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 relayed to her by telephone of the deaths of three of her sons: her second, “Bertie” (George VI), who died of lung cancer in February 1952; her fourth, George, Duke of Kent, who was killed in a plane crash in 1942; and her fifth, Prince John, who, aged thirteen, succumbed to a fatal epileptic seizure at his nanny’s cottage in Norfolk in 1919.
If the haste with which Queen Elizabeth commissioned a biography of her grandmother was unusual, so too was her choice of author, to whom she gave free run of the royal archive and access to her royal relations. Her advisers may have informed her that James Pope-Hennessy was working on a respectable biography of the liberal politician and peer Lord Crewe, but did they tell her, as his friend the author James Lees-Milne later wrote, that “the devil got a firm grip on him in his twenties and early thirties”? Did they inform her that he was a bankrupt spendthrift who took large sums of money from gullible rich women and never repaid them? Did they mention that he was a rickety Catholic, an alcoholic, and a compulsively indiscreet gossip? Pope-Hennessy was never shy to admit that he found “the gutter over-poweringly attractive.”
While the royal family, living in its own air-tight chrysalis, appeared to know nothing of this, the chattering classes were complaining of the unsuitability of allowing such a fox into the royal hen coop. They knew that Pope-Hennessy was regularly entertaining two sorts of friends at his apartment in Ladbroke Grove—rich, high-born (often old) society gossips and poor, low-born (always young) male prostitutes, known as “Dilly boys.” Homosexuality was not decriminalized in England until 1967, but Pope-Hennessy invited both sets together; they quaffed champagne bought on credit and eyed one another in disgust from opposite ends of his drawing room. In January 1974 he rashly and untruthfully boasted to the Dilly boys that a £150,000 advance he had received for a biography of Noël Coward was being kept under his bed in cash, tempting three of them to return to his flat in the middle of the afternoon, tie him up, stuff a hairnet into his mouth, and bash him to death.
Pope-Hennessy’s large circle of friends loved him for his wit, openness, erudition, and delight in conversation. Though once capriciously engaged to Lady Ebury, heterosexual aspirations never entered his mind. To my grandmother, Lady Onslow, he once remarked, “If it weren’t for Len and Jimmy and the sailors, I would marry you.”
Although the royal censors exercised a deleterious right of veto over anything that displeased them, Pope-Hennessy’s Queen Mary was published in 1959 to fanfares of popular and critical acclaim. Hugo Vickers, the royal historian and editor of The Quest for Queen Mary, describes it as a “work of pure genius” and “one of the best royal biographies ever to have been published”; the writer Peter Quennell called it a “dazzling tour de force,” while King George VI’s retired private secretary, Sir Alan Lascelles, read the first draft over and over in tears of emotion. Many failed to appreciate the raised eyebrow and the subtle tongue-in-cheek with which Pope-Hennessy lavished praise upon his subject and supposed that, however lucid and artfully written, his book was compromised by its enforced sympathy for a woman who was not wholly likable.
Yes, Queen Mary had some positive attributes: she was occasionally amusing, sometimes magnanimous, a good and dutiful patron especially of the arts, etc., but her faults were legion, outweighing her qualities by a factor, let’s say, of ten to one. The Quest for Queen Mary—an intoxicating, frank, and often hilarious anthology of interviews that Pope-Hennessy undertook with servants, friends, courtiers, and members of her extended family while researching his biography between 1955 and 1958—reveals all. She was stiff and cold and distant, awkward in conversation, often standing silent and rigid, cleaning her teeth with her tongue, waiting for others to talk. She was a rotten and unsympathetic mother who exiled her four-year-old on account of his epilepsy; she was parsimonious, so that her dinner guests left unsated from her table; she gave cheap and gaudy presents made of plastic to her family for Christmas. She was egocentric, avaricious, bad-tempered, and inconsiderate. “The truth is she was damned selfish,” her extra equerry, Lord Claud Hamilton, told Pope-Hennessy. “One of the most selfish human beings I have ever known.”
When she visited other peoples’ houses, she coveted their possessions with such intensity that they felt obliged to make her a gift of them. She was a bully. She demanded that her woman of the bedchamber, Margaret Wyndham, read aloud to her for up to seven hours at a sitting. “Maggie is so stupid,” she said; “she gets hoarse and then her voice gives out,” and so Wyndham was dismissed “as though [she] were a gramophone needing a new needle.” According to multiple sources Queen Mary was a “moral coward.” She never dared discuss the abdication with her own son, the abdicator, Edward VIII. She was bossy and unsympathetic, ordering servants for the sake of ordering servants, hating invalids, and dismissing sick children as “tiresome.”
