The revelation that Prince Philip’s death, at the age of ninety-nine after heart surgery and a lengthy time in hospital, still came as a shock to many reveals much about the man who has been an integral part of the fabric of this nation for over seven decades.
The man who once described himself as “the world’s most experienced plaque unvelier” was a faithful and dependable presence at the Queen’s side or just a few paces behind her for much longer than most of us can remember.
They first set eyes on each other at a family wedding in 1934, when she was eight years old, and he was thirteen. Both were great-great-grandchildren of Queen Victoria but had arrived into very different worlds. Hers was an idyllic childhood spent in London, and Windsor Castle, the daughter of the Duke of York and the first grandchild of King George V. His childhood was more chaotic.
Philip was born on the island of Corfu in 1921, the youngest of five children of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark, brother of King Constantine I. The following year, his family were forced to flee for their lives after a coup in which his father narrowly escaped execution. The young toddler was hastily carried out of the country in a wooden fruit box while a British warship transported them to safety.
Philip was the youngest child of the family, with four older sisters and a mother who battled with schizophrenia and was committed to an asylum. When he was seven years old, Philip was sent to England to live with his mother’s English relatives, the Mountbattens. Later, he was sent to Gordonstoun, an austere boarding school in Scotland. During these formative years, none of his family visited him, and he quickly learnt to become self-reliant.
In 1936, he attended the Coronation of King George VI in Westminster Abbey, but it is unknown whether he met the Princess Elizabeth on that occasion. With the threat of war looming, Philip initially considered a career in the Royal Air Force but ultimately chose to follow his uncle Lord Louis Mountbatten into the Navy. He enrolled as a cadet at the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth and, in July 1939, the King and Queen visited the college with their two daughters. Philip met the royal family formally for the first time on that occasion, but only because the two boys selected to do so had contracted the mumps.
Princess Elizabeth’s governess, Marion Crawford, later recalled that the thirteen-year-old never took her eyes off the handsome and athletic cadet, who impressed her by jumping over the net during a game of tennis. The two decided to become pen pals and wrote to each other regularly during the war.
Philip graduated from Dartmouth as the best cadet on his course and served with distinction in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. In 1941 he was commended by his captain for his operation of searchlights during a night battle that sank several ships in the Italian fleet. He was later awarded the Greek War Cross of Valour for his courage under fire.
In 1942, he became one of the youngest first lieutenants in the Navy, and the following year he was credited with saving his ship, HMS Wallace, from a bombing raid during the Allied invasion of Sicily. Coming under sustained attack, he quickly devised a plan to throw a smoking wooden raft overboard as a decoy. The ruse worked, and the Luftwaffe bombed the raft as the ship and crew made their escape. His quick thinking and resourcefulness in the heat of battle was never forgotten by his comrades that day.
In 1944, he joined the destroyer HMS Whelp in the British Pacific Fleet and was in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese formally surrendered.
In the summer of 1946, Philip asked King George VI for permission to marry his eldest daughter. Some voices within the palace disproved of the match. Philip was effectively stateless, often homeless and comparatively poor by royal standards. He also had a reputation for speaking his mind bluntly, which did not endear himself to palace officials.
The King was concerned by their five year age gap and wrote to his mother, Queen Mary, that he felt Elizabeth was too young to commit herself to marriage. He also added, “I like Philip. He is intelligent, has a good sense of humour” and, “thinks about things in the right way”. After the Princess assured him that the naval officer was the only man she could ever love, the King asked them to wait a year until the Princess turned 21 before officially announcing their engagement.
Philip proposed with a ring that he had designed using diamonds taken from his mother’s tiara. The remaining diamonds were used to make a bracelet for his new bride, again of his own design. Friends commented that it was a classic case of opposites attract, with Elizabeth often appearing quiet, studious and reflective, particularly when compared to Philip’s more impulsive and often outspoken nature.
Before the official engagement could be announced, Philip was asked to renounce his official Greek and Danish royal titles. He adopted the surname Mountbatten and became a naturalised British subject. Their engagement was officially announced to the public in July 1947.
