|The Hon. Mrs Ronald Greville|
Painted by Carolus-Duran
Born in 1863, Margaret "Maggie" Helen Anderson was the illegitimate daughter of Helen Anderson and William McEwan, a wealthy Scottish brewer and eventual Member of Parliament. Her birth certificate includes a different father’s name, and it's been said that Helen Anderson was married to an employee of McEwan's brewery at the time of the birth. However, Siân Evans' biography of Mrs. Greville, Mrs Ronnie, disputes this oft-repeated claim with evidence that Helen was not married at the time. For the rest of her life, Maggie would gloss over the specific circumstances of her birth and her early years.
William McEwan and Helen Anderson eventually married in 1885. Margaret’s new position as the heiress to the millions McEwan made with his beer business helped override some of the suspicion about her position as his "step-daughter" and gave her a start in society that her birth did not provide. She married the Hon. Ronald Greville, eldest son of the 2nd Baron Greville and later a Member of Parliament, in 1891. "Ronnie" was a close friend of The Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. Maggie became a best friend of Alice Keppel, Edward's favorite mistress. The Greville’s marriage was a happy one, but also sadly a short one: Mr. Greville died suddenly in 1908 at the age of 43. They had no children.
|Mr. and Mrs. Greville, circa 1900|
Margaret Greville's marriage whet her appetite for hosting society's headliners and collecting powerful friends, and she continued on that path in her widowhood. Grand entertaining became her defining characteristic. She hosted dinner parties in London, and fabulous weekend parties in the country at Polesden Lacey. The Grevilles had purchased their country estate before Ronnie's untimely death and refurbished it completely, including a special suite to accommodate Edward VII's visits.
Edward VII was just the start of the list of royals Mrs. Greville would host. She may have proclaimed that she'd "rather be a beeress than a peeress!", but she certainly desired the company of the elite as she aimed to outpace rival society hostesses. She entertained royals from Egypt and the deposed Spanish and Greek monarchies; she sought the company of ambassadors and those with political power; she stayed in the good graces of the British royal family after Edward VII’s death by becoming a good friend to Queen Mary, perhaps bonding over their shared passion for grand jewels and other exquisite objects. In 1922, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
Geograph project/Martyn Davies/Wikimedia Commons
She offered to leave Polesden Lacey to one of George V's children (a move that further secured her position as a close friend of the royal family, it must be noted). The lucky recipient was to be Prince Albert, The King and Queen's second son, and Mrs. Greville encouraged the courtship and engagement of "Bertie" and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. The future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth honeymooned at Polesden Lacey in 1923 and remained close friends with "Mrs. Ronnie" until her death.
The Duke and Duchess of York on their honeymoon at Polesden Lacey
Mrs. Greville’s personality was generally described as larger than life. She was a gossip to the core, and never short of opinions. She was also generally described as a snob - "a galumphing, greedy, snobbish old toad who watered her chops at the sight of royalty and the Prince of Wales’s set, and did nothing for anybody except the rich," as Cecil Beaton put it - and her desire to remain at the top of society seemed to motivate many of her actions. To those she favored, she was a good friend; to those she did not care for, she could be malicious.
|Polesden Lacey in 1923|
Illustrated London News/Wikimedia Commons
Her social ambition wasn't the only mark against her. She held pro-German sympathies in the early 1930s, even visiting the new Nazi Germany and seeking an audience with Hitler. It's likely that she did not fully understand the full extent of the Nazi mission, and she had dropped her support well before Britain declared war, but her reputation had already suffered from the association. She ordered her personal papers destroyed after her death, concealing her private thoughts on the matter.
Controversial and unfavorable notes aside, to the royals whose company she so desired, she was a good friend. She died on September 15, 1942 at the Dorchester Hotel, where she spent the last part of her life, refusing to leave London despite the dangers of German bombing.
"I shall miss her very much indeed [...], she was so shrewd, so kind, so amusingly unkind, so sharp, such fun, so naughty [...], and altogether a real person, a character, utterly Mrs Ronald Greville and no tinge of anything alien."
– Queen Elizabeth, writing after Mrs. Greville’s death
With no children and no close family remaining, Mrs. Greville's estate – which totaled more than £1.5 million - was divided primarily between charity and friends, including loyal staff and some of the royals she adored. Princess Margaret received £20,000, and Queen Victoria Eugenia of Spain received another substantial amount. Money was also left to her godchildren, including Sonia Keppel, grandmother of The Duchess of Cornwall.
|Polesden Lacey's Drawing Room, 1923 |
Illustrated London News/Wikimedia Commons
In what apparently came as a surprise to the royal family, she decided not to leave Polesden Lacey to The King and Queen. She changed her will and left the estate to the National Trust instead, so that it could be opened to the public. Hearing the estate went to the Trust instead, Queen Elizabeth said "perhaps it is just as well, things being as they are," and that it would likely be a "very difficult place to keep up."
|Margaret Greville, circa 1920|
Bookham Bulletin/Wikimedia Commons
Mrs. Greville left a different surprise for the royal family: she bequeathed her magnificent collection of jewelry to Queen Elizabeth, "with my loving thoughts." The only pieces of jewelry that did not go to Queen Elizabeth were those with a value of under £100, which were designated for Mrs. Greville’s longtime maid.
Contained within the Greville bequest were pieces destined to become favorites of Queen Elizabeth, and pieces that are still worn today by the women of the royal family. Mrs. Greville's generosity served to permanently tie her name to one of the most spectacular parts of royalty, which seems to have been just the way she would have liked it.
Click here for part 2, on Mrs. Greville's passion for jewelry and the jewels from the bequest.
For more on Mrs. Greville:
- I highly recommend Mrs Ronnie: The Society Hostess Who Collected Kings by Siân Evans. It's an enjoyable read with a balanced take on its subject. The author was granted permission by The Queen to use material from the Royal Archives.
- Counting One's Blessings: The Selected Letters of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother by William Shawcross includes some of Queen Elizabeth's thoughts on Mrs. Greville (and the bequest) in her own words.
- Polesden Lacey near Dorking, Surrey, is still operated by the National Trust and is open to the public.
- The Queen's Diamonds by Hugh Roberts, an authorized account of selected jewelry in the royal collection, includes a section on Queen Elizabeth and confirmation of certain Greville jewels.
- Boucheron: The Secret Archives by Vincent Meylan covers some of Mrs. Greville's many commissions from the Parisian jeweler.