A biography sheds a positive light on the life of Princess Mary, who was the Queen’s aunt and the Countess of Harewood, writes Catherine Turnbull.

WHEN the daughter of the reigning monarch King George V, sister to two future kings and aunt of the present queen was married to wealthy Yorkshire landowner Henry, Viscount Lascelles in Westminster Abbey in 1922, the enthusiastic cheering of huge crowds reached fever pitch in the capital.

It appeared to be a perfect patriotic and post-war PR exercise by the monarchy, to marry Great Britain’s only princess to the heir to an earldom, not a foreign prince. As many of Europe’s royal families fell, they changed their name from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, to Windsor. However, Mary had met her future husband through her eldest brother David (Edward VIII), at the Grand National.

A new study of Princess Mary, born in 1897, is a blend of biography and history, with no unexpected royal revelations – from her time growing up with five brothers at Sandringham and Buckingham Palace, to training as a nurse to moving to Yorkshire. She was immensely popular as a teenager for supporting the troops during World War One through a Christmas gift to every member of the armed forces in the British Empire, her work with the British Red Cross and her honorary presidency of the Girl Guides.

By the time Mary and Henry (Harry) Lascelles had settled into Goldsborough Hall, the heirs-in-waiting house for Harewood, and their first son George was baptised in the village near Knaresborough in 1923, the county’s people had taken the “Yorkshire princess” to their hearts. Her parents King George and Queen Mary arrived for the private ceremony, whilst people gathered from across the county, lining the street and standing on walls and roofs.

Instead of returning to the hall by the back door of the church, the royal party led the procession through the village to allow the keen spectators to see the royals and the baby. Later, postcards of the family at the Christening were produced as mementoes. Their second son Gerald was born in 1924.

Princess Mary with sons George and Gerald Lascelles, Harewood. c.1934. Credit HHT

Princess Mary with sons George and Gerald Lascelles, Harewood. c.1934. Credit HHT

Women in the village became used to seeing their princess out in her cart. More than 6,000 people attended a fete at the hall in 1925, where Mary worked behind a stall. When she opened to the public the grounds she had restored at Goldsborough, including her much-loved rose garden, as part of the National Gardens’ Scheme in 1928 (still in the NGS calendar today) more than 4,000 visitors helped raise £200. You can still see her beech hedge-lined borders, a vista, a lime tree avenue planed by various royal visitors, a sundial and cherry trees – a wedding gift from the emperor of Japan.

The princess brought the royals north – Queen Mary and King George were frequent visitors. It is well documented that the queen loved antiques and caused a stir by turning up at a dealer in Stonegate, York and rapping on the door. The princess liked to shop in Harrogate, carrying her own purchases to the car.

In 1929 the 5th Earl of Harewood died and his son Harry inherited the title. Mary and Harry had overseen a lengthy refurbishment of Goldsborough Hall and as she became Countess of Harewood, the mammoth ten-year task of modernising and renovating Harewood began. She was a keen collector and her dressing room with its restored Adam fireplace can still be seen by visitors along with her letters. The garden terraces she created are another legacy.

Harewood House

Harewood House

Teacher Elisabeth Basford from Barnsley has penned the first biography of Princess Mary in decades, with the subtitle: The First Modern Princess. She argues that Mary paved the way for Diana, the former Princess of Wales to tear up the rulebook, and for the Duchess of Cambridge “who is modernising the monarchy in spades”.

It is hard not to look at the image on the book’s front cover of the former princess royal, and not think that she was the spit of the current holder of that title, her great-niece Princess Anne. It is not only in looks that the pair have similarities. Both were excellent horsewomen and enjoyed their life on a country estate, farming and landscaping, whilst known as hard-working royals.

Mary was committed to a punishing, duty-bound existence of public engagements, but enjoyed a more private life at Harewood where she could pursue her interests in landscaping, interior decorating and cattle breeding. She also volunteered for many patronages across Yorkshire.

Basford has gleaned much research from The Tongs and the Bones, the 1981 memoir written by Princess Mary’s son George, who became the 7th earl. She also delved into the Royal Archives in Windsor, read many letters and diaries, and was helped by Clare and Mark Oglesby at Goldsborough Hall, the Harewood House Trust and many of the institutions of Mary patronised in the north of England.

“I always wondered why hardly anyone knew much about her, so I decided to research and write a book,” says Basford. “The more I researched, the more I realised how much the princess had achieved.”

Princess Mary

Princess Mary

The author admits that she only included positive stories about her subject. “I wanted to base the biography on her work, not her private life, because she did do a lot of good,” says the sympathetic biographer, who likes to set the record straight. “In any case, I didn’t discover anything controversial or bad. There have been some false stories about her, as rumours and gossip surround the royal family. For example, it is reported that she didn’t attend the wedding of the current queen in 1947 because Mary’s brother David (the former Edward VIII, then the Duke of Windsor) hadn’t been invited because of the abdication. That is fake news – it was because her husband the earl had died.

“Earlier in the 1920s Mary was besieged by the press. Her neighbours in Goldsborough looked out for her. I love the way that the people of Yorkshire took her to their hearts. It’s still a thrill to see the Italian terrace at Harewood and see the places she nurtured as a countrywoman.”

On the wider stage Basford believes that Mary pioneered the role of women in the modern monarchy. “When you think that she cared for men with PTSD after the war, found them work to rehabilitate them and understood them. She gave blood and campaigned for the blood donor service, she was a role model for young girls and women, she felt a compulsion to help others and volunteered for many of her patronages.

“I felt I knew her after my research. That’s a good sign.”

  • Princess Mary: The First Modern Princess, is published by The History Press in hardback at £20.