The Duke of Edinburgh
Before April this year, little was known outside the UK and the Commonwealth of Nations (‘The Commonwealth’) about HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, the man who had stood beside Queen Elizabeth II for the past 74 years before his death at 99, just over two months shy of his 100th birthday.
Given the Queen’s status, it was not surprising why he was mostly known as the spouse and consort of the longest-living reigning monarch in the world. A closer look, however, reveals a man who was stronger and richer in character than we thought.
Despite living in the Queen’s shadow for most of his life, Philip was indeed “the wind beneath her wings”. In Queen Elizabeth’s words, Prince Philip was her “strength and stay” throughout the numerous periods of turbulence and transition the British monarchy had faced, and is still experiencing, in the fast-paced, modern world.
Apart from being the Queen’s ‘rock’, with a wry sense of humor, charming personality, and occasional shockingly offensive remarks, he will also be remembered as one of the most active members of the Royal Family – fulfilling more than 20,000 royal engagements, making 637 overseas tours, delivering 5,496 speeches, and writing 14 books. He also supported hundreds of philanthropic causes and charities, in particular, the “Duke of Edinburgh’s (DofE) Award”, founded in 1956, a program of self-improvement exercises to develop young people, since expanded to 144 nations.
Born Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark, Philip descended from Greek and Danish royal lineages. Through his mother, Philip was a great-great-grandson of Queen Victoria, just as Elizabeth is Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter, making them third cousins.
Philip was a picture-perfect prince and charming in every sense, with dashing good looks, charismatic personality, distinguished background, and a successful naval career. It was said that Elizabeth fell in love with her cousin, then an 18-year-old naval cadet, when she was only 13. She even told her father, King George VI, that he was the only man she could ever love.
Despite his privileged background, he was, in many ways, a self-made man.
In his book, “Prince Philip: The Turbulent Early Life of the Man Who Married Queen Elizabeth II” (2011), the British writer Philip Eade said that Philip was smuggled out of Greece in an old orange crate as an infant during the war in which the army of King Constantine was attacked by the Turks in Asia Minor. A year after Philip was born, King Constantine was driven into exile to Paris by a coup d’état led by a revolutionary Greek junta, and Philip’s father, Andrew, a commander in an army corps, was charged with treason and only escaped execution when his wife’s cousin, King George V, sent a cruiser to rescue them.
At the age of eight, the young prince was separated from his four elder sisters and sent to live with his maternal grandmother, the Dowager Marchioness of Milford Haven, His childhood was shaped by constraints and loneliness, and study at English boarding schools well-known for their strict discipline and spartan living conditions (cold showers, hard beds) to toughen up privileged children. The Prince once said that he did not receive any visit from his family for five years.
But it was probably the best choice for him, considering his mother’s mental breakdown. Shortly after the family’s relocation to Paris, Princess Alice of Battenberg was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and committed to a sanatorium.
Sadly, the day she was sent for medical treatment was also the day Philip ‘lost’ his father who almost immediately stripped himself off all responsibilities and lived an aimless life, drifting from place to place, spending most of his time in casinos. During his teenage years, he also endured two other major losses – his sister’s death in a plane crash, and his guardian, Georgie Haven, a man who was like a father figure, to cancer.
Royal biographers believe those traumatic events strengthened and prepared the young Prince to cope with his future role as the Queen’s consort (spouse of the ruling monarch), a role largely undefined and vague except for the requirement to walk behind his wife under the House of Windsor’s etiquette guidelines and traditions.
As painful as it was for someone with a strong personality and high ambitions, he managed very well and endured relatively unscathed. It was likely the same mentality he adopted while growing up. He once told a biographer that there was nothing much he could do except “just had to get on with it.”
When Philip and the then Crown Princess Elizabeth began dating, senior palace courtiers were not too pleased as they viewed him as a foreigner with German connections and without money or title, but he eventually won their approval.
The king was pleased when he renounced his foreign titles, left his job, and became Lt. Philip Mountbatten (his mother’s last name) as a British subject. On the eve of his marriage to Princess Elizabeth in 1947, Lt. Mountbatten was given the titles of the Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth (a peerage created in 1947), and Baron of Greenwich, and the royal title His Royal Highness (HRH).
Five years later, the King’s death elevated his daughter to Queen of England. When they got married, the couple expected several years of normal life before Elizabeth became Queen, but suddenly, the man who had been an alpha all his life, had to relinquish his leadership role to his wife.
Elizabeth knew the impact very well, so the 25-year-old Queen ordained that he should be “first gentleman in the land,” giving him “a place of pre-eminence and precedence next to Her Majesty”. The title allowed him to rank above his son, Prince Charles, heir to the throne.
Philip acknowledged his unusual place in the palace. A few of his famous remarks included likening himself to “nothing but a bloody amoeba” and stating “constitutionally, I don’t exist.” In his interview with the BBC to mark his 90th birthday, he said, “If I asked somebody, ‘What do you expect me to do?’ They look blank,” noting that was mainly because there was no precedent to follow.
The truth is, while the Queen was performing her role as head of state, Philip was the head of the family, known as ‘The Firm’, said the British media. In the 1960s documentary about the Royal Family, Philip was seen overseeing the barbecue and the Queen the dish washing. His outgoing personality also helped his shy and reserved wife feel more comfortable at social engagements and served as ice breakers.
He could be very funny, but his bluntness sometimes resulted in insensitive observations, offensive comments, and ‘put-downs’, described by the media as “gaffes” which overshadowed his contributions. A bad relationship with the press did not help either.
Still, we cannot deny his significant role in modernizing the British monarchy and overhauling the ways of working at Buckingham Palace. Philip was also the leading force in abolishing the practice of presenting debutantes at court, and introduced informal palace lunches attended by guests from various backgrounds. All of these were his efforts, as much as possible, to modernize and make the monarchy relevant in today’s world.
He also chaired the Way Ahead Group whose members included leading Royal Family members and their advisors, tasked with managing criticism and the image of the royal institution. Insiders know he was the Queen’s private confidante in several major issues, such as her agreement to pay tax on her private income, and the abolition of the royal yacht, Britannia. It was only five years ago that he retired due to failing health.
His passing will put significant strain on the remaining working members of the Royal Family to fulfill his roles both at official functions and behind the scenes, particularly after the departure of Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markel, to the USA, and the Queen’s announcement that they would “not continue with the responsibilities and duties that come with a life of public service.”
In the royal speech at the celebration of their golden wedding in 1997, Queen Elizabeth said, “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.”
As one private secretary was quoted by BBC as saying, “Prince Philip is the only man in the world who treats the Queen simply as another human being. He’s the only man who can.”