Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip at Balmoral, Scotland, 1972. Photograph: Fox Photos/Getty Images
Prince Philip was the longest-serving consort of a British monarch, described by the Queen as her ‘strength and stay’.
9 Apr 2021 – Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who has died aged 99, was the Queen’s husband for 73 years. He was the longest-serving royal consort in British history, the family’s patriarch and a well-known figure in public life for two-thirds of a century until his final disappearance into seclusion in 2019.
This was a marathon stint on which he had originally embarked with resignation, in the belief that a life of walking several steps behind his wife, curbing his opinions – though not always his tongue – and being an appendage to the institution, without even being able to pass on his surname to his children, would turn him into “nothing but a bloody amoeba”.
Things did not work out that badly. He brought a relaxed, mostly affable, peppery, outspoken – and occasionally brusque – style to a ceremonial monarchy that would have been more hidebound, introverted, insipid and decidedly stuffy without him. He introduced badly needed fresh air into the royal family but, while his longevity ensured that he became an integral part of the family firm, he clearly never forgot his initial, impecunious, foreign and outsider status within the institution.
His dutiful support for his wife and his engagement in public visits, ceremonial occasions and foreign trips continued well into old age. In 2011, he said in a television interview that he was winding down, but it was not until 2017 that he completed his final public engagement and it was only in January 2019, when he gave up driving after causing a car crash near the Sandringham estate, that he disappeared from view. He became the focus of attention again in February 2021, when he went into King Edward VII’s hospital in central London after an infection.
Although he came to loathe the media for their intrusiveness, he played a considerable part in dragging the monarchy into the modern age. The pioneering 1969 television documentary Royal Family, scripted by Antony Jay, which charted the royal family’s year, showing them in off-duty, admittedly somewhat stilted moments, had received his support in the face of the disapproval of palace courtiers and advisers. The film was reportedly seen by two-thirds of the population, and was blamed by some commentators for a breakdown in deference towards the royal family.
The royal family in 1968 at Frogmore, Windsor: the Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen, with Prince Edward, seated, and behind them, from left, Princess Anne, Prince Charles and Prince Andrew. Photograph: PA
If his tally of accomplishments was modest, this was at least partly because the role to which he was confined had been diminished. Although Philip was intelligent, with physical presence, energy and a clipped, ironic way of speaking, he took care to conceal his intellectual interests, which included poetry and theology, behind his bluff exterior. He had a fine private art collection, painted a little himself and had a well-thumbed personal library of more than 11,000 books, with perhaps surprising inclusions such as the works of TS Eliot. “Don’t tell anyone,” he would say. Clerics visiting Balmoral or Sandringham to preach Sunday sermons could be disconcerted by his beady-eyed scrutiny from the front pew and his close questioning over lunch afterwards.
Though frustrated, particularly in the early years of the reign, by his lack of personal scope, he made the most of the role that was open to him. He was a loyal and closely engaged patron of a wide range of organisations and causes, ranging from the postwar national playing fields movement to the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, of which he was patron for 55 years. He was the first UK president of the World Wildlife Fund, from 1961 to 1982, and international president from 1981 to 1996.
After giving up polo in his late 40s, he took up carriage driving, and was instrumental in formalising it as a competitive sport. His book Thirty Years On and Off the Box Seat was published in 2004, and he continued to drive into his 90s. In 1967, he helped set up the Maritime Trust, concerned with the conservation of historic vessels, and as patron of the National Maritime Museum, in Greenwich, he was involved in the work to save the tea clipper Cutty Sark from being dismantled.
Most enduring and significant was his commitment to the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme, which he founded in 1956 with the German educationist Kurt Hahn, to create a “do-it-yourself kit in the art of civilised living”. The programme, operating in more than 140 countries, encourages young people to volunteer for community service and stretch themselves in teamwork and outdoor activities. Since the scheme’s beginnings, more than 4 million teenagers have participated, and the duke continued to present gold awards to the highest achievers into his 90s.
At first he had been resistant: “It would never have started but for Hahn, certainly not. I said, ‘Well, I’m not going to stick my neck out and do anything as stupid as that, and everybody saying “Ah! Silly ass,” you know?’” And Philip was perhaps right to think of popular reaction, because he is likely to be remembered most for what the media reported as his public gaffes: sayings, some spoken with naval quarterdeck briskness, some delighting in situational humour, some just – as he himself would have phrased it – “bloody rude”, though these latter were generally directed at members of the officer class rather than ratings.
