So Damned Selfish

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The future Queen Mary (right) with her mother, the Duchess of Teck, circa 1891

Queen Mary, otherwise known as Mary of Teck (1867–1953), was the paternal grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II. It is surprising how many Britons of the present day are ignorant of this fact. She was born in England but typically for a British royal of her period was predominantly German by blood. George III, the Hanoverian king of Great Britain, was one of her great-grandfathers, so she was considered “royal,” but her father’s father, Alexander, Duke of Württemberg, had married beneath his station, as a consequence of which his children were forbidden to inherit his titles and royal status. Thus Mary, in her maidenhood, was considered too royal to marry into the British aristocracy and not royal enough to marry into any of the royal houses of Europe. To make matters worse, her father was clinically insane and her mother, by an insatiable appetite for luxury, had bankrupted the family and driven it into exile.

Mary was no beauty—“very German-looking. And frumpish” is how one of her associates described her—and had it not been for Queen Victoria’s determination to overlook the insanity, poverty, and morganatic disappointments of her line, she might have remained a spinster for the rest of her days. One of Victoria’s reasons for promoting the marriage was that her wholly unsatisfactory grandson, Prince Albert, Duke of Clarence, the second in line of succession to the British throne, was in desperate need of a bride. This amiable but indecisive and densely stupid princeling was rumored to have fathered an illegitimate child by a married woman, to have taken an active part in an orgy at a homosexual brothel in London, to have contracted gonorrhea, and (according to one fantastical theory) to have been the elusive psychopathic butcher of London prostitutes known as “Jack the Ripper.”

Previous attempts to marry this dud duke off to foreign princesses had failed, so Queen Victoria was heartily relieved when, in 1891, Mary of Teck, who was in love with someone completely different, found the prospect of becoming queen of England irresistibly attractive and accepted the duke’s repudiated hand without a moment’s hesitation. This plan, however, had to be abandoned when the duke died of pneumonia six weeks into his engagement. In his death throes he cried out for a previous lover to be brought to his bedside. A year later Mary was engaged to his brother, the Duke of York, who in 1910 was crowned King George V and she his queen consort.

Queen Mary died in March 1953, just ten weeks before the coronation of her granddaughter. She had lived to the grand age of eighty-five and had witnessed the abdication of her oldest son, Edward VIII, on account of his unyielding resolve to marry a not unsleazy American divorcée. News had been…

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