Two hundred million radio listeners worldwide tuned in to hear the couple exchange their vows in Westminster Abbey on 20th November 1947. Churchill wanted the wedding day to provide a welcome “flash of colour” as the country struggled to rebuild after the war. On the morning of the wedding, the King bestowed on his new son-in-law the title, His Royal Highness, the Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth and Baron of Greenwich.
In addition to the two thousand guests inside the Abbey, many thousands more lined the streets and gathered outside Buckingham Palace to cheer them when they emerged onto the balcony.
The royal couple made their first home at Windlesham Moor, near Windsor Castle, and welcomed their first child, Prince Charles, in November 1948. In 1949, they divided their time between Clarence House in London, and the British Crown colony of Malta, where Philip was a serving Royal Navy commander in the Mediterranean Fleet. Their daughter, Princess Anne, was born on 15th August 1950
Malta remains the only foreign country in which Elizabeth has ever lived, and she has described the two years spent there as being one of the best experiences of her life. While in Malta, Philip’s uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten, gave the royal couple his luxurious Villa Guardamangia near Valletta. Well away from the pressures of royal responsibilities, she was free to drive unescorted around the island in her open-topped car, make cinema trips with her husband and host parties with the wives of other servicemen.
However, the King’s declining health meant that the couple soon had to move back to Britain so that Elizabeth could take on an increasingly demanding schedule of engagements. This included a tour of Canada and Washington DC in October 1951. President Harry Truman was enchanted by them, telling the press that “never before have we had such a wonderful young couple, who have so completely captured the hearts of all of us.”
The King’s health continued to fail. He had always been a heavy smoker and developed lung cancer. In September 1951, he had surgery to remove part of his lung, and it soon became apparent that he would be too unwell to conduct the major tour of Commonwealth planned for the new year. Princess Elizabeth and Philip were asked to go in his place. On 31st January 1952, against his doctors’ advice, he joined other members of the royal family and Prime Minister Winston Churchill to wave the young couple off at Heathrow Airport. It was to be his last public appearance.
Queen and Consort
Early in the morning of 6th February 1952, King George VI was found dead in his bed at Buckingham Palace. He was just 56 years old. His death came as a huge shock to many as the full extent of his illness had been withheld from the public. The suddenness of his passing, which came following a pleasant day spent outdoors with family and friends, shocked even those closest to him.
Thousands of miles away, in a remote part of Kenya, Philip had to break the news to his wife that she had become Queen. They immediately returned to Britain, and Philip, who must have thought he had many years left in the Navy, gave up the career he loved to take up his new royal duties as the Queen’s consort. It was a role that he would perform with great distinction for the rest of his life.
As consort, Philip had no constitutional role other than being a privy counsellor. One of Queen’s first actions was to appoint him “the first gentleman in the land” and give him a “place, pre-eminence and precedence next to Her Majesty”. Without this distinction, Prince Charles as heir to the throne, would have ranked above his father!
In 1952, Churchill invited Philip to become President of the Royal Mint Advisory Committee (RMAC). The first challenge he faced was creating a new set of coinage for the Queen’s reign. He enjoyed learning about the intricacies and complexities of coin design and remained President for the next 47 years, stepping down in 1999.
During this time, his committee reviewed the designs of coins, medals, seals and decorations, and he chaired the meetings that approved the designs of Britain’s first decimal coins and four of the official UK coinage portraits of his wife.
Philip demonstrated a flair for leading committees and was put in charge of the one responsible for planning the coronation. This was a great success, and afterwards, he joined the Queen on the most ambitious royal tour of the Commonwealth ever undertaken. Armed with twelve tonnes of luggage, they travelled over forty-thousand miles by land, sea and air. Their journey took them to Bermuda, Jamaica, Fiji, Tonga, New Zealand, Australia, Cocos Islands, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Aden (now Yemen), Uganda, Malta and Gibraltar. It remains to this day the longest royal tour ever conducted, and it took an astonishing seven months.
