HRH Prince Michael of Kent was born on 4 July 1942 at Coppins, the Buckinghamshire home of his parents, Prince George, the Duke of Kent (the youngest surviving child of the late King George V and Queen Mary) and Princess Marina, born a Princess of Greece and Denmark, but also with strong links to the exiled Russian Imperial family (her great-grandfather was the late Tsar Alexander II). The Prince’s birth was a rare moment for celebration, as the United Kingdom was currently at war with the Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan, with food, fuel and clothing subject to strict rationing.
The baby boy was christened Michael George Charles Franklin (the latter a nod to one of the child’s godparents, the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt with whom Prince George had struck up a friendship during an official visit to the United States the previous year), in a ceremony at Windsor, on 4 August, attended by a large gathering of royalty which included the Kings of Britain, Greece and Norway, as well as Prince George’s cousin, Crown Prince Olav of Norway and his Swedish wife Crown Princess Martha. Michael’s paternal grandmother, Queen Mary, made a rare journey up to Windsor from her wartime bolthole at Badminton in Gloucestershire. The Queen and the Princess Royal were also in attendance. It was a joyous occasion but tragedy was just around the corner…
On 25 August, Prince George, who at the time was an Air Commodore in the Welfare Section of the Royal Air Force Inspector General’s Staff ( a post which included making official visits to RAF bases to help boost morale) took off on a grey overcast day from the Royal Air Force base at Invergordon in a Sunderland flying boat bound for Iceland, where the Duke was due to carry out an inspection tour of air bases. However, some 30 minutes later the aircraft crashed into a hill side, known as Eagle’s Rock, near Dunbeath, in Caithness. All on board died-with the exception of the rear-gunner who was thrown clear by the impact.
Marina learned of her husband’s death at Coppins from her beloved childhood nurse, Miss Fox, who had earlier answered the telephone to be informed of the tragic news. The Princess became so distraught that King George VI made the decision to send for Marina’s eldest sister, Princess Olga of Yugoslavia, who was then living in Kenya as a political prisoner, following her husband, Paul’s removal from power as Prince Regent of Yugoslavia, the previous year in a British-backed coup. This was an astute move on the part of the King, for Marina had few close friends in Britain and by the time of Princess Olga’s return to Kenya at the end of the year, she had resumed her busy official life. But it was more than sisterly love which helped to bring the widowed Duchess of Kent back from the brink of such a terrible ordeal: As Olga astutely noted, little Michael was the ‘greatest blessing of all…that depends on her [Marina] so much and for whom she must live…’
Prince Michael enjoyed a happy childhood. He and his older siblings Edward (now the Duke of Kent) and Alexandra formed a strong family bond which was fostered by their ‘cosy’ mother, who continued to remain close to her sisters Olga and Elisabeth and their Russian-born widowed mother Grand Duchess Helen. It is not surprising therefore, that in his youth, the young Prince would often join his mother on post-war trips to Athens to see his maternal grandmother, who lived in a large, airy house in the upmarket suburb of Psychiko, surrounded by faithful servants and a menagerie of cats and dogs. It was also during this period that Michael paid visits with his mother and older siblings to his Aunt Olga and Uncle Paul, who had by now settled in Paris with their children Alexander, Nicholas and Elizabeth. Similarly, the Kent family also regularly travelled to Bavaria to stay with Aunt Woolly (as Marina’s middle sister Elisabeth was referred to en famille) and her husband Count Karl Theodor Toerring (‘Uncle Toto’). The Toerrings had two children, a son Hans Veit and a daughter Helen, so there was no danger of ever becoming bored. On occasion, a selection of these cousins would arrive at Coppins (described in later years by cousin Helen as ‘the meeting place’) for a summer or Easter reunion. There were also “bucket and spade” holidays for the extended family in Jersey or Norfolk.
The Prince’s pre-school education was supervised by a Scotch governess, Miss Catherine Peebles, who later moved on to look after Queen Elizabeth II’s children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne. In 1951, Michael attended Sunningdale Preparatory School before going on to Eton four years later. Like his mother, Princess Marina, and brother Edward, Michael already displayed an aptitude for foreign languages (French and German) and spent a brief period at the Institut de Torraine in Tours to study French language and culture.
