Prince Philip

The Prince who stood firm behind the Queen: her rock and “her stay” throughout her long reign


Britain's Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, smiles as he visits the Admiralty Board and Admiralty House in central London, on November 23, 2011, where he formally received Letters Patent as the holder of the title and office of Lord High Admiral. (Photo by CARL COURT / AFP) (Photo by CARL COURT/AFP via Getty Images)

To many he was just the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, the man who, by royal protocol, had to walk a couple of steps behind her, (in)famous for his often politically incorrect quotes, which delighted newspapers as much as they infuriated the Palace courtiers.

But Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who has died aged 99, was not just the Queen’s ‘rock’ during their 73 years of marriage. He was a far more substantial figure whose promising naval career was in fact stunted by the very event that made him world famous, his marriage to the British queen.

While many royal consorts did not have much of a back story, by the time he captured the then Princess Elizabeth’s heart, Philip had already distinguished himself in the Royal Navy. He held a number of postings throughout WWII, first in the Indian Ocean then, after the invasion of Greece in October 1940, with the Mediterranean Fleet. Mentioned in dispatches after the battle of Cape Matapan, he was also awarded the Greek War Cross of Valour.

One of the Royal Navy’s youngest first lieutenants at 21, in 1943 during the invasion of Sicily he devised an ingenious plan that saved his ship, the Wallace, from a bomber attack. The following year he served with the British Pacific Fleet and was at Tokyo Bay when Japanese surrender was signed.

Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark was born in Corfu’s Mon Repos, the Greek royal family’s summer residence. He was the fifth child and only son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark – the fifth son of King George I of Greece – and Princess Alice of Battenberg, a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria. A prince of both Greece and Denmark, Prince Philip was in the line of succession to both thrones.

However, in 1922 Greece was in the throes of the Greco-Turkish war and the family were evacuated from the country in the HMS Calypso with baby Philip in a makeshift cot made from a fruit box. It was the start of a peripatetic period that would take Prince Philip to Paris where he would attend The Elms, an American school, and then to the UK in 1928 where he attended Cheam School and stayed with his maternal grandmother, Victoria Mountbatten, Dowager Marchioness of Milford Haven at Kensington Palace and his uncle, George Mountbatten, 2nd Marquess of Milford Haven, at Lynden Manor in Berkshire.

In the meantime, his family was falling apart. His mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia and interned in an asylum; his father moved to Monte Carlo; and his four sisters married German princes and moved to Germany. In 1933 Prince Philip was uprooted yet again, this time to Schule Schloss Salem, a school in Germany owned by one of his brothers-in-laws, Berthold, Margrave of Baden.

But even that turned out to be short-term: Salem’s founder, Kurt Hahn, was Jewish and in 1933 he fell foul of Germany’s new Nazi masters. Jailed after asking students and staff to choose between the school’s principles and Hitler, he was released after five days thanks to the intervention of the British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. Hahn was forced to leave Germany and moved to Scotland where he founded Gordonstoun School, based on the same principles as Salem.

Philip also moved to Gordonstoun, an event that would prove the making of him. With its emphasis on challenging outdoor activities, cold showers, and punishment runs, the school combined traditional elements of the British private school with Hahn’s own educational views, which emphasised the ability to understand different cultures. Philip, himself the product of various cultures and a complex family background, had found his ideal environment. His life until then had lacked a compass. He had finally found it at Gordonstoun and he thrived (unlike his son Charles who would be notoriously miserable during his time there).

Gordonstoun also equipped him to cope with anything that life would throw at him, like the air crash that in 1939 killed his sister Cecilie, her husband Georg Donatus, Hereditary Grand Duke of Hesse, her three children and her mother-in-law.

After leaving Gordonstoun in 1939, Philip attended the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth and graduated the following year as the best cadet in his course. It was while at Dartmouth that he would first meet the young Princess Elizabeth who was touring the Royal Naval College with her sister. The 13-year-old princess fell for the dashing young officer and they started a correspondence that would last throughout the subsequent war.

