We’ve discussed before the strange tradition of strife between sovereign and heir that George I brought with him to Britain when the House of Hanover was established in 1714. It’s a pattern that has carried through subsequent generations in some form or another, though mercifully today it looks quite different than it did in centuries past. As of when the future George V began his family with Mary of Teck in the 1890s, family dynamics were certainly not as political or dire as they were when George II was waging war against his father as Prince of Wales or his son as king, but they also weren’t particularly warm and fuzzy. Indeed, George and Mary were tough parents and the patterns set out in the formative years of their children, two of whom would become kings, dictated how the monarchy unfolded through the 20th century.
George and Mary married in 1893 following the death of George’s older brother, Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, and Mary’s brief engagement to him in 1891. They set up house in York Cottage in Norfolk on the Sandringham estate, which housed the larger residence inhabited by George’s parents. At the time of their marriage, George’s grandmother, Queen Victoria, had been on the throne for over 55 years, while George’s father, the Prince of Wales, had been waiting in the wings since his own birth in 1841. Albert Victor dead, George’s remaining siblings were his three sisters – Louise, Maud and Victoria – of whom only the eldest was married and still residing in England as Duchess of Fife.
Within two months of the wedding, Mary was pregnant. She delivered a son, Edward, on June 23, 1894, who was always known in the family by one of his middle names, David. Less than a year later she was pregnant again, and on December 14, 1895, she delivered a second son. Unfortunately for the young Duke and Duchess of York, that particular date was a pain point for the old Queen, whose husband, Prince Albert, had expired on it back in 1861. Her grief as a widow had yet to dull and it was with some trepidation that her family brought her news of the new great-grandchild, helpfully pointing out that his parents meant to name him Albert and it was God’s way of softening the blow of the anniversary. Her response is lost to us, but the child was duly christened Albert three months later.
He was followed on April 25, 1897 by a sister, Mary, and another brother, Henry, on March 31, 1900, and a third, George, on December 20, 1902. By that time, Queen Victoria had passed away and the Prince of Wales had finally ascended the throne as King Edward VII. As such, George and Mary took their place as the new Prince and Princess of Wales, but in the in the short-term very little about their lives changed. York Cottage was a small house and even as George and Mary’s household grew, their actual home remained the same – the family, staff and servants squashed in cramped quarters that suited George’s tastes.
As for the children, they were confined to two rooms – the “Day Nursery” and the “Night Nursery.” Within these rooms they played, took their earliest lessons, bathed and slept. They saw their parents roughly twice a day, at tea and before bed, when they would be escorted by their nanny for a brief visit. And even then, that was only during the months when their parents were in residence. Indeed, while George and Mary had many fine attributes, parenting was not one of them. Mary, in particular, had an odd view of what motherhood meant. Like Queen Victoria, she found pregnancy and childbirth embarrassing, and further still, she disliked babies and children, apparently having no idea how to engage or relate to them. She wrote at one point about one of her sons:
“Baby was delicious at tea this evening, he is in a charming frame of mind […] I really believe he begins to like me at last, he is most civil to me.”
She was at least well-meaning, and from time to time she visited the nursery to give their children their bath and occasionally help put them to bed. In the early days, George was an even more remote figure, whose clumsy attempts at fatherhood wouldn’t factor in until later on, and it wasn’t until his children were much older that he was able to establish firm relationships with any of them (to varying degrees of success). David later wrote:
“My father was a very repressive influence. When he used to go banging away for week or two at some shoot in the Midlands, and my mother never would go to those things; we used to have the most lovely time with her alone – always laughing and joking down at Frogmore or wherever we might e – she was a different human being away from him.”
There is some truth to this insight into George and Mary’s relationship – Mary had the capacity to be lively and outgoing, but she was shy in public and took a submissive role around her husband. Her confidence was badly shaken by her treatment at the hands of her mother-in-law, Queen Alexandra, as well as two of her sisters-in-law, Louise, Duchess of Fife and Princess Victoria. She learned to prefer the quietness of home, and as her children grew she began to take slightly more interest in them. In the evenings, after George retired to his study, she would play the piano for them, or invite them to her dressing room, where she would read aloud, usually about royal history.
But to put in perspective her distance, for three years the head nanny of the children’s nursery was secretly abusive towards David and Albert. This woman strongly favored David over his younger brother, making it clear that it was the elder who was more important, but at the same time she took to pinching David just before the boys were presented to their parents after bathtime, resulting in David crying and being dismissed by his annoyed parents. As for Albert, she took to giving him his bottle while riding in a bumpy car, which apparently led to digestive issues that plagued him well into adulthood. When Mary learned what was going, the woman was dismissed, but again, it took three years in a small house.
At odds with the atmosphere in which George was raised by his own parents, he insisted on an almost Naval-like air of obedience and order. When one of his sons appeared before him with his hands in his pockets, he ordered all of the children’s pockets be sewn shut. Nor was he against spanking – indeed, all four of his sons would be thrown over his knee for various transgressions and hit. As David later wrote:
“No words that I was ever to hear could be so disconcerting to the spirit as the summons, usually delivered by the footman, that ‘His Royal Highness wishes to see you in the Library’ […] Just as my mother’s room came to represent a kind of sanctuary at the end of the day, so the Library became for us the seat of parental authority, the place of admonition and reproof.”
