I’m loving Channel 5’s royal season. However, they will go for these rather sensationalist programme titles! But, whilst I wouldn’t say that Queen Mary “saved” the Royals, she certainly played a very important role, especially at two very difficult times. And she’s such a fascinating person – I sometimes wonder what such an intelligent, cultured woman really thought about all the huntin’, shootin’ fishin’, goings-on at Sandringham! As the programme pointed out, she was also a very significant influence on our current Queen, making sure that she and Princess Margaret got a better and wider education that they might have done otherwise, and showing her the importance of duty.
Channel 5 tends to go for gossipy biographers rather than historians, I wasn’t impressed by all the references to “Mary” when she was always known as “May” – either say “Queen Mary” or “May”, but not just “Mary”! – and I dread to imagine where they found that American newsreel which got Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s name wrong, but this was generally a very enjoyable programme. OK, it didn’t say anything new, but it was good to see a very under-rated Queen getting the attention she deserves. It was also quite poignant to be reminded that her first fiancé, Prince Eddy, whose life and death tend to be overshadowed by all the gossip and speculation about him (the programme did resist the temptation to trot out the Jack The Ripper rumour!), died during the Russian/Asiatic flu pandemic of the early 1890s, which killed over a million people. But back to Queen Mary …
We heard a bit about her early life. It didn’t say much about her time in Florence, which was a shame, and I could have lived with fewer comments about her mother being embarrassing, but we did hear about her family’s financial problems and the dignified way in which she coped with them. Then on to her engagement to Prince Eddy, and her eventual marriage to his brother, Prince George, and how well their marriage turned out.
They were criticised for being bad parents, and it’s hard to argue with that. To some extent they were products of their class and times, but not all parents were like that: we’re always told what a happy childhood their future daughter-in-law Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon had. Having said which, I do think the programme was a bit hard on her in that respect. But most of it was about her public role rather than her personal life. It’s easy to underestimate what a precarious position the British Royals were in during and immediately after the First World War. Thrones were toppling everywhere. In fact, that started even earlier, if you look at Portugal. There was also the issue of the Royals’ German links.
But they came through it so well. The programme paid particular attention to Queen Mary’s work with women, and talked a lot about how hard she and King George worked to build ties with working-class communities. As it said, they were both very conservative people, and it can’t have been easy for them to do things in such a different way, going on walkabouts, visiting coal mines, and so on. It also made the point that she was quite a shy person, and so much going about in public and meeting different people must have been hard for her. The same with her second son, George VI, and maybe even to some extent with our present Queen. But they all did it, because of their sense of duty.
The one who didn’t share that, of course, was Queen Mary’s eldest son. You can argue the rights and wrongs of the Abdication until the cows come home, but, in the world of 1936, it was not possible for the King to be married to a divorced woman. It was another very dangerous time for the monarchy, and Queen Mary helped to pull it through. Some very good points were made about how previous Dowager Queens had faded into the background (although I think that was rather simplifying things) but she kept on going, and broke precedents in doing so.
And then it talked about her influence on her granddaughter, our present Queen. I think she’d be incredibly proud of her, and also of what a good job many other senior members of the Royal Family, especially William and Kate, are doing a this very difficult time. As it said, in times of trouble, the Royal Family provide unity and stability. Queen Mary was a part of that during the Great War, and behaved with such dignity during the Abdication Crisis which must have been so difficult for her personally. She was a naturally conservative person who adapted successfully to changing times, and I find her particularly interesting as someone who was so well-read and cultured at a time when education for girls was not prioritised and in some circles was even frowned on.
Thanks again to Channel 5 for this series of royal documentaries. They aren’t saying anything new, but they’re interesting, and they’re comfortable, and really we need that at the moment! And they’re nice. There’s way too much nastiness around at the moment, now that the “Spirit of the Blitz” of the early days of lockdown has faded. This was nice. Hooray for being nice!