The Crown’s harrowing real life tragedy united two women – one royal, one not – in grief

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The last words Mary Hornsey’s son said to her are etched for ever on her memory. Paul ­Maxwell was just 15 and as proud as punch to have been ­selected to work on Lord ­Mountbatten’s boat for the summer.

He was heading out for a day of lobster fishing with the Queen’s cousin, who was holidaying with his family at Classiebawn Castle, near Mullaghmore in County Sligo.

It was August 27, 1979.

“He said, ‘Goodbye Mum, I will see you later on’,” says Mary. “I never saw him again.”

Hours later, a bomb placed on the boat by the IRA to assassinate Lord Mountbatten went off, killing the 79-year-old along with his grandson, 14-year-old Nicholas Knatchbull, and Paul.

Mary Hornsey lost her son in the tragedy

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At the time of the blast, Paul’s 16-year-old sister was walking along the cliffs in Mullaghmore and saw the explosion tear through the sky.

She knew instantly that her brother was on the boat that had been blown apart.

The Dowager Lady Brabourne died the day after the attack and Nicholas’ twin brother Timmy and his parents, Patricia and John Brabourne, were seriously injured.

Mary’s family and the Mountbatten family were changed irrevocably in that one terrible moment.

It was a moment that also rocked the monarchy – and is being recreated in the new series of Netflix hit The Crown, which starts on Sunday.

The bodies of Earl Mountbatten, the Dowager Lady Brabourne and Mountbatten's grandson Nicholas, 14 were flown into Southampton Airport

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Charles Dance plays Lord Mountbatten in the TV show, and while Mary says it will undoubtedly bring back the raw grief she felt 41 years ago, she will be watching it.

She is also glad a new generation will learn about the horrors of The Troubles in Northern Ireland – and the importance of peace.

“It will bring back that day, of course it will,” says Mary, now 80.

“The sharpness of that day and the sheer grief that there was, also the horror of that day. It was absolutely dreadful. No family should ever have to go through that.

“I don’t object to it being shown because I think we should be aware of what can happen when patriotism goes overboard and turns into horrible, aggressive murder. I think we should always be aware of that.”

Charles Dance plays Lord Mountbatten in The Crown

Mary goes on: “There are very, very many young people who just don’t know anything about it, or anything about The Troubles at all. It is part of history, therefore I think it should be remembered for all kinds of reasons.

“I just can’t see why people can’t live in peace and love one another. We are only in this world for a very short time and it would be nice to live in peace and forgiveness.

“We have to try to understand those we fear, talk with them, see where they are coming from and try to find middle ground.”

Boat-mad Paul loved the sea and dreamed of having a career in the Royal Navy, so landing the job on Lord Mountbatten’s boat, Shadow V, was a dream come true.

But at first, the teenager and the aristocrat did not see eye-to-eye.

Prince Charles with Patricia Knatchbull

Mary recalls: “On the first day, when he went down to the boat waiting for Mountbatten – and the first occasion he met him – Paul was not at all pleased because Mountbatten was angry that his lobster pots had not been put out and he was blaming Paul.

"But Mountbatten found out that it shouldn’t have been Paul’s responsibility and he apologised.

“Then they started to get on quite well together and on one occasion, I heard that when somebody who served him wasn’t doing it properly, he shouted, ‘Send down my Paul, he will know how to do it’, and they formed quite a nice relationship.

“Paul was hoping to go into the Royal Navy when he left school and he had ­actually asked Mountbatten if we would give him a reference and he said yes, that he would. That would have been quite ­something, wouldn’t it?

“Paul did very well. He was only 15 and it was quite something for him to go and mix with the Royal Family.

Mary Hornsey, at her home in Northern Ireland, holds a photograph of her 15-year-old son Paul Maxwell

"I thought this would be a fairly good experience for him because in life, we have to be able to mix with all sorts of people and that includes the rich and famous and royalty.

“He was able to do it. He was very good on boats and loved the sea, and he just loved being out on that boat with Mountbatten.

“Sometimes they would sit out afterwards on the boat and Paul said he would talk to him about Mountbatten having being engaged with all the sea battles.

