The Mother-Son Relationship From Hell: Queen Mary & Edward VIII


The relationship between Edward VIII and his mother, Mary of Teck, is perfectly illustrative of not only the significance of a generational gap, but of how differing views on duty and happiness can be enough to drive a wedge between parent and child. In the case of Edward VIII, or “David” as he was known to his family, and Mary, their relationship was complicated by how each viewed the function of the monarchy itself. Theirs is hardly the first unhappy parent-child relationship in the Royal Family’s history, but it is one that feels more poignant thanks to how recently it unfolded, how much more we know about it and the fact that it was not devoid of natural affection.

Even so, perhaps there is something to be found from its start, which saw Mary as a new wife and mother at David’s birth in June 1894. Twenty-seven, not fully embraced by her husband’s family and shy, the Duchess of York was uncomfortable with children, including her own. Once described as viewing her offspring as though they belonged to someone else, she was a remote and distant figure to her children and quite literally had no idea what to do with them. She saw her eldest son twice a day during his infancy, audiences that were marred by him crying as soon as he was handed to her. It didn’t improve as he grew older thanks to an abusive nanny that would pinch him before he went to see his parents, a dynamic it took Mary nearly three years to catch on to.

Within this is the question of what impact the abuse had on David, and whether it really ended with pinches and slaps. David’s disinterest later on in marrying a “suitable” woman, his penchant for affairs with married women, his near-obsession with Wallis, not to mention his submissiveness to her, have all led to speculation that he may have been sexually abused in these years and, if not that, then they curdled his ability to establish a healthy relationship with a woman. Perhaps, though I think it’s worth considering that a home life in which it would take a mother multiple years to see that her toddler was being abused may speak to any number of opportunities for David to find relationships challenging.

When Queen Victoria died in January 1901 and was succeeded by her son, Edward VII, George and Mary set off on a world tour aboard the RMS Ophir. When they returned that November, after nearly a year, they were greeted by their four children – seven-year-old David, six-year-old Bertie, four-year-old Mary and Henry, who was less than a year and had no recollection of his parents. Henry cried when his mother went to pick him up and Princess Mary clung to the skirts of her grandmother, Queen Alexandra. Mary’s response to this was irrational, if sympathetic – instead of empathizing with her children, she was hurt by what she saw as their rejection. But it was David who helped the scene by stepping forward to greet their parents and ushering Bertie to do the same.

As for Bertie, terrified in their parents’ presence, he developed a stutter shortly after the reunion that would plague him well into adulthood.

Fun fact, but according to David the reunion on the Ophir was the only time that his father ever embraced him. Meanwhile, both David and Henry later stated that they had no memory of ever being alone with their mother, in either childhood or adolescence.

In many ways – and perhaps in any other circumstances – Mary and David could have forged a close relationship. Like Mary, David was interested in the arts and humanities. He often preferred the company of women and he found the transition from the feminine influence of the nursery into the harsher masculine environment under his tutor and then the Navy painful.

Communication between parents and children was always regimented. When George and Mary were traveling in India from November 1905 to March 1906, the four elder children were expected to write to their parents individually on alternate weeks. When this obviously failed to work, George wrote an annoyed letter to Bertie from Delhi:

“David ought to have written last week and you ought to have written to me this week. I don’t know how the confusion has come.”

A few years later, shortly after Edward VII died and George and Mary became the new king and queen, Mary wrote David:

“I believe the right way for you to address me is the Queen and to Grannie Queen Alexandra, as she is now the Queen Mother and I am the wife of the King.”

By now David had left home. In 1907, at the age of 13, he started Royal Naval College at Osborne, and then at Dartmouth in 1909 for another two years. He began in the Royal Navy, per his father’s wishes, in 1911. The distance and David’s age brought about a slightly different dynamic with his mother. It would be incorrect to say they became closer, but certainly Mary’s tone towards him changed – now an adolescent, he was less of a foreign entity to her and her attitude became easier. She wrote to him in February 1911 as queen:

“Well, at last me voila, writing to you from my new rooms which we took possession of last Wednesday.”

