By 1913, Margaret was almost 50 years old and a wealthy, childless widow. However, she would not retire to the country as was perhaps expected of her. In an attempt to think ahead, she wrote to King George V that she intended to leave Polesden Lacey to someone in the royal family and the chosen one was Prince Albert (later King George VI), as his elder brother would have the Duchy of Cornwall. From then on, Margaret took a special interest in his welfare. They probably met for the first time in person around 1918, though his inheritance was kept a secret from him. Margaret also set out to remodel her father’s old house, as it was bigger than her own so that she could live there.
Margaret moved into the house in 1914 and began to entertain once more. A new home needed beautiful things, and she began to expand her collection of art. She collected all sorts of things, such as furniture, paintings, antique silver and objects from the far east. The start of the First World War began with a shock for Margaret. She was in The Hague at the time of the Belgian invasion and hurried back to Hook of Holland to catch a ferry. It eventually sailed with almost eight times more passengers than usual.
As a true society hostess, Margaret offered her house as a convalescent home. The north and west sides of Polesden Lacey were installed as such. Margaret hosted the King and Queen there in 1915. From London, she tried to help, too, by organising events for visiting servicemen. She later received a medal for her war work. The end of the war came as a relief – the losses had been great.
Meanwhile, Margaret’s goddaughter Sonia wanted to marry the Hon. Roland Cubitt, the fourth son of Henry Cubitt, 2nd Baron Ashcombe. His three elder brothers had all died in the war, and he was now the heir to his father’s titles. However, the Cubitts did not consider Sonia good enough for their son. Margaret drove down to their residence, though she refused to leave her car so that Lord Ashcombe was forced to come down to talk to her. She proudly announced, “I only called to tell you that I do not consider that your son is good enough for my goddaughter.” Then she drove off. It worked, and Sonia and Roland were married on 16 November 1920. Margaret gifted her goddaughter an emerald ring as a wedding gift.
The following year, Margaret headed to Bombay to start a three-month tour in the area. She travelled as a guest of the Viceroy, and her visit coincided with the visit of the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII). Though they were entertained at the same parties, it was unlikely that he felt a great connection to the 58-year-old widow. Meanwhile, Margaret was involved in yet another love match. The lucky couple was Edwina Ashley, a wealthy heiress, and Lord Louis Mountbatten. However, this time Margaret was weary of Louis’s sincerity, and she became a rather reluctant chaperone. By February, they were engaged, much to Margaret’s horror, who wrote, “I have grave misgivings.” She evidently overcame her misgivings and gave a grand dinner party for them upon their return to England. She remained on good terms with them and often invited them over.
In July 1922, Margaret was invested as Dame Commander of the British Empire, though she apparently rarely used the title. Margaret continued to socialise within the circles of the royal family, and her special interest in Prince Albert intensified when he became interested in Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. She had invited both of them to a dinner party in December 1920 and continued to invite one if the other was meant to be there. They eventually married on 26 April 1923 and spent their honeymoon at Polesden Lacy. Margaret would spend the majority of the 1920s travelling. In addition to India, she travelled to Sri Lanka, Burma, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. She also continued to entertain and loved the company of young people.
Like many others, Margaret was curious about Nazi Germany and visited the country in the summer of 1933. She returned in September 1934 and “was entertained by Hitler and the Nuremberg festivities last month, and is now enthusiastic over ‘the little brown shirts.'” She travelled to Germany to attend the Olympic Games in 1936 but became ill just a few days before. In London, she entertained German dignitaries and other VIPs. A final visit to Germany came in August 1937, and she slowly began dropping her contacts. However, her association with them damaged her reputation, though not damaged enough not to receive an invitation to the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, whom she had hosted on their honeymoon.
Her love of jewellery, for which she is now perhaps best known, started early in life. She was a regular at Cartier and Boucheron, and she also often had jewellery remade to fit the current fashion. She also enjoyed collecting jewellery that had belonged to famous women in history, such as Marie Antoinette. She acquired Marie Antoinette’s diamond necklace, Catherine the Great’s diamond ring and Empress Josephine’s emeralds and diamonds.
By Christmas 1937, Margaret was largely confined to a wheelchair, and she eventually travelled to Monte Carlo to convalesce. She remained cheerful but was unable to walk. For most of 1938, she was ill and confined to her house. She returned to Monte Carlo the following year but suffered from a bout of pneumonia upon arrival. She had wanted to return to France in 1939, but the Second World War prevented any travelling to the continent. For the next three years, her health continued to decline, much to her annoyance.
Margaret died on 15 September 1942 after suffering a cerebral thrombosis – she was 79 years old. Polesden Lacy, once promised to the future King George VI, was now to go to National Trust, but all of her jewellery (the pieces valued above £100) was willed to Queen Elizabeth. Queen Mary wrote to Elizabeth, “How kind of Mrs Greville to leave you her jewels, and she had some lovely pearls and nice emeralds too, I think… I hope that the jewels will make up for the loss of Polesden Lacey, I am sorry she altered her will, but perhaps it would have been a white elephant to Bertie. I can understand your pleasure about the jewels; you are right not to say anything about them…”
It was some time before the jewellery appeared in public as it was considered bad taste during the war. Before the bequest, Elizabeth actually owned just a limited range of jewellery. Many pieces were still in the possession of Queen Mary. Margaret’s bequest saved Queen Mary from giving up her beloved jewels during her lifetime and gave Queen Elizabeth a wide array of choices.1