Princess Marina Duchess of Kent, Britain’s Last Foreign Princess

Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent by Peter North. Image: Wikimedia

Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, was hailed during her lifetime for her chic fashion sense and her dedication to her duty. Born in Athens, Greece, on December 13, 1906, she was the youngest child of Prince Nicholas of Greece and Denmark, the third son of George I of Greece, and Grand Duchess Elena Vladimirovna of Russia, a granddaughter of Tsar Alexander II of Russia.  The Greek Royal Family was neither wealthy nor pretentious; and though as a child, Princess Marina had glimpses of the splendor of the Imperial Russian Court, she was nevertheless, brought in a simple yet strict environment.
Prince and Princess Nicholas (as what Grand Duchess Helen was known then) preferred their children to be disciplined so they subscribed to the service of an old-school English governess for their daughters' upbringing. English was the language of the family and they often converse with each other in English. Princess Marina spoke it in a rather attractive foreign accent. The sisters also grew up speaking other languages, especially Greek. Princess Marina remained a devout Orthodox all her life; her intense love for her native country survived all political upheavals.

In 1917, Nicholas and his family had to flee Greece and they settled in Switzerland where they stayed for four years. They returned to Greece in 1921, only to leave again. In 1924, they set up a household in Paris where Marina attended finishing school. During their exile in Paris, the Nicholases were in dire straits. Prince Nicholas devoted his time to painting, a rather unprofitable pastime. Princess Nicholas, meanwhile, spent whatever money she got in helping Russian emigres. For her part, Princess Marina mastered painting while helping her mother with her philanthropic causes. She also learned dressmaking, reason why she emerged as one of the best-dressed royals during her lifetime.
She met her future husband, Prince George, Duke of Kent, the fifth child of King George V and Queen Mary in 1932 while on a visit in London. Their engagement was announced in August 1934 on November 29, they married at Westminster Abbey, London. An Orthodox service was later held in the private chapel at Buckingham Palace. Marina’s marriage to the Duke of Kent is considered as the last time that a foreign-born princess was married to a member of the British Royal Family. The sentimental public regarded Marina as a fairy tale princess, enchanted by her radiant beauty and obvious happiness.

Their marriage produced children: Prince Edward, Duke of Kent (born October 9, 1935); Princess Alexandra, The Hon. Lady Ogilvy (born December 25, 1936); and Prince Michael of Kent (July 4, 1942).

The Duke and Duchess of Kent emerged as a popular couple. Their good looks, varying interests, and excitement for life made them an instant hit among the British people. Their artistic inclinations enabled them to transform the rather draughty Victorian house of George's aunt, Coppins, into a charming home. Their London residence, meanwhile, in Belgrave Square, was a popular destination for men and women of arts, stage, and politics.

Less than a month after the birth of their third child, the Duke of Kent was killed on August 25, 1942 following a plane crash at Eagles Rock, near Dunbeath, Caithness, Scotland. He was on active service with the Royal Air Force. Royal biographer Hugo Vickers noted that the duchess was "the only war widow in Britain whose estate was forced to pay death duties".

The moment she became a member of the Royal Family, the duchess conscientiously worked hard for the service of the Crown and of the people. The death of the duke never deterred her and she continued to become of the most hard-working members of the Royal Family, anyway and during the World War II, she trained as a nurse for three months under the pseudonym "Sister Kay," rendering service as a civil nurse reserve. For over two decades, she served as the president of the Wimbledon All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club for 26 years. She was also the President of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution from 1943 until her death and was awarded the RNLI's Gold Medal in 1967 to mark this contribution.

The end of the war meant an increase in her workload, many of them were important occassions. In 1952, she embarked on a tour of the Far East, commencing in Ceylon and proceeding to Malaya, Borneo, and Hong Kong. In 1957, she represented Queen Elizabeth II during the independence celebration of the Gold Coast (present day Ghana) in March 1957.

In June 1961, her eldest child, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, married Miss Katharine Worsley. Shortly before the wedding, she announced that she wished to be known as HRH Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, instead of HRH The Dowager Duchess of Kent, a change in traditional style that was granted by her niece, Queen Elizabeth II. Prior to her wedding to Prince George in 1934, Princess Marina was already a princess of the blood royal, being a Princess of Greece and Denmark. Following her elder son's wedding, she simply reverted to her own princely prefix.
Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, died on August 27, 1968, at Kensington Palace in London due to brain tumor.

The Times praised her for her "warm-hearted and generous nature." She was a very loyalfriend and a delightful companion, "always full of interest and of humour, with natural dignity but no self-consciousness of her rank."

The Telegraph, meanwhile, wrote that during her life, "her rarity went largely unperceived  because it was always unobtrusive."

Sources:

“Princess Marina,” in Holloway, D. (editor) (1992). The Daily Telegraph The Sixties: A Chronicle of the Decade. London: Simon & Schuster.


“Marina Duchess of Kent” in Unwin, P. (editor) (2013). Newcomers' Lives: The Story of Immigrants as Told in Obituaries from The Times. London: Bloombury. 

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