Diplomatic Connections Articles

Her Royal Highness
British Princess Michael of Kent
The Author

By Roland Flamini

British royals continue to appear on the Washington landscape at regular intervals this year. First it was Prince William, then Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. With the cherry blossoms in late April came the charming and erudite Princess Michael of Kent promoting her latest book.

Baroness Marie Christine von Reibnitz, 70, is the Bohemian-born wife of Queen Elizabeth II’s first cousin Prince Michael, younger brother of the Duke of Kent. She is the author of several works of history and historical fiction. “Agnes Sorel: Mistress of Beauty” is the second book of her Anjou Trilogy, which chronicles the successive rise to power of three women in the royal court of France in the 15th century.

Speaking at a lunch in her honor at Washington’s Metropolitan Club, Princess Michael describes the loves, intrigues, follies and villainies of her heroines in the somewhat misnamed Age of Chivalry, bathing her fascinated audience in a drizzle of meticulously researched period detail. Yet she doesn’t consider herself a historian. “I tell stories,” she says in a conversation at a subsequent reception. “What I write is factually true, but I invent dialogue. Pure history may quote from letters, but that’s not dialogue. I write what I think someone said.”

She writes in English (which she speaks with no accent, but with a slight lisp) because at home in Austria, and then with her Hungarian-born mother Countess Marianne Szapáry, in — of all places — Australia, “We had all these languages floating around.” The family even played multi-lingual Scrabble in which words could be spelled in English, German, French or Italian.

The fun part is the research, but she is not one of those writers who agonize over their prose. “I’ve never had any difficulty writing. My mother made me do a typing course and I write blind at 80 words a minute on the computer,” she says.

In a rather ironic way, she owes her writing career to marrying a royal. She had come to London from Vienna to train as an interior designer, and after various internships had launched her own company. But when she married Prince Michael in 1978, Buckingham Palace (referred to as BP in royal circles) told her it was not seemly for a member of the royal family to be in that business, and she would have to stop.

“That was a long time ago, and things have changed,” she explains, “but in those days, ‘trade’ wasn’t a proper occupation [for a royal].” As minor royals, Princess Michael and her husband receive no financial help from the so-called Civil List; or, as the official website of the British monarchy, puts it, “Prince Michael receives no public money, but undertakes a range of public duties. He has his own private consultancy business which helps Prince and Princess Michael to fund and carry out charitable and other duties.”

For Princess Michael merely being tall, blonde and decorative was not an option, so she decided to channel her intellect, her languages and her interest in history into writing, on the theory that BP was hardly likely to object to authorship as an occupation. The books have led to a lucrative secondary occupation lecturing at universities, museums and such gatherings as the Metropolitan Club lunch.

The princess writes about the scandals and intrigues of the French court with such relish it was put to her that the world of gossip writing had lost a good columnist. “No, that would offend and hurt,” she protests. “I would never want to hurt anybody.” That’s one reason, she adds, why she has written “about every century except the 20th, which I won’t touch. I won’t write about people who are still alive.”

So she remains at the receiving end of gossip, a lot of it uncomplimentary. If the barbs of the British media bother her, she is not admitting to it. “Margaret Thatcher advised me never to read anything written about me, and I don’t,” she says.

And yet, in Queen Elizabeth II’s garden of broken marriages, Prince Michael and his wife have proved among the sturdier plants — the couple have been married 37 years. When he wed Marie Christine von Reibnitz in Vienna in 1978, Prince Michael lost his place in the royal line of succession because his bride was a Catholic and the Act of Settlement of 1701 specifically barred members of the royal family from marrying Catholics.

However, in 2013, the 300-year-old statute was amended to allow royals to marry Catholics with an exception made for the heir to the throne. “So my husband was back in the line of succession,” says Princess Michael. But in the interim the line had acquired several new members from later generations. “When we were married, my husband was eighth in line. Now he is forty-second,” she adds.

The princess was more interested in talking about another side of her lineage. American genealogists have just told her she is related to a large number of Americans, including George Washington, President Franklin Roosevelt and the poet T.S. Eliot. “When my husband makes speeches in America he starts off with, ‘I was born on the Fourth of July and FDR was my godfather,’” observes Princess Michael. “I can’t wait to tell him, he may be your godfather, but he’s my twelfth cousin, and not yours.”

But she also has closer and more recent U.S. connections. Her son Frederick, 36, is an investment banker living in Los Angeles. Her 34-year-old daughter Gabriella graduated from Brown and is a journalist in the U.K.

On the payroll or off it, the British royals are all in some measure bound by BP’s rules and regs. The British press reported that Princess Michael was “not allowed” to give interviews on her U.S. book tour.

Not that the princess is likely to spill any royal beans. Even in social conversations, she can deflect potentially sensitive questions about the royals, say, with the skill of a champion fencer.

Her brain switches to defense mode as she launches into some amazing anecdote straight from the illuminated pages of a medieval manuscript. Example: Venice was one giant whorehouse in the 17th century (or was it 16th?) until the plague put a stop to the fun. The Venetians blamed it on the cats. “So they collected all the cats and burned them in the very cruel way,” recounts the princess, herself a cat lover. “They put them in large nets and hung them over big fires. And what happened after that? RATS! Venice was invaded by rats. So the Venetians had to buy cats from the Middle East.”

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