As the rumours of war intensified in the first days of September, 1939, Queen Mary was holidaying at the royal family’s Norfolk estate at Sandringham, close to the ancient market town of King’s Lynn. On the morning that war with Germany was declared, 3 September, the Queen was listening to a radio broadcast by the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, on the vicar’s radio in her stall at the small estate church of St Mary Magdalene. Soon thereafter, the local parishioners were temporarily diverted from their devotions by the drone of the local air raid siren. This was a false alarm, being merely a test of the system. Presumably, the Queen Dowager spent the rest of what remained of that first Sunday of wartime in a state of nervous anticipation.
In the early hours of 4 September, Queen Mary was roused from her sleep by another ‘alarm.’ She and her detective Green and her grandchildren Prince Edward and Princess Alexandra of Kent (the children of Prince George, the Duke of Kent and his wife Marina, who were temporarily under her care) all rushed to the basement, where they sat stoically until the ‘all clear’ was sounded at 3.30 am. Although Mary returned to her bed, she remained wide-awake till morning.
Indeed, by 10am the Queen Dowager and her large entourage of staff had already packed their cases and departed ‘the Big House’, under a pre-arranged plan, for an even grander edifice, Badminton House, in rural Gloucestershire. This was the home of the Duke of Beaufort (‘Master’) and his wife, Mary, who was a niece of Queen Mary. As the Duke had already joined his Regiment, it was Mary Beaufort who was faced with the daunting prospect of greeting her royal aunt and her staff of around fifty, along with seventy pieces of the Queen’s luggage.
Queen Mary-who had lunched en route at the Northamptonshire home of Lord and Lady Spencer at Althorp-quickly selected a first-floor bedroom, with a splendid view over across the park, together with an adjacent sitting room and bathroom. For her private dining room, she made use of the so-called Oak Room, the main feature of which was its dark, heavy Jacobean panelling. Yet, even this generous accommodation was deemed insufficient, so she commandeered a large dining-room to serve as a formal drawing room for receiving important guests. To protect her royal personage, four despatch riders were on constant call to lead the way to safety in case of a sudden attack or a German invasion. They were augmented by 120 men of the local Gloucestershire Regiment who were quartered in the old stables. Of course, Inspector George Gardner, the Queen’s personal police protection officer, was also on hand.
It must be said that the Queen Dowager never wanted to go to the country. She would far preferred to have remained at Marlborough House, but the King persuaded his mother that if she were to remain in London, he would be constantly fretting over her wellbeing. To combat her initial restlessness and feelings of uselessness, ‘Bertie’ ensured that Mary should receive regular news summaries from the Foreign Office. These were sent down by motorbike courier in official red leather dispatch boxes. Another weapon to combat country boredom was Queen Mary’s weekly train visits up to London, during which she sometimes lunched with the King and Queen at Buckingham Palace and visited her favourite shops. Filled with purpose, the Dowager was up with the lark to catch the 8.28 train from nearby Chippenham. The journey took two hours. Her only complaint was that the blackout requirements, on the evening return trip, hampered her ability to read.
Looking out of her bedroom window one day, Queen Mary espied a whole wall of the house covered in ivy ‘of 50 years standing.’ She had always hated the plant with a vengeance, believing that it was destructive to a building’s stone work. Some of the park’s trees were also covered in the dastardly plant. Soon, her Equerry, Sir John Coke, was pressed into joining his mistress for a morning of clearing ivy. This ‘Ivy Squad’ was eventually augmented by the enrolment of Her Majesty’s duty Lady-in-Waiting and Private Secretary, aided by any visiting guests. Given the old Queen’s zeal, it is not surprising that Badminton’s considerable stock of Ivy was quickly exhausted.
