July 14, 2024


Veteran Baby Makers

The Duke of Kent opens up his private royal family photo album

Although, no doubt, he would blanch at such a description, the Duke of Kent is one of the nation’s great unsung heroes. Modest and self-effacing, he has always seen his role as being to support the Queen, and he has been doing just that for the 70 years of her reign.

He was born in 1935, so he is now 86, and he had the tragedy of losing his father, Prince George, in a wartime air crash in Scotland in 1942. He therefore became a duke at a very early age, and this year will have had the title for 80 years.

It has been great fun working with him on his new book, A Royal Life. It started as a book of conversations, though by and large I have edited myself out of these – as my contribution was along the lines of ‘And then what happened?’ Most of these were conducted on Zoom, with me in Wiltshire and the Duke at Wren House, part of the Kensington Palace complex.

He was resolutely punctual, and I enjoyed noting that he was often in different locations around the house. I had first met him 20 years ago, he had read some of my books and been to three lectures, so it was likely that he knew I was well versed in his family’s history.

I came to appreciate that along with his well-understood dedication to duty, he had made a wonderful life for himself by the zest with which he tackled every project and engagement. He is a voracious reader – his house and office are filled with books. He likes history and biography, especially military history, and his love of music extends from Wagner to jazz. He loves the Wigmore Hall and goes there often, sometimes with his sister, Princess Alexandra – the two are very close.

The Queen and Prince Philip enjoying a picnic lunch at Balmoral in the 1970s

The Duke on his way to ski in Munster in the 1950s. On a previous occasion he had forgotten his passport, causing a mini crisis at the airport. This time he remembered

He has a nice wry sense of humour and appreciates a good joke. Anything mechanical and scientific fascinates him. He is a good photographer and took wonderful cine films. He has relished the chance to travel, especially the chance to go on safaris, and he loves animals. Dogs have always been a part of the household. The Duke recently lost his Labrador, but they still have Bramble – the Duchess’s Labrador.

Years ago I had a sticky interview with Sir Philip Hay when I asked him about the Duke’s mother, Princess Marina, to whom Hay was private secretary. Aware that he was unlikely to tell me much, I asked him what she thought about her native land, Greece. His lips pursed and he said: ‘Anything I tell you about what she thought about Greece, might be read by the present King of Greece, have you thought of that!’

Well no, I hadn’t. The Duke, on the other hand, was easy to work with. He is immensely courteous, considerate and polite. If he is invited for lunch at 1 o’clock and arrives early, he will pull into a lay-by in order to arrive at the appointed hour.

I wanted him to be happy with what I had elicited from him in our conversations. So I sent him the text as it developed and assured him that when I worked on the biography of Prince Philip’s mother, I had got used to Prince Philip writing: ‘Rot! Rubbish! Nonsense!’ in the margin, and I hoped he would do the same. When the Duke returned my script, he said he had not been ‘as robust as my cousin Philip’. Only in a couple of places did I find ‘ – – – ?’ against a phrase, which I interpreted as his version of ‘Rot, Rubbish etc’ – and quietly removed it. But mostly he corrected errors and spellings. It was all positive and helpful.

In Uganda with the Duchess of Kent, 1962

Prince Charles with the Duchess of Kent at Balmoral in about 1970. They shared an interest in music, especially opera

I have long been aware of how devoted he and his brother and sister, Prince Michael and Princess Alexandra, have been to their mother, Princess Marina. She came from Paris to marry his father in 1934, and she was widowed a mere eight years later. The Duke’s house and his office are filled with portraits and photographs of that most stylish of princesses.

Princess Marina was greatly loved by the British for her grace and beauty. I can remember the deep sadness that spread across Britain when she died in 1968, aged 61. In widowhood, she was an isolated figure, with few friends in Britain, but she threw herself into the war effort, and was later a popular ambassador for Britain, travelling to the Far East and South America, and presiding over Independence ceremonies. Nor was she well treated financially, her husband’s Civil List allowance dying with him. So there was an element of frugality in the Duke’s early life.

At Coppins, her home near Iver, she created a loving family atmosphere, with music, ponies, and a fine garden. She imported her sisters and their children after the war, and there was lots of laughter and fun. To Coppins came many of the most interesting figures of the day – Danny Kaye, Malcolm Sargent, Cecil Beaton, Douglas Fairbanks and Chips Channon. One day Winston Churchill came to lunch, and the young Prince Philip’s name was many times in the visitors book.

The Duke, his siblings and his cousins all relate wonderful stories of their childhood: Princess Alexandra and her cousin Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia caught stealing strawberries in the orchard; Danny Kaye using joke expressions from tea in his radio programmes; running over to the Poklewskis at Coppins Cottage for cakes, word games and card games and Fats Waller on the gramophone.

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Christmas at Windsor Castle in about 1977: The Queen with the Earl of Ulster, and in the background the Earl’s father, the Duke of Gloucester. The Royal Family loved staying at Windsor, and in particular the moment that the Queen threw open the doors and the children rushed in to get their presents

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The Royal Family together. Left to right (back row) – the Duke of Gloucester, Princess Marina, Queen Mary & the Duchess of Gloucester. Middle row – Princess Alexandra, the Duke of Kent & Prince Richard of Gloucester. Front row – Princess Margaret of Hesse, Prince William of Gloucester & Prince Michael of Kent

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Princess Marina with her mother, Princess Nicholas of Greece, and her sister, Princess Olga. Princess Nicholas, a formidable Russian Grand Duchess, and by then a widow, lived at Psychico, a suburb of Athens. Her daughters were frequent visitors

Princess Marina brought her young family up to perfection. Kenneth Rose wrote: ‘The most adoring of mothers, she watched over her children with a fidelity that was not wholly maternal. She taught them that their lives belong as much to their country as to themselves.’ And Sir Charles Johnston, married to her Georgian cousin, Natasha Bagration, considered: ‘She brought her children up to the same high standard of public obligation, and to her daughter she transmitted the extra gift of turning duty into elegance and fun. It was a delight to see such a happy and united family.’