The tone, which can only be described as breezy, was kept firmly in place as the years wore on, even as it didn’t match the reality of either’s life. By the end of World War I – and even before that – rumors of David’s behavior were so entrenched that they reached even the Queen. Popular, good looking and perfectly amiable, David thought nothing of performing his public duties and then carrying on a personal life that was altogether less respectable. He preferred married women and, perhaps worse, he loved Americans. In 1918 he took up with Freda Dudley Ward who checked both boxes. In keeping with her unnaturally detached attitude to her children, Mary was displeased by the reports, but more so because she considered the relationship beneath her son’s position and she didn’t want it to upset George.

Indeed, so disassociated from David was Mary that she never once spoke to him of his personal relationships until forced decades later. Nor did she ever attempt to play matchmaker as Queen Victoria and Queen Alexandra had with their own children before her. David showed little interest in marriage or finding an appropriate woman, and his parents did nothing to facilitate it. The only allusion to it came from George, not Mary, who wrote to him in 1919:

“The war has made it possible for you to mix with all manner of people … But don’t think this means you can now act like other people. You must always remember your position and who you are.”

But of the dynamic his position put him in, David later wrote:

“The idea that my birth and title should somehow or other set me apart from or above other people struck me as wrong. If the leveling process of the Royal Naval College, Oxford University, or the democracy of the battlefield had taught me anything, it was, firstly, that my desires and interests were much the same as those of other people, and secondly, that however hard I tried, my capacity was somehow not appreciably above the standards demanded by the fiercely competitive world outside the palace walls.”

In this, David and his parents were diametrically opposed, though George and Mary can perhaps be forgiven on this point. In comparison to George’s parents and other couples in their position, they were both fairly egalitarian and frugal. They lived relatively plainly and if it’s too much of a stretch to say they put family first given their relationship with their children, they certainly put their marriage before much else. Still, they took for granted an understanding of the line between public and private when it came to preserving the dignity of the monarchy. They understood, too, that Britain’s was a constitutional monarchy and maintaining not just popularity, which was fleeting, but the good opinion of the public, which was sustaining, was crucial to success.

David didn’t understand this. He was without airs in some regards, personable and approachable, but he fundamentally misjudged the function of the monarchy and his role within it. Some of this may well have come from his abiding fear of being king, but it’s worth mentioning that alongside his articulated belief that he was in no way special was a streak of stubborn arrogance that he could do whatever he wanted – or, put another way, that he was untouchable and beholden to nothing.

The question is worth considering then, to what extent did David always see Bertie as his heir, if not their father’s?

By the early 1930s, not only did David show no interest in settling down even as he approached 40, but his parents began to view Bertie and his family as a safeguard against disaster. Bertie had married in 1923 to Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, a love match that had grounded the young duke and brought him personal happiness. In 1926 they welcomed a daughter, Elizabeth, and in 1930, they welcomed another, Margaret.

As for David, he continued to love the married Freda, who was faithful to neither her husband nor her royal lover. Indeed, a consistent streak in all of the women that David seriously pursued was that they were older, married and less interested in him than he was in them. At times, they were downright unkind. In other words, they were Mary of Teck. The only act of rebellion was that they were usually American, which David very well knew was anathema to his parents and their court, so call it rebellion if you wish.

Against this backdrop, David’s relationship with his mother continued to evolve, but not in a way that made the Prince comfortable. As George aged and his health problems grew, David became a figure of more importance to Mary. After all, once George died, they all became dependent on him to a certain extent. This wasn’t as reptilian as it appears at first glance, so much as Mary’s unwavering respect for the monarchy and the hierarchy it dictated. In some ways – in most ways, perhaps – this attitude had nothing to do with David as her son, so much as David as her king. But for the man in question, it was horrifying.

