His Highness Francis, Duke of Teck (1837-1900) was born at a disadvantage that would influence his character and the course of his life. His father Alexander was a royal duke and nephew of King Frederick I of Württemberg but had married for love rather than rank to Hungarian beauty Countess Claudine von Kis-Rhède. The morganatic marriage robbed his children of royal status and inheritance. Francis was titled Count of Hohenstein; a courtesy title given to his mother. His sole inheritance was a handsome profile and a fine physique.
Count Francis took one of the few paths open to an impoverished aristocrat and entered the Imperial Austrian Academy of Engineers in 1849. He fought in the Austro-Sardinian War and was awarded the Gold Medal for distinguished service at the Battle of Solferino in 1859. The Count cut rather a dash in Viennese society and won the admiration of Empress Elizabeth of Austria, a melancholic beauty of romantic bent, who commanded that he accompany her on one of her many escapes to Madeira in 1860.
Despite his good looks Count Francis’s prospects were limited being too highly born for a modest marriage and too low in royal status to be considered a good match for a royal princess or duchess. In 1863 King William I of Württemberg granted him the title His Serene Highness Prince Francis of Teck to enhance his eligibility. A fortuitous meeting with the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) at thee Viennese court in 1865 would profoundly change his circumstances. The Prince of Wales saw in Prince Francis the solution to a royal family problem: Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge known affectionately by the British public as ‘Fat Mary’.
Like her first cousin Queen Victoria, Princess Mary Adelaide was a granddaughter of King George III. She was 30, weighed-in at over eighteen-stone and had little capital. In 1860 Lord Clarendon had cruelly quipped ‘no German Prince will venture on so vast an undertaking’. She was a jolly cove and seemed contented to become an old maid but succumbed to Prince Francis’s charms and they married at St Anne’s church in Kew in 1866. Though Queen Victoria would not make Duke Francis a Royal Highness she did grant the Tecks an apartment in Kensington Palace and the use of White Lodge in Richmond Park. The Prince and Princess lived on a civil list grant of £5000 per annum supplemented by Mary Adelaide’s mother the Duchess of Cambridge.
Queen Mary’s biographer James Pope-Hennessy paints an amusing picture of the under-employed Prince Francis who was granted an honorary colonelcy of the 1st City of London Artillery. ‘It was generally recognised that the Prince of Teck knew all about what would now be called interior decoration. He had wrote a contemporary the art of making his surroundings thoroughly comfortable and Princess Mary submitted her judgement to his in all matters of carpeting, curtains, upholstery and the disposal of picture and pieces of furniture about their room. He shared with his cousin, Prince William of Wurttemberg, afterwards King William II, an almost feminine urge to arrange and rearrange rooms’. One suspects boredom made work for idle hands.
King George V’s biographer Kenneth Rose described the Prince as ‘a man of striking good looks but volatile temperament’, adding ‘the limited influence of Prince Francis of Teck on the children (Princess May and the Princes Adolphus, Francis and Alexander) reflected his anomalous role; he was regarded in his adopted country as not only foreign but also, in a sense, stateless. He was frustrated and irritable about his status’. Status improved in 1871 when Prince Francis was elevated to a ducal title by the King of Württemberg but funds were not forthcoming.
Proposals to make the Tecks Viceroy and Vicereine of Ireland were vetoed because they couldn’t keep sufficient state on their limited income. They spent profligately, failed to pay tradesmen and squandered a £50,000 loan from Baroness Burdett-Coutts necessitating a move to the continent in 1883. For the next two years the family lived in Florence and subsequently as guests of German cousins. They travelled under the incognito Count and Countess of Hohenstein which must have irked the Duke having to revert to the lowly title he was born with and spent decades escaping.
The Tecks returned to London in 1885 at the invitation of Queen Victoria though other members of the family were swift to mock. Commenting on the Duchess of Teck’s charity bazaars for which she asked members of the royal family to donate unwanted clothing, the Prince of Wales was said to quip ‘I hope the Duke of Teck does not take the best clothes for himself this time’. But the laugh was soon to be on the heir to the throne.
The Prince of Wales’s eldest son Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale – noted for his apathy and vanity – had shown little interest in finding a bride. He had been rejected by Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine (who became last Tsarina of Russia) and was denied permission to marry the Catholic Princess Hélène of Orleans. In 1891 he became engaged to the Duke and Duchess of Teck’s daughter Princess May despite Arthur Balfour writing to his uncle Prime Minister Lord Salisbury ‘the Teck girl they won’t have because they hate (the Duke of) Teck and because the vision of Princess Mary Adelaide haunting Marlborough House makes the Prince of Wales ill’.
Fate intervened in January 1892 when the royal family and the Tecks were in residence at Sandringham to celebrate Prince Albert Victor’s twenty-eighth birthday. The Prince was laid low by a severe attack of influenza that developed into the pneumonia that killed him. According to Kenneth Rose ‘during the dreadful scenes of that January week at Sandringham the Duke of Teck, who was exceedingly distraught, had embarrassed his own family by wandering about the house of death repeating a single sentence over and over again: “It must be a Tsarevich, it must be a Tsarevich”‘.
The Duke was referring to the Russian precedent whereby the future Tsar Alexander III had married Princess Dagmar of Denmark on the death of his brother the Tsarevich to whom the princess was engaged. This pattern was repeated in 1893 when Prince Albert Victor’s brother Prince George married May of Teck. It was an incredible reversal of fortune for the Duke and Duchess of Teck who found themselves on the balcony of Buckingham Palace after the marriage of their only daughter to the future King George V. In Queen Victoria’s diaries she reveals that the Duke of Teck wept and held her hand as the bride and groom left the palace for their honeymoon.
With their three sons fully grown and Princess May married, the Duke and Duchess of Teck did realise the worst fears of the Prince and Princess of Wales. Letters reveal that they did indeed dart in and out of Marlborough House and their daughter’s apartments at St James’s Palace. According to Rose ‘the fact was that both the Duke and Duchess of Teck missed Princess May horribly. They could not adjust themselves to life without her. The Duke of Teck was becoming weekly more cantankerous and difficult to cope with while…Princess Mary Adelaide was left in a low, weak dispirited state’.
Neither the Duke of Teck nor Princess Mary Adelaide would live to see their daughter crowned Queen. The Duchess died in 1897 and the Duke of Teck retreated to White Lodge where he struck a melancholy figure. His Who’s Who entry listed recreations as ‘little of all’. He continued to visit the many clubs of which he was a member including White’s, the Marlborough Club, the Army & Navy, the Bachelor’s, the Traveller’s, the Cavalry, the Jockey Club and Hurlingham. He died in 1900 and was laid to rest next to his wife in the royal vault beneath St George’s Chapel, Windsor.