The Duke hits Ninety
The Queen’s consort of six decades is 90. He has had what he calls ‘a good innings’. He is very popular with many in European countries, and the United States. He is also a bit of a favourite in Britain, with the exception of the stuffier classes, who still think of him as ‘an outsider’ and a ‘penniless adventurer’. This is especially true with the press, never forgiving when a very famous man is hard, unresponsive and enigmatic: “One gets a rather false image of me, from the press,” he once said in a rare interview, “I do not, for example, hate journalists, though I have hated some of the things they wrote.” An admiral once wrote of him, “Philip is always master of his own dryness.” A former First Lord of the Admiralty (Lewin) said that if Philip had not become what he became he was such a fine seaman that he would have been First Lord instead of him.
He is Philip Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth and the Baron Greenwich (born 1921).
He and Queen Elizabeth II have four children. Philip once said, in an indiscreet moment probably, that he would do everything he could to avoid any of them having a childhood as difficult as his own. His childhood was in fact so dreadful he would not be to blame if he had grown up psychologically disturbed and depressed. Born 6th in line to the throne of a deeply disturbed country like Greece, he was homeless when at 18 months. His father (Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark) was nearly executed for high treason. When he was eight his mother (Princess Alice of Battenberg, sister of Lord Louios Mountbatten) became profoundly depressed and was bundled away into a special sanatorium. His father moved to the South of France where he began life again with a new mistress. The children, of whom Philip was the youngest, were equally bundled off to live with foster parents (of a kind). In Philip’s case it was the family of the Marquess of Milford Haven that took him in, fed him, educated him, showed him kindness, but left him feeling that he had, in fact, no home at all. He was Greek, but also German, Danish, Russian and Spanish. He began the childhood perambulations that seem to affect so many of what used to called ‘the upper classes’. First an American school in Paris, where his English improved: then a typical English preparatory or private school, which he enjoyed, and where his athleticism began to show. This happy period was followed by a spell at Kurt Hahn’s Scottish Salem – Gordonstoun. Hahn’s spartan regime of outdoor life, self confidence, expectation of success, encouragement of initiative, and choking off of pity (or any outward sign of it) formed the character of the future Queen’s Consort.
At Gordonstoun Philip succeeded where his own eldest son, as yet unborn, failed. Prince Charles hated the school but Philip revelled in it, including the early morning 500 yard run in bare feet followed by the cold water shower taken naked. At school, Philip’s reputation for strength of character, and indefatigible hardness grew, and stayed with him to his death. Hahn never allowed the writings of mere women (Jane Austen, the Brontés, George Eliot etc.) to be studied at school; almost all of the school staff and servants were male. The ‘matron’ was a man.
During Philip’s five years at Gordonstoun, he got no visits from any relatives. He was obviously a lonely youth, perfectly able to look after himself. Meanwhile his upwardly mobile family moved a step higher with the marriage of Philip’s cousin Marina to the Duke of Kent, brother of George VI. His uncle Louis Mountbatten was already a kind of God who knew that Philip could join the Greek Navy if he chose, but encouraged him to enter the Royal Navy instead. It was an excellent career move. Lord Louis had recognised in his nephew resilience and determination strong enough to enable him to overcome the trials and tribulations of his youth. Unknown to many, he had also decided his nephew would make a most suitable husband for the young Princess Elizabeth. But Mountbatten himself was a suspect figure among many senior members of the Establishment. They found him pushy, arrogant and snobbish. He was ‘too sure of himself’. He was related by blood to every royal family in Europe. When Philip and the princess began going out together, the old crusties snorted that the young man came from the wrong country, the wrong school: he was too informal. He had no respect for tradition, or its manifestations. Jack Colville (later the Queen’s first Private Secretary) wrote that ‘Lords Salisbury, Eldon and Stanley think he is no gentleman.’
In a sense the peers and Colville were right. Philip was not moved by old English norms, and was openly critical of the creaking ritual by which much of the machinery of monarchy was governed. Nevertheless in 1953 Philip got on his knees before his wife during her coronation and promised to be ‘her liegeman of life and limb’, and that he would ‘live and die for her’. Thus he found himself in the shadows, forced to live his life two paces behind her.
Losses and Gains
In 1937 Philip had lost his much admired uncle George Milford Haven, victim of a cancer. One of the Marquess’s sisters also died, in a flying accident. Philip was virtually alone at both funerals. At the beginning of the Second War Philip was still a Prince of Greece, serving in neutral Athens. Then Italy invaded Philip’s mother country and he got himself appointed as a ship’s officer on HMS Valiant. Rising rapidly through deserved promotion, he was involved in a number of notable sea battles during the War.
In 1946 Philip asked Elizabeth, known always as ‘Lilibet’, to marry him – for the first time – but George VI thought him too young. Not being one known to give up easily, Philip entered the Church of England, confirmed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Philip also officially took British nationality under the anglicised version of his mother’s name, though because of the 1705 Act of Naturalisation of the Princess Sophia he had in fact been English since birth. Faced with the obvious fact that Elizabeth loved Philip and that the feeling was mutual, and aided by the good advice of his own queen, later Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, the Monarch finally agreed to the marriage, and there was a relatively discreet ceremony, in the post-War year of 1947, on November 20. Philip had ‘joined the firm’, as he always put it.
