Cross-Generational Romance in Real Life

Did a Royal Love Story inspire Downton Abbey’s Lady Edith-Sir Anthony Romance?

I’ve always been fascinated by older man–much younger woman romances. Scarlett and Rhett were my gateway couple, then Charles and Diana, which sadly wasn’t a success.

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American viewers of Julian Fellows’ Downton Abbey are waiting to see the wedding of Lady Edith Crawley to the much older Sir Anthony Strallan (played brilliantly by Robert Bathurst). But what many viewers may not imagine is that Fellows inspiration for the couple could very well have been the marriage in February 1922 of King George V’s only daughter, Princess Mary, to the then Viscount Lascelles (he became Earl of Harewood a few years later). [Note: Royal Weddings were becoming a big show in this generation, but not so big that the Prince of Wales had to come home for the wedding–he was in India on tour when the wedding took place.]

Henry (“Harry”) Lascelles was born in 1882 while his bride, Princess Mary, didn’t come along until 1897. While not quite as large an age gap as the “quarter century” often thrown about on Downton, it was still a substantial age difference to overcome. Many royal books describe Lascelles as “unfeeling” or similar, but according to one who should know–the couple’s eldest son, George–theirs really was a love match. Princess Mary had much in common with her famously reserved parents. King George and Queen Mary truly had a loving marriage, but had to express their love thru letters and notes (well, that and the birth of six childen in 11 years!).

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“My parents got on well together and had a lot of friends and interests in common. Someone years later said to my first wife…that she had always felt sorry for my mother ‘married to that cold, hard man,’ but, though she was doubtless out primarily out to make mischief, she had it all wrong. My mother was never so happy to our eyes as children as when she and my father were embarked on some scheme together, as they often were, and my father’s advice was sought on every conceivable subject including those on which he could not possibly have expected to have a view. After he died, [25 years later] we could often see with maturer eyes that, without my father at her side, she often found it hard to cope. Until her death she travelled with photographs of him to put out whereever she stayed….” (The Tong and Bones: The Memoirs of Lord Harewood,, 27 )

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At not quite age 25 Princess Mary, who had done her “bit” in the First World War serving, ala Lady Sybil as a volunteer nurse, (A King’s Story, p. 127) became not only the wife of the heir to one of Yorkshire’s greatest families, fortunes and houses, but also C.E.O. of Lord Lascelles domestic life–managing the household, planning the parties, transferring to London for the Season to Scotland for that Season as well as coping with the demands of two sons born in rapid succession (the younger of whom, Gerald, would share a birthday (albeit different years) with Princess Margaret). The couple shared passions for gardening (a mania in her generation of the Royal Family), horses and Italian Art (source) and music. Her brother, the former King Edward VIII remembers that “with easy grace she became the chatelaine of his country home in Yorkshire.” (A King’s Story, p.182).

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In a move that Fellows himself could have authored for Sir Anthony Strallan, Lord Lascelles fled during the birth of his son and heir leaving his hapless sister behind to entertain his Royal in-laws who arrived to await the birth of their first grandchild! (Tong and Bones, p. 2)! Lascelles also resisted the King’s urge to elevate him to the rank of Marquess. He believed “Marquisates died out quicker than any other title and he was keen to provide himself and his ancestors with heirs! (Tong and Bones, p.2).

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Princess Mary and her family were often involved in Royal events. Her son recalls the pride he felt in seeing his father ride with the King and the Prince of Wales in Trooping the Colour,(Tong and Bones, p. 6) Both the couple’s sons had roles in their Uncle, George VI’s coronation–George as Page to the new King, while Gerald served their Grandmother, Queen Mary. The Lascelles family remained visibly in the Royal Family until the early 60s when George’s marriage broke down and a son was born to his then girl friend. Following a very rare (in those days) Royal divorce the couple quietly married her in the USA. George became a leading figure in the world of Opera–prompting a famous quote from his uncle, the Duke of Windsor:

“It’s
very odd about George and music. You know his parents were quite normal —
liked horses and dogs and the country.”
source: Getty

By the end of the 1970s the Lascelles were again occasionally mentioned in the Court Circular–the divorce of Princess Margaret made their exclusion a big ridiculous. By the end of George’s life both the Queen and the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall had visited Harewood House to be welcomed by the Earl and his second wife. The Queen, who rarely attends funerals, was represented at George’s funeral by their younger first cousin, Prince Michael of Kent. (source)

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The current Earl of Harewood, Princess Mary’s eldest grandchild, is David Lascelles, a godchild of the Queen (source). Unlike his Old Etonian father and forebearers, he was educated at Westminster where his father proudly related, he was on the First XI in cricket! He went on to become a name in the film industry and followed his father’s lead in having a children out of marriage (he subsequently married their mother) so that, unusually, it is his second son, Alexander, who is Lord Lascelles today, and who like his father will have to pass the title down to an as-yet-unborn second or subsequent son–assuming he marries!

So happiness and a lasting legacy CAN come from a marriage of different generations!
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