This week I spoke to Assistant Curator & Archivist at Harewood House Rebecca Burton, about the relationship between HRH Princess Mary & the 6th Earl of Harewood – a relationship depicted in last year’s Downton Abbey movie.
Welcome to the very first ever episode of Past Loves, the new weekly history podcast that is going to take us through time telling the greatest love stories from history and, inevitably, their grittier realities as we explore affection, infatuation and attachment. I am so grateful that you have joined me today for the first ever episode. My name is Holly. I’m your true romantic host and it has been an absolute pleasure for me creating this podcast, taking in the lighter side of history. And I really hope that you’re going to enjoy it as much as I have talking to all of these incredible people in the world of heritage and academia. I hope that everyone is doing well. Of course, the moment life is a little bit darker than usual. And so I hope that this journey through the lighter side of history brings a little joy and a bit of romance to your daily lives.
This podcast really has been a passion project to me that I’m just thoroughly enjoying creating. Every episode will go live on Tuesdays and season one, we’re going to kick off with a conversation with the assistant curator and archivist at Harewood House, Rebecca Burton. Now this is really exciting for me, because Harewood House is incredibly beautiful and is quite nearby in the Yorkshire countryside. You’ll have seen it in loads of TV and film, because it is a stunning example of 18th century architecture – frankly, with art collections to rival the very finest in Britain. One of the period dramas that you might have seen recently was last year’s Downton Abbey film, where we met HRH Princess Mary and her husband the 6th Earl of Harewood, Henry (or Harry as he was known) Lascelles. And they are portrayed in the film to have a rather unhappy relationship. But today we’ll be delving into the archives to look more deeply at their love story, which I do believe personally, was a love story. As a preface, I’m not someone who I believe strongly in the pursuit of accuracy in historical dramas, because it’s entertainment at the end of the day rather than documentary, and I don’t find it throws me out of the storyline if things not entirely accurate, so hopefully this will just be a as entertaining portrayal of their relationship. I love Downton Abbey. It’s an incredible tour de force in terms of period dramas. And that’s why, with this relationship in the public consciousness, I really wanted to explore their relationship further, and Becky was kind enough to take us through the archives to look at some evidence and to discuss their life to get further.
So who was HRH Princess Mary? Princess Mary was the only daughter of King George V and Queen Mary, which makes her Queen Elizabeth’s aunt. It also means that two of her brothers somewhat overshadowed her life because obviously, Bertie became king and Edward had one of the most notorious love stories in the 20th Century (it’s certainly one I want to look into at some point, but that’s by the by). So Princess Mary is not as well known, and therefore, I think I love story is open to interpretation, there were a lot of rumours about their relationship over the years. But Becky and I are going to start by discussing who she was, the start of her relationship with Harry, and we’ll take it through into their life at Harewood which this year Covid permitting will have an exhibition called Becoming The Yorkshire Princess where you’ll be able to explore HRH Princess Mary’s role as a daughter, sister and, most importantly for here, a wife, and it gives an intimate glance into some of her closest relationships. We’ve been kind of given a little look into that. A little look into her life in general and, her relationship with Harry – what Harry was like and his family. I think we better just start. So here’s Becky and I delving into relationship between HRH Princess Mary and the 6th Earl of Harewood.
Holly: Welcome Becky and thank you for joining me today.
Becky: Hi, Holly. It’s good to be here.
H: So today we’re gonna talk about Princess Mary and the 6th Earl of Harewood. I’m really interested in how by World War One, she was very much a young woman, and she kind of took on a lot of charity work, didn’t she?
B: Yeah, that’s probably what Princess Mary is best known for I guess, and specifically,, her gift box campaign during the First World War. So this was a campaign essentially designed to send a Christmas gift to every man and woman fighting in the king’s uniform on Christmas Day in 1914. It was a huge success. Over 2,500,000 of these small brass gift boxes were sent and delivered. They kind of each contained a variety of different contents, depending on who you were. Obviously these were met with huge praise from soldiers and nurses who kind of really needed that gesture, you know, at a time when they were thinking of home. So that’s probably how she’s best known today.
