Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, is no stranger to bad press. Thanks, in large part, to his unfortunate habit of saying the wrong thing at precisely the wrong time, the Queen’s husband has gained an unenviable reputation for being gaffe-prone, culturally insensitive and out of touch with reality. Indeed, the more sensationalist of the tabloid newspapers have even gone so far as to accuse him of being a perpetual embarrassment to the Queen.
The reality, however, could not be more different. Far from being the slightly ridiculous court jester of legend, the Duke of Edinburgh is, in fact, the glue that holds the House of Windsor together. Ever since Her Majesty’s coronation almost sixty years ago, when he swore an oath to be her ‘liege man of life and limb’, the Duke has rarely left the Queen’s side, steadfastly supporting her on a ceaseless round of royal engagements and state visits. Indeed, his self-effacing, no-nonsense approach to this life of duty has made it easy for us to forget the difficulties of his early life and the very great sacrifices he has made in service to our Queen and to this country.
Birth in Corfu
Born on the kitchen table of his family’s residence on the island of Corfu, on 10 June 1921, Prince Philip of Greece was the fifth child and only son of Prince Andrew of Greece (younger brother of King Constantine I) and Princess Alice of Battenberg (grand-daughter of Queen Victoria).
Aside from his Greek and British connections, Philip is also related to the Danish, German and Russian royal families, being a scion of the dynastic house of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg.
But despite this impressive pedigree, his early life was far from secure. With his father bearing the blame for Greece’s military defeats during the Greco-Turkish War, Philip’s family were forced to flee his politically-unstable native country in December 1922. Philip was smuggled, rather ignominiously, out of the country in a makeshift crib made from an orange box, before he and his family were carried to safety on a British battleship.
From Cheam to Gordonstoun
Exiled and almost penniless, Philip spent the remainder of his childhood dependant on the goodwill of various wealthy relations in France and England. At the age of nine, he was sent to Cheam, a prep school in Surrey, England – a venture financed by his mother’s English relations, who had by then adopted the anglicized surname of ‘Mountbatten’. After Cheam, he was sent to a Schloss Salem, a progressive school in the foothills of the German Alps, and from there, he advanced to Gordonstoun in Scotland, where he became ‘Guardian’ (or head boy) in his final year.
He saw little of his parents during this time – when his mentally ill mother was committed, against her will, to an institution in Switzerland in 1930, his father absconded to the French Riviera with his mistress.
Upon leaving Gordonstoun in 1939, Philip entered the Royal Navy as a Cadet, training at the Naval College in Dartmouth. It was at Dartmouth that he had his first significant encounter with his future wife, the thirteen-year-old Princess Elizabeth (the pair had met briefly on two previous occasions).
During the Second World War, Philip served with distinction aboard the battleship HMS Valiant and the naval destroyers HMS Wallace and HMS Whelp. During this time, he and Elizabeth corresponded regularly, and by 1944, the pair had fallen in love. Despite significant resistance from her father, George VI, Philip proposed to Elizabeth in August 1946. By the time the engagement was officially announced in July 1947, Philip was known as plain ‘Lt. Philip Mountbatten’ – he had renounced all his Greek royal titles to become a naturalized British subject.
After their marriage on 20 November 1947, Philip continued with his naval career, eventually gaining a promotion to the rank of Commander of HMS Magpie. Unfortunately, with the unexpected death of George VI and his wife’s subsequent accession to the throne, Philip regretfully abandoned his naval career in 1952 – a tremendous personal sacrifice which continued to weigh heavily on him for some time to come.
A bloody amoeba
In the months following Elizabeth’s succession, Philip was aggrieved to discover that his children would be known by his wife’s surname of ‘Windsor’ as opposed to his own surname of ‘Mountbatten’. Although the situation was partly rectified in 1960, when it was decided that those male descendants without a royal title would be known by the combined name of Mountbatten-Windsor, Philip still felt betrayed, famously declaring: “I’m nothing but a bloody amoeba! I’m the only man in the country not allowed to give his children his name.”
But, amoeba or not, the Duke of Edinburgh managed to swallow his pride and overcome any frustration he might have felt at being forced to continually take a back seat to his wife. Over the past six decades, he has succeeded in carving out a fulfilling career for himself, quite apart from his supporting role as the Queen’s consort. Despite recently celebrating his 90th birthday, the Duke takes an active role in the management of Royal estates, in addition to being patron to over 800 charities.
However, after suffering a heart attack in late 2011, Philip has had to hand over many of his responsibilities to younger members of the Royal Family, significantly reducing his once-punishing schedule.
“I reckon I’ve done my bit” he said in a rare interview with the BBC recently. “I want to enjoy myself for a bit now with less responsibilities, less frantic rushing about, less preparation, less trying to think of something to say. On top of that, the memory’s going. I can’t remember names. Yes, I am just sort of winding down.”
And so, as we celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee this year, perhaps we should also spare a thought for her remarkable husband, an unsung hero who has seen her through all the ups and do of her long reign. In the words of the Queen herself:
“He has, quite simply, been my strength and stay over all these years, and I owe him a greater debt than he would ever claim, or we shall ever know.”
Read more in The Queen: History In An Hour published by Harper Press