Huge crowds followed them wherever they went. It is estimated that three-quarters of the population of Australia turned out to see them. Their last stop was at Gibraltar, where they boarded their new yacht, Britannia, for the first time. Onboard were their two children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne, and they sailed back to Britain together.
In February 1960, Philip became a father for the third time when Prince Andrew became the first child born to a reigning monarch since 1857. A fourth and final child, Prince Edward, followed four years later in March 1964.
As the first gentleman, Philip frequently travelled around the world to deputise for the Queen. In 1956, he spent a year away from his family on a lengthy tour of Australia, where he opened the Olympic Games on her behalf. In 1972, he became the first member of the royal family to visit the Soviet Union.
In 1963, he travelled to Washington to represent the Queen at the funeral of John F Kennedy. As the grief-stricken family and shocked White House staff prepared for the state funeral, Philip noticed that the murdered President’s confused two-year-old son, John Jnr had no one to play with and kept asking for his daddy. Some time later, Jacqueline Kennedy went looking for him and found them both sprawled on the floor of the playroom laughing together.
Two years later, when the Government created a memorial to JFK at Runnymede, Jacqueline attended the ceremony with her children. John Jnr was photographed holding the hand of the man who had become his playmate at the White House during that traumatic week.
Philip was determined to modernise the monarchy and, despite his natural aversion to the media, wanted to make the royal family more open and accessible to the people it served.
It was he who recommended that the Queen’s coronation be televised. She agreed, despite objections from her mother and Prime Minister, that doing so would turn the solemn occasion into a theatrical performance. As a result, the country witnessed a boom in the sale of televisions, and over 27 million people watched the event, along with millions more around the world.
In another watershed moment, he persuaded the Queen to broadcast her annual Christmas message on television for the first time in 1957. He even taught her how to use the teleprompter so that she could speak directly to the camera. In 1961, he became the first member of the royal family to participate in a televised interview.
In 1968 he permitted film cameras unprecedented access to his family to create a fly-on-the-wall documentary and record numbers tuned in to watch Royal Family when it aired the following year. Among the many revelations, viewers learned that Philip enjoyed barbecuing sausages, the Queen made her own salad dressing, and that she stored leftover food in Tupperware containers to keep it fresh!
The film succeeded in its objective to humanise the royal family in a way that had never been done before. However, concerns were expressed that this level of exposure could ultimately harm the institution it was trying to modernise, and it has never been shown again.
In later years, he became the first member of the royal family to use a computer and write his own emails. He also introduced many process efficiencies into the daily running of the royal household. These included installing intercoms to allow messages to be communicated around the palace at the touch of a button, rather than via messengers. He even bought the Queen a washing machine and had a private kitchen installed to cook his breakfast.
He liked to do things for himself wherever possible. His chauffeur often found himself sitting in the back seat so that Philip could take the wheel, and when a footman once tried to carry his suitcase, he replied, “I have arms. I’m not bloody helpless”.
Prince Philip’s first duty was always to his family. He arranged for his children to receive a school education rather than a palace tutor, which had been the royal custom. All three of his sons went to Gordonstoun, the private school in Scotland that he believed had been the making of him. He had a first-hand appreciation of the challenges that marrying into the royal family could bring and was determined to both welcome and support his daughters-in-law as they made the transition. Sadly, the marriages of three of his four children would later break up.
As the Prince and Princess of Wales’s marriage began to break down, Philip wrote to Diana almost every day, offering words of advice, concern, and support in the hope that the relationship could be salvaged. He openly conceded that he had “no talent as a marriage counsellor”, but she referred to him as “Dearest Pa” throughout their correspondence and wrote that his letters proved to her that he cared.
The Duke became a patron for many hundreds of national organisations, many of them military, sport and arts charities. As President of the World Wildlife Fund, he channelled his interest in conservation and protecting endangered species and became a high profile Ambassador for environmental causes long before they were fashionable.