H: So she it’s very all the royal spirit. And I think something that interests me whilst I was researching Princess Mary is kind of quite how good at being a royal she was. She was very quietly going along with all of this charity work, and she just really knew her place in the society as a whole, didn’t she? She was quite good at that.
B: Yeah, definitely. She took her sense of royal duty very seriously, and that’s throughout her life. So from when you know, she was a teenager doing the gift box campaign, you know, right through to the end of her life and she was engaging in royal engagements, going on international trips abroad and domestic ones as well. She had military roles. As well as, you know, she was patron of many different organisations such as the girl guides, for instance as well. So she had a lot of kind of interest in doing work for the public good.
H: And so I read somewhere that it was a concern that she was going to be a royal spinster.
B: Oh, I’ve not heard that one actually. I suppose. I mean, she got engaged when she was 24. So I suppose that is comparatively quite old for princesses of the time. But obviously the war was, well I imagine a war was, quite a big influence in that because obviously, she couldn’t engage socially or be sort of presented. I guess at court in the same way that she would have had the war not happened. So I guess in that sense her marriage was most likely delayed.
H: So how did she meet Henry Lascelles who was the 6th Earl of Harewood?
B: Well at the time that he was Viscount Lascelles and he didn’t come Earl until sort of later, 1929 to be precise. But in terms of kind of how they met, this is a question I don’t have a definite answer to. Don’t know for certain. But I can tell you the impression I get from the evidence that I’ve seen. So Viscount Lascelles, obviously, was of an aristocratic heritage. He was also one of the wealthiest men in the country, too. And he would have been moving in much the same circles kind of as Princess Mary, anyway. Actually, when they got engaged, there were reports at the time that he was first presented to Mary whilst he was on leave during the First World War, but actually, it’s quite likely they may, you know, met each other before this actually. So it’s hard to pinpoint exactly the moment when they met. But, in the year of 1921 which was the year they got engaged, I think this is kind of a crucial year. Mary seems to be kind of going on an increased amount of social engagements and the name Lascelles starts to crop up in various sources. So I think this was the year when they really started to get to know each other, and the Viscount Lascelles really entered Mary’s circle of friends. So, for example, we’ve got quite an interesting book which is sort of a visitors book, in a way. But it belonged to Mary kind of personally, so she would have taken this wherever she was, you know, so that she could, I suppose, keep track of who she’s meeting. You can see Lascelles’ name, for example, cropping up at Windsor Castle – he was there during Royal Ascot week in June. He was at Balmoral in August and October when the family were there, he was at various house parties as well. The main one being one at Chatsworth in October/November 1921. So not long at all before they got engaged. He’s there doing all these interesting things with the house party. There’s a couple of different interesting letters actually written by Mary to both her mother and brother, George, that kind of records what she was doing. And actually, interestingly, Lascelles only gets a mention in her letter to her brother George. Just a brief mention, but not to her mother interestingly. Anyway, she tells her about how strangely she blew up a line quarry, they played golf, they helped The Devonshires with gardening, there was a fancy dress party. So a lot of different things. But interestingly, in some of the lessons of kind of congratulations that Harry’s mother received after the engagement, there was a letter from the Duchess of Devonshire kind of insinuating over the part that the pair had got along very well at this part and that they were, you know, kind of expecting the announcement to come imminently. You kind of get the sense that their relationship really blossoms during that period.
H: And so I was on the 28th of November in that year that they got engaged. And what was the reaction from the family?
B: Yes so the proposal itself actually happened at Sandringham. So Viscount Lascelles was staying at York cottage. There was a shooting party and Mary again wrote another interesting letter actually recounting the engagement to a brother, she says, Imagine my surprise when he asked me whether I will marry him. I was rather taken aback, but at the same time rather pleased. I have known Harry for some time, and I feel we have much in common. He’s 39 and I am 24. He’s charming and very intelligent, and I know how lucky I am in having such a particularly nice man as a fiance. So she seems to be, you know, happy about the whole thing.
H: Yeah that’s very sweet.
