The Disgruntled Grand Duchess Who Decided Queen Mary’s Fate

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The sudden death in 1892, presumably from pneumonia, of Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale as well as being heir presumptive to the British throne, threw the biggest of all monkey wrenches into his cousin and recent fiancé, Princess Victoria Mary of Teck’s, prospects of becoming the future queen. Her parents, especially her tactless father, Prince Francis, Duke of Teck, were so dismayed by the possibility of their daughter’s glorious fate being snatched from her that as Prince Albert Victor lay dying at York Cottage, a small house on his father’s Sandringham estate, his prospective father-in-law, who’d recently suffered an almost fatal stroke, was overheard muttering, “it must be a tsarievitch! It must be a tsarievitch.” Jane Ridley writes in The Heir Apparent, A Life of Edward Vll, The Playboy Prince, that this declaration was in reference to the marriage of Russia’s Tsar Alexander lll and Empress Marie Feodorvna. Born Princess Dagmar of Denmark, she had been originally betrothed to Alexander lll’s older brother who, like Albert Victor, dropped dead during their engagement, and therefore Dagmar was subsequently handed down to Alexander as his future bride. The morganatic, impecunious duke was clearly hoping an equally advantageous exchange still awaited his presumed grieving daughter while her fiancé breathed his last.

For not only was Albert Victor’s place in the line of succession inherited upon his death by his naval officer little brother, Prince George, but his grandmother, Queen Victoria, who’d arranged Albert Victor’s betrothal in the first place, was hoping he’d agree to inherit his late brother’s fiancé as well. George, however, had other ideas. By that time he’d fallen in love with his attractive, vivacious, 17 year old first cousin, Princess Marie of Edinburgh. While they’d been acquainted since childhood, he became more intimately familiar with Marie during his intermittent visits to her family on the island of Malta between 1884 and 1887 when her father, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, had been stationed there as the head of the Royal Mediterranean Fleet. While Marie’s exact feelings toward her seemingly stolid cousin are difficult to ascertain, she was at least willing to consider the match and appears to have been genuinely fond of George. Furthermore, his parents and her father were in favor of the match. The future Edward Vll and Queen Alexandra even made direct overtures to Marie’s parents, according to author Miranda Carter, concerning the matter. Unfortunately for Georgie Boy, his mother’s nickname for him, there was one implacable opponent to the proposed marriage, and hers was the most decisive influence of all. She was the prospective bride’s mother, the Duchess of Edinburgh, née Grand Duchess Marie of Russia.

Born the only daughter of Tsar Alexander ll of Russia, and therefore the reputed richest daughter of any sovereign in Europe, Marie grew up spoiled and indulged in a manner her future mother-in-law could’ve only dreamed about during her own childhood. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Grand Duchess Marie’s engagement to Queen Victoria’s second son in 1873 is that it wasn’t at all arranged, and was in fact a Romeo and Juliet style love match between two lovers from warring families bitterly opposed to their union. The specific conflict recently fought between these two rival houses was the Crimean War, which had gone badly for Britain but worse for Russia, and had left the parents of both lovers desperately seeking other mates for their children during their sporadic two year courtship. Having met in Hesse-Darmstadt while visiting mutual family, Alfred and Marie had fallen instantly in love with each other and refused to marry anyone else. The parents finally relented, and they were finally married in two extravagant weddings, one Orthodox, the other Anglican, in St. Petersburg. Ironically, one of the bride’s mother’s objections to the match was that the English seemed cold and unfriendly to her, and she was certain how unhappy her only daughter would be in their country. How right she was!!!!

Shit initially hit the fan when the new bride and groom arrived in London to be welcomed and feted at a court ball by Queen Victoria. The new Duchess of Edinburgh discovered to her ever lasting consternation that her mother-in-law had bestowed upon her a court ranking beneath the Queen’s daughters and the Princess of Wales. Furthermore, her Royal Highness title now had to supersede the Imperial Highness title she was born with. For the sole daughter of a Russian tsar, who’d taken precedence over all other grand duchesses since birth, Marie’s feeling of insult at the hands of Queen Victoria was the equivalent of having been slapped in the face, then pissed on. Furthermore, Marie, like all the Romanovs, possessed a curious mix of earthiness and grandiosity that sometimes left her adopted court bewildered, if not outright disgusted. A good case in point occurred during the christening of her only son and first born child. Jane Ridley quotes a letter written by the Princess of Wales to her sister, the Tsarievna of Russia, describing what happened. While holding her newborn during the ceremony, Marie proceeded to whip her ample breast out of her gown and proceed to breastfeed him when began crying. When the boy, named Alfred, threw up on his mater, she handed him to her mother, the Empress, and then walked around, flashing her teat to all assembled, until she found a servant to clean her up. Queen Victoria, wrote the future Queen Alexandra, was particularly revolted by the display.

