Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and longest serving Royal Consort in British History has died aged 99. As the Queen’s husband of seventy-three years, he was one of the most visible members of the Royal Family for nearly three-quarters of a century and had an immeasurable influence on the changing role of ‘the Firm’ (a phrase he popularised, but did not coin). ‘Phil the Greek’ (as he was nicknamed) was born on the Grecian island of Corfu and christened Phillipos, but in fact was entirely bereft of Greek ancestry. He was instead a member of the Danish royal family (the punishingly named Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburgs dynasty), a branch of which had been invited to take the Greek throne in 1863 after the Mediterranean country gained it’s independence from Turkey.
His families reign had been rocky, with his grandfather George I assassinated in 1913 by a dissatisfied Greek. His uncle’s successive reign was an endless swirl of upheavals: with the hapless King dethroned, reinstated and finally deposed for good by the military. In this chaotic snarl Phillip’s father Andrew was accused on treason in 1923, only escaping thanks to the timely intervention of Britain’s King George V (related to the family through a great aunt) who sent a naval cruiser to rescue his beleaguered relations. The one-year-old Philip was concealed in an orange box and rowed out with his family to their freedom.
As a result, Philip’s youth was spent in uncertain exile subsisting on even more uncertain funds. His father preferred the casinos of Monte Carlo to his flesh and blood and continued his habit of fleeing in the form of familial abandonment. His mother was also largely absent, born deaf and suffering from schizophrenia, she spent large swathes of Philip’s childhood shut up in asylums. Surviving on hand-me downs and handouts from more well to do relations, the young Philip and his siblings settled with family some distance from Paris. Philip spent relatively little time there however, bouncing between various boarding schools and the houses of relatives. Rootless and relatively penniless compared to his peers, he shielded himself behind a steely ironical humour, throwing himself in masculine pursuits. By 1934 he found himself in a Scottish boarding school set up by Kurt Hahn, a German Jew who had exiled himself thanks to the rise of Hitler. Hahn would be an important figure in the young man’s life and in 1956 would co-found one of Philip’s most enduring achievements: The Duke of Edinburgh Award.
He entered the Royal Navy at 17 after studying at Dartmouth, where he first met his future wife Princess Elizabeth when she was only 13. He saw action during the Second World War in Sicily and Libya and rose to the rank of First Lieutenant at an impressively young age. He was occasionally invited to visit Windsor Castle, where his acquaintanceship with the Queen to be deepened. Despite being considered far from eligible, by 1946 Philip and Elizabeth were engaged. The secret engagement was leaked to the press and, presaging the future, a poll saw over 40% of responders object to the marriage on the ground of his foreign origins. Aware of this and feeling no great connection to a past he had never truly known, Philip changed his last name to Mountbatten (after his uncle Louis) and attained British citizenship.
The two married in 1947 and the penniless near orphan (his father had died in 1944) suddenly found everything laid out before him: a yearly wage of £10,000 (substantially more in 1947) honours and prestige. The pair only had two brief years mostly to themselves before Elizabeth’s father King George VI began to exhibit symptoms of the cancer that would kill him in 1952. Having expected decades of happy relative obscurity, instead Philip found himself Royal Consort of a fading but still very much existent empire at the age of 30, with his naval career ended in a stroke.
In many ways Philip chafed against the constraints put on him by the position of Consort. As a traditional man of the time, not being able to pass on his name (recent though it was) to his children pained him and boredom with his duties was a frequent private complaint. In the early years of his position, he was constrained by a lack of direction of the nature of his role. In a desire not to see him overshadow the still shy Elizabeth, he was kept in abeyance despite his natural charisma and desire for meaningful work. In addition, the concerns over his foreign background and German connections saw a dogged hate campaign by press magnate Lord Beaverbrook (which ignited a bitter feud that would not be tamped down until the 1970s after Beaverbrook’s death). As a result, he was frequently reduced to set dressing for the Queen’s appearances. Despite his ambivalent feelings toward these duties, he took them seriously, writing his own speeches (he was by far the best speaker the Firm had) and making sure to stay on top of his brief. He was still frequently pulled into scandals by a British press all too eager to pull him down. When Stephen Ward, a member of the Thursday Club, a drinking and dining club frequented by the Duke, was implicated in the 1963 Profumo Affair, there were immediate attempts to link Philip to the scandal.
Having many opinions on the issues of the day (everything from North Sea oil to traffic reform) he was infrequently called upon for intellectual discussion, increasingly falling back on his sense of humour to keep himself entertained. As the 20th Century began to give way to the 21st it was this sense of humour that frequently saw him mired in controversy, from jokes that made headlines for racism (for example: that a group of British students in China “would soon go slitty eyed”) to sexism (“I don’t think a prostitute is more moral than a wife, but they are doing the same thing.”) to colonialist (“It’s pleasant for once to be in a country which is not ruled by its people” during a state visit to the Paraguayan dictatorship). These gaffes saw him both hated and loved as the one Royal who was defiant in his refusal to become media friendly. Indeed, his attitude towards the media hardened throughout his life particularly as his frustration with the institution of the monarchy boiled over in his famous outburst in Canada: ““It is a complete misconception to imagine that the monarchy exists in the interests of the monarchy. It does not. It exists in the interests of the people, in the sense that we do not come here for the benefit of our health, so to speak. We can think of other ways of enjoying ourselves. Judging by some of the programme we are required to do – and how little we get out of it – you can assume that it is done in the interests of the Canadian people and not our own interest.”
Still, he was indefatigable, nine years ago he announced his intention to step back from his active role, yet only did so 2018; after many hospital stays that would have been more than enough to justify a sooner retirement if he had so desired. Other than the Queen, no individual has had as great an impact on the Royal Family. He might have been a born outsider, but his commitment was hard to match.
Philip Mountbatten-Windsor, Duke of Edinburgh, Baron of Greenwich, Earl of Merioneth, born 10 June 1921; died 9 April 2021
Image Copyright Michael Gwyther-Jones