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Jubilee Year Princess
Victoria Alexandra Alice Mary, known to history as Princess Mary, Princess Royal, Countess of Harewood, was born on the 25th April 1897 at York House on the Sandringham estate in Norfolk. She was the third child and only daughter of King George V (1865-1936) and his wife, Mary (1867-1953), called Georgie and May by the royal family.
It was Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee year, hence the tribute to her in the baby’s name, but Mary was in honour of her maternal grandmother Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge, Duchess of Teck, who was beloved by the public and had recently survived a health scare. Sadly, the duchess passed away on the 26th October 1897 after emergency surgery.
George V was prone to shout at his sons as if they were his navy crews but with Mary, George was more lenient and softer-toned. Although she was made to march up and down and behave impeccably as David, Bertie, Henry, George and Johnnie were, she was also her father’s favourite child and rarely displeased him. She felt less pressure from him and their relationship was close.
A 20th Century Princess
Princess Mary was intelligent, shy, compassionate and dutiful. She may have found public speaking difficult, but she was a trailblazer. Very little criticism of her occurred during her sixty-eight years.
Mary had the drive to realise her wish of sending a gift box to British soldiers in France and sailors at Christmas 1914, the first festive season of World War One. At first, she wanted to fund the project entirely, until it was pointed out to her that it would cost far more than her allowance to complete the task. Fundraising led to the Princess Mary Christmas Gift Boxes still being issued to soldiers in 1920.
She became a qualified nurse. In 1918, she had to plead with her father for the privilege of doing a “day job” but she had no intention of learning how to help people without making it official and herself of great use to her patients. During her training at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, she was not spared from the unpleasant tasks. She didn’t want to be treated differently. Her parents were proud of her determined efforts and caring nature. She specialised in paediatrics and was forever interested in nursing developments and people's welfare.
A Valuable Asset
Whether she was at her stables or races, helping on a stall at a charity fair or talking to diplomats and royalty at a palace, she was a very down-to-earth and pragmatic lady. She hated fuss around her. Mary had been brought up to recognise that she was not to be served but was to serve the people.
She was a fully invested patron of numerous organisations and felt that she should be much more than a name on a letterhead. She wanted to be a valuable contributor and advocate of whatever cause or institution she worked for. From the British Girl Guide Association to the Auxillary Territorial Service, she travelled around Britain motivating members and championing their endeavours.
When people were needed to donate blood in 1941, the number of volunteers was low so Mary literally rolled up her sleeve and donated blood in front of the cameras so that her confidence in the process would spur people into action. It did—blood donations soared.
Chancellor of Leeds University
She advocated female higher education and equality at a time when the mindset was still largely that women should be content to remain at home and pop out children. She was the first female chancellor of any university in the UK when appointed the chancellor of Leeds University in 1951. She was at the forefront of the initiative to award royal women honorary university degrees.
She often carried out five or more visits a day and took pains to follow up on stories and incidents that she learned of. After frenetic and demanding tours she would often fall into a period of illness. It has been suggested that she suffered a nervous breakdown caused by the level of work and the stress on her system in the 1930s.
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Henry "Harry" Lascelles
She married “Harry,” Henry Lascelles, Viscount Lascelles (1882-1947), the heir to the earldom and property of Harewood in Yorkshire on the 28th February 1922. The service took place at Westminster Abbey and one of her bridesmaids was Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon who, the following year, married Mary’s brother Bertie (George VI.) Mary was the first royal to leave her wedding bouquet at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.
Although over the decades rumours have persisted that she was forced by her parents into an unhappy marriage, indications from letters and eyewitnesses reveal a love match, a meeting of minds and interests and of a strong husband and wife team.
The North of England’s population adopted her as their own. Royal visits to the north were rare so to have a princess living and working “up north” was significant. Moreover, the people of Yorkshire guarded Mary’s privacy and sent journalists away without any royal gossip. Queen Mary visited her more than George V at her first home in the county, Goldsborough Hall, and later at Harewood House when the couple had become the 6th Earl and Countess of Harewood. George V did not care for Harewood House, it was too large for his tastes. Mary and Harry used Chesterfield House as their London home for the first years of their marriage.
They had two sons, George (1923-2011), who became the 7th Earl of Harewood, and Gerald (1924-1998.)
Mary, the Princess Royal and Widow
With the 1931 death of Edward VII’s daughter Louise, Duchess of Fife, the Princess Royal, Mary was created, a mark of distinction awarded to the eldest daughter of a monarch.
Her way of dealing with the abdication crisis and subsequent events was effectively to separate the person from the issue. David was her beloved brother, but his actions were anathema to her. Devoted and sympathetic to George VI (Bertie), she did not mention Wallis Simpson in letters to her brother David (Edward VIII) for many years after his marriage to her. She did not meet Wallis until 1962 when she was on an overseas tour.
After Harry’s death in 1947, she was devastated. For five years or so she functioned but without the fervour of previous years. She never totally recovered from the loss. However, her widowhood led to extensive travels on behalf of Elizabeth II in the 1960s.
On the 28th March 1965, she was walking on the Harewood estate with George, 7th Earl of Harewood and two grandchildren when she fell ill. The children were sent to the house to get help. Waiting, she sat on a bench next to her son, where she died from a heart attack. Her passing was so serene that he did not realise that she was gone.
That appears to have been Mary’s way. Get on with the task quietly and effectively. No fuss.
- Basford, Elisabeth. Princess Mary: The First Modern Princess. Cheltenham, London, 2021
- Princess Mary, Princess Royal, Countess of Harewood | Unofficial Royalty
- HRH Princess Mary - Harewood House
- The History Press | Ten Things You May Not Know About Princess Mary
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on September 03, 2021:
Thank you for another great story on an unsung Royal.