It was a complication to their relationship that Mary’s other children couldn’t see because they didn’t experience it. At the end of 1928 when George had the most serious health scare of his life and the family prepared for his death, all commented on Mary’s composure. Towards David, however, she was almost eerily removed. He, unlike his brothers and sister, understood that in those moments he was to her the future monarch and nothing more – and more importantly, that was how Mary coped. But George survived and the immediate crisis passed.

David turned 40 in 1934, and though his parents had seemingly given up on his marriage, he hadn’t. He didn’t actively look for a wife, but the split came from the fact that what he wanted was a marriage based on love, not duty. And the woman he loved was Freda, who never showed him the unwavering devotion that he showed her or, more importantly, that which he saw his mother give his father. He began an affair with Lady Thelma Furness in 1930 in the hopes of making Freda jealous and was put out when it failed to have its desired effect. Still, Thelma was an important figure in the Prince’s life for it was through her that he made the acquaintance of Wallis Warfield Simpson in 1931.

When Wallis began a romantic relationship with David in 1934, the matter was certainly discussed within the Palace. But the sentiment at first was that this, like his affair with Thelma, was fleeting. They reasoned that he would eventually tire of her and return to Freda like he had countless times before. And Freda, for all that she was inappropriate, showed no ambition to marry David and understood that her role was that of a comforting mistress. In that at least, the Royal Family and its staff could relax.

But Wallis was a different animal and once she had hold of David’s affection she was uninterested in sharing with other women. With little warning, much less direct communication, when Freda dialed up the Prince one day in June 1934 the operator told not without sympathy that she had been given orders not to put her call through. After 16 years, that was that.

The question the rest of us are left with is, had Mary intervened before the relationship with Wallis had reached that point, could she have circumvented it? Certainly most of David’s actions scream of a man in need of a mother – or at the very least a man who craved direction from a woman. Mary never stepped up to the plate; Wallis did.

And then, not much later, the worst happened: George died on January 20, 1936 at Sandringham House. David spent the last hours of his father’s life running about the house frantically, ordering that all of the clocks be set to the correct time. As Mary’s biographer Anne Edwards aptly put it:

“An explanation for the Prince of Wales’s behavior can be found in his lifelong fear of becoming King. The clocks at Sandringham, set a half-hour forward, were accelerating the eventuality. He was emotionally spent and so nervous that he burned his finger on a cigarette he was smoking … His uncontrollable impulse, therefore, was to keep the clocks from ticking away too fast, to forestall the time of his father’s death.”

The moment of reckoning between mother and son came but a few minutes after George’s passing. As soon as the doctor nodded that her husband was dead, Mary, instead of acknowledging any grief or feeling towards his loss, turned immediately towards David and said, “God save the King.” She then stepped backwards and curtsied. David wrote later:

“I could not bring myself to believe that the members of my own family or indeed anyone else, should be expected to humble themselves before me in this way.”

Thus began David’s nearly 11 months on the throne.

As 1936 wore on, Mary was kept abreast of David’s relationship with Wallis, which most had assumed would end once he ascended the throne. It did not, of course, though its details were mainly kept from the British public despite their publication in North American newspapers. In July and August, she saw photographs of the couple aboard a cruise in the Mediterranean, which included public engagements in Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey and Yugoslavia.

When he returned to London in September he met Mary for dinner at Buckingham Palace, but was once more met with only superficial questions about the weather and the sights. Throughout, the most pressing matter she wanted to discuss was confirmation he intended to spend two weeks at Balmoral later that month.

Two weeks later, they reunited once more for Mary to oversee David’s official move into BP. Afterwards, David drove with his mother back to Marlborough House for tea. When the conversation neared the topic of how divorced persons were received at court, they were interrupted by David’s sister, Mary, and another guest, and talk swiftly turned elsewhere. What the King didn’t know was that in the background Mary’s friends and advisers were begging her to intervene before the scandal hit the British press.

