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Fifty years on: The death of Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent

In the last days of August 1968, the Royal Family made a sad and surprising announcement. Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent’s health was ”giving rise to anxiety” following the diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumour. There was  sympathy for the duchess, a popular member of the House of Windsor for over three decades, and good wishes began to pour in. However, surprise turned to shock when, just hours later, it was confirmed that Marina had died in her sleep. She was 61 years old.

Her death, fifty years ago this month, was widely mourned. Papers in the days afterwards spoke of the impact her passing had across the country. The Sydney Morning Herald said she had ”beauty, grace and charm” while local publications across England noted silences in tribute to her taking place at official meetings. Newsreels described her as a ‘’greatly admired and loved’’ royal who supported a wide range of causes, noting that ‘’she will be missed by them all’’ while one concluded that her death was ‘’a great loss to both her family and the nation’’.

The country mourning her had been her adopted home for over thirty years. Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark had been a high profile member of the House of Windsor since 1934 when she married George, Duke of Kent, the fourth son of King George V and Queen Mary. She quickly became known for her sense of style and for taking on a wide range of duties.

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She had arrived in London from Paris where she had lived, on and off, following her family’s exile from Greece in 1917. Marina had been born in Athens on December 13th 1906, the youngest child of Prince Nicholas of Greece and his wife, Grand Duchess Elena Vladimirovna of Russia. Her paternal grandfather, King George I of Greece, was assassinated in 1913 with years of unrest and turbulence following. Marina was eleven when she left her home country and her teenage years were spent with family members across Europe.

Her marriage to the dashing Duke of Kent brought her a degree of stability as well as a new royal role. George and Marina had three children – Edward, Alexandra and Michael – but soon after the birth of their youngest son, the Duke of Kent was killed in an air crash while on active service in World War Two. His death left Marina a widow at the age of 36. It was a tragedy which affected her deeply.

However, she soon began her royal duties again, supporting a wide range of organisations including the RNLI – she became their patron in 1943. When her niece became Elizabeth II in 1952, Marina took on overseas engagements on her behalf, carrying out a tour of Australia and travelling to the Gold Coast (now Ghana) for its independence celebrations in 1957.

She was also well known for her love of tennis and, in particular, Wimbledon. Marina was President of the All England Tennis and Croquet Club for over a quarter of a century and she presented the trophies at the end of the famous tournament every year. One of her last public engagements had been on the Centre Court of the famous tennis club where, during the first weekend in July 1968, she had congratulated Billie Jean King and Rod Laver on their wins in the Singles events. With a trademark hat and plenty of smiles, Marina had looked the same as ever. But she was already ill.

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On July 16th, Princess Marina was admitted to a London hospital for treatment, coming home six days later. Doctors had diagnosed an inoperable brain tumour and following her sudden death, her medical team confirmed that her health had deteriorated rapidly in the 24 hours before she passed away. Princess Marina died at Kensington Palace at 11.40am on August 27th 1968 with her three children at her bedside.

Marina’s funeral took place on August 30th 1968 with her coffin carried into St. George’s Chapel, Windsor covered in a Greek flag. The Queen led mourners at the ceremony which was also attended by the Duke of Windsor, Marina’s brother in law. The princess was laid to rest at the Royal Burial Ground, Frogmore. The day before, her husband’s body had been reinterred there – he had initially been buried in St. George’s Chapel. After twenty six years, the couple were reunited again.

It was a poignant end to Marina’s story but a reminder, too, of the glamour and joy she had taken from life. Despite the sadness and drama she so often encountered, she had carved out a royal role for herself that had turned her into one of the most popular Windsors of her day. No wonder, then, that her loss in August 1968 was mourned so widely.

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