If ever there was a 20th century English princess that did things “correctly,” it would be George V’s daughter, Princess Mary. I say this mainly because the extent of what we don’t know about her could fill a book. She lived a life devoted to public duty, supporting her father, her brothers, Edward VIII and George VI and later her niece, Queen Elizabeth. Today, however, marks the anniversary of her wedding to Henry Lascelles, Earl of Harewood in 1922, and so we’ll take this opportunity to take a quick look at her life.
Mary was born on April 25, 1897 to George, Duke of York and his wife, Mary of Teck, Duchess of York at York Cottage on the Sandringham estate in Norfolk. She was her parents’ third child, joining her elder brothers, Princes Edward and Albert in the York nursery. At the time of her birth her great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, was still on the throne and her father was second in line to the throne, making her position mirror that of Princess Charlotte today. Notably, she was christened Victoria Alexandra Alice Mary, however Queen Victoria apparently proposed naming her “Diamond” in honor of her Diamond Jubilee which took place that year, marking her 60th year as queen.
In 1901 Victoria would die and Mary’s grandfather ascended the throne was Edward VII, while her parents were soon invested as Prince and Princess of Wales. Even so, little about Mary’s life initially changed given her parents’ devotion to living as quietly as possible. After Mary, three more brothers would join the household, Princes Henry, George and John, the last of whom appears to have suffered from epilepsy. He would eventually be moved to a separate household and died at the age of 13 in 1919.
Mary’s education was limited by modern standards, dictated primarily by a governess and occasional shared lessons with her brothers, who undertook more rigorous studies. In light of her more famous brothers’ royal careers, much has been made of the upbringing of the York children. The future George V was known to have been a strict father, eliciting fear from his sons and exacerbating the stammer of his second son, Prince Albert. His behavior towards his daughter appears to have been somewhat of an exception and he wasn’t nearly as hard on her as he was on his sons. In any event, Mary was close with her siblings, particularly Edward and Albert.
In 1910, when Mary was 13, Edward VII died and her father ascended the throne. The new King George and Queen Mary reluctantly moved their family to Buckingham Palace and life would change dramatically. Increased public duties meant that Mary saw less of her parents, while her older brothers began their careers in the military. In 1914 World War I broke out and Mary did her part to support the British cause by joining her mother on public engagements at hospitals and public welfare organizations. To mark Christmas of that year, the “Princess Mary’s Christmas Gift Fund” was set up, providing £100,000 worth of gifts for soldiers serving in the War. Over the course of the war, Mary would become deeply involved in nursing efforts and the Girl Guide movement, causes to which she would remain devoted for the rest of her life.
On November 20, 1921 Mary became engaged to Henry, Viscount Lascelles, the eldest son of the Earl of Harewood. He apparently proposed while visiting the Royal Family at York Cottage, which the King and Queen still used as a country estate instead of Sandringham House, which had been retained by George’s mother, Queen Alexandra, during her widowhood. Queen Mary wrote in her diary of the occasion:
“At 6.30 Mary came to my room to announce to me her engagement to Lord Lascelles! We then told G. (King George V) & then gave Harry L. our blessing. We had to keep it quiet owing to G. having to pass an order in council to give his consent. Of course everybody guessed what had happened & we were very cheerful & almost uproarious at dinner. We are delighted.”
The couple were married in Westminster Abbey on February 28, 1922, which notably marked the first royal wedding to take place there since Richard II married Anne of Bohemia in 1382. Of perhaps even more historical significance, however, was the fact that among Mary’s bridesmaids was Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, whom Mary’s brother, Prince Albert, was actively pursuing. After rejecting his first two proposals, Elizabeth finally accepted his third and the two were married in April 1923, also at the Abbey.
There are varying reports as to the happiness of the Lascelles’ marriage. Years after the wedding, rumors spread that Mary had only accepted Henry’s proposal due to pressure from her parents and that her oldest brother, Prince Edward, had been staunchly against it, horrified that his sister was being made to marry someone she didn’t love. Another rumor claimed that Henry only proposed after losing a bet at his club. Their son would later write in his memoirs, however, that his parents were well-suited and got along well.
Mary and Henry set up their base at Chesterfield House in London and took up Goldsborough Hall in Yorkshire as a country retreat. Less than a year after marrying, on February 7, 1923, Mary gave birth to her first son, George, at home in London. On August 21, 1924 she would give birth to her second and last child, Gerald. On October 6, 1929 Henry’s father died and he inherited the family earldom, and the young couple and their children officially moved into Harewood House in West Yorkshire.
In 1931 Mary’s aunt, Louise of Wales, Duchess of Fife died, opening up the title Princess Royal, typically held by the monarch’s eldest daughter. Edward VII had bestowed it upon his daughter in 1905 and on January 1, 1932, George V passed it along to Mary. Four years later, the King died and her brother, Prince Edward, began his brief and memorable reign as Edward VIII. Mary was remarkably close with Edward and, like many members of the family, was devastated by the events that unfolded over the course of 1936 and shocked when her brother abdicated. Though she was supportive of Albert when he ascended the throne as King George VI, she remained loyal to Edward for the remainder of her life and strongly disagreed with measures that excluded him from family events. Most notably, when the Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, married Prince Philip in 1947, Mary refused to attend on the grounds that Edward hadn’t been invited.
Shortly after the abdication, Mary visited her brother in Vienna, the only one of his siblings to come see him in the immediate years after his reign. She would be similarly supportive when Edward was in England in 1965 receiving medical treatment, visiting him in hospital as he recovered from surgery.
She continued her public duties on behalf of George VI, particularly once World War II broke out, during which time she served as chief controller of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, later the Women’s Royal Army Corps. She also became air chief commandant of Princess Mary’s Royal Air Force Nursing Service in 1950 and received the honorary rank of general in the British Army in 1956
Mary was widowed on May 24, 1947 and she spent the rest of her life continuing to live at Harewood House with her eldest son, George, and his family. When George VI died in 1952 and was succeeded by her niece, Elizabeth II, Mary attended her coronation in 1953 and represented her at the independence celebrations of Trinidad and Tobago in 1962. One of her last public appearances was in Sweden for the funeral of her cousin, Queen Louise.
While taking a walk on the grounds of Harewood House with her son and grandchildren Mary suffered a heart attack and died on March 28, 1965. She is buried in Yorkshire alongside her husband.