These are just a few of the complaints that emerge against her in The Quest for Queen Mary. Of course Pope-Hennessy understood the value of the material he had collected, knowing full well that the censors would never allow him to incorporate the half of it in his forthcoming biography. With an eye to posterity (for which he must be thanked) he carefully preserved the memory of his interviews as perfectly polished essays, replete with intimate descriptions of clothes, houses, decorations, manners, smells, food and drink, facial expressions, personal prejudices and tics—anything, in fact, that caught his attention or amused him. He took no notes and often imbibed sensational quantities of alcohol during the course of the interviews. As soon as they were concluded he found a quiet spot to write up all that he could remember while it was fresh in his mind.
With this routine Pope-Hennessy blithely flitted across Europe from one royal palace to the next, preserving countless indiscretions, often coyly or drunkenly gabbled to him “off the record.” The fascination of his findings cannot be overestimated. His original intention was to deposit the manuscripts in the British Museum with an injunction that none be published for at least fifty years, but this embargo, which should have run to 2009, was ignored by his friend Peter Quennell, who, on the stated grounds that “none of them need nowadays give offence,” published a small number of the interviews at the end of a book he edited called A Lonely Business: A Self-Portrait of James Pope-Hennessy (1981). In The Quest for Queen Mary they are at last published in full for the first time along with a helpful introduction and copious footnotes by Hugo Vickers. Vickers is thick with the Windsors, and until the manuscripts can be reexamined, we must take it on trust that nothing has been removed from the present edition to save royal blushes.
The interviews are arranged in chronological order, starting with Lady Colville and an old “Mr. Hough,” whose Christian name neither Pope-Hennessy nor Vickers is troubled to reveal. Mr. Hough served as a “room-boy” to the steward of Queen Mary’s parents, the Duke and Duchess of Teck, in 1893. From Mr. Hough, our questing biographer moves to Oslo to interview King Haakon VII of Norway, who was married to Queen Mary’s sister-in-law, Princess Maud, but Haakon is ill so Pope-Hennessy interviews his son, Crown Prince Olav, instead. From the royal palace in Oslo he takes a plane to the royal palace in Stockholm to see King Gustaf VI and Queen Louise of Sweden, finding him “very hewn-looking, with a high, thoughtful head like a Rodin, and spectacles; and hair like an old negro,” and her “stooped and somewhat wizened; they both look severe in repose but light up quickly and have a funny sense of humour.” And so the “quest” continues from one great royal palace to another, Pope-Hennessy reporting on the peculiarities of royal members of the Russian, German, Danish, and British courts, always with humor, precision, and a healthy appetite for the peculiar.
His journey ends with a fascinating visit to the exiled Duke of Windsor in France. The common opinion of this man—one shared by the present queen and her late mother—is that he was pathetic and selfish to abdicate the throne for love of Mrs. Simpson, that he spent too much time crying into women’s laps, and that he treacherously connived with Nazi authorities to overthrow his brother and reinstate himself as king of England in the event of a German victory in World War II. Pope-Hennessy, who was no sycophant, gives a startlingly sympathetic account:
He is not only the one member of the Royal Family for whom one needs to make no allowances whatever, but…he is exceedingly intelligent, original, liberal-minded and quite capable of either leading a conversation or taking a constructive part in one. He is also one of the most considerate men I have ever met of his generation.
Others with whom Pope-Hennessy finds an easy affinity are the big drinkers—Prince Henry of Gloucester and Prince Axel of Denmark in particular—but he is critical of courtiers, “that numerous and obeisant throng of snobs which flourish like fungi in the shadow of royalty.” “It is courtiers,” he writes, “who make royalty frightened and frightening.”
When invited to write the life of Queen Mary, Pope-Hennessy was contemptuous and seriously considered turning it down. Had it not been for his brother, the distinguished art historian Sir John Pope-Hennessy, writing to him that “royalty…were an endangered species, and this was an occasion to establish, through close inspection of a single life, the nature of the phenomenon,” the book would never have been written. It is common among British intellectuals—even those who are loudest in their praise for the institutions of monarchy—to deride the royal family on account of its perceived vulgarity and Germanic stodginess. Pope-Hennessy embraced these prejudices and approached all witnesses (with the exception of Queen Elizabeth, with whom he was uncharacteristically nervous) in a breezy spirit of lofty detachment.
