No 20th century regicide had a greater impact on world history than the execution of Tsar Nicholas ll, Empress Alexandra and their children at the hands of Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1918. In Europe especially, the panicked reaction among its remaining royal families, most of whom were related to both Nicholas and Alexandra, was swift and ultimately devastating. For while publicly embracing more liberal, socialist leaning forms of government, privately most of them aided and abetted the rise of fascism, including the Nazis, as a last line of defense against the onslaught of further worker led revolutions. This directly led to the outbreak of World War ll and the far more devastating loss of life it wrought than the previous war. The unsealing of Cabinet papers kept during the tenure of David Lloyd George, the British prime minister during the First World War, in 1986 revealed it was King George V, rather than the head of his government, who decided not to give the Tsar and his family refuge in Britain when Alexander Kerensky and his Menshevik government, who overthrew Nicholas ll in the initial stage of the Russian revolution, asked the British to accept the Romanovs as exiles. This disclosure made it clear that the King, advised by his private secretary, Lord Stanfordham, was convinced that harboring Europe’s most notorious autocrat at a time when the UK was erupting in worker led anti-war strikes would only further endanger the already fragile stability of the British Monarchy. What these papers don’t clarify, however, is the long held rumor among Europe’s royal and aristocratic elite that the real decision to leave the Russian Imperial Family to their fate wasn’t made by Stamfordham, but by George V’s far more trusted advisor, his consort, Queen Mary.
Gore Vidal recalls Princess Margaret’s thoughts concerning her august grandmother in his memoir, Palimpsest. They became friends in the ’50’s and kept in touch intermittently for the rest of her life. Aside from inviting him for a swim in the pool at her early childhood country estate, Royal Lodge, which he describes as “grubby,” Her Royal Highness revealed to Vidal that she despised Queen Mary because the dowager was rude to all of her grandchildren except Margaret’s older sister, Princess Elizabeth, and that was only because one day she’d be Queen. In the princess’ opinion, Queen Mary suffered from a terminal inferiority complex, and pathological jealousy of most of her grandchildren, because she wasn’t born a Royal Highness and they were. There’s more than a little substance to this observation.
Queen Mary, after all, was born a Serene, rather than Royal Highness owing to her father being the son of an unequal, or morganatic, marriage between a prince of Wurtemburg and a Hungarian countess. In 19th century royal Europe the descendants of such a mésalliance were treated as second class citizens destined for lives of obscurity and marriages to either the most low ranking of royals, or someone who wasn’t royal at all. Her parents’ marriage told its own story. For Prince Francis, Duke of Teck, her virtually penniless father, was forced to settle for her plain, morbidly obese mother, Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge, who was the daughter of the youngest surviving son of King George lll, and had virtually no dowry. Her lowly status coupled with her parents’ near constant financial straights, which caused the family’s possessions to be sold off at public auction at least once, traumatized their only daughter, Princess Victoria Mary, who later shortened her name to simply Mary, and was known within her family as May. Despite Queen Victoria deciding that Mary’s morganatic taint was no impediment to her first becoming the fiancé of the Queen’s heir presumptive and grandson, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, and then when he suddenly died being passed along to his little brother, Prince George, Princess Mary’s more prominently born in-laws and relatives never tired of chiding her because of her origins, at least until she became Queen consort.
Sarah Bradford writes in Elizabeth R that her sisters-in-law never missed an opportunity to make fun of her “ugly, Wurtemburg hands.” According to Lady Colin Campbell’s recent biography of the Queen Mother, the meanest girl of all toward Princess Mary among her extended family while she was growing up was Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt, later Empress Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia. Mary and her itinerant family often spent holidays in Hesse-Darmstadt, where putting her in her lowly place was among Princess Alix’s favorite pastimes. The last Russian Empress’ innate and lifelong snobbery, at least among other royals, is corroborated by Robert K. Massie in his monumental biography, Nicholas and Alexandra. One of the reasons why the Empress so despised her cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm ll, and recoiled every time he kissed her children, was because she deemed him a parvenu emperor. Germany, after all, had only become an empire in 1870. Ironically, had she not been so determined to wed for love, Alix would’ve taken Mary’s place in the annals of British history. She was her grandmother, Queen Victoria’s, initial choice as spouse for Prince Albert Victor.
