Was British royal offered Polish throne?

Prince George, Duke of Kent
As Prince William prepares to walk down the aisle today, few are familiar with the story of his ancestor, Prince George, Duke of Kent, who for many years was said to be linked with a renascent Polish throne, but who died tragically in an air crash in 1942.

Nicholas Hodge reports

For Poles who emigrated to the United Kingdom before, during and after WW II the story is not so far-fetched. Indeed, in the nostalgic London émigré club Ognisko Polskie (Polish Hearth), a likeness of the Duke of Kent is one of the portraits that takes pride of place in the dining room.

So who precisely was the Duke of Kent, and how might it have come about that he was offered the Polish throne, not occupied since Stanisław II August Poniatowski was swept from power, and Poland from the map of Europe, in the late 18th century?

For film buffs who watched the recent Hollywood smash The King's Speech, Prince George – an uncle to the now Queen Elizabeth II – was the fourth son of King George V, and younger brother of Edward VIII and Prince Albert (Bertie), the latter played by Colin Firth in the Oscar winning film.

George may not have made it into the movie, but footage of one of his stays at Count Potocki's palace in Lancut, southern Poland, endures in the archives of British Pathe to this day (see below).

The Duke and his wife, Princess Marina of Greece, were warmly welcomed in Poland during the 1930s, and the couple were considered great friends of the Poles, who had regained national independence in 1918.

King George of Poland?

Two stories exist about the British royal's links with a prospective Polish throne. The first is that George was put forward as a candidate in the thirties by Polish monarchists. (Poland's last king was compelled to abdicate in 1795, when Russia, Prussia and Austria divided the country. However, a monarchist movement re-emerged in 1918).

The second is that General Sikorski, Poland's wartime leader in exile, renewed the offer as a pre-emptive manoeuvre, strengthening British ties to the region as Germany and Russia contrived to dominate Poland.

'No smoke without fire...'

Curious to get to the bottom of the story, I rang up London's Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum, which has been the guardian of much of the country's wartime heritage since the enterprise was founded in 1945.

Dr. Andrzej Suchcitz, Chief Archivist at the Institute, confirmed that two theories endure, and added that during the 1930s, a Belgian prince had also been mooted by Polish monarchists as a candidate for the throne.

On the second theory, he noted that in the early years of the war, an idea had been put forward for a Polish-Czechoslovakian Federation to come into existence after the conflict, and that the Duke has since been cited in this context as a potential monarch.

As it was, during the war, the Duke made regular trips to review Polish troops stationed in the U.K, until his life was cut short in 1942.

However, Dr Suchcitz stressed that although over the years various attempts have been made to find concrete evidence about the throne legend, no single document has emerged in the institute's archives yet. That said, he reflected that whilst hard evidence had eluded researchers, “there is no smoke without fire.”

Still, while Prince William is widely considered a safe pair of hands for today's monarchy, his ancestor George, who mixed in cosmopolitan circles, left a fair whiff of scandal about him. Although it was not commonly known at the time, the Duke allegedly had affairs with both men and women, and his eldest brother Edward struggled to wean him off a long-standing morphine habit. Nevertheless, he remained a popular figure.

"There was never a more natural prince than this handsome young son of the Royal House of England," Count Potocki reminisced, "there was about him a dauntless quality."

However, whether George was truly marked out to follow in the footsteps of Poland’s long, but now defunct, line of Polish monarchs we will never know for sure. (pg)

Video - Duke and Duchess of Kent in Poland (click on the photo)