Warning: Light spoilers ahead for the Downton Abbey movie.
Downton Abbey has gone from historical drama to crossover biopic, at least in part, with the feature length film of the beloved series. While the fictitious estate with all of its upstairs and downstairs residents holds a very real place in our hearts, we’re now putting on our finest sleuthing hats to find out whether the royal visit to the Grantham’s Yorkshire home in 1927, and Princess Mary’s relationship drama, was based on real events.
While we are obviously over the moon to see the cast of Downton Abbey back on our screens, big or small, as they entertain King George V, Queen Mary, and their daughter, Princess Mary, the subplot we are most curious about is the storyline about Princess Mary and her husband, Viscount Lascelles. The film alludes to them having a troubled marriage, so much so that Princess Mary considers leaving her husband. We can never truly know what goes on behind closed doors in the private lives of public figures, but it seems that the reality is far more nuanced than the new movie would have viewers believe.
Princess Mary married Viscount Henry Lascelles in 1922. He was heir to the fifth Earl of Harewood, a wealthy Yorkshireman. He inherited the estate, Harewood House in 1929, which makes an appearance in the Downton Abbey film. No doubt they would have visited the estate before then, which would explain why the royal family might be in Yorkshire. It was common practice among the royal family to regularly pay visits to the country estates of aristocratic families, reports Time. King George V and Queen Mary reportedly enjoyed making these visits, as King George V was an avid hunter. As we know from the six seasons of Downton Abbey, the Crawley family share this interest.
According to Town & Country Magazine, King George V and Queen Mary did actually visit Highclere Castle, the real-life estate which serves as the fictitious Downton Abbey; however, their visit was in 1917, according to their signatures in an old house guestbook. Julian Fellowes, the creator or Downton Abbey, shared with Vanity Fair that her biggest inspiration for the story came from a 1912 royal visit to Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire.
Princess Mary is often overlooked in history, not just because she was a woman at a time when women were rarely paid attention to in history books, but because her two older brothers took centre stage. Her eldest brother, Edward, abdicated the throne in 1936, leaving it to his younger brother, Albert, who would become King George VI, father to Queen Elizabeth II. With an upheaval like that, it is easy to fade into the background. Even easier if you didn’t want the spotlight in the first place — Princess Mary was supposedly quite shy.
This isn’t the first time Princess Mary has been mentioned in the series. In season 2 when Sybil makes her case to contribute to the war effort and become a nurse, she cites Princess Mary as a perfect example of why a member of England’s upper class should be allowed to work in a hospital treating wounded soldiers. Princess Mary spent most of World War I working a few nights a week as a nurse. All the while, she was feeling the pressure to find a suitable husband. Family and tabloids reportedly speculated that her lack of focus on finding a husband would result in her being single the rest of her life.
As tabloid papers are wont to do with the royal family even today, nasty rumours circulated about Princess Mary even after she was engaged. Rumours ranged from Viscount Lascelles, who was 15 years older than her, only marrying her because he lost a bet to Princess Mary being pressured to wed him as good publicity for the newly established House of Windsor. What we do know is that her ceremony was the first Royal Wedding to be covered by Vogue. Questionable motivations aside, they married in 1922 and went on to have two sons. One of their sons, George, wrote a memoir in 1981 that suggests that his parents’ marriage was much happier than later accounts let on. In his book, The Tongs and the Bones, he said his parents had many shared friends and interests. “Our mother was never so happy in our eyes as children as when she and my father were embarked on some scheme together,” he wrote.
Viscount Lascelles and Princess Mary eventually moved to Harewood House and shared a quieter life on the 100-acre estate. They never addressed the rumours of their contentious marriage.