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InsightThe Kents

The Duchess of Kent – living life in the shadows

Katharine Kent will be an unfamiliar name to many, but in Royal circles she became well-known, causing controversy with her conversion to Catholicism in 1994.

Born Katharine Worsley on February 22nd 1933, her upbringing was that of a ‘commoner’ in the Yorkshire countryside, albeit growing up amidst the surroundings of a stately home, Hovingham Hall. Her parents, Sir William and Lady Joyce sent their young daughter to St Margaret’s School near Castle Howard in York (later famous as the backdrop for the 1980’s ITV television drama ‘Brideshead Revisited‘) and Runton Hall in Norfolk, where she excelled in Music.

At the age of 23 she met Prince Edward, Duke of Kent whilst he was stationed at the nearby Garrison at Catterick. The Prince had succeeded the Dukedom at the tender age of six following the death of his father, Prince George, in an air-crash in 1942. The couple were to be engaged five years later.

Katharine and Edward’s wedding was to break Royal convention by being held in Miss Worsley’s native Yorkshire. A far cry from the long-established opulence and grandeur of Westminster Abbey, chosen traditionally by so many other Royal brides. The whole Royal Family decamped up there in 1961, and on 8th June their marriage was witnessed in York Minster, with the Royal Families of Europe in attendance. It was at the Minster as a young girl Katharine had learnt to play the organ.

With Princess Margaret marrying in 1960, the Kent’s wedding day had to be postponed for a year, as two Royal weddings in the same year just wasn’t the done thing. 633 years earlier York Minster had been the backdrop for another Royal wedding, that of King Edward III to Phillipa of Hainault in 1328.

Her mother-in-law, the previous Duchess of Kent was a formidable act to follow. Princess Marina, the Greek Princess (whose ancestors had been descended from Russian and Danish Royalty) had captivated the world with her marriage in 1934. Eight years later she was to be widowed, with three young children.

The thought of a commoner marrying her eldest son was not one she readily warmed to. It was decided that they should separate for a year whilst The Duke was posted to Germany.  Their love shone through and the forthright Marina had to accept her son’s wishes for a marriage. On their first return meeting in 1959, after a year apart, Edward was so desperate to see Katharine, he broke a bone in his foot as he ran down some steps to greet her. Literally falling head over heels in love!

The young Duchess of Kent immediately threw herself into her Royal duties. Maintaining her links with Yorkshire to many charities and patronages there, including Yorkshire County Cricket Club (where her father had been its President), and accepting the Chancellorship of the University of Leeds. The Worsley family were a popular and hard-working family in Yorkshire. Her brother, Sir Marcus Worsley, was for many years The Queen’s personal representative in North Yorkshire, its Lord Lieutenant, as their own father had been, and he often accompanied his sister on her visits to the area. The Duchess was also a young army wife, and followed her husband when he was posted to Hong Kong and Germany.

Now with a young family (George, Earl of St Andrews born in 1962, Lady Helen born in 1964 and Lord Nicholas Windsor born in 1970) their life you would now expect to be idyllic. Sadly it was ill-health that dogged the Duchess though much of her life. Amidst rumours of a nervous breakdown, and with the loss of a much anticipated fourth child to a stillbirth in the Silver Jubilee year, 1977, plus the deaths of her parents, Katharine began to feel more isolated in her Royal life. She withdrew into her own world, struggling to mix her Royal and personal life.

On a visit to India in the 1990s, she spoke to Mary Riddell for a magazine article, she later wrote a biography on the Duchess. “I just love people, I value them” she said, “What’s the world about? Not possessions but people caring for one another. I think its important for people to keep a sense of wonder.”

Many will only know her as the lady who stood at the Wimbledon Tennis Championship Finals every year to hand out the prizes, famously having Jana Novotna cry on her shoulder in 1993. But her contribution to Royal life has been one carried out steadily and without much press coverage over the years. She also had the opportunity to sing with the Bach Choir, as a Soprano.

Rarely did she give interviews in her early Royal life, choosing instead to focus on her children and charitable life. With the family once living at Amner Hall in Norfolk (now famously home to home to The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince George), in 1994 her life was to change…

Never had a member of the Royal Family been a prominent Catholic and the 1701 Act of Settlement meant that no Catholic or person with a Catholic spouse could sit on the throne. The Act however, did not have any rules regarding marriage to an Anglican who subsequently converted, and so Prince Edward did not lose his place in line to the throne.

Many saw Katharine’s conversion as an opportunity to belittle all that she had done, implying the change was a direct snub to the Royal Family – far from it. Her interest in the Catholic faith was rumoured to have begun in the 1960‘s, and it certainly gave her comfort through all her personal struggles and turmoil. Her family were all by her side when she was accepted into the church in January 1994, and she received personal approval from The Queen. She left to a blaze of camera flashbulbs.

Lord Nicholas Windsor, the couples’ youngest son, converted in 2001, and their eldest, George, married a Catholic in 1988.

The Duchess’s faith is important to her, and it is something that has helped her through bad times. When her ill health took a turn for the worse with the revelation that she had been diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis, chronic fatigue syndrome, resulting in her to pulling out of Royal engagements at the last minute due to intense tiredness.

With her marriage attracting its fair share of rumour and gossip, now aged 79 & 81 respectively, The Duke and Duchess of Kent’s lives are more settled. She has in the last several years lived a life of solitude and quiet, choosing to teach children at a Hull school, being called “Mrs Kent“ and teaching private music lessons at a house she rented. Its all a far cry from the Miss Katharine Worsley who stepped into Royal life nearly 55 years ago.

She has also never forgotten her Yorkshire roots, and in April 1988 the City of York granted her its highest honour by making her a Freeman of the City.

What lies ahead? With so many young grandchildren to occupy Katharine’s time, and the news that she recently took on a new Patronage of Breast Cancer Charity in East Yorkshire, it sees this once hardworking Royal, whose caring and down to earth attitude brought her a raft of new admirers, still has the gentle touch.

She is Yorkshire’s own Duchess, and a lady who has helped so many people overcome their own troubles, having finally overcome so many of her own. Life is now lived in the shadow of her Royal counterparts, but the contribution she made in supporting The Queen will never be diminished.

Photos: Paul Ratcliffe – click here to visit his website.