On 5th February 2021 The History Press will release the very first modern biography of the Queen’s Aunt, Princess Mary, Princess Royal and Countess of Harewood by me, Elisabeth Basford. I must admit that I am filled with equal quantities of terror and excitement. In what I hope will be a fascinating read, I have studied previously unpublished letters, diaries and archives in an effort to get to the truth about this little known member of the Royal Family. If ever a member of the Royal Family has been underestimated, then it is Princess Mary. Few people are aware of the immense amount of work she undertook in her public life and her importance in the history of the Royal Family during the Twentieth Century and in particular during both World Wars.
Princess Mary was born in 1897 during the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria, she was the third child and only daughter of the then Duke and Duchess of York, who would one day rule as King George V and Queen Mary. George and Mary’s children grew up in the cramped confines of York Cottage on the Sandringham Estate. The house being a weird conglomeration of assorted architectural styles. George took it upon himself to furnish the home using Maple and Co, a popular London based retailer and cabinet maker, despite his wife’s passion for interior design. As the future Duke of Windsor would later explain to his father’s official biographer Harold Nicolson, “Until you have seen York Cottage you will never understand my father. It was and remains a glum little villa. It is almost incredible that the heir to so vast a heritage lived in this horrible little house.”
George considered himself a naval man and he thus looked to his experience of the Navy in his parenting style. There was a strict adherence to punctuality, behaviour, and the correct attire and films still survive of the children carrying out military drills at a tender age. Yet despite these rather stifling surroundings, Mary was educated with a broad and somewhat innovative curriculum designed by her mother, Queen Mary, in academic as well as practical and domestic subjects and secretarial skills to ensure that she was not just prepared for every eventuality in her future but that she also developed a social conscience. Princess Mary shared many of her brothers’ lessons until they left for Osborne College to embark on their naval training. George V may have been strict but in his missives to his children sent from abroad whilst on tour, it is evident that he loved them. More than anything he wanted to ensure they comprehended their future position along with their duty. As the only girl, Mary was treated less harshly than her brothers.
With five brothers, it was little wonder that Mary developed a tomboyish personality and a propensity to mother younger children. She had scant experience of playing with girls of her age and since her mother was rather overpowering, she never really overcame her inherent shyness and timidity nor her slight speech impediment of rhoticism. For all her life Mary would struggle having to be centre spotlight at royal engagements to the extent that it caused her to become unwell, and thus she guarded her private life with steely determination.
George V ascended to the throne in 1910 with the momentous occasion of his Coronation in 1911, where his children played an integral role in celebrations. On the day of the Coronation, 22nd June 1911, it did not go unnoticed that Mary attempted to keep her rather boisterous brothers in check as they processed to the Abbey in their carriage. As Mary walked up the aisle of Westminster Abbey, she was said to have “won all hearts”with her grace and poise.
August 4th, 1914 signalled the start of the First World War. Whilst many naively hoped the war would be over by Christmas, it was to last four years and cause George V no end of anxiety since he and the German Kaiser were first cousins and grandsons of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg Gotha, with George and his family sharing their Germanic name.
George knew the family had to be visible to the public during the War to quell any sentiments of republicanism. He even kept a map recording the amount of public engagements each of his children carried out. Seeing her brothers carrying out active service, the slightly gauche seventeen-year old Mary, desperately wanted to do her bit in some way for the war effort. Her initial idea had been to use her own money to send a small Christmas gift to everyone working in the Armed services as a means to boost morale. However, the logistics involved meant that the project would be too complex to organise without a proper committee and the amount of servicemen would necessitate an appeal for fundraising. A request for donations written by Mary, appeared in the newspapers on November 15th 1914, and money soon came in thick and fast. Within a noticeably short period, £152,691 had been raised, the modern equivalent of over seventeen million.
The Princess Mary Gift Tin took the form of a small brass box containing tobacco and a Christmas card from the King and Queen and Princess Mary. The gifts proved to be an incredible success with many servicemen sending their tins home and to loved ones to keep for posterity. By the end of the War over two million gifts had been distributed. The success of the scheme can still be seen by the many that are still available to purchase on eBay. When Mary toured Canada decades later, war veterans would proudly bring out their treasured tins to show her.
