Her name is forever linked to the vast jewellery collection that she left to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. But who was Margaret Greville, and why did she leave her jewels to the British royals?
She was born Margaret Helen Anderson on 20 December 1863 as the daughter of William McEwan and his mistress, Helen Anderson. It is likely that Wiliam Murray Anderson, who worked for William McEwan, was convinced to take responsibility for the unmarried Helen and give some form of legitimacy to the infant Margaret. It does not appear that they were officially married, as he eventually returned to his real wife, Ann, who went on to have two more children after his return. The fact that they already had the same last name appears to be a happy coincidence. For Helen, this now meant she could claim a brief marriage and widowhood.
Helen eventually returned to Edinburgh with Margaret, and with the likely help of William McEwan, she was running a lodging house by 1868. William himself also often lived in lodgings, and he and Helen never lived far away from each other. Payments to Helen were on his books for several years, and these also included school fees from 1878 to 1884. It wasn’t until 1885 that Helen and William finally married. William’s sister had died in 1882, which perhaps freed him from the possible scorn of his family. By then, he was a rich man, and he stood as a Member of Parliament. Although rumours about the family existed for some time, Margaret was referred to as his “stepdaughter” in the press. William took Margaret under his wing and taught her all about his business.
William let it be known that Margaret would be the one to inherit his now considerable fortune, which made her an attractive bride. A suitable husband was soon found in the form of The Hon. Ronald Henry Fulke Greville, the eldest son and heir of the 2nd Baron Greville and part of the social circle around the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. It was a classic trade-off – a respectable title for new money. Nevertheless, the marriage worked well for them.
Margaret and Ronald were married on 25 April 1891 at the church of St Mark’s in Mayfair. Margaret wore a dress of rich white satin with old Brussels lace, caught up with rosettes of white satin ribbon. Her bodice was trimmed with orange blossom, and her lace veil was held in place with five diamond stars, which were a gift from Ronald. The wedding gifts were so expensive that a guard was placed in the room with them. The most valuable item was estimated to be worth £50,000 – a diamond tiara, which was a gift from her “stepfather.” She would later wear this tiara to be officially presented at court.
Once they had returned from their honeymoon in Paris, they moved into a house in London. They were immediately popular and well-connected. Margaret quickly befriended Alice Keppel, who would become the mistress of the Prince of Wales a few years later. Ronald and Margaret involved themselves in horse racing, and they often spent days attending the races. After Alice had met the Prince of Wales in 1898, she introduced him to Margaret. Margaret and Alice had by now become close friends, and Margaret acted as godmother to Alice’s second daughter Sonia.
The Victorian age came to an end with the death of Queen Victoria on 22 January 1901 and the accession of King Edward VII. As a friend of the new monarch, Margaret found herself a place alongside Alice in the so-called “Loose Box” at his coronation. They were soon caught up in the merry entertainment of the new King – Margaret had made it to the highest social circle.
In 1906, Margaret purchased Polesden Lacey, a grand house overlooking a wooded valley, with a gift of £80,000 from her father, but it needed a lot of work. Margaret told her architects that she wanted “a room I can entertain Maharajs in…” They held true to their word. However, while the work at Polesden Lacey was still ongoing, tragedy struck. First, Margaret’s mother, Helen, died on 3 September 1906. Then at the end of March 1908, Ronald fell ill. The diagnosis was not good – he had cancer of the vocal cords. His larynx was immediately removed, and miraculously Ronald survived the surgery. However, he contracted pneumonia and died a week later, on 5 April 1908. He was only 43 years old. His sudden death shocked everyone. He had predeceased his father, and thus Margaret missed out on becoming Baroness Greville. As Ronald and Margaret had not had any children, her brother-in-law was now the new heir.
Margaret was devastated, and her groom later remarked that “the spark went out of her.” As was expected of her during her year of mourning, she rarely went out. However, the King encouraged her to come out more, though still in line with her new status as a widow. Her first official social engagement after her husband’s death would fittingly be the King’s visit to Polesden Lacey on 5 June 1909. Margaret slowly returned to being a society hostess, although King Edward VII died on 6 May 1910. A few months later, Margaret presented Edward’s widow, Queen Alexandra, with a small Fabergé hardstone sculpture of his favourite terrier, Ceasar. Queen Alexandra was so touched that she sent the real Caesar to live with Margaret.
The new King could not be any different from his father, and it was truly the end of another era. However, Margaret had become friends with the Princess of Wales, now Queen Mary. Margaret began to enjoy life a bit more and often gave dinner parties and went out into society. The death of her father in 1913 was a blow to her. The 85-year-old man had been knocked down by a carriage drawn by four horses. Margaret arranged for him to be buried next to Ronald. Margaret now inherited her father’s fortune, worth approximately £65,000,000 today.1