Quite often they were embellished, even invented, in the telling, and often the outrage they were said to cause was largely synthetic. Usually the barked questions and brusque comments were the ironic if ill-judged remarks of a bored man seeking to spark a conversation, or just elicit a response, beyond the usual anodyne exchanges of a royal visit.
“Do you know they have eating dogs for the anorexic now?” (to a blind Exeter woman with a guide dog during a royal tour); “You’ll be getting slitty eyes” (warning a group of British students not to stay too long in China); “It’s pleasant for once to be in a country which is not ruled by its people” (visiting the Paraguayan dictatorship); “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to pass the test?” (to a Scottish driving instructor); “Just take the fucking picture!” (during a lengthy photocall at an event to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain). He was understandably irked when it was reported that he had told some deaf children standing near a steel band, “Of course you’re deaf if you stand there,” pointing out that he was hardly likely to have said it, as a patron of the RNID whose mother had been deaf. But he did not complain.
Philip’s 1971 biographer, Basil Boothroyd, claimed that he inherited an “undisguised contempt for ignorance, stupidity, inefficiency or deviousness in others” from his father, Prince Andrew of Greece, although he could occasionally display negative traits himself when bored or impatient. More likely though, considering how absent his father was for most of his life, they were a carapace to cover the insecurities of childhood.
One of his nicknames was “Phil the Greek”, based on his birth on Corfu into Greece’s royal family, yet he had no Greek blood. He was a sprig of the Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburgs, the peripatetic and frequently exiled Danish royal family that the Greeks imported after winning independence from Turkey in the 1820s.
His ancestry lay in the interconnected 19th-century royal families of Europe. His paternal grandfather was Danish, his grandmother Russian: the couple’s seven children spoke in Greek to each other but in English to their parents, whose own private conversations were in German.
Philip’s accent was that of a bluff upper-class Englishman, but he was also fluent in German and French and had some Greek. His grandfather Prince William of Denmark – whose sister Alexandra married the British king Edward VII – was invited by the government in Athens to become king of Greece in 1863 when he was 17. William was a disposable younger son, so his family said yes.
He married the Grand Duchess Olga, a granddaughter of Tsar Nicholas I. Yet one of their daughters wrote: “He always drilled into us that we were Greek and nothing else.” One of their disposable younger sons, Andrew, was to become Prince Philip’s father. Andrew trained as a soldier, speaking Greek as his first language. He married Princess Alice of Battenberg, sister of Lord Louis Mountbatten, later Earl Mountbatten of Burma.
Christened Philippos, Philip was his parents’ only son, after four daughters. By then his grandfather, who ruled Greece as George I, had been assassinated by a Greek in 1913, and his successor, Philip’s uncle Constantine, had been deposed four years later for failing to support the allied powers, including Britain and France, in the first world war.
After the three-year reign of his second son, Alexander, Constantine was reinstated by referendum in 1920. Two years later he was again overthrown, in a military upheaval. George V of Britain, son of great-aunt Alexandra, sent a naval cruiser to rescue Andrew, who was facing trial for treason, and his young family. The year-old Philip was placed in an orange box and rowed out to the ship with the rest of the family.
Prince Philip of Greece in traditional costume, c1930. Photograph: AP
Permanent exile was to be the first experience of Philip’s life. He was brought up in St Cloud, on the edge of Paris. His family lived on the charity of relatives: his elder sisters dressed in hand-me-down clothes. Their father, bereft of military command, had no occupation and abandoned the family, retreating to gamble in the casinos of Monte Carlo. Their mother, Princess Alice, who was deaf, suffered from schizophrenia and was confined to an asylum for much of Philip’s childhood, though she recovered, becoming a nun and setting up an Orthodox nursing order. She would eventually go to live at Buckingham Palace, where she died in 1969 at the age of 84.
Philip grew versed in keeping up appearances while “skint”, one of his favourite words, being shuffled between boarding schools, first in Paris, then Germany and latterly Scotland, and spending his holidays with relatives, including his sisters, two of whom had married into the German aristocracy and whose husbands became Nazis. Once asked about his childhood home in an interview, he replied: “What do you mean, ‘home’? You get on with it. You do. One does.”
From early childhood he was taken often to Britain to visit his maternal grandmother, the Marchioness of Milford Haven; her husband (and cousin), Prince Louis of Battenberg, a former first sea lord, had been created marquess in 1917 after anglicising his surname to Mountbatten. When Philip was asked to tea at Buckingham Palace, Queen Mary found him “a nice little boy with very blue eyes”.