Philip spent WWII serving in the British Navy - with two of his brothers-in-law fighting on the opposite side. His mother spent the war in Athens where she gave shelter in her house to a Jewish family, saving them from the Nazis. In 1994 she would be honoured as Righteous among the Nations during a ceremony at Yad Vashem attended by Prince Philip.

In 1946 Prince Philip asked the King for Princess Elizabeth’s hand but the engagement was held off until her 21st birthday, the following year. By that time Prince Philip had given up his Greek and Danish titles and taken on the surname Mountbatten (from his mother’s family) and had become British. In October 1947 he completed his anglicisation by being received into the Church of England.

By the time he married Princess Elizabeth on 20 November 1947, Prince Philip had become a Royal Highness and been given the title by which he would become known, Duke of Edinburgh. 

About 200 million people around the world tuned in to BBC radio for the wedding ceremony at Westminster Abbey but the Duke’s German relatives, including his three surviving sisters, had not been invited – the war was still too fresh on people’s minds.

The newlyweds moved into Clarence House, which the Duke had done up with the latest mod cons including washing machines and even an intercom system. While waiting for the refurbishments, the young couple had to live at Buckingham Palace where protocol and the courtiers ruled supreme, much to the Duke’s dismay.

Work was not much more satisfying: he was given a desk job at the Admiralty, “shuffling ships around” as he himself would describe it. His posting to Malta in 1949, however, was an idyllic time for the young couple, free from the constraints of Court.

The Duke had started joining Princess Elizabeth on official visits and the couple were in Kenya on a Commonwealth tour when the news came of the King’s death. Princess Elizabeth was now the Queen and Prince Philip’s life was not his own any more.

What had previously been his greatest strength – his energy and openness to new ideas – was frowned upon and downright opposed by the Palace machine. Prince Philip and his family had also had to move out of his beloved Clarence House back to Buckingham Palace. Again, he set out to redecorate and modernise the living quarters.

The 1953 Coronation Ceremony might have seen him, again, kneel before his wife and take an oath of fealty, but at least, as chairman of the Coronation Commission, he was involved in planning it to the last detail, including the then revolutionary BBC broadcast that beamed the ceremony to the country. 

However, over and over, Prince Philip had to give in. A case in point was the name of the royal house: two possibilities, the House of Mountbatten and the House of Edinburgh were vetoed by Queen Mary and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It was decided it would remain the House of Windsor and the Duke bitterly complained in private: “I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his own children.”

However much it cost him in wounded pride, Prince Philip learnt to play the part of consort to perfection, accompanying the Queen to ceremonies and tours abroad. Once, from 1956 to 1957, he travelled around the world aboard the HMY Britannia, including visiting the Antarctic and opening the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, while his wife and children remained at home. There were rumours of a royal drift but like the whispers about affairs that would emerge from time to time, nothing was ever substantiated.

Over the years the Queen steadfastly defended her ‘rock’ and Prince Philip learnt to channel his energies elsewhere. An enthusiastic polo player, he regularly competed in carriage driving, was a keen yachtsman and achieved 5,986 flying hours on 59 types of aircraft.

His action-man nature also came through in another of his hobbies, painting; his work has been described as “totally direct…Strong colours, vigorous brushstrokes”.

An important part of the Duke’s legacy has been the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, which he founded in 1956, together with Gordonstoun’s Kurth Hahn. The Award’s aim was to give the young “a sense of responsibility to themselves and their communities” and it would go on to be a huge success in a number of countries.

As patron of some 800 organisations, ranging from the environment, sport, industry and education, at his retirement from public life in 2017 the Duke had completed 22,219 solo engagements. Among those mourning his departure were surely the tabloids that would miss his famous gaffes (example: “if you stay here much longer, you’ll all be slitty-eyed” said to a group of British students in China).

Prince Philip made the news again in January 2019 when he was involved in a car crash near Sandringham Estate. Three weeks later he voluntarily surrendered his driving licence, 

He had only recently been discharged after spending a month in hospital.

Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth II had four children: Charles, Prince of Wales; Anne, Princess Royal; Prince Andrew, Duke of York; Prince Edward, Earl of Essex; and eight grandchildren.

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