Mary was not able to experience her first season of coming out as a debutante because of the War. Thus in 1918 when she reached her twenty-first birthday, she asked her father for a rather unusual gift; to be permitted to train and work as a paediatric nurse. Mary had already shown an interest in medicine and had listened to medical lectures given by Sir James Cattle at Buckingham Palace. Other princesses and members of the Royal Family had nursed before her, yet she would be the first child of a Monarch to undertake the rigorous training. In June 1918, the Gentlewoman magazine announced that, “Princess Mary has this week begun a regular course of practical nursing work at the Children’s Hospital. Great Ormond Street. It is understood that Her Royal Highness attends the hospital two mornings a week. The Princess is doing, under direction of the matron and sisters, exactly the same work as the other nurses, washing and dressing the babies and helping in the care of the older children.” The Princess impressed the matron on the Alexandra Ward, where she was stationed, with her desire to be treated exactly the same as other trainees. No job was off-limits. Queen Mary was eager to see her daughter at work and when she visited, she was struck by Mary’s unflappable nature and expertise. Mary ultimately trained in assisting on surgical wards. Mary’s public life later reflected her interest and understanding of nursing in hospitals. Throughout the late nineteen twenties and early thirties Mary resolved to visit as many hospitals in the country as she was able to.
After the First World War it was not easy to find a husband for Mary from the former European Royal houses. Queen Mary was anxious that she would not lose her daughter to some foreign Prince. Conscious of this, in 1917 George and Mary had put forward to the Privy Council that their children should be free to marry into aristocratic British families. In February 1922, Mary therefore married the heir to the Earldom of Harewood, Henry or ‘Harry’ Lascelles. Harry was fifteen years older than Mary, though he looked much older and he was immensely wealthy. Over the years few could comprehend the match since Harry could be somewhat pompous and appeared to be rather unattractive. Recently the Downtown Abbey film portrayed him as something of a brute scarred by post-traumatic stress from his time serving on the Western Front for the Grenadier Guards.
However, nothing could be further from the truth. The marriage was one of ideal companionship, sharing many common pursuits including horseracing, gardening, art and culture as well as a shared passion for rhododendrons. For Mary, who had always been somewhat outmoded for her age and preferred the company of older more serious people, it was an emancipation from her stifled life inside Royal Palaces with her parents. She had no wish to take on the role of spinster companion to her mother. Harry was cultured, intelligent and his wealth ensured that Mary would be free to maintain her private and public interests. When Harry died in 1947, Mary was utterly bereft. From that point on she refused to permit any changes at Harewood to any items that Harry had installed. She even took to having her Christmas Card portrait beneath a painting of him, as if Harry were of a similar mould to Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert.
Mary’s marriage to Harry meant a move to the North of England. At first, she made her home at the incredibly romantic Goldsborough Hall, before moving to Harewood in 1930 as Harry became the Sixth Earl. No expense was spared in the renovation of Harewood, making it a treasure house more akin to a Royal Palace with its extensive collections of art by the Grand Masters, its Capability Brown designed landscapes and its Chippendale furniture and Sèvres Porcelain. Harewood bloomed during Mary and Harry’s tenure and became a vibrant and cultural centre during the Thirties, with a plethora of Royal guests, race meetings, house parties and events. Culminating in the annual arrival of Queen Mary on her way to Balmoral. George V hated Harewood but with his preference for small, claustrophobic, and cluttered homes it is easy to see why.