On October 27, Wallis began divorce proceedings and on November 16, David told Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin that he intended to marry Wallis and, if he wasn’t allowed, then he would abdicate. That evening he joined his mother, sister and sister-in-law, Alice, the Duchess of Gloucester, for a casual (white tie) family dinner at Marlborough House. David was displeased to see his sister-in-law, but was told that she would leave after the meal. By all accounts, she was invited to ensure that conversation didn’t grow disagreeable at the table. As David wrote:

“I was preoccupied with what I was going to say afterward. No matter how gracefully I proceeded, the evening was bound to be difficult for all of us. I tried to ease the tension by keeping the conversation on a light plane. I congratulated my mother upon the record contribution of garments to her favorite charity, the London Needlework Guild. She was glad to hear that I had arranged to have the outside of Buckingham Palace painted before the coronation next year.

“‘It’s high time,’ she said. I asked Mary whether she and her husband had brought any yearlings at the Newmarket sales. But I felt especially sorry for poor Alice. Shy and retiring by nature, she had all unwitting sat down at my mother’s table only to find herself caught up in the opening scene of one of the most poignant episodes in the annals of the British Royal Family.

“Never loquacious, this evening she uttered not a word. And, when at last we got up to leave the table, she eagerly seized upon the interruption to protest that she was extremely tired and to ask that she be excused. After making her curtsy she almost fled from the room. My mother, Mary and I retired to the boudoir. We were alone.

“Settling down in a chair, I told them of my love for Wallis and my determination to marry her and of the opposition of the Prime Minister and the Government to the marriage. The telling was all the harder because until that evening the subject had not been discussed between us.”

In fact, a few days before Mary met with members of the Cabinet asking them to block Wallis’s divorce and void the entire situation. Anything, apparently, rather than address it directly with her son. In the conversation itself, the she said little. David wrote:

“My mother had been schooled to put duty in the stoic Victorian sense before everything in life. From her invincible virtue and correctness she looked out as from a fortress upon the rest of humanity with all its tremulous uncertainties and distractions.”

When David was done speaking, he asked that he be allowed to bring Wallis to meet her. His mother responded, “That is quite out of the question.”

With that, the audience was over. David rose to leave and Mary dutifully walked him to the door. Her parting words to him were, “I hope, sir, that you will make a wise decision for your future. I fear your visit to South Wales [an upcoming tour] will be trying in more ways than one.”

When the Prime Minister met with Mary later on, her response was to throw her hands up and declare, “Well, Mr. Baldwin! This is a pretty kettle of fish!” She did, however, agree to try and intervene directly.

On November 24, David was summoned for tea. Mary begged him to consider his brother, Bertie, who had not been trained to be king and whose health wasn’t robust. She claimed the burden would kill him. The argument that George had once been the second son and proved himself up to the challenge was disregarded. But Mary’s angle of entry was poorly thought out and spoke to her lack of understanding for her son. That she wished him to ease Bertie’s life only made David all the more bitter that she thought nothing of leaving the weight of the crown on him. That she thought nothing of preserving Bertie’s happiness at the expense of his own.

When the story eventually hit the British press in December, David once again went to Marlborough House at Mary’s direction, there meeting Bertie and his wife, Elizabeth. The conversation came to nothing, both parties at an impasse.

The Abdication Crisis, which reached its crescendo in the days ahead, seemingly brought Mary and her second son closer. His anxiety and grief over taking on the role of sovereign and losing his brother forced him to turn to Mary, which in turn forced her to offer what emotional solace she was capable. At one point, he completely broke down in front of her once he realized they had reached the point of no return. On December 10, David finally signed the Instrument of Abdication and then prepared to address the British people one last time. Mary, on hearing news of the radio speech, dashed off a letter discouraging him (he did it anyway) – in its contents she addressed him as HRH Prince Edward of Windsor. He was no longer her king and as he was well-aware, being her son didn’t get him very far.

That evening the family at the Royal Lodge to say goodbye. No one at that point, especially David, knew how final his departing would be. Mary wrote of it later, “The whole thing was too pathetic for words.”

Her attitude towards the entire affair was captured when one lady-in-waiting expressed sympathy for David three days later. Mary responded, “The person who needs most sympathy is my second son. He is the one who is making the sacrifice.”