In January 1961, the Prince joined the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst where officers in the British army are trained to take on the responsibility of leading their soldiers. He was commissioned into the 11th Hussars (Prince Albert’s Own) in 1963. Michael proved an enthusiastic sportsman, enjoying bobsleighing (he would later compete for Great Britain) and he also continued to expand his linguistic skills, this time studying Russian (the native language of Grand Duchess Helen). His level of fluency was such that he subsequently qualified as a military interpreter in that language. By 1968 the Prince was attached to the Ministry of Defence, liaising with Foreign Defence Attaches based in London. He subsequently saw service in Germany, Hong Kong and Cyprus (where his squadron formed part of the UN peacekeeping force in 1971). On his return to England, he worked in the Defence Intelligence Service at the Ministry of Defence. But it was not all work: Prince Michael loved cars and competed in a number of motor rallies including the 1970 World Cup Rally from London to Mexico, co-driving an Austin Maxi. He also took up competitive carriage driving and later, in the 1980’s, Michael qualified as a pilot and passed the Institute of Advanced Motorists tough motor-cycle test on a Honda CX50 (he had passed the Institute’s equally demanding test for motorists some twenty years earlier).
The death of Princess Marina in August 1968 was a severe blow to Michael. She had recently been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour, a fact which was kept from Marina. The Prince was the only one of her children to remain unmarried and, when not on military duties, he continued to lead a bachelor life from a small flat in Chelsea. As was usual for a man of his age and background, there were no shortage of girlfriends with whom to socialise. In early 1972, while staying with his cousin Prince William of Gloucester at the latter’s home, Barnwell Manor, near Oundle, Prince Michael had an interesting encounter with a Karlsbad-born, Roman Catholic aristocrat of mid-European descent (but who had been raised in Australia), Baroness Marie-Christine von Reibnitz. She had arrived in London in 1968 to be apprenticed as an interior designer and was married to a merchant banker friend of Prince William, Tom Troubridge. Michael and Marie Christine (who would go on to establish her own successful interior-design business, Szapar Designs, named after her mother Countess Marianna’s Hungarian family) soon discovered that they shared a keen interest in the history of modern art and had a long discussion together on the subject. However, following this brief meeting, the duo were not to meet again for some time, as Marie-Christine moved to Bahrain where her husband had been posted by his bank. The Baroness, who liked to keep busy, was soon bored with the ex-pat life and returned to London to continue her work in interior design. After having been separated for several years, the Troubridges’ divorced in 1977. Marie-Christine was granted an annulment by the Pope in April of the following year.
In the meantime, Michael and Marie-Christine had established a close friendship and in mid-December 1975, the Prince and the Baroness paid a visit to Princess Olga of Yugoslavia and her husband Paul at their Parisian home in Rue Scheffer. Michael’s Aunt Olga warmed to Marie- Christine, feeling that she displayed ‘just the right influence’ over her nephew. In April 1977, the couple paid a return visit to Paris, following a holiday to the South of France, and over lunch at the Relais restaurant informed Olga they would like to marry. Michael and Marie-Christine celebrated a civil marriage at the Rathaus (Town Hall) Vienna on 30 June 1978 where guests included the bride’s parents and Prince Michael’s siblings. Also present was Earl Mountbatten of Burma, who had been a wise counsellor to the couple. The ceremony was followed by an evening banquet at the Schwarzenberg Palace. Although the newlyweds had hoped for a church wedding, for complex Canon Law and religious procedural considerations, this had not proved possible. Furthermore, the fact that Marie-Christine was a Roman Catholic meant that under the Act of Settlement of 1701, which was still in force at the time, Prince Michael was required to forfeit his place in the royal line of succession. However, on 27 July 1983, it was announced that Pope John Paul II had given his approval of the marriage; a blessing ceremony then took place in Cardinal Hume’s private chapel at Westminster Cathedral on 30 July. The couple’s marriage was now established in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church. Furthermore, the 1701 Act of Settlement was eventually repealed by the Succession to the Crown Act of 2013 and Prince Michael was later reinstated in the line of succession.
On their return to London the Kents’ were given the use of a grace-and-favour residence, Apartment 10, in Kensington Palace which was free of rent, although domestic rates were payable. Marie-Christine was now known by the royal title, Her Royal Highness Princess Michael of Kent (or more frequently as simply ‘Princess Michael’). Children soon followed: a boy, Lord Frederick Windsor, was born on 6 April 1979 in the Lindo Wing of St Mary’s Hospital. In the spring of 1981 Princess Michael gave birth to a girl, Lady Gabriella Windsor. Despite their royal lineage, both siblings keep a reasonably low profile: Frederick attended Oxford University and is an executive director with J P Morgan Private Bank; while Gabriella is a freelance writer with a Master of Philosophy Degree in Social Anthropology from Oxford University. Both are married and Frederick has two daughters, Maud and Isabella, born in 2013 and 2016 respectively.