But it would be wrong to suppose that the Duke’s life was easy. As he relates in this extract, he was horribly bullied by boys and masters alike at Ludgrove, partly because he was already a duke at that age, and partly to do with the horrendous ethos of schools in those days. Eton sounds a bit better, and Le Rosey in Switzerland was appealing for the skiing and international life.

He then asked Prince Philip’s advice and went to Sandhurst, later joining the Royal Scots Greys. From an early age, he was frequently brought home from Switzerland to take part in royal occasions – and I suspect that people were not especially helpful in advising him. Much of what he did must have been daunting for a shy young man.

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With his father, Prince George, and sister, Princess Alexandra

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King George VI at Coppins with Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret

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Princess Marina with Winston Churchill, who came to lunch at Coppins towards the end of the war, in 1944. ‘And who is this?’ asked the great statesman on observing the Duke, then aged nine

In 1952 he walked in the King’s funeral procession alongside his estranged uncle, the Duke of Windsor (who did not even recognise him) and he was criticised for wearing his top hat at a jaunty angle.

Anyone could have helped him. At the Coronation in 1953 he was petrified, thinking he had to memorise the words of his homage to the Queen. Following the Duke of Edinburgh and the Duke of Gloucester, he advanced to the Queen’s throne all alone, only to find the Bishop of Durham holding a card with the words printed on it.

In 1960, when he was in the Army, he remembers being in a tank in Germany and suddenly called back to London to take part in the state visit of the King of Thailand. More seriously, in 1971, his squadron was sent over to Northern Ireland, which caused panic in the Ministry of Defence.

Like every professional soldier, he wanted to serve his country, but there was a risk of him being killed or kidnapped. Back to Edinburgh he went after a mere three weeks, realising then that his military career was likely to be forever curtailed. His later life included being vice-chairman of the Overseas Trade Board, with no salary, and there are an enormous raft of regiments and charities with which he is involved.

Taking over the Royal National Lifeboat Institution from his mother, he has made a point of visiting as many centres as possible and still has a few more to tick off the list. As president of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission he is fully aware of what these graves mean to the bereaved of those who died serving their country.

Recently he spent two days in Belgium presiding over the burial of nine soldiers whose bodies were discovered when a canal was being excavated. Eight of them were identified, the families notified and out they all came to see them buried properly with full military honours.

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The Duke and Duchess together at Coppins in the early days of their marriage

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Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, with his parents and sister

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The Duchess of Kent with her Labrador, Columbus, and her poodle, Charlie, soon after she married the Duke in 1961

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Princess Alexandra (left) with cousins Helen Habsburg and Hans Veit Toerring in Norfolk

Another recent project has been the restoration of Dresden, involving several visits over a number of years. A new orb and cross was commissioned for the cupola of the Frauenkirche, and just before lockdown a human chain was formed and there was the Duke holding hands with the President of Germany. He gave the Dresden Peace Prize to Phan Thi Kim Phúc (the ‘Napalm girl’ depicted running from an attack in Vietnam in Nick Ut’s terrifying photograph). None of this gets into the national newspapers, but it means a great deal to those involved.

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Prince Edward on a pony at Horace Smith’s riding school at Bray. The Duke found him a bit severe – he was a proper old school riding instructor who always wore highly polished boots

The Duke has always seen his primary role as supporting the Queen. She was at his christening and as an older cousin, aware that he lost his father at an early age, she has always looked out for him.

His daughter, Helen, has said that loyalty to her, duty and diligence are his watchwords. ‘His mother would have definitely drummed it into him – what a privilege to be in this position and what a gift to be able to serve his Queen and country.’ When this was commended by a friend at his 80th birthday party, the Queen was heard to say: ‘Hear, hear.’ He looked surprised. Helen commented: ‘He doesn’t expect any praise or thanks, so when he gets it, it builds him up and it’s just lovely to see.’

Helen was quick to point out that when not engaged on royal duties ‘he has an enviable number of passions, chief among those being music and cars.’ In his youth he was clearly quite a tearaway, three dramatic car crashes in the 1950s propelling him into the newspapers of the day.

He was widely known as ‘Fast Eddie’. Even to this day he is never happier than when he has his head deep in the bonnet of a car, inhaling the fumes and inspecting the workings, or spending time with Jackie Stewart at Silverstone.

Music is a deep bond between him and the Duchess of Kent, and he has watched her fantastic charity, Future Talent, send many deprived youngsters on to a career in music. ‘We start them young – the younger the better. We can get music into their bodies and then it just flows. Some are as young as three or four,’ says the Duchess.

When the Duke was a baby, hundreds of people flocked to Belgrave Square to see him in his christening robe heading to Buckingham Palace. When he married Katharine Worsley in 1961, the service was televised and a crowd of 7,000 gathered outside York Minster. Today he is inevitably less well known.

He can walk in London streets unrecognised. The BBC failed to identify his daughter-in-law accompanying him to Westminster Abbey for Prince Philip’s memorial service, just as initially they had no idea it was Princess Alexandra on the balcony with him at the Cenotaph last November.

The Duke’s book will serve as a timely reminder of what a member of the Royal family actually does.

A Royal Life by HRH the Duke of Kent and Hugo Vickers is published on 12 May (Hodder & Stoughton, £25). Buy now for £19.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk

To read an exclusive extract from the Duke’s new book, click here. A second extract will go live at 5am on Sunday May 1 on the Telegraph website.