Less than six months later, Mary turned 70, but she was in a foul mood on the day of, having just learned that David meant to finally marry Wallis. Indeed, against her will, she was a presence that day, for David used a prayer book Mary gave him as a child for the service. In it the inscription read, “To my darling David from his loving Mother.”

Mary always remained appropriate, at least on the surface. She telegraphed her best wishes to her son on his wedding day. David was so touched and pleased to receive it that he showed it to nearly every guest who attended the reception. None of them, however, would be a member of his immediate family.

The telegram was no thawing of her opinion. In fact, as she watched David’s actions play out in the press, without the context of directly communicating with him, her feelings hardened. That he chose his father’s birthday as his wedding day was unforgivable to her. One of her ladies-in-waiting later said that her abiding fury at her son was the only thing that helped her swallow the humiliation.

She was further horrified when David and Wallis visited Germany in 1937 and met with Adolf Hitler, all the while she was receiving letters from him asking her to meet his new wife. Finally, she responded in the summer of 1938 with:

“I do not think you have realised the shock, which the attitude you took up caused your family & the whole nation. It seemed inconceivable to those who had made much greater sacrifices during the war that you, as their King, refused a lesser sacrifice … My feelings for you as your Mother remain the same, and our being parted and the cause of it, grieve me beyond words. After all, all my life I have put my country before everything else and I simply cannot change now.”

David and Wallis briefly resided in Nassau during World War II at the direction of the British government. Without her husband’s knowledge, Wallis wrote a letter to Mary, which read:

“Madam, I hope you will forgive my intrusion upon your time as well as my boldness in addressing Your Majesty. My motive for the letter is a simple one. It has always been a source of sorrow and regret to me that I have been the cause of any separation that exists between Mother and Son and I can’t help feeling that there must be moments perhaps, however fleeting they may be, when you wonder how David is…”

By then, Mary had briefly seen David at the start of the War when he made a short trip home. It was fleeting and likely offered her son none of the closure or reconciliation he wanted. Indeed, she had to be pressed by close friends to take the meeting at all, which David begged for. Throughout it all, David wrote to his mother devotedly and though Mary replied, she did so without warmth or any insight into her life or that of his family.

David continued to long for a private conversation with his mother, believing that if only he could see her it would change not only the dynamic between them, but between him and the rest of the family. Finally, after months of correspondence between Mary and Bertie, David was allowed to spend a week at Marlborough House in the autumn of 1946. He was picked up by only a single car and a chauffeur, a cold gesture that reportedly wounded him deeply. The coolness with which he was greeted by his family was at odds with the crowds though, who cheered and shouted, “You must come back, Teddy!” The dynamic did nothing to warm up the rest of the Windsors.

Mary was a dedicated diarist, as were her ladies-in-waiting. Yet whatever happened in that meeting never made it to paper. Its absence tells enough of a story – it didn’t go well. Though the two took tea and he accompanied his mother to a bomb site in East London, there is no record of them ever taking a full meal. A few days later he met privately with Bertie. It, too, was unsuccessful. He departed two days ahead of schedule, returning to Paris where he lived with Wallis heartbroken and rejected.

David returned for only two more family occasions. He attended Bertie’s funeral in February 1952 and then that of Mary the following year. Mary passed away at the age of 85 in Marlborough House on March 24, 1953, less than three months before her granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II, was to be crowned. David arrived in London five days later, just in time for the Lying-in-State in a candlelit Westminster Hall. He was reported to look anxious and deeply unhappy.

Two days later, her funeral was held at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Following the service, 28 members of the Royal Family met for a private dinner. David was not invited to join.

13 thoughts on “The Mother-Son Relationship From Hell: Queen Mary & Edward VIII

  1. Dana Publicover

    Is there any way of reading the rest of the letter that the Duchess of Windsor wrote to Queen Mary? I have searched the inter-net for another reference to it but have not found anything other than what is referenced in your article.