In 1981, Prince Michael retired from the army in the rank of Major. As the younger son, he was not expected to undertake royal duties and therefore received no payment from the Civil List. With the maintenance of the apartment at Kensington Palace, not to mention the upkeep of a new country home, the neo-classical Nether Lypiatt Manor near Stroud in Gloucestershire, for which it was said the couple paid around £300,000, the Prince had to earn a living. He decided to work in the City, initially serving on the board of several companies including Aitken Hume, Walbrook Investments and Standard Telegraph and Cables. Michael also later set up his own consultancy business, working in sectors which included property, education, medicine, aviation and the automotive industry. As Founder Patron of the Genesis Initiative, the Prince has also been involved in promoting the growth of small businesses, particularly in relation to developing export initiatives.
However, despite not being on the regular royal rota, on occasion the Queen has asked him to represent her on the international stage: In 1981, Prince Michael attended the Independence Day celebrations of Belize (formerly known as British Honduras) in Belmopan and he and Princess Michael also attended the coronation of King Mswati III of Swaziland in 1986 ( the Prince had previously attended the funeral of Mswati’s father and predecessor, King Sobhuza II, in 1982).
Prince Michael has maintained close links with the military: He is-inter alia-an Honorary Air Marshal of the Royal Air Force; a Royal Honorary Colonel of the Honourable Artillery Company and is Senior Colonel of the King’s Royal Hussars. The Prince has also been heavily involved over the years in charity work. The list is eclectic and long and includes the Presidency of both SSAFA-The Armed Forces Charity and the famous Battersea animal shelter. Given his love of motoring his role as President (since 1979) of the Royal Automobile Club seems particularly apt. Given his links to Russia, charitable links were also to be found there and included a role as Patron of the Children’s Fire & Burn Trust.
Prince Michael of Kent is a first cousin, twice removed, of the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II on both the maternal and paternal side of his family. He bears a strong resemblance to the late Tsar (as did his grandfather King George V). During his visits to Athens with Princess Marina, his grandmother Grand Duchess Helen would often talk of Russia and the Romanovs to her young grandson. Marina’s sister Olga was also most concerned with her imperial lineage, so it is safe to assume that she never missed a chance to impart her first-hand knowledge of life at the Imperial Court in St Petersburg and Tsarskoe Selo with her nephew during her long stays at Coppins and Kensington Palace. It thus seemed apt that Prince Michael, who had since developed a keen interest in Russian history, should travel to St Petersburg to join over fifty members of the Romanov family and their close relatives for the interment, on 17 July 1998, at the Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral, of the earthly remains of Tsar Nicholas II and his immediate family, exactly eighty years to the day after their murder in the cellar of the Ipatiev House at Ekaterinburg. In September 2006, the Prince returned to St Petersburg to attend the reburial of his Great-Great Aunt (and mother of Tsar Nicholas II), the Danish-born Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia. Over the years, Prince Michael continued to maintain close links with Russia. However, following Russia’s recent incursion into Ukraine, he resigned his position as a patron of the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce, which has been active in the promotion of trade between Russia and the United Kingdom. He has also relinquished an Order of Friendship award, one of Russia’s highest honours, that he received from former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in 2009 for his work to promote Anglo-Russo relations.
In 2005, Prince and Princess Michael placed Nether Lypiatt Manor on the market. It sold the following year, allegedly for £5.75m. The Princess was quoted in the Sunday Times as stating that it had proved ‘very expensive’ to run. This sale was perhaps fortuitous as it was announced in 2008 that from 2010 the royal couple would pay a market rent of £120,000 per annum for the use of Apartment 10.
In mid-June 2022, there was speculation that the Prince and his wife would ‘retire from public life’ and that Michael’s retirement would ‘coincide’ with his 80th birthday on July 4. This has been reiterated in press articles (e.g. the Daily Express) on his actual birthday. However, with his dedication to charity work and eclectic range of interests, it is hard to imagine the Prince withdrawing totally from public life, although inevitably there might be a slowing of pace.
Happy 80th birthday Prince Michael.
Robert Prentice is the author of Princess Olga of Yugoslavia Her Life and Times which is published by Grosvenor House Publishing and is available to purchase on Amazon and other outlets both as a hardback and an e-book.