He grew up a male tearaway in a female-dominated family. A report from his first school in Paris found him rugged, boisterous, full of energy, polite. After an English preparatory school, Cheam, he went to a secondary school founded in Germany by Hahn. In 1934, he was transferred to Gordonstoun, the Scottish boarding school Hahn established after his exile as a Jew from Germany. It was the nearest thing to an unchanging home for Philip and he was strongly influenced by its values.
Prince Philip of Greece, seated, in costume for a school production of Macbeth at Gordonstoun, 1935. Photograph: Fox Photos/Getty Images
Hahn’s vision was to “build up the imagination of the boy of decision and the willpower of the dreamer … so that in future, wise men will have the nerve to lead the way that they have shown and men of action will have the vision to imagine the consequences of their decisions”. Hahn also spoke of “training soldiers who at the same time are lovers of peace”.
He sought to instil a commitment to public service, self-reliance and self-control in his pupils – only 30 of them in Philip’s day. Hahn’s influence can be seen in the duke’s award scheme, in Philip’s interest in outdoor activities and in his choice of Gordonstoun for his sons’ education. Philip had loved the school – he said it brought him intense happiness and excitement.
Philip stayed with English relatives, family friends and sometimes with the bursar of Gordonstoun. All of them found him cheerfully adaptable, with no aristocratic conceit. His cousin Alexandra, Queen of Yugoslavia, remembered him, on holiday with her family in Venice, as “a huge, hungry dog, perhaps a friendly collie who never had a basket of his own”. His liking for women also stood out. “Blondes, brunettes, red-headed charmers, Philip gallantly and quite impartially squired them all,” according to Alexandra.
He entered the Royal Navy aged 17. His uncle Louis Mountbatten, who had taken over his upbringing and was ever anxious to act as royal fixer-in-chief, claimed this was due to his influence, but Philip disliked being thought of as dependent on him. Philip came 16th out of 34 successful candidates in the navy’s Dartmouth exams after studying at a crammer. While his spelling was atrocious, he got almost full marks in the examination interview. He took care to stress that he had been following his father’s and grandfather’s, rather than his uncle’s, example. Philip said: “I suspect [Mountbatten] tried too hard to make a son of me.”
He was first introduced to the 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth during a royal visit to the college. Maybe she was more smitten with the handsome, blond, blue-eyed youth, five years older than her, than he was with the adolescent princess. Nothing in his copious later utterances hinted at a romantic nature, and the Dartmouth meeting turned out to have been engineered by Mountbatten.
Philip Mountbatten, second from left, with, from left, Princess Elizabeth, Queen Elizabeth, King George VI and Princess Margaret at Buckingham Palace, 1947. hotograph: Popperfoto
Philip won two awards at Dartmouth as best cadet and was enlisted as a midshipman on the eve of the second world war. Kept away from naval action until Greece entered the war, he had his first taste of gunfire off Libya and Sicily, and became one of the navy’s youngest first lieutenants.
As second-in-command of HMS Wallace during the allied landings in Sicily in July 1943, he helped save many lives by launching a wooden raft to burn, give off smoke and act as a decoy to a German bomber. He spent much of the war patrolling for U-boats in the North Sea. In 1942, he saw Elizabeth again, at a dance at the Duke of Kent’s home. Within two years he had become a virtual orphan following his father’s death in occupied France in 1944. He was bequeathed little money but was occasionally asked to stay at Windsor Castle while on leave, where he watched Elizabeth act, tap-dance and sing in a family pantomime. The princess might have been besotted, but the courtiers were not, and the footmen noted gleefully when they unpacked his weekend valise that it contained no spare shoes – his only pair was holed – pyjamas or slippers.
He was thought to be no gentleman and, in immediate postwar days, to be little better than a German: the diplomat Harold Nicolson wrote of him that he was “rough, ill-mannered, uneducated and … probably not faithful”.
The impoverished young serviceman’s name was not in the first XI of the Queen’s list of acceptable suitors, but by 1946 he was being invited to Balmoral, where he became engaged to Elizabeth. “It was sort of fixed up,” he said. “After all, if you spend 10 minutes thinking about it – and a lot of these people spent a great deal more time thinking about it – how many obviously eligible young men, other than people living in this country, were available?”
The Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Elizabeth at Broadlands, Hampshire, during their honeymoon, November 1947. Photograph: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
The engagement had to be kept secret, but leaked. The palace denied it. In a newspaper poll, 40% disapproved of him because of his foreign background and Germanic relatives. Philip acquired British citizenship, rejecting the Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg surname in favour of Mountbatten. In July 1947, the engagement was finally announced. The couple married the following November in the first big public spectacle during postwar austerity. The clothing ration had to be relaxed to provide a wedding dress. Elizabeth took her corgi Susan on the honeymoon. Philip caught a cold.
King George wrote to Elizabeth: “I can see you are sublimely happy with Philip, which is right, but don’t forget us.” Honours unprecedented in his family were showered on him: a seat in the Lords, £10,000 a year – a handsome sum in those days – from public funds, the freedom of London, the dukedom and freedom of Edinburgh and a desk job at the Admiralty. Prince Charles was born a year after the wedding, Princess Anne in 1950. In 1949, Philip went to sea again, based in Malta, where Elizabeth joined him – perhaps the only time in their marriage when they could lead relatively normal lives as a young service couple. It was anyway a period that they remembered as so idyllic that they returned to the island in 2007 after their 60th wedding anniversary.
They had expected their semi-private life to last for a good 20 years. But George VI fell ill in 1949, and in February 1952 died of lung cancer at the age of 56. Philip and Elizabeth were on tour in Kenya, at the start of a lengthy overseas visit, when he broke the news to his young wife. “He looked as if you’d dropped half the world on him,” said his equerry, Mike Parker. There was some truth in this. Just when he and his wife had embarked on their young family-forming years, Philip, at 30, found himself consort to the Queen, head of an empire rapidly becoming the Commonwealth but still monarch of 16 countries.
His diminished status as the sovereign’s consort, pledging his allegiance to his wife at her coronation as her “liege man of life and limb and earthly worship”, without a career of his own, was irksome at first. He rationalised and sublimated the boredom as his duty – something well recognisable to men of his generation – primarily to his wife and then to the institution and the country. He always turned up at the right place and time, well-prepared and on top of his brief. At meetings of the organisations with which he was associated, he could be relied on to ask well-informed questions and not allow platitudes or sloppy thinking to prevail. The Queen remained devoted to him, calling him “my strength and my stay”.
In the early years, he found a refuge and substitute for the naval wardroom in the Thursday Club, an all-male drinking and dining den dedicated to badinage and practical jokes. It met above a Soho restaurant. Members included the Conservative politician Iain Macleod, the film star David Niven, the mouth-organist Larry Adler and the osteopath Stephen Ward, who became a pivotal figure in the 1963 Profumo scandal.
The Ward link inspired a famous Private Eye cartoon cover showing Philip’s coronation robe cast off in the bedroom of Ward’s friend, Christine Keeler. No evidence emerged to support such gossip, although Parker’s estranged wife claimed in a book in 1982 that Philip and Parker habitually slipped out of Buckingham Palace to carouse together under the noms de guerre Murgatroyd and Winterbotham.
Yet the struggle to define a role was earnest and honest. “I do not have a job,” Philip wrote to his 1991 biographer, Tim Heald. “I never set about planning my career. I had two general ideas. I felt that I could use my position to attract attention to certain aspects of life in this country, and that this might help to recognise the good things and expose the bad things. I also believed I might be able to start various initiatives. You might ask whether all this rushing about (on public duties) is to any purpose. Am I just doing it to look as if I’m earning my keep or has it any national value?”
Although he was energetic, industrious and by far the best public speaker in the family, virtually no public discussion took place on how he could be useful. His wife was shy and constitutionally obliged to be non-partisan, which set limits on his public role if he was not to appear a publicity-hog or usurper. Early on, he was dogged by Lord Beaverbrook’s paranoid press campaign over his and his uncle’s German connections, a feud that was resolved between Mountbatten and Beaverbrook’s heir Sir Max Aitken in the 1970s. The equally mass-selling Mirror press under Hugh Cudlipp ran self-consciously “cheeky-chappie” protest editorials whenever he bumped into controversy.
Later, the press would construct a highly partial picture of an insensitive and pugnacious figure, which took no account of his more genial and empathetic private relations. This reached its apogee in accusations after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales that he had harried and bullied her as her marriage broke down, whereas it became clear, as his letters to her were divulged during her belated inquest, that he had been concerned and understanding of her plight.
The Duke of Edinburgh, left, with Prince William, Earl Spencer, Prince Harry and the Prince of Wales at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, 1997. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/AP
At her funeral in 1997, it was Philip who reassured his grandson William, who was nervous about walking behind the coffin. “If you walk, I will walk with you,” he said.
