The powerful first Duke of Buckingham had hoped that his only living daughter would be a queen or a queen-mother, but this was not to be Mary's destiny. Though a favored child of fortune, Mary Villiers was a toy of fate. Her first intended husband, Prince Frederick Henry, son and heir of Frederick V, Elector Palatine and King of Bohemia, and Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I and sister of Charles I, died prematurely (a tragic drowning accident, witnessed by the father); the union had been proposed by Buckingham (c. 1625/1626) when Mary Villiers was still in her cradle (B.L. Harl.MSS 6988, f 83; Burghclere 9-10; Scott 12-13; Morrah 110). Following that disappointment, the four-year-old Lady Mary was betrothed to Lord Charles Herbert (1619-1636), heir of Philip (Herbert), fourth Earl of Pembroke (family seat Wilton House, Salisbury, Wiltshire); the marriage agreement is dated 3 August 1626 ("Philip Herbert...fourth Earl of Pembroke," Oxford DNB [2004]); but Lord Charles died of smallpox in Florence in 1636, within a year of the wedding. This had been a joyless, forced union, and probably unconsummated; historians note that young 'Mall' was far more interested in her new husband's younger brother, Philip, who gazes upon her fondly in Van Dyck's dynastic portrait of the Herberts (Double Cube Room, Wilton House:Image 6.

In 1637, the Court found a second husband for the young widow Herbert: James (Stuart), Duke of Richmond and Lennox, the King's first cousin. Richmond, also a high-born orphan-ward of the Stuarts, had been a childhood friend of the Villiers orphans. The melancholic Richmond, deeply affected by the public execution in 1649 of his beloved uncle, Charles I, and also overwrought by the Civil Wars, died in 1655 after a long depression. Aristocratic protocol allowed Lady Mary to retain her titles of duchess and ducal princess of the realm.

With the rise of Cromwell and the confiscation of the Villiers estates by Parliament, Mary Villiers accompanied her foster mother, Queen Henrietta Maria, and the exiled Stuart court to Merton College, Oxford, and then (in exile) to France, where Mary continued in her role of Principal Lady to the Queen. In addition to the death of Richmond during this sad interval, Mary Villiers also lost one of her younger brothers, the unusually handsome Francis Villiers, savagely killed during the Civil Wars near Kingstone-upon-Thames. In her revealing autobiographical poem, "My Fate" (58 lines), Mary Villiers sketches a vignette of her unruly life:

Oh, cruel Fate, when wilt thou weary be?
When satisfied with tormenting me?
What have I e're design'd, but thou has crost?
All that I wisht to gain by Thee, I've lost:
From my first Infancy, thy Spight thou'st shown,
And from my Cradle, I've thy Malice known;
Thou snatch'd my Parents in their tender Age,
Made me a Victim of the furious Rage
Of cruel Fortune, as severe as thee;
Yet I resolv'd to brave my Destiny,
And did, with more than Female Constancy./
Not all thy Malice cou'd Extort a Tear,
Nor all thy Rage cou'd ever teach me Fear!
Still as thy Power diminisht my Estate,
My Fortitude did my Desires abate;
In every state I thought my Mind content,
And wisely did thy cross-Designs prevent:
Seeing thy Plots did unsuccessful prove.
As a sure Torment next, thou taught'st me Love! ...

(Female Poems...by Ephelia [1679, 1682], 95-96)