The children were doted on by their grandparents, but they weren’t a regular presence in their lives. It was cause for celebration when the King and Queen settled at Sandringham in November of each year for the winter and the children were able to scramble over to the “Big House” after their lessons each day. Edward VII, or Bertie, loved undermining his son by keeping his grandsons late, while Queen Alexandra, or Alix, was one of the few adults who favored Albert over his elder brother.
Unfortunately for Albert, the year 1902 not only saw their grand parents crowned, but the transition of the older three children to a stricter educational regimen. It was a year which saw the rise of his stammer, a condition only exacerbated by his father’s irritation of it. Conversation with his parents – and indeed, any audience with adults – could become a minefield and as has been famously memorialized by “The King’s Speech,” public speaking would always be a struggle for Albert. Particularly unhelpful was the tradition of having the children deliver a memorized poem in honor of their grandparents’ birthday in full view of their court each year.
On July 12, 1905, Mary gave birth to her fifth and last child, a son, christened John after a younger brother of George who had died in infancy. Mary recovered quickly after the birth, but the infant had respiratory issues and required some medical attention. Just a few months later, George and Mary left for an extended trip to India, leaving their children with their grandparents. The Queen took a special delight in Albert and John, while the men of the King’s court fawned over David, who was growing into a notably handsome child. Unlike at York Cottage, they were given full run of Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace, which can only have seen utterly cavernous in comparison.
In 1907, the domestic pattern finally broke up. David, at 13, was sent to Osborne Naval College for the next leg of his education and royal training. Prior to that, he had spent the majority of his time with Albert and Mary, as well as his mother, and the transition into the naval school was not an easy one. He would be followed there in 1909 by Albert, but by then he was moved on to Dartmouth and then the Royal Navy.
1909 not only saw Albert leave home, but it marked the rise in increasing health problems for John. Up until then, he had generally gotten by simply by being the baby of the family and delays in his development frankly slipped through the cracks. However, as he approached his fourth birthday he began suffering from epileptic seizures and there was concern over whether he would reach adulthood. He was given round-the-clock supervision of a nanny, but of anyone in the family it was his grandmother, Alix, who doted on him, and his brother, George, who played with him most throughout the day.
Though John moved from residence to residence with his family in the early years, such as Balmoral, he saw increasingly little of his parents as he got older and there is some speculation that in addition to epilepsy he also suffered from intellectual disabilities.
When Bertie passed away on May 6, 1910, the throne finally passed to George. He and Mary were crowned in London in June 1911 and then left England for their separate coronation in India, an event that David asked to attend but was denied. He had, however, been formally invested as Prince of Wales that summer at Caernarfon Castle, while Albert, struggling with the workload in order to pass from Osborne to Dartmouth, became second-in-line.
In 1916, with John’s seizures becoming more frequent and with more attention focused on the Royal Family, George and Mary made the difficult decision to remove their youngest son to a separate establishment. He was transferred to Wood Farm, two miles to the west on the Sandringham estate, with his grandmother and brother, George, serving as his most frequent visitors. By all accounts, his parents and other siblings visited infrequently, finding it too difficult. Indeed, it’s hard to gauge George’s and Mary’s reactions to their son’s health. Neither wrote about him or seemingly spoke about him – in all, the subject was one to be avoided. Nor is it clear what impact his removal had on his siblings, save that the younger George was distraught by it.
He joined his family for Christmas in December 1918, but passed away at the age of 13 in his sleep after a severe seizure in January 1919. He is buried in St Mary Magdalene Church on the Sandringham estate.
By then, childhood for the York siblings was officially over (as well the faux surname “York,” for that matter). David and Albert served in varying capacities through World War I. Princess Mary worked alongside her mother on behalf of nurses and first responders throughout the War, and would go on to marry in early 1922. The same year that John died, Henry entered Sandhurst, opting for an army career instead of the Navy, while the younger George would follow his eldest brothers to Osborne and Dartmouth.
The strictness of their upbringing seemed to affect the boys worse than their sister, perhaps because she was spared the worst of their father’s temper. David spent his adulthood carrying on affairs with married women, while Albert struggled with his confidence and the limitations of his health. George at one point battled drug addiction and was rumored to carry on discreet homosexual relationships which his father occasionally had to cover up, and Henry had to regularly pay money to keep his affair with Beryl Markham quiet. With David and Albert, in particular, you see a strong desire to fulfill a maternal presence in their lives, albeit in different ways. Albert fell in love with and pursued Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon after World War I, eventually marrying her in 1923 and entering a life of steady, if dull, domesticity. David’s relationship with Wallis Simpson had strains of domination, if not emotional abuse laced through it, and eventually led him to turn his back on the Royal Family for a life in exiled limbo.
Perhaps most tragically of all, it was the relationship between David and his mother that wouldn’t last the events of the Abdication. Their dynamic in and of itself was perhaps the most complex of any of Mary’s with her children, and we’ll pick up on it in more detail in a couple weeks.