Serbia Bids Farewell to Prince Tommy

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For the seven years before his death, Prince Tomislav – “Tommy” to his close friends and family – had fought cancer. But the overwhelming memory of those years was of a person whose optimism was never dimmed. He was back in his beloved homeland, a place he had been forced from as a boy and to which he had returned some half a century later after travelling the world on a stateless persons passport issued by the United Nations.

A month and a half before he died, I saw Prince Tomislav for the last time, having flown from London to Belgrade with his 14 year old son Prince Michael. Tommy was waiting at the airport and while the drive to the royal family estate, where he finally died, was only fifty kilometres, he had not ventured out for some considerable time. He was determined that he should be waiting for his youngest son and right to the end he found a means of overcoming the physically debilitating aspects of his illness.

The road we took together that day was the same one he had taken each weekend as a boy as the Royal Family left the Palace in Belgrade for the King’s villa, a large dacha set in an oak forest, at whose heart was the marble mausoleum of St George. Here his father, the late King Alexander I, along with his grandfather and Kara-George, the founder of the dynasty lay. The richly decorated mosaic frescos and the ornate architecture proved to be an attraction for many generations of tourists who in recent years had found the Prince in residence and always accessible. This same road had also been our route out of Belgrade, through suburbs and into an open countryside of villages and hamlets, some ten years before.

That was a memorable day, the first on which a male member of the royal family had set foot on Yugoslav soil since banishment and enforced exile as a consequence of German invasion in 1942 and fifty years of communist rule.

For five decades, Tommy, and his two brothers had effectively been homeless, settling in Britain and then, in the case of his siblings, in the United States. Both brothers had died there, King Peter in 1970 and Prince Andrej in 1990. As the last living Prince born on Yugoslav soil the importance of his return was not lost. Accompanying the Prince on that momentous occasion, I sat alongside him as he silently watched the plains of northern Serbia come closer as our aircraft made its final descent into Belgrade’s Surchin airport.

As the flight crossed the end of the runway, a series of flash bulbs from the perimeter gave an indication of the expectation his return had generated. The Terminal building and the streets leading to the centre of the capital were lined with a crowd estimated at some tens of thousands. For the first time Tommy was back, and suddenly, as he said to me at the time, it was as though he had never been away.

After an audience with the Patriarch, the family – which included the Prince as well as his niece and nephew – set off for the royal estate. Travelling in the first car with the Prince and his wife, each corner saw further evidence of the affection with which Tomislav was still held amongst the Serbian people, in a part of the country which was the heartland of this Serbian dynasty. As a descendant of Queen Victoria Prince Tomislav was entitled to a British passport. It was a privilege he never took up, preferring to wait. And on the day of his homecoming, at the end of his long exile he used his old passport again for the first time, marked with the insignia of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. This small but significant detail was not lost in all the attention that was being paid to his return. Tommy’s links to Britain were strong, his first wife, Princess Margarita of Baden, was the niece of the Duke of Edinburgh, and his own mother was buried at Windsor Castle. At the time of his birth, he was within the first twenty in line to the Throne of the United Kingdom, and he became, in 1934, heir presumptive to the Throne of Yugoslavia, prior to his brother’s marriage.

The prince had been educated at Oundle and later Cambridge, and as a schoolboy had spent his free times and holidays at Barnwell, home of the then Duke of Gloucester. Regular visitors at the time were the Prince’s cousins, the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. Their own grandfather, King George V, had been Prince Tomislav’s godfather. As the only member of the dynasty to speak the language fluently, it had been easy for Prince Tomislav to communicate with his people. He had a natural affinity with the Serbs, not just as a result of the first dozen years of his life having been spent in his homeland, but also through the strong links with the diaspora which both he and his younger brother maintained, even when the prospects of a return seemed negligible.

On my last visit in June, the Prince was already confined to his bed for much of his day. He would rise for lunch and dinner where we would sit, just the two of us, talking about all that had gone before. This was the same house in which the young Prince had met the likes of the Nazi Field Marshal Goering following the funeral of his assassinated father in 1934. In his last weeks, Prince Tomislav saw the people most important to him. His first wife, with whom he had always remained friendly, visited, as did his daughter and sons. Tommy gave his last interview on the evening of 11th June, to The Times. He gave a passionate defens of his people.
At two fifteen the following afternoon, while alone with his wife Princess Linda, the end came peacefully. After a morning spent talking, as they had done so many times before, the Prince’s words, “I must sleep now” were the end of an extraordinary life. The task of breaking the news to Tommy’s second son – the sixteen year old Prince George – was, of course, not easy. But that evening, as we had a subdued meal with his grandmother at a quiet English country pub, sadness was prompted with smiles. Tommy was no longer here, but he was by no means gone.

(First published in Royalty Magazine in 2002.)