It is true that the queen’s great country mansion at Sandringham in Norfolk is not the sort of place that any cultivated gentleman would wish to make his home. Pope-Hennessy found it “preposterous…hotel-like…tremendously vulgar and emphatically, almost defiantly hideous and gloomy,” while the small church at the end of the drive with its royal plaques and monuments is “not, as the books say, like an ordinary country church in the least, but more like the private chapel of a family of ailing megalomaniacs: the shrine of a clique.” The “virulent magenta chintz” sofas in the Duke of Edinburgh’s boudoir reveal, according to Pope-Hennessy, “evidence of a positive but somewhat vulgar personality.”
If Pope-Hennessy’s snobbery about the royals—their tastes and their manners—tickles the reader, so too will the royal family’s navel-gazing snobbery against its own members. Because they find themselves at the cloistered apex of all European social hierarchies, the snobbishness of royal persons takes unusual forms. A frequent term of disdain is “poor,” not in the sense of “cash-strapped” or “insolvent,” but “pitiable.”
Thus Mary’s mother, the Duchess of Teck, though often cash-strapped, is forever described as “poor Mary” on account of her fatness, while Princess Augusta, Dowager Duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, remarks of her daughter-in-law, “Yes she does enjoy being a Grand Duchess! Poor dear, I am glad she does, for I never did, I was satisfied with what I was and am still.” When King Edward VII’s daughter the Duchess of Fife was annoyed with Queen Mary, she would say of her: “Poor May, poor May, with her Württemberg hands.” She and her mother, Queen Alexandra, would constantly remind each other that Mary was not “completely royal,” while Mary’s eldest son, the Duke of Windsor, setting this consideration aside, blurted suddenly to Pope-Hennessy: “You realise there are only three completely royal persons alive now? My sister, my brother and myself.” Even his niece Elizabeth II is downgraded on account of her mother’s being the daughter of a Scottish earl. Of the Battenbergs, a morganatic branch of the Hesse-Darmstadt family from which Lord Mountbatten descends, Princess Arthur of Connaught tells Pope-Hennessy that they are “a sketchy lot…I believe the first one was a hairdresser or something. But what does that matter so long as they do their job?”
Pope-Hennessy’s long researches into the life of Queen Mary did not endear him to her and, unsurprisingly, his interviews are at their funniest and psychological best when the subject of conversation is furthest from the subject of his work. His ability to capture the royal way of talking is scintillating. In the following passage he brilliantly recounts a bizarre exchange about oysters and mince pies held over dinner at Barnwell Manor with himself, his host, Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester (Queen Mary’s third son); his wife, the Duchess of Gloucester; and the Duke’s aunt, Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, granddaughter of Queen Victoria:
Later in the meal Princess Alice began talking about oyster poisoning. The Duke said he had never tasted an oyster.
“When I was young the smell of an oyster made me sick. It’s better now, I can just stand the smell but I never ate one. You see,” he said to me, “I never touch food I think I’m not going to like. Why should I? I’m sure I should dislike a mince pie, so I’ve never tried one. I don’t know what’s inside a mince pie. What is there?”
“Currants, Harry,” said the Duchess, “and peel and things.”
“I think the contrast between the pastry outside and the heavy things inside is rather unpleasant,” I contributed.
“I wouldn’t know,” said the Duke (a favourite phrase), “because d’you see I’ve never tried one and I’m not going to. Why should I?”
One reason why republicanism has never taken much of a hold in Britain is because the British—who may occasionally express their envy or resentment of those born to greater wealth and privilege than themselves—are astute enough to realize that the royal family, being practically a different species, cannot be envied or resented. To those who get this—and the majority do—Queen Elizabeth II is beloved, in spite of all her inherited luxuries and privileges, for the great British public realizes that she is as dissimilar to her subjects as a queen bee is dissimilar to the workers and drones of an apian hive. Since when did honeybees begrudge their queen her supersecure cell, her royal jelly, or her distinctively large thorax? As Pope-Hennessy argues, “Taken neat like whiskey,” the royals “are perfectly all right. This does not mean that they are as others, but you can get on to plain terms with the species, like an ornithologist making friends with some rare wild duck.”
What this fine book demonstrates, with wit, candor, and unassailable force, is that royal persons are not at all like ordinary people, and despite the best efforts of Netflix to assure viewers of The Crown that they are just plain folks, no one (at least no one in Britain) is fooled. That is how it should be, for when these exotic interbred German waxworks are eventually made “ordinary” by the genetic infusion of a hundred Meghan Markles, Kate Middletons, Sophie Rhys-Joneses, and Mike Tindalls, only then will the royals themselves be perceived as “ordinary.” Only then will they succeed, with all their servants, palaces, entitlements, and hereditary privileges, in making other “ordinary” people very resentful indeed, and that, sadly (or not?), will be the end of that.