Princess Mary of Teck was born on 26 May 1867 as the eldest child of Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge and Prince Francis of Teck, later Duke of Teck, at Kensington Palace. Her mother’s sister the Grand Duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (born Augusta of Cambridge) was in the room. Her mother later wrote to relatives, “I have indeed much to be thankful for, lying as I do here with Baby in her cradle by me, Francis with Yes1 in his lap on the other side.” Mary Adelaide was known for her large size and had married Francis at the age of 32, rather late for the time.
Mary would be known as May in the family because of her birth month. Queen Victoria wrote, “I need not repeat to you, my dearest Mary how truly, really happy I have been at your safe & prosperous confinement & the birth of your little girl. I have known & loved you dearly from your earliest infancy – my darling husband was very fond of you – & your happiness has ever been very near my heart & therefore my joy at this event is most sincere.” Mary was joined in the nursery by three younger brothers – Adolphus, Francis and Alexander. Mary quickly became known as the peacemaker in the family, and she was particularly close to Adolphus. The family was also close to the Wales children, the children of the future King Edward VII. Mary was devastated when two of her brothers were sent to boarding school. The family often travelled to Europe to visit relatives, and the continent was also cheaper to live. The family was forever short of money. Mary’s education had been rather narrow so far, and perhaps she did most of her learning by reading books.
On 1 August 1885, Mary and Adolphus were confirmed together in the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace. She later wrote to her aunt Augusta, “It was a very pretty service and went off very well tho’ Dolly2 & I were dreadfully nervous…” Mary could now take part in public life, and she often accompanied her mother on visits. She also began to act as her mother’s secretary and she wrote to her aunt, “Please forgive me for not having written to you for such an age, but as I am besides Mama’s daughter, her secretary & lady-in-waiting combined, my time is very much filled up, especially as I am also anxious to improve my mind & read 4 mornings in the weeks with a very nice French lady, a Mademoiselle Bricka, with whom I read English, French and German.”
Mary was reaching marriageable age, but her position due to her morganatic blood through her father was an awkward one. Luckily, Queen Victoria was rather fond of her and could overlook this “flaw.” She needed a sensible Princess for the “shapeless” eldest son of the Prince of Wales, Prince Albert Victor, known as Eddy in the family. He had been in love with the Catholic Princess Hélène of Orléans whom he could not marry without losing his right to the throne. Then at the end of October 1891, Mary and Adolphus were summoned to Balmoral Castle without delay. For Mary, it finally became clear where her life was headed. Queen Victoria had deliberately not invited their mother as she wanted to get to know Mary herself. The visit lasted for ten days, during which time Mary went out driving, walked alone with the Queen and spent time with Princess Beatrice and her children. Queen Victoria wrote to the Princess Royal after the visit, “Today is again wet & cheerless. We have seen a gt deal of May & Dolly Teck during these ten days visit here & I cannot say enough good of them. May is a particularly nice girl, so quiet & yet cheerful & so vy carefully brought up & so sensible. She is grown very pretty.” Prince Albert Victor dutifully proposed to her on 3 December 1891. Mary wrote in her diary, “To my great surprise Eddy proposed to me during the evening in Mme de Falbe’s boudoir – Of course I said yes – We are both very happy – Kept it secret from everybody but Mama & Papa.”
Mary did not know Prince Albert Victor well, and during their short engagement, she would have doubts. The wedding date was set for 27 February as Queen Victoria disliked long engagements. On 7 January, Prince Albert Victor felt unwell while out shooting. He returned home and to his bed where Mary sat with him. It soon became clear that he had influenza and just two days later he was diagnosed with an inflammation of the lungs. By the 13th, he was delirious, and he frequently cried out, “Hélène, Hélène!” His fingernails turned blue, and the doctors began to fear the worst. The following day it was clear he was dying. For six hours he struggled as his mother held his hand. Mary watched on in horror. He died at 9.35 a.m. on 14 January 1892.
Queen Victoria wrote, “This is an overwhelming misfortune! One is too much stunned to take it in as yet! A tragedy too dreadful for words… The poor parents it is too dreadful for them to think of! & the poor young bride!” Mary also wrote to Queen Victoria, “How too dear & touching of you in the midst of your sorrow to write to poor little me… Never shall I forget that dreadful night of agony and suspense as we sat round his bed watching him getting weaker & weaker. Darling Aunt Alix3 never left him for a moment and when a few minutes before the end she turned to Dr Laking & said ‘Can you do nothing more to save him’ & he shook his head, the despairing look on her face was the most heart-rendering thing I have ever seen… I shall always look back with gratitude to your great kindness to darling Eddy and me at Windsor last month. It seems years ago…”4