Perhaps his most enduring legacy will be the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, which he began in 1956 to help young people on what he described as “their sometimes difficult path to adulthood”. The scheme, which he famously called “a do-it-yourself growing-up kit” allows them to improve themselves through various activities. These include volunteering in the community, training for personal fitness, acquiring new practical and social skills, and training for challenging expeditions. The programme now operates in 144 nations, and over eight million people have received bronze, silver or gold awards.
In August 2017, it was announced that Prince Philip would be stepping down from his royal duties at the age of ninety-six. Six years earlier, he had joked with reporters that he wanted to do this before reaching his “sell-by date.” However, the announcement still came as a shock to many who could not imagine the Queen undertaking public engagements without her loyal consort at her side.
Buckingham Palace reported at the time that he had notched up 22,191 solo engagements since becoming consort in 1952. These included 637 solo overseas visits, more than a third of them to Commonwealth countries. He also gave 5,493 speeches and authored 14 books.
After his retirement, he continued to make occasional public appearances. In 2018, he attended the weddings of Prince Harry and Princess Eugenie. He last appeared with his family in July 2020, at the wedding of his granddaughter Princess Beatrice.
Despite his decades of dedicated public service, the Prince also found time to pursue his hobbies, which included becoming a trained pilot in 1953. In addition to flying planes, sailing yachts and driving fast cars, he was a keen sportsman. After arthritis caused him to give up playing polo when he turned 50, he looked for another hobby that involved horses and practically invented the international sport of carriage racing. He developed the rules and championed its inclusion as an international sport, even winning medals Great Britain at the World and European championships. He continued to enjoy carriage racing after his retirement, which he combined with more leisurely pursuits like walking and painting.
Unfortunately, he could never bring himself to enjoy his wife’s passion for watching horse racing. He once arranged for a radio to be fitted inside his top hat so that he could listen to the cricket commentary as he accompanied his wife to a day at the races.
Philip continued to drive himself until 2019 when he overturned his Land Rover in a collision near the royal family’s Sandringham estate in Norfolk. He emerged from the vehicle shaken but not injured, and after being criticised in the media for not wearing a seatbelt, he voluntarily surrendered his driving licence a few weeks later.
Prince Philip’s mischievous and often controversial sense of humour won him legions of supporters and critics in equal measure. He was never afraid to speak his mind bluntly when he felt the situation required it. In 1961 he addressed the leaders of Britain’s failing manufacturing industries and called them “smug” for presiding over “a national defeat”, telling them that it was “time we pulled our fingers out”. After accepting a national conservation award in Thailand in 1991, he turned on his hosts and berated them for being “one of the most notorious centres of trading in endangered species in the world.”
His off-the-cuff remarks made whilst meeting members of the public often got him into hot water and were gleefully reported on by the press, who hung onto his every word in the hope that he would say something controversial. He was once widely criticised for asking an aboriginal leader in Australia if they still threw spears at each other. On another occasion, he congratulated a British student who had trekked through Papua New Guinea for not being eaten. The British media termed them ‘gaffes’, but friends of the Prince said that it was his way of making people feel at ease in the company of royalty. As one commentator noted, his behaviour was that of an “old friend who shows how much he likes you by teasing you.”
Throughout her long reign, the Queen has honoured the solemn promise that she made on her twenty-first birthday to devote her whole life to our service, and the world has benefitted incalculably as a result. Until now, she has benefitted from having a loyal and devoted companion at her side to support and sustain her through the many trials and triumphs.
Under Philip’s careful guidance, the British monarchy has been modernised and transformed for the Twenty-First century and beyond. Together, he and the Queen have been the greatest Ambassadors for Britain and the Commonwealth that this country has ever produced.
Of all the many thousands of tributes to Prince Philip that have poured in from around the world, perhaps the most eloquent and enlightening comes from the one who knew him best. During a celebration to mark their golden wedding anniversary, the Queen told her assembled guests;
“He is someone who doesn’t take easily to compliments, but he has quite simply been my strength and stay all these years. And I, and his whole family, and this and many other countries, owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim or we shall ever know.”
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