As the fourth son of a middling monarch, Prince George, Duke of Kent should be long forgotten. Instead, the enigma of his life and the mystery surrounding his death make him one of the most interesting members of the royal family.
In the early 1930s a policeman doing his rounds in London’s West End noticed two rather hirsute and inebriated ladies staggering down the road. On approaching, he discovered it was Noël Coward and his lover, the King of England’s son, Prince George, in drag. The Prince, protected by his wealth and rank, was untouchable; he managed only a few indecipherable words in his Eton drawl before wobbling off in his high heels. The surprised Bobby merely doffed his hat and kept walking.
Prince George Edward Alexander Edmund Saxe – Coburg And Gotha
Prince George Edward Alexander Edmund Saxe-Coburg And Gotha (George) was born on 20 December 1902 at York Cottage on the Sandringham Estate. Just one year before, his great-grandmother Queen Victoria had died. The Victorian era, marked by British Imperialism, the Industrial Revolution, strict moral discipline and 40 years of the Queen’s profound mourning for Prince Albert had come to an end.
Victoria’s eldest son Bertie wore the crown for the next decade as Edward VII. The court became jolly and fun-loving once more as he comprehensively rejected the Victorian era and the reserve it embodied. In 1910, when he died and his son George V ascended the throne, the monarchy reverted once again to the austere conservatism of Victorian morality.
HRH George, Duke of Kent
Prince George’s father, George V, was not a clever man. Before he was able to enter the Royal Navy, the entrance exam had to be doctored to accommodate his lack of smarts. He was an intensely shy monarch and shunned society. Opinions of him range from “mediocrity personified” to “vicious” and “evil”. One of his courtiers dubbed him a “lumpen dullard”.
George’s Great-grandmother and history’s greatest mourner, Queen Victoria
He was not only simpleminded but ill-tempered – a dangerous combination, particularly for his children who were often on the receiving end of his explosive bouts of fury. The royal brood were terrified of their gruff, tyrant of a father. A royal courtier recalled seeing one of the young princes faint after receiving “just a look” from his father on account of his tardiness at dinner time. According to author Karl Shaw, “Shooting was George V’s sole accomplishment: he was an ecological disaster made flesh.”
Even royal villages have their idiots: George V, the Duke of Kent’s father
George V had the dubious distinction of being the only senior member of a European royal family who couldn’t speak a foreign language with any degree of fluency. He spoke English with a German accent, but couldn’t speak a word of German despite it being the mother tongue of his wife, father and both grandparents. Ironic, considering that George V was considered by more than one historian to be “more German than the Kaiser”. During Word War I, in a masterpiece of spin, he re-branded the frightfully Germanic Saxe-Coburg And Gotha to the much more English sounding Windsor.
George’s mother, Mary of Teck, wife of George V and later Queen Mary
Prince George’s mother Queen Mary wasn’t much better. Like her husband, Mary was a deeply conservative product of the Victorian era. Emotionally stagnant, she was distant even by contemporary standards. She preferredher children neither seen nor heard. Her fifth son Prince John (George’s younger brother) who was autistic and epileptic, was seen as an embarrassment to the monarchy and was isolated from the family in a country house, alone with his nanny.
Neither the Queen nor the family visited him and he died at the age of 13. Prince George alone mourned him. According to the court diarist Chips Channon, having a conversation with Queen Mary was like “talking to Saint Paul’s Cathedral”. Her son Edward VIII said of her, “The liquid in that woman’s veins is as cold as ice.”
“The liquid in that woman’s veins is as cold as ice.”
George’s parents were both so buttoned up and rigidly formal that they were totally incapable of communicating with their children or showing any signs of affection. By the time Prince George came along, his father had his eye on empire and not on parenthood. Any novelty that fatherhood had once held had long since vanished. George V and Queen Mary had completely neglected to provide a loving family life in which their children could thrive and their children would pay the price.
