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HRH The Prince George, Duke of Kent and
HRH Princess Marina Duchess of Kent
As the storm clouds gathered over Europe throughout 1934, a shaft of sunlight pierced the gloom. The betrothal was announced between Prince George, soon to be created Duke of Kent, the youngest surviving son of King George V and Queen Mary, and Princess Marina of Greece. He was 31, she four years younger. Their wedding in Westminster Abbey on November 29, 1934 was the stuff of which fairy tales are made. A naval officer by training, he was tall, fair and handsome, she a dark, iconic beauty.
They were in fact cousins. Her father was Prince Nicholas, a son of the Danish prince who in 1864 had been invited to ascend the Greek throne as King George I of the Hellenes. Her mother was the Grand Duchess Helen of Russia, the last to bear, indeed to insist on, the resounding style of Royal and Imperial Highness. Marina thus belonged to a cousinage that embraced most of the ruling dynasties of Europe, among them Prince Philip, later Duke of Edinburgh.
Her first language was English, which then as now the Greek Royal family spoke among themselves. An English governess, Miss Kate Fox, completed her formal education. Twice the ferment of Greek politics sent her family into exile in Paris, where she acquired a cosmopolitan polish and a skill in practical dressmaking that was to inspire a generation of couturiers. Among them was Edward Molyneux, whom Marina's thrifty godmother Queen Mary persuaded to make her trousseau at 'a special price'.
That was a necessary precaution, for as George V cheerfully told his Prime Minister, 'She has not a cent'. The Duke of Kent had no such worries. On marriage he received an annual civil list of 25,000; and on the King's death in 1936, inherited £750,000 (£22 million in today's currency). He took a lease on No. 3, Belgrave Square, an imposing house near Buckingham Palace. The search for a place in the country was solved by the death in 1935 of Princess Victoria, the King's spinster sister, who bequeathed to her nephew Coppins, near Iver, some 20 miles from London. A gabled Victorian villa, it was spacious enough for a growing family. The present Duke of Kent was born in 1935, Princess Alexandra in 1936 and Prince Michael in 1942. The Duke had both the innate taste and the means to transform its sombre rooms into a Petit Trianon.
Sir Oliver Millar, Anthony Blunt's successor as Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures, wrote that the Duke 'showed a flair for pictures and works of art far more spontaneous than any other member of his family His purchase of the Altieri Claudes would alone mark him out as the most distinguished royal connoisseur since George IV.'
Idyllic years of family life and undemanding public duties gave way to wartime anguish, then tragedy. Marina was cut off from two dearly loved sisters, one married to a German, the other to the disgraced Regent of Yugoslavia. In 1942 her world was shattered by the death of her husband, serving in the RAF, when the plane in which he was flying to Iceland crashed into a Scottish mountain. He was not yet 40.
The Duke left much of his fortune in trust for the children. What none had foreseen, however, was that his civil list of £25,000 (£750,000 today) would not pass to his widow but abruptly cease. It was a bureaucratic blunder that not even a sympathetic Winston Churchill was prepared to remedy by legislation at so anxious a time of war. King George VI, Queen Mary and later H.M. Queen Elizabeth II gave some help; but Marina felt the pinch and in 1947 was impelled to sell many treasured possessions at auction. The sale at Christie's lasted for three days and raised £92,000.
Within weeks of her bereavement she was back in harness - or rather in the uniform of the WRNS, which she invested with rare elegance. The royal round continued into peace, with the Duchess a much respected figure at Wimbledon and other institutions she made her own. She brought glamour to State occasions too, always seeming to stand a little apart from members of her family who lacked her own royal blood.
The Queen illuminated her aunt's last years by installing her in one of the finest of her grace-and-favour residences, a wing of Kensington Palace with lovely fireplaces and ceilings and its own garden. There, her beauty scarcely touched by time, she grew old gracefully, surrounded by family and friends and the fragrance of her Papastratos cigarettes. So, after many tribulations, Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, ended her life in 1968 as she had begun it, in a palace.