The secret letters that reveal the hidden warmth of the Queen’s grandmother

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Queen Mary has often been depicted as devoid of maternal warmth
Queen Mary has often been depicted as devoid of maternal warmth

After the Queen’s tumultuous year – the Oprah bombshell, Prince Philip’s death, then the disquieting reports of Prince Harry’s forthcoming memoirs – there is, at last, some cheering news for our monarch. A precious cache of unknown letters from her grandmother, Queen Mary, has been discovered. These show Queen Mary in a benevolent light and pay homage to her friendship with her Lady-in-Waiting, Lady Eva Dugdale, who was her aide for 27 years.

Thanks to her flinty portrayal in The Crown and the incredulity voiced by the Duke of Windsor that “any mother could have been so hard and cruel towards her eldest son for so many years”, Queen Mary has often been depicted as devoid of maternal warmth. Edward VIII famously said of his mother after she died that “the fluids in her veins have always been as icy cold as they now are in death”.

Queen Mary, who saw the monarchy as “something sacred and the sovereign a personage apart”, could not comprehend the abdication and dereliction of duty by her son.

Intricately involved with the British monarchy her entire life (she was born Princess Mary of Teck in 1867), she married the future George V in 1893, her father-in-law was Edward VII and two of her sons – Edward VIII and George VI – became King. She also lived to see her granddaughter, Elizabeth, proclaimed Queen in 1952 – a year before she died in 1953.

Now, however, an endearing side to Queen Mary, unalloyed by regal formality, has surfaced. Jimmy and Charlie Millard, the great-grandsons of Lady Eva Dugdale, found every historian’s dream: a bundle of royal letters, spanning 1907-1923, hidden in an attic last year. They said they were astonished to discover this personal correspondence in almost pristine condition.

The letters are a treasure trove for historians - TMG John Lawrence
The letters are a treasure trove for historians - TMG John Lawrence

The letters are from Queen Mary to Lady Eva, and were found in their mother, Lady Millard’s, London home. It was being sorted and cleared following her death last April, aged 90. A mutual friend introduced me to Jimmy Millard, who then invited me to his Warwickshire house (Eva Dugdale was the daughter of the fourth Earl of Warwick) to view this fascinating correspondence. There are also some never-before-seen photographs of the Royal family; one of Edward VIII and his brother, Bertie, standing together as boys, was exciting to uncover.

It was a thrill to handle the weighty envelopes with their regal crests and headed writing paper from every royal abode. Lady Eva, née Greville, born in 1860, was the Queen’s Lady-in-Waiting between 1892 and 1919. She married Lt Col Frank Dugdale, who was Mary’s equerry when she was the Princess of Wales, in 1898. When King George ascended the throne, Dugdale then became one of his extra equerries. Among the 20 handwritten letters from Queen Mary to Lady Eva, were also five letters to Eva from King George – who had far more decipherable, beautiful writing than his wife’s meandering script – and a polite letter in a young hand from a 23-year-old Bertie (the Queen’s father, George VI) thanking “Dear Lady Eva” for a Christmas card – along with a box of newspaper cuttings.

One of the cuttings, on August 17 1920, from the Manchester Evening News, ran the headline: “The Queen’s Lifelong Friend.” It reported: “Queen Mary as a young girl formed a friendship for Lady Eva Dugdale, and they are devotedly attached to each other. Indeed, during the recent serious illness of Lady Eva, Her Majesty spent every moment she could spare from state duties beside the bedside of her friend.”

Eva (centre) with Frank Dugdale (seated with military cap) - TMG John Lawrence
Eva (centre) with Frank Dugdale (seated with military cap) - TMG John Lawrence

Queen Mary’s love for Lady Eva is enchanting. When, in 1914, Eva asks if she may forgo being Lady-in-Waiting because her daughter, Vera, is coming out as a debutante, the Queen’s panic rises from the page. “I am naturally very unwilling to lose you after 21 years of close friendship,” she counters. The Queen, who suggests having another Woman of the Bedchamber appointed, continues: “I have naturally talked the whole matter through with the King who was perfectly horrified at the thought of you leaving me.” Mary signs off: “I am ever, darling Eva, your most devoted old friend, Mary.”

The tone of the letters is effusively sisterly. They speak of a gentle forgone era of kindness, courtesy, constant thank-you-letter-writing and flower-sending. Simple pleasures are registered – in 1918 from Windsor Castle, the Queen writes: “If I get a nice day I take a drive in the glorious forest.” While there is a Bridgerton moment in 1914 when Queen Mary gasps: “Vera was so quick in fastening my collar which came undone at the Ball. Thank her from me please. Best love, Your devoted old friend.”

I scoured the correspondence for references to Edward VIII, whom the family called David, and two letters did not disappoint. From Windsor Castle on April 14 1915, Mary wrote: “It is very nice being here and makes such a change after London. We have been riding in the park which is very nice. David has been here on leave. He arrived here on Saturday looking very well. I was delighted to see him again.” Edward was in the Army at the time.

The then-Duchess of York with her two sons - Alice Hughes/The Print Collector/Getty Images
The then-Duchess of York with her two sons - Alice Hughes/The Print Collector/Getty Images

Although the Duke of Windsor later claimed that his childhood was one of emotional neglect, reading Queen Mary’s letters, you feel the burst of maternal pleasure when she writes in September 1918 from Windsor Castle: “It was a great joy having David with us for a fortnight and he was so happy to be at home again.” She sounds like any mother of five children at the end of the Christmas holidays when she writes on January 13 1918: “I am so glad Bertie is getting much stronger and really looks well, though rather thin. I am sorry to say George returns to Dartmouth on Friday and Harry (Henry) goes back to Eton on the 25th – the holidays always go so quickly.”

When Lady Eva wrote to congratulate her friend on the birth of her first grandchild, George Lascelles, Queen Mary responds excitedly on February 11 1923: “It is a great relief that all is well and that darling Mary and her boy are getting on so satisfactorily. They had a long and laborious time – 22 hours. I was there for a good part of the day but not all the time. Mary is enchanted with her baby.”

Of her birthday, Queen Mary tells her friend: “I spent a very happy day, everybody was so kind and I had such lovely presents and flowers that by the evening I felt like a spoilt child. Rather a nice feeling at 54!!!”

After Lady Dugdale retired, Queen Mary frequently visited her at her home in Wiltshire, taking her granddaughter, Princess Elizabeth, with her, who played with the daughter of the Dugdales’ gardener, Joan Fleming. This special friendship spanned 55 years. While their correspondence does not touch on political or historical events, it shows us Mary away from the throne. Like our current Queen, she may have put duty first, family second (which made her a reliable monarch but sometimes left her children wanting), yet her kindness and loyalty is unquestionable.

King George V similarly reveals himself as warm and caring – far from the tyrannical father that Edward VIII experienced. On May 19 1918, he writes to “my dear Little Eva” from Buckingham Palace. “Yes, we are all passing through most anxious times, we must show a bold front and be confident and I feel sure that God will help us and give us the peace we want. With every good wish, Always my dear Eva, Your Sincere Old Friend, George R.I.”

The Millards plan to have the letters “properly curated” and wish to “cross-reference them against Lady Eva’s personal diaries” which are a remarkable record of her life intertwined with the Royal family. Let’s hope that they end up in the Royal Archives, so that the Queen can enjoy these wonderful mementos of her grandmother and a very special lifelong friendship.