Henry Lascelles, 6th Earl of Harewood (1882-1947), was born the heir presumptive to one of the wealthiest aristocratic families in Northern England. The Lascelles family under his grandfather the 5th Earl still owned lucrative landholdings in Barbados as well as the magnificent Palladian mansion Harewood House in Yorkshire with its interiors by Robert Adam, furniture made by Thomas Chippendale and grounds landscaped by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.
Lord Lascelles was born at Goldsborough Hall on the Harewood estate that traditionally housed the heir to the title. The 5th Earl and his wife Lady Florence inherited the Earldom in 1892 and moved to Harewood House. Lord Lascelles’ upbringing was conventional. Privately educated, he entered the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and gained the rank of Captain in the Grenadier Guards. He fought in the First World War, was mentioned in dispatches and wounded twice.
An eccentric uncle and a royal princess would change the course of Lord Lascelles’ life and make a public figure of a quiet, unassuming northern landowner. In 1916 Lord Lascelles’ great uncle on his father’s side – Hubert George de Burgh-Canning, 2nd Marquess of Clanricade – died and left him a fortune. A notorious miser, absentee landlord and eccentric, the 2nd Marquess had taken to dressing as a tramp and haunting the royal parks of London. Lord Lascelles had, apparently, espied the old man and taken the trouble to spend an hour speaking with his relation despite his eccentric costume. This earned the Marquess’s endearment and his estate.
Now independently wealthy and titled Viscount Lascelles, the heir to the Earldom of Harewood was mooted as a suitable groom for Princess Mary the only daughter of King George V and Queen Mary. According to Kenneth Rose’s 1983 biography of King George V, ‘even before succeeding to the family estates, he had inherited a fortune of several million pounds from his eccentric great-uncle, Lord Clanricarde. The King shared his son-in-law’s interest in racing, the Queen his knowledge of pictures and furniture. “Being my only daughter” the King wrote, “I confess that I dread the idea of losing her, but thank God she will live in England”’.
Queen Mary recorded in her diary ‘we are delighted. They are both very happy and Mary is simply beaming. We like him very much & it is such a blessing to feel she will not go abroad. I personally feel quite excited as you can imagine. Mary is radiant & I am getting so fond of him & we get on very well’. The papers released by the Royal Archives to Queen Mary’s biographer James Pope-Hennessy appear to scotch rumours that the marriage was arranged and that the shy Princess Mary was unhappy. According to her eldest son the 7th Earl of Harewood in his memoir The Tongs and the Bones (1981), ‘our mother was never so happy in our eyes as children as when she and my father were embarked on some scheme together’.
Viscount Lascelles and Princess Mary married at Westminster Abbey in 1922. The bride was twenty-four and the groom thirty-nine. One of the bridesmaids was Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, future consort of King George VI and sister-in-law of Viscount and Viscountess Lascelles. The wedding was the first celebratory state occasion since the end of the First World War and newsreel footage of the ceremony inside the Abbey was the first of a British royal wedding. It was also the last state occasion that Dowager Queen Alexandra appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. The novelist E. M. Forster attended the wedding breakfast at St James’s Palace and apparently bowed to the cake mistaking the tower of confectionary for Queen Mary.
Viscount Lascelles is first recorded in the Henry Poole & Co ledgers in 1925. The firm lists his addresses as Goldsborough Hall in Yorkshire and Chesterfield House in London. If not quite as sumptuous as Buckingham Palace, Chesterfield House was one of the most splendid mid-eighteenth century Mayfair mansions with interiors in the French Rococo style. Lord Lascelles had bought Chesterfield House shortly before his marriage to Princess Mary.
Lord Lascelles had also amassed an important collection of English and Dutch Old Masters as well as paintings by Titian, Rubens and Longhi that hung in Chesterfield House. When he became 6th Earl of Harewood in 1929 and moved his family to Harewood House it was thought Chesterfield House was superfluous to requirements. The Earl and Countess already kept apartments in St James’s Palace. Chesterfield House was sold and tragically demolished in 1934.
In 1923 an heir Lord Gerald was born. The Salvation Army played Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild outside Chesterfield House and the reprobates at the Chelsea Arts Ball apparently cheered to the rafters when the birth of the King and Queen’s first grandson was announced over a megaphone. Having been made a Knight of the Garter the previous year, Lord Lascelles appeared to be moving ever closer to becoming a fully working member of the royal family.
But the Earl and Countess of Harewood (who was given the title Princess Royal in 1932) appeared contented with country life in Yorkshire away from the Court Circular even though they were invited to weekend with King George and Queen Mary at Windsor, spend Christmas at Sandringham and attend all state occasions up until King George V’s funeral procession in 1936. After the death of the Princess Royal’s father, the Harewoods appeared less frequently at the court of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
According to his son the 7th Earl, Lord Harewood was ‘a good judge of people and somebody who was amusing and who took pains at the same time to make serious things palatable’. Of his parents’ marriage, the 7th Earl wrote ‘they got on well together and had a lot of friends and interests in common’. The Earl and Countess put on a united front when after the abdication of her brother King Edward VIII, the Princess Royal insisted on seeing him in Vienna before his proposed marriage to Mrs Simpson.
According to Hugo Vickers’ 2005 biography Elizabeth The Queen Mother ‘the Daily Mirror printed a suggestion that the Princess had been sent out by George VI to dissuade the Duke from marrying. Lord Harewood noted that the Duke was dwelling under the misconception that Mrs Simpson was to be welcomed with open arms by the Royal Family’. The Earl and Countess of Harewood would continue to meet the Duke of Windsor in exile though it wasn’t until 1952 when Queen Mary’s health was failing that the Princess Royal acknowledged his Duchess.
The 6th Earl would not live to see his sons the Lords George and Gerald marry. With royal duties at a minimum – a result according to courtiers of the Princess Royal’s support for the Duke of Windsor – Lord Harewood dedicated the latter part of his life to his Yorkshire estates, his rank in the Freemasons as Grand Master and, from 1944, his position as Chancellor of Sheffield University. The 6th Earl of Harewood died in 1947 six-months before the marriage of the future Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh. The widowed Princess Royal did not attend and neither did her brother the Duke of Windsor.