The story of Her Serene Highness, Princess Ekaterina Yourievsky – anglicised to Catherine – is the sort of tale found in Hollywood movies.
Born into untold riches in St Petersburg in 1878, the daughter of Tsar Alexander II wound across Europe where she socialised with royalty – including Edward VII.
But she died in a nursing home in Emsworth, having eked out a career as a classical singer, and struggled to make ends meet in her final years.
But how did she end up there?
Her mother Catherine Dolgorukov was from a noble family and met the Tsar while he was on an official visit to her school. He was still married to his first wife, Tsarina Maria, and together they had eight children.
The Tsarina’s death and her parents’ subsequent marriage legitimised Catherine and her siblings and she became a princess. They lived in splendour until her father’s assassination when she was aged just three.
From Russia the family fled to France where they owned several properties in Paris and on the French Riviera, and had an army of 20 servants to cater for their every whim. They always travelled in luxury.
Victor Pierce-Jones, a former Hayling councillor who has researched her life, said: ‘Catherine first married the sugar millionaire Prince Bariatinksy, grandson of the General who conquered the Caucasus for Russia.
‘They lived in a vast estate at Kursk – the scene of a prodigious tank battle between Russians and Germans in the Second World War.
‘They also had a palace at Yalta and properties in Italy.
‘They had two sons before he died tragically young. She went to Paris to stay with her mother and socialised with top people, including Britain’s King Edward VII.
‘She played golf, accompanied always by her dog which must have upset other golfers.
‘In France, her mother had a special cemetery reserved for all her pet dogs over years. Back in Yalta when the First World War broke out Catherine was raising money for the war effort when she met her second husband, a young officer, Prince Serge Obolensky.
‘Serge was convalescing from mild shell shock. He was a charming, brilliant man who, it was said, could sell umbrellas in the Sahara.
‘When the Communist revolution came he left to join a Tartar army fighting with the White Russian forces. This infuriated the Reds. They occupied her palace in Yalta and got drunk on the contents of the cellar.
‘Because she was a Romanov and her husband was fighting against the revolution they decided to put her up against a wall and shoot her. While her servants gathered to witness the execution a sailor, who may have been bribed, helped her to run away.
‘She escaped to one friend’s house, then another, changing into peasant clothes, ending up in the cottage of her gardener where she scrubbed the floors, helped with the cooking and looked after the cow. Typically, she was thrilled when someone rescued her pet dog as well.’
In a desperate bid to be reunited with her husband the princess took a five-day train journey to Moscow sitting on a luggage rack.
According to research by Mr Pierce-Jones, she was reunited with her husband who ‘constantly praised her cool and strength in those difficult times’.
Together they escaped Russia and moved to London where Serge took up business posts and Catherine raised money by singing classical pieces in English, French and Russian at society events.
But 1922 was a terrible year for the princess. Her mother died and the prince left her for Alice Astor whom he went on to marry.
Mr Pierce-Jones said: ‘Alone and gradually getting poorer she lived quietly plagued by asthma choosing to live on Hayling for that reason.
‘It is believed she had a small allowance from the Queen Mother of those days, a secret which obviously had to be kept from Russia’s leader, Stalin. Catherine struggled on in Hayling, increasingly short of money but always maintaining her dignity.
‘Her hairdresser, Nelly Wallis, said “She would freeze if she felt someone became too familiar. The saddest day was when she couldn’t afford a taxi to the salon on the sea front and came by bus”.’
She owned two homes on Hayling, The Haven, in Sinah Lane and Naini – which is Indian for Princess – in Sinah Lane. She was well known on the island and a member of the Women’s Institute.
‘She originally may have had servants such as a Lily Pickens – once her two sons’ governess – and an English coachman, Albert Stanard,’ said Mr Pierce-Jones.
‘There was talk of wild parties and a weekly wine order with Preston Watson of Havant, now Waitrose. She was treated sympathetically by islanders such as her next door neighbour in Havant Road, a Mr Hodge, once a café proprietor who became her unpaid servant.’
The princess was a member of the W.I. One local girl used to bring her flowers and described how she would usually find her dozing, always accompanied by a pet dog.
She died in 1959 and her small funeral at St Peter’s Church, Northney, Hayling, was attended by just eight people.
Her former husband Prince Obolensky and her nephew, Prince Alexander Yourievsky, son of her brother George, were joined by Madame Djakelly wife of the Russian Consul General in London, her doctor, Dr Broughton, a Mr and Mrs Russell, the Rev Shetlands and her companion, Mrs Smithers.
She was survived by her second husband Serge, her son by her first husband, Alexander Bariatinsky and Alexander’s daughter Elena Bariatinsky who married a few months before her grandmother’s death and lived in France.
She has a simple headstone which belies the exciting, but ultimately sad life she led.
PRINCE SERGE OBOLENSKY
Catherine’s second husband Prince Alexander Serge Obolensky visited her on Hayling during the Second World War.
He had become General Eisenhower’s Russian adviser at Southwick House, preparing for the D-Day invasion.
He helped organise their Office of Strategic Studies, America’s SAS.
Victor Pierce-Jones said: ‘In 1943, aged 51, he parachuted into Sardinia with the grandson of US President Theodore Roosevelt, accepting the surrender of over 200,000 Italian troops, a feat made possible because their government had capitulated to the allies.’
Despite being admired as The Liberator for freeing Russian serfs, The Tsar was assassinated by a bomb thrown at his coach in St Petersburg in 1881. His death caused a great setback for the reform movement.
Martin Rhodes, from Hayling, who has looked into the Princess’s life, said: ‘One of his last ideas was to draft plans for an elected parliament. Had he lived, Russia might have followed a path to constitutional monarchy instead of the long road of oppression that defined his successor, his son Alexander III’s reign.’