch at court, doing nothing to enhance the new queen’s reputation for fashion or fun. Even so, after her coronation in 1838, Mary threw her a ball during which Victoria danced eight times and didn’t leave until after three in the morning.
On September 22, 1840, Augusta passed away at the age of 71. Mary and Sophia were at her bedside along with Queen Adelaide and Adolphus of Cambridge. The death was a blow to Mary and came on the heels of news that her other sister, Elizabeth, had died in Frankfurt earlier that year. Indeed, Mary would eventually outlive all of her sisters once Sophia died in Kensington Palace in May 1848.
Mary’s final years were often spent in the presence of Queen Victoria, her husband, Prince Albert, and their growing family. She was particularly fond of the eldest daughter, Vicky, as well as the Prince of Wales. As she grew older, the Queen would often take an assortment of her children to visit Mary wherever she was staying.
Mary finally passed away at the age of 81 at her home in London on April 30, 1857. Her family, as ever, was by her side. In her diary, Queen Victoria wrote:
“With her gone is the last link, which connected us with a bygone generation. She was an authority on everything, a bright example of loyalty, devotion and duty, the kindest and best of mistresses, and friends. She had become like a grandmother to us all, from her age, and from being the last of the family.”