Mary was a shy and private person, who disliked fuss and that is why so many of her achievements have passed unnoticed. She was the daughter of King George V and the sister of two kings, Edward VIII and George VI. She was HM The Queen’s aunt. The recent Downton Abbey film featured the princess as unhappily married and rather forlorn. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Here are ten facts about her life and work from Princess Mary:
During the First World War in 1914, Mary came up with the idea of sending every serving member of the armed forces a Christmas gift. She launched an appeal and within a short period over £162,000 was raised, the modern equivalent of over £15 million. Recipients were given a brass tin containing a variety of items such as tobacco and chocolate. 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.
In 1918 when Mary 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. She was the first child of a Monarch to undertake the rigorous training at Great Ormond Street. 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. Mary’s public life later reflected her interest and understanding of nursing in hospitals.
In February 1922, Mary 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 but 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. 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. To the people of Yorkshire amongst whom she lived for more than forty years, she was seen as their ‘Yorkshire Princess.’
Mary 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.
As patron of the Yorkshire Ladies Council of Education, Mary 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.
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 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-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson.
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 Queen 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.
By Elisabeth Basford