Prince George was educated at home by a tutor as befitted a royal pupil. Later, unusual for the time, he was allowed to attend Saint Peter’s Court Preparatory School. Unlike his brothers, he excelled in the school room. He became fluent in five languages. According to his brother Edward VIII (of Mrs Simpson fame), who was very close to him, “Georgie was possessed of unusual charm and manner and talented in many directions. He had an undoubted flair for the arts. He played the piano, knew a good deal about music and had a knowledgeable eye for antiques.’’
According to royal biographer, Christopher Warwick, he was by far the best of the four brothers. George was “The outstanding child and in many ways the most gifted. Edward, the heir to the throne, was pretty much a philistine, Bertie who became George VI, was not a particularly cultured or artistic individual and Henry, who became Duke Of Gloucester, was practically bovine.” George’s childhood, shaped by a lack of affection and confinement to the nursery, was about to get a whole lot worse. His father enrolled him in naval college. At age 14, like his three older brothers before him, he was shipped off to Dartmouth. Queen Mary, in a rare moment of insight, noticed her son’s delicacy, sensitivity and aesthetic tastes – he was not at all suited to naval life. She tried to intervene on her son’s behalf but the king wanted sailor sons. George was absolutely miserable. Life at college and later on board ship was a double helping of home-sickness and sea-sickness. Although top of his class at school, he came second from the bottom in the navy. He began to look for a way out and sent desperate letters to the King’s private secretary, pleading to be discharged from service. As he got older, he absconded to London, where he spent nights carousing, bedding both men and women.
George and Marina, shortly after their marriage
In 1922, on one of his frequent leaves of absence on medical grounds, George was introduced to the glamorous debutante, Lady Alexandra Curzon, daughter of the Viceroy Of India. George fell deeply in love. However, the romance was short-lived and on 21 July 1925 she married Major Edward Dudley Metcalfe. In 1927, he fell in love with and proposed to the banking heiress Poppy Baring. King George refused to grant permission for the couple to marry, explaining to his disconsolate son that she was “unsuitable” by which he meant common. George sank into a deep depression, which he self-medicated with copious amounts of alcohol.
“The Prince, protected by his wealth and rank, was untouchable; he managed only a few indecipherable words in his Eton drawl before wobbling off in his high heels.”
The wayward prince desperately wanted to leave the navy, but the problem was that like many royals, he was at a loose end. There was an heir and a couple of spares – there was really no role for him. Rich, bored and lonely, George began to indulge his passion for theatre, dance, music… and men. On a jaunt to the South of France in 1926, he entered a tango contest under an assumed name and won.
He also became increasingly louche, promiscuous and indiscreet. According to London high-society gossip, “No man or woman was safe to ride in the back of a taxi with Prince George.”
George’s sexual palate was more varied and exotic than discerning. It included: black singer Florence Mills, Prince Paul Of Yugoslavia, Indira Raje, the Maharani Of Cooch Behar, the Duchess Of Argyll, Gloria Swanson, Prince Louis Ferdinand Of Prussia, Anthony Blunt (art historian who was later exposed as a Soviet spy) and court diarist Chips Channon. He had a particular penchant for well-built, blue-eyed Aryan youths.
Perhaps George’s most famous romance was with the playwright Noël Coward, with whom he carried on a 19-year affair. In 1921, George saw Coward on stage in the West End. The young prince was immediately captivated by the famous wit and asked to be shown backstage. According to Christopher Warwick, “Gertrude Lawrence went back to her dressing room after the performance only to find Prince George trying on one of her wigs.” She introduced him to Coward and the two became lovers. Coward wasn’t discrete about his royal conquest and spoke about it openly. Author Michael Thornton published Noël Coward’s admission of his homosexual relationship with George in his 1985 book Royal Feud.
That George was interested in men was unremarkable – except that it was still illegal in Britain at the time – what was far more worrying was the complete lack of discretion. At one point, his father was forced to dispatch detectives to Paris to retrieve love letters George had sent to a male prostitute who was threatening to blackmail him. More letters, this time to Coward, are believed to have been stolen from Coward’s house in 1942.