Lady Campbell plainly states that it was Queen Mary who most strongly persuaded her husband, King George V, not to give asylum to the Romanovs, despite his fondness for his virtual lookalike first cousin, Nicholas ll. While arguing to her husband’s face that their presence would undoubtedly foster revolutionary fervor in Britain, Campbell writes that for years to come her family was convinced that her sole reason for denying the Russian Imperial Family sanctuary was simply to exact revenge on Empress Alexandra for having slighted her for all those years. Lady Colin clarifies, however, that there was no way at that time anyone could’ve predicted the tragic fate that befell the former Tsar and his family. They were still, after all, being kept at their palace at Tsarkoe Selo as prisoners of Kerensky’s Provisional Government, and it wasn’t until he and his regime were overthrown by the Bolsheviks that the tragic bloody fate of the Romanovs was sealed. While one could dismiss this as groundless hearsay, Gore Vidal adds an interesting addendum to this tale in his memoir.
For not only was he friends with Princess Margaret, but was also a friendly acquaintance of her uncle, the Duke of Windsor, formerly King Edward Vlll. They were both mutual friends of Countess Mona Von Bismarck, and it was on her estate at Capri one night in the ’50’s when the first born son of George V and Queen Mary revealed to Vidal his own eyewitness account of the morning his parents inadvertently sealed their imperial relatives’ doom.
While eating breakfast at Buckingham Palace in 1917 with his parents and apparently none of his siblings, an aide-de-camp to the King suddenly entered the room carrying a folded note. Despite this being a complete breach of protocol, and George V being furious, the aide immediately handed him the note and awaited his reply. George proceeded to read it, then handed it to his wife, clearly awaiting her response. She read it, turned to her husband and said, “No.” He then handed the note to the aide and declared, “No.” The gentleman left and breakfast proceeded without further interruption. Later that day Prince Edward inquired of his mother what the meaning of that morning’s scene was. She proceeded to tell him that his father’s government was ready to send a battle ship to rescue the former Tsar and his family, but she didn’t think it would be good for them to have their Russian relatives in Britain. The Duke ended the story by blasély mentioning his parents’ decision left no choice for the Bolsheviks but to shoot them all. Vidal then theorizes that Princess Margaret wouldn’t have been shocked by her grandmother’s decision given her resentment of more higher born royals than herself, like Nicholas, Alexandra and their brood.
While the Duke of Windsor may’ve witnessed the exact moment his parents opted to ditch the Romanovs, the declassified government documents from that period make it very clear that George V’s decision to leave his Russian cousins to their fate wasn’t made in a few minutes over breakfast, was also heavily influenced by Lord Stamfordham, and was based on far more than the personal vendetta of his wife. While Queen Mary may’ve had her own personal axe to grind with Empress Alexandra, she was far too intelligent and sensible to persuade her husband’s decision, if in fact she did so, based solely upon her personal feelings. A war that was supposed to have lasted no more than six months had dragged on for three devastating years, killing more young men than any other foreign war in British, with all the sovereign variations therein, history. The economy was in a shambles, worker led, anti-war strikes were occurring daily with ever growing numbers of participants, and a socialist friendly prime minister, that congratulated the Mensheviks when they overthrew Nicholas ll, had just taken power. The threat of a potential revolution erupting in the UK was all too real, and the harboring of the Russian Imperial Family might’ve proven the final spark to make the British Monarchy explode. As Vidal concludes about the Windsors in his memoir, they’re tough as nails when it comes to their own survival. Queen Mary’s teats may’ve been so cold that it was prudent of her not to suckle her children, lest they freeze to death, but her role in deciding the fate of her imperial relatives was ultimately based on justifiable self preservation rather than solely upon malice.