David Robson

'He was a prince twice over but a homeless one'

By the standards of the royal family, frozen in a weird historical tableau, he was a very modern man


EDINBURGH, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 04: Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh smiles during a visit to the headquarters of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force's (RAuxAF) 603 Squadron on July 4, 2015 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Danny Lawson - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

April 15, 2021 17:46

In 1953, I was eight years old. On the morning of Saturday, 2 May, like every other Saturday, I would have been in shul. One of the highlights of the service for me, along with the Shema, Ein Keloheinu and so on was the prayer for the royal family: “He who gives salvation to kings and dominion to princes, may He bless Our Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth, Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Philip Duke of Edinburgh...” 

That afternoon I watched the FA Cup Final on television — Blackpool v Bolton Wanderers, the Stanley Matthews final. Before kick-off the Duke of Edinburgh shook hands with the teams. Matthews, wizard of the dribble, was 38; five weeks later, Gordon Richards, the nation’s favourite jockey, won his first Derby, age 46; and that summer Len Hutton, 37, led England’s cricket team to a rare Ashes win. The Coronation on 2 June came 16 months after the Queen’s accession, delayed by Winston Churchill, 78 and ailing, so that he could stay prime minister as long as possible. All of them were old men enjoying their last hurrah.

Philip was only 32. No last hurrah for him. His chosen career, as a sailor, had been ended very prematurely by his new wife’s father’s failing health. The young man who had it in him to one day perhaps become head of the Royal Navy committed the rest of his life to being the Queen’s first mate. “It was not my ambition to be president of the Mint Committee or the World Wildlife Fund,” he said later, “I was asked to do it. I’d much rather have stayed in the Navy, frankly.” 

By the standards of the royal family, frozen in a weird historical tableau, he was a very modern man and his story had its own gender-bending dimension. His birth and childhood were as tormented and fragmented as the girl victim in a Grimm’s fairytale. He was a prince twice over, but a homeless one. When he was asked what language they had spoken at home, he answered a question with a question “what is home?” Not a wandering Jew but a wandering Danish Greek. It was a princess who wafted him from hovel to palace. To live happily ever after? Maybe not entirely, but then which of us does?

It is poignant that the naval uniform he wore at his wedding in 1947 fitted him for the rest of his life. He was a hero from central casting – handsome, athletic, decisive, dominant, frank, outspoken, constructive, reasonably witty, a little bit outrageous and blessed with genes that never left him doddery or pitiful in old age. Nobody ever knows what the Queen’s thinking but we often knew what he was thinking.

I don’t get carried away by the constant references to his dedication to “service” as if it was some kind of penance. We are talking Moutbattens here not Maizels, Windsors not Weinsteins, we all have our “service” to perform as workers, parents, members of communities. He did his version, he did it as well as most and I imagine he enjoyed quite a lot of it. Why shouldn’t he? The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme was a great thing but it’s the sort of thing you start if you’re the Duke Of Edinburgh. I’m sure he had lots of fun and we know he sometimes got irritated – don’t we all?

His great contribution was that in a family where it didn’t used to happen he behaved like a normal human being and a member of today’s world. Providentially he did it for a long time. Readers of this paper are members of a community that understands and values the past and the importance of continuity. In a public life full of flakes and fakes who aren’t around for long and increasingly implode in scandal it is a genuine service to persist unscathed – 69 years prince consort, and a canny one.

Most of us, unlike the Queen and Philip, are too young to have experienced the trauma of world war but we have lived through tumultuously transformed times and for those of a certain age – me, for instance – it is reassuring to have lifelong public figures. I went to the Mall in 2002 to describe the scene the day after the death of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother (so good they named her twice).

It was Sunday. They were putting up crush barriers round a tent where there was a book of condolence but there was hardly anybody there. A young reporter from The Guardian wrote a piece saying there was minimal intrest in the death. How little she understands, I thought. When the Queen Mother’s body lay in state there were queues stretching literally for miles. There was a profound sense of loss for this woman about whom we knew little except that she had a nice smile, liked horse racing, spent money, liked a drink, and had been a supportive wife.

About Philip we know much more. We also know he had two sisters who married Nazis. Until 2018 I didn’t know, though I should have, that his mother Princess Alice, a woman born deaf, who suffered from mental illness and had become a nun, is celebrated at Yad Vashem (and on a memorial wall at Hoop Lane Cemetery in London) as Righteous Among The Nations. In the royal residence in Athens, at great personal risk, she housed and protected a Jewish family (Cohen) from the Nazi occupiers, and from some of her own family.

It wasn’t only his wife, some of his offspring and himself that Philip was entitled to be proud of.

April 15, 2021 17:46

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