On a trip to Kenya with his brother Edward, George became involved with society drug addict Kiki Preston, known as “the girl with the silver syringe”. By the time he returned to England, he was addicted to morphine and cocaine. His habit was fed by Jorge Ferrara, the bisexual son of the Argentine ambassador.
Edward, on discovering George’s addiction and involvement with Ferrara, kicked the Argentinian out of the country and packed George off to a house in the country to undergo a painful program of rehabilitation. Through the winter of 1929, George was nursed back to health.
Finally, the exasperated king agreed to let his wayward son leave the navy if he agreed to take a job with the Home Office as a factory inspector. A career in the arts was out of the question. It was not a particularly glamorous occupation for a royal bad boy. Many believed it was punishment for his wayward youth, but the young prince was determined to make a success of it. And he did.
Having weened him off the happy dust and secured him respectable employment, the royal family now wanted George married. He was immediately despatched to Scandinavia where it was hoped he would warm to Princess Ingrid Of Sweden. He didn’t. It soon became obvious that his romantic interests lay elsewhere.
In 1933, George was introduced to the penniless Princess Marina Of Greece And Denmark who was living in exile in Paris. In 1934, he borrowed a plane from his brother and flew to Yugoslavia where Marina was holidaying with her family. He proposed and she accepted.
George, a prince from birth, didn’t become a royal duke until 1934, shortly before his marriage. On 29 November 1934, Prince George, Duke Of Kent married Princess Marina at Westminster Abbey. It was the last marriage between a son of
a British Sovereign and a member of a foreign royal house to date. The couple went on to have three children: the present Duke Of Kent, Princess Alexandra and Prince Michael.
George was smitten and absolutely thrilled with his new bride; she was chic, refined and sophisticated. He said admiringly, “She beats me at most games and doesn’t give a damn how fast I drive when I take her out in the car.”
Unlike the rest of the royal family who were anachronistic relics, like flies trapped in amber, the new Duke And Duchess Of Kent were different. They were beautiful and fun-loving, and most importantly, real. It was this human touch that made them hugely popular both in England and overseas.
“The occasional whiff of pleasurable scandal surfaced, but Princess Marina understood that George would continue his dalliances even after they were married.”
The couple divided their time between their London home and Coppins, a country house in Buckinghamshire left to George by his Aunt, Princess Victoria. Outwardly, the couple epitomised the idyll of reassuring domesticity. The occasional whiff of pleasurable scandal surfaced, but Princess Marina understood that George would continue his dalliances even after they were married. Even Noël Coward was a welcome addition to the soirées at Coppins. Surrounded by tables groaning with silverware and royal heirlooms George and Marina entertained on a lavish scale.
George had finally escaped the royal vacuum of idle nothingness. And now he was more settled in his private life, he was keen to play a more meaningful role in public life. In the late 1930s, he was a frequent visitor to Nazi Germany and acted as unofficial go-between for the British and German governments. It was in this capacity as mediator that he found himself on his way to Iceland to meet with senior US military representatives in an attempt to end
the armed conflict in Europe. The flying boat in which he was travelling strayed off course and crashed into a mountain in Scotland. George was killed instantly. He was 39.
The four sons of King George V, left to right, George, Edward, Albert, Henry.
His death at the height of World War II has led to various conspiracy theories surrounding the accident. Some speculate that George was actually heading to Sweden for secret peace talks with the Germans. Others claim that George was involved in the events surrounding the capture of Rudolf Hess. This theory, however, states that George was working with British Intelligence as part of a plot to fool the Nazis into thinking that he was plotting with other senior figures to overthrow Winston Churchill.
The Duke’s son, Prince Michael Of Kent
Other claims state George was at the controls of the plane and his inexperience may have caused the crash. The cause of the accident remains a mystery as the files have been “sifted” and, to this day, all George’s papers remain under lock and key in the Royal Archives at Windsor. The fact that the official crash report has never been made public has only fuelled speculation about what really happened.
George was initially buried in Saint George’s Chapel, Windsor. His remains were later moved to the royal burial ground at Frogmore.