Undeterred, by the autumn of 1940, Queen Mary turned her attention, most afternoons, to the clearance of areas of the local woodlands. A ‘Wooding Squad’ was established, mainly composed of the four dispatch riders and their royal charge. As Mary now rarely went to London due to the German bombing campaign or ‘Blitz’ (during which most of Marlborough House’s windows were blown-out, as were many of the interior doors), this diversion proved particularly welcome. The Queen was a thoughtful ‘employer’ and happily passed round cigarettes to her workers during their breaktime from chopping and sawing, always ensuring, of course, to have one herself. Mary also took great pains to find out the birthdays of her ‘wooders’, so that she could give them a small gift.
However, the Dowager Queen’s efforts at undertaking a salvage campaign to collect scrap iron for the war effort proved less successful. Her enthusiasm often led her into ‘salvaging’ the local farmers’ perfectly serviceable field implements which had to be discreetly returned to them at a later date. Yet, her dedication to the task is evidence that her patriotic heart was in the right place. Mary’s patriotism was also apparent in her insistence on obeying the strict rationing rules. Many was the evening that a dinner guest left her table hungry after consuming only half a snipe. By contrast, the Queen loved to fill her rooms with exuberant displays of geraniums and orchids, the latter often sourced (doubtless at great expense) from neighbouring nursery gardens.
Another outlet for Queen Mary’s talents was to undertake a varied array of official engagements in the locality, be it visiting a munitions factory or a hospital or a woollen mill or a group of evacuees from London. Although Her Majesty’s movements were meant to shrouded in secrecy, on a visit to a spitfire production factory at Trowbridge, one of the workers let the secret slip, so a group of children were there to greet her as she alighted from her old green Daimler saloon ‘prim as always’ with her trademark rolled-up umbrella in one hand. Sometimes, on her outings, Mary would come across members of the military plodding along the road and she soon took to offering them lifts. Many were unaware of who this kind and inquisitive old lady was, particularly in the case of foreign combatants.
For relaxation the Queen Dowager often visited antique shops in nearby Bath. She also enjoyed embroidery (or ‘stitchery’ as she sometimes referred to it). Mary would also visit local gardens and if it happened to be raining, she would don a pair of short rubber boots and prod tentatively at the flower beds with her stick or umbrella. Family members often visited, particularly her youngest son, the Duke of Kent, and his sister Mary, the Princess Royal. The Duke’s death in an air accident in northern Scotland, in August, 1942 was a severe shock. However, Mary stoically put her own feelings aside and arranged to motor to Buckinghamshire next day, to comfort his widow, Marina. The only night the Queen Dowager spent away from Badminton during the entire war period, was at Windsor Castle on the eve of the Duke’s funeral on 29 August.
On occasion, Badminton was subjected to air raids due to its proximity to Bristol and Bath. Queen Mary initially ‘descended’ to a reinforced room on the ground floor where, dressed to perfection and sitting bolt upright, she would attempt to solve a crossword puzzle. Eventually, she decided to remain upstairs in bed and take her chances. However, Mary was less sanguine when it came to the bombing of her beloved Marlborough House noting, ‘The dear old House cannot stand much more of this, & I tremble each day for news of it’s having succumbed.’
By early 1945, the old Queen had resumed her journeys up to London. Their primary purpose was so that she could assess the extent of the damage to Marlborough House, with a view to preparing the place for her eventual return. From the outset, it became clear that only her private suite of rooms could be made habitable in time for her return home, as materials to undertake repairs were almost impossible to obtain.
After celebrating VE day (8 May) with a visit to the local pub (where the villagers were celebrating with a sing-song), Queen Mary departed Badminton on 11 June. She insisted on personally bidding farewell to the Heads of each of the nine ‘departments’ of the estate and presented a gift to each. It was an emotional occasion and with tears streaming down her face, the Dowager acknowledged to Mr Perks, the Head Gardener, ‘Oh, I have been happy here! Here I’ve been anybody to everybody, and back in London I shall have to begin being Queen Mary all over again.’ She also admitted to having ‘gained much’ from her time there, which is an understatement given that, prior to moving to Badminton, she had not even known what hay looked like.
The writer of this blog is the author of a new biography: Princess Olga of Yugoslavia Her Life and Times published by Grosvenor House Publishing and available as a hardback or e-book from Amazon and other on-line booksellers and local bookshops.