For the next five years, Philip was firmly in the saddle as head of the family, married to a royal princess who stayed by his side during all his naval duties. All this changed dramatically when George VI died while both Elisabeth and Philip were on an official visit to Kenya. When she returned, she was Queen Elizabeth the Second, and Philip had become the Queen’s Consort. Now Duke of Edinburgh, Philip accepted the new and irksome role philosophically. He knew that his first born child would be one day the future Monarch. He knew he would need all those reserves of endurance and fortitude instilled in him at Gordonstoun and by a disastrous family life with separated parents, a half-life lived out of a suitcase. He rebelled against the Establishment notably, failing only once, when he tried in vain to get the family surname changed to Mountbatten-Windsor. He tried in vain to use his influence to persuade the Prime Minister to accept, but that PM was Winston Churchill and Philip failed.
While the rest of the royal family holidayed at Balmoral in the summer, Philip tirelessly managed family estates and fortunes with considerable success. He doubled the meeting times with managers, and made his presence felt strongly by all those courtiers who worked with him. The hangers-on he simply got rid of. He played first-class Polo with an impressive handicap. He drove expensive Lagondas and a sensational Alvis, usually too fast. He had several accidents, instantly reported in the yellow press. There were foundations to be founded, usually under his name (The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme was just one of them, undertaken by more than 2 million young people in 60 countries) and associations for charity work such as finding homes for the homeless. There was time for sport, as always, especially sailing, at which Philip excelled. Edward Heath once said that Prince Philip was the best ‘master mariner’ he had ever known. Later he was recognised as a master coachman too, controlling four or even six horses from a box seat on a carriage built for six inside passengers.
It has been said that the Queen has always been the first to recognise the sterling qualities of her husband. She says he has been her ‘strength and stay,’ and that Great Britain owes him ‘a debt greater than he would ever claim, or we shall ever know’. His service to his wife and Queen, and his country has been silent, affectionate and constant. Endlessly respectful in public, we know from the film The Queen that in private he tends to call his wife ‘Cabbage’.
He was, rather in the terms of a fairy story, a penniless prince when they first met. His fortunes, dark as they may have seemed for the first twenty years of his life, brightened immeasurably with his marriage. His wife has learned to deal with his sudden anger, and occasional lapses into salty bad humours. His talent for saying irrascible things in public has always angered the press, but these rather savage comments were part and parcel of his character. Once presented to a mayor of a large, industrial northern town, sporting a rather blinding necktie, Philip asked the poor man if the tie was that of Alcoholics Anonymous.
There have been family disputes of course, especially when Philip thought his wife was not keeping herself ‘up to the mark’. He is supposed to have said, on one of these occasions, “Now then Lilibet! Shape up! Decide! Move!” Queen Elizabeth II is a formidable woman of great character, fortitude and truly conscious of her own position. Apparently she accepted these furiously spoken words with true Victorian restraint. Those Plantagenet eyes were reportedly frosty.
It is too early to analyse Philip’s attitude to his children, and much too easy, though many biographers reckon they have got it right, where they have arguably got it wrong. Philip never had an easy relation with his son Charles (who loathed Gordonstoun, while Philip excelled there and thought the school the best place in the world). Only Prince Andrew of Philip’s three sons liked Kurt Hahn’s institution. Prince Edward disliked it too. Perhaps Charles and Edward were too sensitive, whereas both Andrew and his father were of tougher fibre.
Future psychologists will attempt to explain Philip’s irritation with three of his children when their respective marriages failed so spectacularly. The fourth and youngest, Edward, appears to have rather more luck with his chosen spouse than either of his brothers or his sister. Meanwhile it was a known fact that Philip has always been exasperated by Charles’ timidity and apparent docility. In private Philip never made any secret of his dislike of Diana, Princess of Wales; in fact any of the Spencers. He once memorably said that the only Spencer in history who had not been ‘a traitor’ was Winston Spencer Churchill. It is Charles Spencer’s great fortune that Philip did not strangle him after his distasteful obituary to his sister at her funeral.
Philip famously sent a most disapproving letter to Diana after the publication of a particularly dreadful biography of her. He simply couldn’t accept that any person of Diana’s rank and upbringing could not see where (in the Duke’s opinion) her duties lay. His personal ideology is that his duties lie with the Queen, and the institutions the Monarchy represents and which he will always defend (though one of the very first reforms he suggested to his new Queen was a denial of the outmoded debutantes’ Queen Charlotte’s Ball in the middle Fifties).
Philip has lived to an upstanding, erect, and formidable old age. The royal couple have shared an acute sense of humour all their married life, which, combined with physical and mental strength, helps them through periods of crisis that would have wrecked most other marriages. I doubt if we will ever see another like him.