Philip wrote his own speeches, and many of his so-called outbursts had a knack of being prescient. Early in the 1950s, he told the Society of Motor Manufacturers that thanks to traffic congestion, “it will soon be quicker to go on foot”. In 1960, he advocated “forgiving one’s enemies” to the Anglo-German Association. He denounced “crude, industrial philosophies in agriculture” that would do immense social and demographic damage.
In the early 70s, he said Britain was living beyond its means: “Anyone who believes North Sea oil alone is going to get us out of trouble would also believe that social security is available at a pawnbroker’s shop.” In 1977, the year of his wife’s silver jubilee, he compared the British economy to dry rot in a house: “You don’t know when it starts, you don’t know when the crisis is, but gradually the place becomes uninhabitable.”
But, in the absence of intelligent public debate, it grew too easy for those he attacked to dismiss him as a loose cannon. On a visit to Canada, the frustration boiled into his angriest, though still controlled, public remark: “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.”
The Duke of Edinburgh and members of the royal family watch a fly-past from the balcony of Buckingham Palace following the Trooping of the Colour in 2012. Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images
His sense of resignation about his position was apparent. In 1999, he said in an interview: “What you wish to be remembered for has nothing to do with it. You can wish for all sorts of things. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.”
By the time of his 90th birthday, Philip acknowledged the need to step down from some of his public commitments: “It’s better to get out before you reach the sell-by date.” Reviewing the course of his life in television interviews held no fascination for him. As he explained to Fiona Bruce of the BBC, when he had first asked what he was to do, no one could tell him so he proceeded by trial and error. Six decades later, having been involved with more than 800 organisations, he still had a quite uncluttered view of the uses and limitations of being a figurehead. Barely concealing his impatience with Bruce’s questions and making little effort to charm, he did admit to a desire to slow down: “I reckon I’ve done my bit. I want to enjoy myself now with less responsibility, less frantic rushing about, less preparation, less trying to think of something to say … The memory’s going … Yes, I am just sort of winding down.”
Yet he scarcely did so. In 2011, he accompanied his wife on a potentially difficult state visit to Ireland and on an arduous tour of Australia. Although beginning to look more frail and slightly stooping, he remained ever-present and seemingly indestructible at the Queen’s side until the Christmas weekend, when he was rushed to hospital with chest pains for an emergency heart operation – the first significant, publicly acknowledged, illness of his life. A stent was inserted into his coronary artery and he was kept in for four days. Reports suggested he was chafing at the experience and, on his release, he headed straight for the shooting party at Sandringham.
The day after standing with the Queen for four hours in pelting rain onboard the Spirit of Chartwell during the Thames pageant to mark her diamond jubilee in June 2012, he was taken to hospital with a bladder infection. The Queen had to attend a concert at Buckingham Palace and a service of thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral on her own and cast a somewhat forlorn figure. When asked if he was feeling better as he left King Edward VII’s hospital five days later, he replied: “Well, I wouldn’t be coming out if I wasn’t.”
The following summer he had abdominal surgery. It took until May 2017 for him to announce that he would be retiring, by not taking on new engagements from the following autumn. His wedding anniversary that year marked seven decades at his wife’s side.
Beyond his public service and personal relationships, there was one organisation in which Philip had some clout as an executive – the monarchy itself. Among his first acts as consort was to free palace servants of the 18th-century obligation to powder their hair with flour and starch on state occasions, a “ridiculous and unmanly” rule, he called it. He part-modernised the economies of the royal estates, got rid of debutantes at court, was the first royal to master television and the first modern one to write books and articles. He insisted that his children, unlike their royal predecessors, went to school, and backed Prince Charles’s eagerness to go to university.
At the end of it all, as Prince Albert wrote: “The position of a prince consort requires that a husband should entirely sink his own individual interests in that of his wife.” Philip, with a less assertive wife than Victoria but also a weak constitutional position, maintained a stubborn profile. And he ended by printing his own name as well as his own bloodline on some of the generations after him: Mountbatten-Windsor. For an exile who began with so few cards to play, it was no small accomplishment.
He is survived by the Queen, their four children, Prince Charles, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, eight grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
DISCLAIMER: The statements, views and opinions expressed in pieces republished here are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of TMS. In accordance with title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. TMS has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is TMS endorsed or sponsored by the originator. “GO TO ORIGINAL” links are provided as a convenience to our readers and allow for verification of authenticity. However, as originating pages are often updated by their originating host sites, the versions posted may not match the versions our readers view when clicking the “GO TO ORIGINAL” links. This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.