    1. Hi Dana – The excerpt from the letter is mentioned in Anne Edwards’ biography of Queen Mary. I’m not aware of a way to read it in its entirety online, but it’s possible other biographies of the Duchess of Windsor, Queen Mary, or Edward VIII include more passages from it.

  2. diane l Joss

    Mary was a product of the royal Victorian line – conservative and royal from birth to her last breath. Doing things above any personal feeling – the “right” way was the only thing acceptable. Even today the royal family has loosened up a bit, but not much. Poor Margaret was forced to leave the love of her life because her sister Elizabeth would not allow her to marry her captain.
    Between Prince Andrew’s wife and Prince Harry’s choice, it appears that the future will be different. Wonderful that Prince William married his true love and beautiful wife Catherine.

    1. Yes, absolutely, though I’m not sure Sarah, Duchess of York was particularly helpful. I also think that the marriages of both the future George VI and the Queen Mother, and the current Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were emblematic of the Royal Family loosening up a bit and modernizing in their own way.

    2. Geek

      Margaret being forced to Leave the love of her life” is a bit too romantic. What happened is they threatened to cut her off from all the privileges and the money, and she simply loved the privileges and the money far more than she loved him. Townsend even said so in his books.
      Even though I am sad for them, I can’t help but wonder if he would have come to regret being in the Royal family. I don’t think being in the Royal family would have suited him at all. Maybe he would have turned into another Diana, where being in the Royal family would have nearly killed him.

      But I agree with you though that it’s best to choose love over political marriage. It’s far more successful. I think William and Kate will be far happier than Charles and Diana ever were.

  3. Lynda Hallock

    IMO The Royals, the Queen, has loosed up too much. Meghan is hardly an appropriate person to have in the Royal family. A has-been actress who played in raunchy sex scenes on public TV is hardly suitable for HRH! She has NO respect for protocol and will whisk Harry away to America to lead a very unroyal life. I fear it will end in divorce when she gets all she can suck out of him!

    1. Good Lord. If you dislike Meghan, fine, but don’t attempt to justify it with complete nonsense. At least not here. There’s nothing about Meghan’s profession as an actress on “public TV” (as opposed to private?) that disqualifies her from joining the Royal Family. And for what it’s worth, the broad and vague term “protocol” is too often thrown around by those who don’t understand how all of this works.

      Suffice to say, I think the Queen has a better understanding of what’s “appropriate” for the Royal Family.

  4. Anonymous

    Meghan is a perfect royal bride because she is a love match. Marrying to please others as Charles did, darn nearly turned us into a Republic. Women will no longer stand for sacrificial virgins. Meanwhile back on this post ….
    Poor David, poor Bertie, that nanny from hell did such damage.

  5. Pingback: Edward VIII: The King Against Time – Motus Populus

  6. Geek

    Lord above, Mary of Tech does not endear herself to me. Not in the Crown, and not especially in real life.
    They can romanticize it all they want by saying she was devoted to Victorian duty. It’s more correct to say that she was a detached, terrible mother.

    I myself am no fan of Edward VIII, He was too cozy with Hitler and he was far too dangerously sympathetic to the German government at the worst time. But it is hard not to feel sympathy for him when you read about how about how unnatural his relationship with his parents was. No wonder he turned out so strange.

    I suppose he was right with the quote ” I’m afraid her blood ran as icy cold when she was alive as it does now that she’s dead.”
    What a sad family.

  7. Rosemary

    Have you read the biography of Queen Mary by James Pope Hennessy? In it he quotes the most affectionate and warm letters sent by mother to son and describes the pride she has in him not only fir his good looks but also for his character, and her admiration and gratitude for his triumphant tour. Could your slant be just a tiny bit biased?

    1. I have, yes. I’ve also read The Quest for Queen Mary based on the development of that biography, which was very illuminating. Opinions are inherently subjective, but I’m afraid I fall into the camp of not thinking too highly of George V and Queen Mary’s parenting. You are welcome to disagree.

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