B: Yeah, and of course after that moment, she immediately goes off to tell the parents obviously asked for their approval. Of course, and that’s something that Mary acknowledges. She certainly wouldn’t have been able to marry him if their parents hadn’t agreed to it. But Queen Mary also records the whole thing in her diary, as well and talks about how uproarious they were at dinner, even though they were trying to keep it a secret at this point. It seems that the two families were very happy for them. Actually, people have asked me quite a lot whether it was an arranged marriage. Yeah, because obviously you know, princesses at the time or earlier I suppose, were often married off to members of particularly members of the European royal families, for example. But I suppose sort of the impression I get from the evidence that would suggest otherwise, you know, that seems to be a real kind of sense of surprise both with Mary and her family’s kind of reaction to the engagement and at Harewood there doesn’t seem to be any sense of kind of anticipation that this is kind of coming from the first time Princess Mary and Queen Mary actually visit Harewood was after the engagement. So I don’t know I think perhaps we’d expect a little more familiarity between the two families if it was an arranged marriage, which that doesn’t seem to be so that’s that’s a sense that I get anyway.
H: Definitely. Isn’t there also a rumour that it was because of the loss of a bet that he had to propose?
B: Yeah, I heard that rumour as well. Don’t know where that rumour comes from.
H: No it’s odd isn’t it?
B: I’d love to know where or why that kind of rumour surfaced. Again I haven’t found anything in the archives that would suggest that’s true.
H: It’s one of those weird wives kind of tales that you come across on the internet, but actually, yeah, I couldn’t see how it would relate to reality at all – especially considering kind of how especially Queen Mary wrote in her diary about saying “Of course everyone guessed what happened.” It didn’t feel like it was in any way arranged at all.
B: Uh, no, absolutely.
H: So if we talk about Henry’s family a bit more and him and his life within that family because obviously, this is the two families coming together. So Henry was quite senior to Princess Mary. He was born in 1882. And did he grow up at Harewood?
B: He did and Goldsborough Hall as well, which was a traditional home of the Viscount Lascelles. So just to explain, obviously, Henry or Harry as he was known by his family, he was a son of the 5th Earl and Countess of Harewood. Harry spent certainly a part of his childhood living at Goldsborough Hall when his father was by Viscount Lascelles, then obviously when his father became Earl they moved into Harewood. And certainly, he spent a good portion off his childhood and teenage years there, So he would have known Harewood very well by the time of his engagement really certainly with Mary. He was obviously 39 when he got engaged and obviously, I guess at this point he wasn’t a spring chicken as you say. He was already quite worldly wise, he’d already fought by this point in the Great War. He was a captain in the Grenadier Guards, and he was a distinguished war veteran. And he’d also served various attaché posts in Paris and Canada as well in the embassies there. I guess what he was most famous for, really, at the time of his marriage was the large amount of money that he’d inherited from his great uncle, the 2nd Marquis of Clanricarde in 1916 which certainly would have made him one of the most eligible bachelors, I guess of the day. So to explain this: He basically inherited about £2,500,000 actually skipping a generation in doing so, much to the 5th Earl’s frustration, which basically allowed him to, I suppose, indulge his passion for Italian art which is why Harewood has such a wonderful old masters collection today.
H: And so they had quite the royal wedding in 1922 didn’t they? It was at Westminster Abbey. It was the first royal wedding covered by Vogue. It was a big event.
B: Yeah, absolutely. So Mary and Harry got married on I think it was the 28th of February 1922. It was a huge event and a real time for national rejoice very much like, I guess Royal weddings today. There were crowds lining the streets and street parties. All sorts of memorabilia was made, so obviously the press response was kind of massive. As you say they got married in Westminster Abbey and they had the wedding breakfast at Buckingham Palace. But actually, on the same day, they left for their honeymoon as well. So they went to..they spent a week in Shropshire at Western Park and then on to Italy, to Florence specifically, where they stayed at the Villa Medici.
H: Oh Beautiful. So that is a real royal wedding, as we’d know it today.