Marie retaliated against her prudish and condescending in-laws by always wearing her Russian jewels, far superior to those of her sisters-in-law, at every court ball. Throwing her money around became a compulsive habit for this newly married royal couple, and their country manor, Eastwell Park, soon gained the reputation for being among the most sumptuous grand houses in England. Still, nothing could relieve the boredom she felt at the gloomy Court of St.James. In time she’d grow to hate England and all things English. Not even the subsequent births of her four daughters changed her mind concerning the sceptered isle. Matters weren’t helped by her frequently absent, naval commander husband’s frequent infidelities, alcoholism and mounting gambling debts, all of which his wife was obliged to pay.

In 1884 Marie jumped at the chance to move to Malta where her husband was put in charge of his mother’s Mediterranean fleet. It’s while Marie and her family were ensconced at the San Antonio Palace on the island that Marie’s nephew-in-law, Prince George of Wales, began to notice her teenaged daughter, also named Marie, while serving in the navy. Miranda Carter writes in George, Nicholas And Wilhelm, Three Royal Cousins And The Road To World War l, that George even kissed Marie on one occasion. Given the highly contrasting nature of their characters, which became completely apparent as they got older, it’s hard to imagine what the attraction was between them. Prince George, later George V, has gone down in history as a particularly stolid, crude, philistine, narrow minded near autocrat utterly lacking in intellect and imagination. Princess Marie of Edinburgh, on the other hand, who later became Queen Marie of Romania, was a passionate, eccentric, artistic, at times ridiculously theatrical and, at least privately, sexually liberated woman whose numerous affairs once married have led many a historian to speculate her last two children were likely not fathered by her husband. How this real life drama queen would’ve ultimately fared had she agreed to be shackled in holy matrimony to a near imbecile like George one can only imagine. Then again, history is rife with examples of opposites attracting and turning out to be the happiest of couples. Certainly no late 19th century royal couple the author can think of comprised greater opposites than George and Marie!

It should be added, however, that when a very young man George was noted for his good humored joviality, and much of what we now know of his personality was undoubtedly influenced by the unpleasant turns his life took during his formative years. The first of these turns occurred in 1892 when his older brother died and George was suddenly heir presumptive. By that time he’d been actively courting his cousin, Marie, for years. Since 1889 she and her family had lived in Coburg where her father had been appointed by his childless, syphilitic uncle the heir to the Dukedom of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. The Duchess of Edinburgh, finding the ancestral schloss too small, had commissioned the construction of a new one. She was also now giving serious thought to the marriage prospects of her daughters. The one type of spouse she was determined for them not to wed was one of their British cousins, regardless of his prospects. For one thing, the grand duchess had remained steadfastly orthodox, and that particular form of Christianity forbids marriage between first cousins. Then there was her continuing resentment of the condescending and disrespectful manner with which she’d been treated, in her opinion, by her mother-in-law. When George’s parents finally approached the duchess with the proposal that her namesake daughter marry their surviving son, Marie wasted no time in telling them, in so many words, to kiss her ass.

Faced with this rejection, which his beloved would be fiancé was powerless to change, Prince George only then gave into his grandmother’s demands that he wed his dead brother’s fiancé, Princess Victoria Mary of Teck, nicknamed May. Still, his awkwardness around her was such that he waited several months before actually proposing. Needless to write, she accepted and the rest is history.

Princess Marie of Edinburgh would also soon agree to marry the crown prince of Romania. Their marriage, if one hasn’t already guessed, definitely has its place in the annals of f*****d up royal marriages, and shall be the subject of a future post. As for the grand duchess, her son committed suicide in 1899 and her husband died the next year. By then her once fabulous fortune had been completely dissipated and she was living off the largesse of her Russian family and British in-laws. She survived WW1 only to see her family lose their empire, and her progeny lose their duchy. She died almost penniless in Switzerland in 1920. If she ever regretted her decision not to allow her daughter to become Britain’s future queen, she was undoubtedly too proud to admit it.