"Paul said to him, ‘Were you not frightened, My Lord?’ And Mountbatten said, ‘Yes I was. But you don’t show it’.”

But the friendship was to end in tragedy for both families. The night before Shadow V was due to set off, IRA member Thomas McMahon sneaked aboard and planted a radio-controlled bomb.

Lord Louis Mountbatten his two sons in law and grandchildren return from a fishing trip at Mullagamore County Sligo

Paul was standing next to Mountbatten when the device went off and was killed along with Nicholas.

Mountbatten was pulled from the boat alive but died of his injuries after being brought to the shore.

A few hours later, two IRA bombs went off at Narrow Water, near Warrenpoint in County Down, killing 18 soldiers. It was the highest death toll suffered by the Army on a single day in Northern Ireland.

The IRA claimed responsibility for Mountbatten’s killing and a statement at the time said: “This operation is one of the discriminate ways we can bring to the attention of the English people the continuing occupation of our country…

“The death of Mountbatten and the tributes paid will be seen in sharp contrast to the apathy of the British Government and English people to the deaths of over 300 British soldiers, and the deaths of Irish men, women and children at the hands of their forces.”

The repercussions of the blast were many. Lord Mountbatten was Prince Charles’ confidante and had urged him to settle down. After his assassination, a grief-stricken Charles decided to take his advice and found a bride – Diana.

Lord Mountbatten and his grandsons

How different might the fates of many been without that moment?

It was also to unite two mothers from very different backgrounds, leading to a lifelong bond between Mary and Patricia Mountbatten, the daughter of Lord Mountbatten and mother of Nicholas.

Mary says thoughtfully: “In a split-second, my life was changed for ever and it shows in a way you cannot plan much in this life.

“Don’t plan with too much enthusiasm because in the twinkling of an eye, something can happen and all your plans are upset and your way of life changes; how you are feeling changes.

“Patricia Mountbatten, she and I corresponded every year for 38 years until she died. We corresponded all about our families, what was happening with her family, what was happening with my family. We had a very, very strong bond.

“We were two mothers who had lost our sons. It was a most unusual situation – a member of the Royal Family and myself, just a commoner, having this particular bond because of that tragedy.

Scenes from The Crown
(Image: Getty Images)

“I must say I miss her letters now, I miss them very much indeed.”

IRA bomb-maker McMahon was convicted of the four murders and sentenced to life – but was freed under the Good Friday Agreement in 1988.

Mary had hoped for an apology from the man convicted of killing her son but none was forthcoming and she believes he has now died.

But amazingly, she has found it in herself to forgive.

She says: “I never got an apology. I don’t feel anything much. I just really wonder how people were able to do that sort of thing – plant a bomb when they knew there were children on board?

“There must be such a lot of anger in people like that, so much suppressed anger that shows itself in the taking of lives, ­innocent lives.

Lord Mountbatten at home 1970's
(Image: Daily Mirror)

“One wonders about the family and I feel sorry for parents who have produced offspring who maybe go on to murder. It must be an awful thing for parents to have to live with. I feel very sorry for them.

“I forgive in so much that I do not wish any harm to come to anyone. Yes, I would say that I do forgive. But I think forgiveness takes a long time. I think one has to go on a special journey – and quite a long journey, I feel, to forgive.

“If I had been in the same shoes as those people who did those awful things, how would I have felt? Would I have wanted to do the same? It is very hard to get to know people unless you walk in their shoes for a long time because one just does not know.

“Anger only begets more anger. Violence begets more violence. What is so important is talking and discussion. Mixing with other people you think you can’t or shouldn’t mix with. Getting to know people, talking and finding about them.”

And whatever happens with Brexit and its implications for the Good Friday Agreement, Mary is adamant that peace should be the ultimate goal so no other ­families have to suffer like hers did.

She says: “I hope that whatever happens, we can maintain peace in this country because peace is our most precious thing and we have worked hard to get peace.

“Many people have made sacrifices in order for there to be peace and I would not like to see anything destroying that.”