B: Mary’s dress was made by the London fashion House Reville. The designer was a man called William Wallace Terry and he was a court dressmaker to Queen Mary. So quite conservative choice in that respect. However the dress was, I think, quite of its time. It’s sort of very 1920s in style, very tubular, quite up and down. It hangs from the shoulders with quite a low waistline and basically consisted of kind of like an under dress made of silver lamé so sort of silver thread and there’s a silk sort of marquisette overdress over the top of that which is made of a gauzy kind of material that is then decorated by crystal beads and pearls being a sort of trellis design so it that really would have had quite a shimmery, beautiful effect as a dress. And then, of course, you’ve got the train kind of made of the highest quality silk woven in England actually. It was this that was decorated with the silver embroidered flowers of the Empire. So for the UK, you have the rose, the daffodil, the shamrock and the thistle represented. And then for the wider Empire British Empire. You’ve got Indian lotuses, New Zealand ferns, Canadian maples amongst others. You know, all very kind of symbolic of this kind of, you know, I suppose of the British Empire.
H: You have a reproduction of this wedding dress don’t you in the exhibition?
B: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Definitely saw reinterpretation off the dress, which was made quite recently by costume designer, for film and TV. Rosalind Ebbutt. We asked to sort of make this, not, an exact historical replica but her sort of interpretation of it, as it would be as she would produce for I don’t know, a film or a TV drama. So we did lots of historical research with Ros on, you know the dress itself. We looked at a lot of photographic evidence and also read the descriptions of the dress as well in the press and such, like, and then she went away and sort of did her usual kind of creative process and produced this kind of wonderful dress for a us which you know really helps you understand what the dress would have looked like back in the 1920s. The dress I mean, we have got the real dress, amazingly, in the collection, but it is just so fragile now. The materials are just, you know, so fragile. It’s almost 100 years old, we just can’t sort of display in the same way. And the actual material of the fabric is a quite a different colour to what it would have been. This new kind of interpretation of the dress really gives you a sense of what it might look like. and the visual impact.
H: Yeah, I watched the video (I think it was on the Pathé website) and they had the video of them in Westminster Abbey and it was so lovely in the midst of quite an economic depression after the First World War to have this really big event. It must have been very spectacular, for them as a couple to kind of be experiencing it and then for the public has a whole enjoying a royal wedding, which we all love at the end of the day.
B: Yeah. No, absolutely. And, you know, it was kind of acknowledged at the time, I think it was Mary’s brother Bertie who obviously go on to become king, I think he called it something like “It’s not Mary’s Wedding, but it’s the people’s wedding” kind of thing, you know. The public were just so wrapped up in it all and you certainly imagine how that would be.
H: Yeah and I think it’s another testament to the romance of them as a couple.
B: Yeah, well, it was certainly reported on at the time as a love match which is quite unusual. Well, it sounds unusual now because their marriage has been depicted recently as not being a love match I guess with obviously the Downton Abbey film, where their relationship is really quite explored in the characters’ plot line. That’s quite different.
H: They had seven years before, they then moved to Harewood so that Henry could become the 6th Earl of Harwood.
B: That’s right. So initially, after their marriage that moved into Goldsborough Hall in Yorkshire which is near Knaresborough which is kind of as I said the traditional seat of the Viscount Lascelles – so the heir of the Earl of Harwood. And actually, there is a really nice passage in one of the letters sent by Harry to Mary during their engagement, where he says he’s kind of relieved that, you know, she’s been to Goldsborough, and actually, that she likes it and that she doesn’t think it’s too small. He knew she wouldn’t find it small or that she wouldn’t like it, but he wasn’t quite sure what the Queen might think which gives you a bit of an insight into, I suppose, his relationship with his in-laws and his concerns that perhaps, you know, even though he’s from, this obviously rather grand family, anyway, that it wouldn’t be grand enough for a Princess.
H: Yeah, it’s very thoughtful of him to kind of be a bit concerned. So running the Lascelles family seat at Harewood must have been quite the up taking for them as a couple.