To the people of Yorkshire amongst whom she lived for more than forty years, she was seen as their “Yorkshire Princess.” When she married in 1922, she could quite easily have given up her public life and retreated to the role of an affluent aristocrat’s wife, particularly when she moved down the order of succession. However, that strong sense of duty ensured that she would continue to carry out a vast number of public engagements philanthropic, civic, and regimental over the next forty years, as well as patronages of charities displaying her interests in agriculture, nursing, education, women’s services and equestrianism. Her attachment to any charitable cause was never perfunctory. In every engagement no matter how brief, she showed the same level of sincere interest to ensure that all felt valued. She held over fifty patronages including associations with the Leeds Triennial Festival and The Rose Society. She became Colonel in chief of regiments including The Royal Scots and The Royal Signals and upheld the position of Commandant-in-Chief of the British Red Cross Detachments. In an age before the true horrors of post-traumatic stress were understood, Mary was aware of the need to rehabilitate wounded and disabled soldiers, as well as support their families and assist them in returning to normality. In 1956 she was made an honorary General in the British Army for her work with servicemen. Throughout her life she maintained her interests in girl-guiding, serving as their President from 1920 until her death. As patron of the Yorkshire Ladies Council of Education, she was a firm advocate of the need for girls and women to be educated, especially within Higher Education. She became the first female Chancellor of a University when she accepted the position at Leeds in 1951.
In January 1932 George V created Mary the Princess Royal. During the Second World War, the Princess Royal was rarely seen out of her uniform of Chief Controller and later Controller Commandant of the Auxiliary Territorial Service and Harewood House was turned into a makeshift convalescent hospital, where Mary once again employed her nursing skills. She travelled the full length and breadth of the country visiting ATS units as well as canteens, and the five military command stations. It is not widely known that Mary was instrumental in a health campaign in 1941, encouraging people to donate blood to the Regional Blood Transfusion Service. At first, she recorded a radio broadcast but when donations were still few and far between, she agreed to give a blood donation at the Leeds School of Medicine in front of invited members of the Press. Within a week the Service recorded over ten thousand donations. Mary was also an instrumental pioneer in the emergence of the Keep Britain Tidy Campaign.
During Princess Mary’s lifetime she would witness no fewer than six sovereigns. She was a key witness to many historic events during the Twentieth Century and as the only daughter in a large family, she was frequently the glue which bound the others together. Mary was an inveterate letter writer and religiously wrote to each of her brothers informing them of family news and keeping a watch upon them. Perhaps the most significant of these was the Abdication crisis of 1936 in which Mary’s favourite brother, Prince Edward, known in the family as David, abdicated the throne in order to marry the twice-married American socialite Wallis Simpson. Throughout the Country the response from both David’s family and the man in the street was one of shock and incredulity. In her letters to David concerning his actions, we see a sister torn over her beliefs of duty to the crown and sacrifice for one’s country, against the love of a sibling and a desire to see him achieve personal happiness. Mary would remain torn throughout her life between her duty to her mother, to her family, to the Country and ultimately her loyalty to David.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, without the companionship of her husband, Mary’s public life appeared to take on something of a resurgence. She was frequently called upon to represent the Monarch at the Independence celebrations of Trinidad and Tobago in 1962 and Zambia in 1964. Her knowledge of royal traditions and ceremony was such that she was often consulted for advice.
Mary had two sons and towards the end of her life she took great consolation in her grandchildren. The need to make stately homes earn their keep meant that the Harewood Estate needed to open its gates on a regular basis to the public. Terrified of losing her privacy, Mary grew hedges in strategic places on the estate to keep out prying eyes.
Mary’s life was characterised by firsts. She was the first female chancellor of a University, the first Royal bride to pay her respects to the war dead on her wedding day, the first daughter of a reigning monarch to train and work as a nurse, the first female honorary General of the British Army, the first member of the royal family to devote much of her time to the North of England and the first to undertake a medical procedure in front of the Press.
Mary died in 1965 whilst taking a walk with her eldest son and grandchildren in the grounds of Harewood. Just as in life her passing was quiet and without drama. Amongst the hundreds of tributes for her was one in Parliament declaring that the reason for the respect and love she earnt from the British people particularly in the North was, “quite simply, she personified everything which to all of us simply seems to be good.” There can be no greater accolade for a princess.
Princess Mary The First Modern Princess by Elisabeth Basford and with a foreword by Hugo Vickers will be published by the History Press on 5th February 2021.
‘At last a biography of Princess Mary, the Queen’s aunt – and a good one … She has long deserved a full study and in Elisabeth Basford, she has found a dedicated and sympathetic biographer, who has done her full justice’ Hugo Vickers
You can pre-order the book here.