Katharine Kent ‘pioneered sympathetic sovereignty’ long before Diana

Duchess of Kent discusses working as a teacher in 2011

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Katharine, Duchess of Kent, is the oldest living member of the British Royal Family. She entered the royal fold in 1961 when she married Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, a grandson of King George V and cousin of Queen Elizabeth II.

For several years, the couple carried out royal engagements on behalf of the late Queen but, these days, the Duchess, who prefers to go by Katharine Kent, is almost completely withdrawn from public life, only being seen at the odd royal wedding and making her annual appearance at the Royal Box at Wimbledon.

And it was at the world-famous tennis tournament that Katharine garnered worldwide attention, as she eschewed royal protocol and demonstrated “the art of sympathetic sovereignty” most commonly associated with Diana, Princess of Wales.

At the Wimbledon Ladies’ singles final in 1993, she put her arm around a tearful Jana Novotná, who had been defeated by two-time defending champion Steffi Graf. The royal embraced her, before saying: “I know you will win it one day, don’t worry.” 

As Graf was handed the trophy, her Czech opponent was “inconsolable”. Katherine remembers the moment “well,” recalling it during a conversation with The Telegraph’s associate editor Camilla Tominey last summer. 

Smiling, she said: “I remember it very well indeed…How could you go up to someone and say: ‘Oh, bad luck!’ It was awful for her. She was crying so she got a hug, quite rightly.”

“Royalty had rarely appeared more relatable,” Ms Tominey wrote: “…Although Diana, Princess of Wales, may have perpetuated the art of sympathetic sovereignty, it was pioneered by her Kensington Palace neighbour, Katharine Kent…”

The heartwarming moment on the Centre Court went down in tennis history, and people found a new admiration for a royal they may not have previously heard of. 

In 2018, when Katharine sat down for her first interview in seven years, she opened up about the infamous encounter. 

Speaking to the BBC’s Simon McCoy, she explained: “I just remember from the far side of the net, her face crumpled. It’s the natural thing, isn’t it? You have built yourself up for this. You play the Wimbledon finals and you didn’t make it.

“That’s what you do when people are crying. We are quite normal people. We do hug people who cry. It is a natural reaction!” 

The royal went on to reveal she and the tennis pro had become “firm friends,” and in 1998, Katharine’s words of encouragement five years later proved to be true. 

Novotna secured her only Grand Slam title in 1998 at the All England Tennis Club with a victory over Nathalie Tauziat. 

In 2019, the tennis player lost her battle with cancer aged 49. Katharine paid tribute to her friend in a post on the Royal Family’s official Twitter account. 

She wrote: “Jana Novotna was a brave, courageous, sweet lady with a wonderful sense of humour. I am very saddened by the news of her death and all my feelings are with her family. Wimbledon will not be the same without her.” 

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Despite taking a step back from royal duties over 20 years ago, the Duchess’s affinity with the All England Tennis Club has continued. 

Until recently, the Duke of Kent was President of the club and he and Katharine were regular guests in the Royal Box. 

During her interview with the BBC, Katharine spoke about her love for the famous tennis tournament.

She said: “The atmosphere is electric, it’s wonderful. I don’t think anyone in the world can quite beat the way Wimbledon is done. I’m privileged to have seen all that.” 

Katharine relinquished her HRH title when she stepped back from public life. The self-styled ‘Yorkshire lass’ has lived a life out of the spotlight and even enjoyed a 13-year teaching career in Hull. 

In 1994, Katharine announced that she had been received into the Roman Catholic Church, a significant revelation as the Act of Settlement of 1701 removed anyone who marries a Roman Catholic from the line of succession. Edward was not removed, however, because the Duchess converted after they were married. 

The royal had discussed her choice to convert with Queen Elizabeth II who approved the decision, prior to making her announcement. 

While the 90-year-old continues to advocate for important organisations — such as UNICEF and Samaritans  behind the scenes, she has not attended some of the most recent royal events, including the late Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations in June and her state funeral in 2022. It has been speculated that the royal was absent due to health and mobility issues. 

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