B: Yeah, definitely. So obviously Henry became the 6th Earl of Harewood in 1929 after the death of his father, which is obviously when they can then move into Harewood properly. You know, like any anybody moving into a new house. There’s always a period of kind of renovation and modernisation. Mary commissions Sir Herbert Baker to redesign her dressing room. So this was executed in the neoclassical style, made to complement Robert Adam’s interiors of the rest of the house, and it was very personal space to her. So, for example, again, there were a lot of floral references. She was a very keen gardener, so we see these kinds of floral symbols coming back time again. So the flowers of the empire on the ceiling, very much like a wedding dress, Flora, goddess of flowers, is depicted kind of essentially in the niche of the dressing room sort of surveying the rest of the room and as well as floral references, she also has kind of the kind of symbolic things that are important to her. So, for example, she was the patron of the girl guides, so the sort of a girl guide trefoil included there, as well as the insignia off the Royal Scots incorporated too. Lots of very personal things in her dressing room but of course, there were other rooms around the house that were renovated and improved during the tenure as well. For example, the yellow drawing room was then called the rose drawing room. So they upholstered it with a kind of pinkish coloured damask. They re-upholstered the Chippendale furniture in there. The Spanish library the 6th Earl added the Spanish leather – apparently this was to cover up some kind of paint work that he disliked.
H: They’re making it there home.
B: Exactly. Yeah. And as well as the more visual renovations, there were also very practical improvements as well. So things that the plumbing and the heating were improved as well, just to make it much more comfortable house to live in.
H: And then, obviously they had all of the farming pursuits that also were required when you take on a place like Harewood.
B: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, they both obviously enjoyed a country life, country living, and the estate obviously meant a huge amount to them personally, but also, you know, from a productive point of view, many improvements were made. They also kind of renovated certain areas of the gardens and landscape such as the walled garden, for example. New glass houses were built. A rock garden was developed as well. Yeah, as I say, in terms of improvements to the estate, Princess Mary was particularly interested in Red Poll cattle, for example, and she had a prizewinning herd. And of course, both of them had a love of horses as well, seeing a lot of interest in outside of things.
H: So they had two children, two boys.
B: That’s right. So George came along about a year after their wedding day in February 1923. So that’s George Lascelles, who went on to become the 7th Earl of Harewood, and then Gerald who was born in the summer of 1924 as well. And, of course, they lived at Goldsborough during this period.
H: So one of the things that I really enjoyed was their son George’s memoir that he wrote. And he said “our mother was never so happy in our eyes as children, as when she and my father were embarked on some scheme together.” That really seems to present a lovely family unit in the house.
B: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, both Harry and Mary enjoyed many similar interests, I’ve just already mentioned the fact that they’re both very much into country life, riding, shooting, hunting, racing – obviously both real horse lovers, I guess. They were both keen gardeners as I said, real interesting kind of horticulture. And together they actually developed the rock garden, which is now called the Himalayan Garden. So they saw the introductions of various new plants, particularly rhododendrons, which is something that, again George remembered as being something that they used to go out and kind of tend to and cut back together and certainly, in Mary’s letters, barely a letter to goes by without her mentioning which flowers on the estate were in bloom, what was going on work wise in the garden and then, as well gardening you got both of them had a real appreciation for the fine and decorative arts as well. They were collectors. They had a passion for things and that similar collecting mindset. So the 6th Earl with his old masters but Princess Mary had her collections of jade and amber, as well as her fans and Faberge that she collected – very similar collecting habits to her mother, Queen Mary, who was quite famous for being called a kind of magpie. Mary also collected decorative owls, too, which is quite a novel thing.
H: An unusual one..
B: Yeah, definitely quite an unusual one and actually nobody’s really sure where her passion for owls actually came from. Although it is quite a coincidence that Leed’s symbol is actually an Owl, so maybe that had something to do with it. Not quite sure.
H: It seems that they, you know, from that that they led quite a contented life in the country is there anything else from the archive that we can see highlights their relationship?
B: I think obviously there are rumours that their marriage wasn’t a happy one. But, if I’m honest I’m not exactly sure why that this was said or where these sort of rumours came from everything I’ve seen in the archives so far, which I guess might make this soft of slightly one sided or restricted view and obviously, I haven’t been through absolutely every bit of the correspondence either so, I’ll just preface it with that the impression I get is that they were very happy and I haven’t so far seen anything to indicate otherwise. So Harry’s letters to Mary, they’re always very affectionate. He’s always kind of wishing to be reunited with her. There’s always lots of expressions of love as he signs off his letters. But he’s always interested in what she’s doing. He often asks her for her opinion and advice on things as well. And then, actually, unfortunately, I haven’t found any of Mary’s correspondents to her husband. So sadly we haven’t got the return correspondence so maybe that will show up one day. But you know, it is possible to get a sense of her relationship with Harry from what she says, her mother, as well as her brother for which we have her letters to them. You can kind of tell she thinks the world of him and the children as well, often reporting on what they’ve been doing, what Harry thinks of something or you know sort of explaining to whoever she’s writing, too, about what kind of projects that they’re working on. You don’t get the impression at all that there’s anything unhappy.
