Princess Cecilie of Greece and Denmark, known in the family as Cécile, the third-eldest sister of the Duke of Edinburgh died on 16 November 1937 in a tragic plane accident.
Princess Cecilie was born on 22 June 1911 at Tatoi, the summer residence of the Greek Royal Family on the outskirts of Athens. In 1922, when the Princess was 11 years old and her younger brother Prince Philip still a baby, the family was forced into exile after Greece was defeated in the Greco-Turkish war, and settled in Paris.
On 2 February 1931, Princess Cecilie married her first cousin once removed, Georg Donatus, Hereditary Grand Duke of Hesse. The couple had four children: Prince Ludwig, who was born in 1931, Prince Alexander, born two years later, Princess Johanna, born in 1936, and a stillborn son.
Georg’s younger brother, Prince Louis of Hesse and by Rhine, was due to get married in London to a British aristocrat, the Hon. Margaret Campbell-Geddes on 20 November 1937. The grand ducal family, including Georg Donatus, Cecilie, their two eldest sons and Georg’s mother the Dowager Grand Duchess of Hesse and by Rhine, therefore travelled to London for the wedding. On 16 November 1937, the family boarded a plane operated by Belgian airline Sabena from Frankfurt, Germany, to London. Georg Donatus was fascinated by air travel, which was still in its early days, while his wife and mother were afraid of flying. Cecilie, in particular, was so terrified that she reportedly always wore black when she flew.
The plane was due to make a scheduled stop in Brussels, but the weather there was so bad that the pilot was instructed to proceed instead to Steene aerodrome near Ostend, on the Belgian coast. The weather was not much better there and, descending in very thick fog, the plane hit the top of a factory chimney, crashed and burst into flame. All passengers and crew lost their lives in the incident.
Prince Louis, who had been waiting for his family at Croydon Airport in London, was informed of the tragedy. The wedding was brought forward a few days, and celebrated privately at St Peter’s, Eaton Sq, on 17 November 1937. The bride, who had been intending to wear Bavarian peasant dress, wore mourning dress instead.
The newlyweds, who were to have no children of their own, immediately adopted Prince Louis’s orphaned baby niece, Johanna, who survived the accident as she had been left home due to her young age. Sadly, the family’s tragic destiny was compounded just two years later, when Princess Johanna succumbed to meningitis shortly before her third birthday.
The family had been travelling with some of their best clothes and jewels at the time of the crash, and while the famous Hessian lace, worn by Princess Alice of Great Britain and Ireland and her daughters Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna and Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna at their weddings, was destroyed, a very distinctive tiara survived the accident and remains in use to this day.
It is the Hesse turquoise and moonstone tiara, commissioned in 1906 by Georg’s father, Grand Duke Ernst, as a Christmas present to his newly-married second wife (and Georg’s mother), Princess Eleonore of Solms-Hohensolms-Lich. The tiara, of Russian manufacture, was made in the fashionable ‘kokoshnik’, or Russian peasant headdress, style, with ribbons of turquoises and moonstones wrapped around a diamond-studded frame.
The tiara, which was found intact among the wreckage, was given to Prince Louis and his new wife, fulfilling his mother’s wish to pass the tiara along to the next generation of the family. Princess Margaret wore it frequently, but after her death in 1997 it was unclear what would become of the tiara, until it emerged it had remained in the family when it reappeared unexpectedly at the State Opening of Parliament in 2012, worn by Baroness Geddes, who is married to a nephew of the late Princess Margaret (you can spot the Baroness – and the tiara – in the bottom right hand corner of the photo above).