H: When Henry dies in 1947, so just after the end of the Second World War, what happens to Mary?
B: Harry dies of pneumonia in 1947. He’s 65 I think and left Marry a widow at 50. Mary continued to live at Harewood so she lived with George who obviously became the 7th Earl of Harewood. There was a huge amount of death duties to be paid after Harry’s death, and I think they were set at 70% off all inherited wealth, so there’s a huge amount of sales, both of land, but also for the contents of Harewood as well. Mary lived in Harewood basically until her death in 1965.
H: Now, I read somewhere that, according to the historian Marlene Koenig, I think that’s how you pronounce it I don’t know, that their son said that Mary found it hard to cope afterwards in a kind of I got the sense that he was trying to continue his point of view that they were very happy together.
B: Yeah, I read similar things, definitely. Unfortunately, I haven’t had much opportunity to look through Mary’s archives from her later life. I haven’t really had the chance to kind of compare, for example, her correspondence after Harry’s death with that of before, but I’m absolutely sure that George’s assessment of the fact she would essentially be lost without you would be quite an accurate statement definitely.
H: And I think as a legacy as a couple, you can definitely when you go around, Harewood, you can feel them both there.
B: Yeah, absolutely. Well, not least obviously, because of, you know, Princess Mary’s dressing room which is a key area on the state floor dedicated to Mary. There’s references throughout, particularly in terms of the wedding presents that they received as well. I was recently able to have a look at and study the lists that were produced upon their wedding of all the presents that they got. So try and cross reference those with the object still left in the collection, and you can literally find something in pretty much every room of the house that was a wedding present. I mean, literally, they received over over 1000 wedding presents and many of them remain in the house. Any room you go in really, you can make a connection to Mary or Harry or something that they collected or something that relates to them in some sense or another. So yeah, absolutely, their presence just still very much felt.
H: Thank you so much for talking to me. I think that’s a lovely finish. I have really enjoyed listening to the story about Princess Mary and Harry Lascelles because it’s very easy to get a very quick snapshot into life and to get an assumption of what marriage is like. But to be able to take this time to really discuss it in detail, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. So thank you so much.
B: You’re welcome.
H: And thank you so much for listening. Make sure that you keep an eye on Harewood House’s website for more details about their exhibition Becoming The Yorkshire Princess and when it will be open. Hopefully, at some point we’ll be able to resume our beloved trips to museums and stately homes and this is really not be missed. Harewood House is just beautiful. And if you have never been incredible, you must go. And if you have been, it is probably time for another visit. In fact, they even have penguins, did you know? That’s a fun fact about Harewood House. They have penguins. So in the rolling hills of Yorkshire, you’ll never know what you find. That’s kind of how I feel with this relationship. It’s been an utter joy discovering more about Princess Mary, I feel like she’s often overshadowed by her two brothers and the 6th Earl of Harewood. It seems to me that they had a really sweet relationship and there is something to be said about relationships that endure over time and leave a lasting legacy. To me, that is how you create a great love story. And if you do have time, I mention that their wedding is on the British Pathe website, there’s gonna be linked in the show notes do watch yet it is wonderful, and it kind of betrays just how joyous the events of that marriage was. It does look like a royal world wedding. So if you have enjoyed this very first episode of Past Loves, make sure that you subscribe so that you’ll have every single episode as soon as possible and if you’ve thoroughly enjoyed the podcast comment with perhaps your favourite period drama. I’d love to know what you’ve been watching during lockdown and you can also come visit me over on the Past Loves podcast Instagram – it’s @pastlovespodcast, of course, until soon!