The Queen’s right royal maverick
Destined to play second fiddle, Philip ensured he was very much his own man
● When palace insiders drew up a list of suitable candidates for the hand of Princess Elizabeth of England, Prince Philip of Greece, whose pedigree consisted of a joblot of minor European royals, was considered a rank outsider.
His father Prince Andrew abandoned the family and departed to Monte Carlo with his mistress. There he gambled away the last of his pennies. Philip’s mother Princess Alice was deaf, suffered from schizophrenia and was confined to an asylum for much of his childhood. She withdrew into a religious order and wore a grey habit to the end of her life.
Three of his four sisters married Nazis; none was welcome at the royal wedding in Westminster Abbey just after the end of the war.
There’s an apocryphal tale that the upstart was so short of money as a young man that when he spent weekends with the royal family, palace footmen sniggered at the contents of his suitcase. No spare pyjamas or slippers, only one pair of shoes — with holes.
He also liked playing the field. His cousin Alexandra, Queen of Yugoslavia, remarked: “Blondes, brunettes, red-headed charmers, Philip gallantly and quite impartially squired them all.”
Not exactly textbook material for the role as husband to the future Queen of England.
But nobody had factored in the iron will of the crown princess. Elizabeth developed a crush on Philip when she was just 13 years old and still in bobby socks. She told her father, George VI, that the devastatingly handsome naval officer five years her senior was the only man she would ever love.
When Philip died at the age of 99 on Friday, the pair had been married for 73 years. He was the longest-serving royal consort in British history.
Before their wedding on November 20 1947 Philip acquired British citizenship, rejecting his Schleswig-HolsteinSonderburg-Glücksburg surname in favour of Mountbatten.
Britain was still reeling from World War 2. Cabinet had relaxed the rations on fabric so Elizabeth could commission her bridal dress, which took 25 needlewomen and 10 embroiderers two months to make.
Their wedding was the first big public spectacle amid the drudgery and austerity of post-war Britain. Hours before the wedding her grandmother’s diamond-spiked tiara snapped. A court jeweller rushed the tiara to his workshop so that it could be welded.
One of their wedding presents was a piece of cotton lace from Mahatma Gandhi that he spun himself and embroidered with the words “Jai Hind” (Victory for India).
Philip was born on the Greek island of Corfu on June 10 1921. His family was descended from a royal Danish house that the European powers had put on the throne of Greece at the end of the 19th century. He was sixth in line to the throne but never learnt to speak Greek.
But everything changed when he was one year old. The family was forced to flee Greece after a military junta staged a coup and sentenced his father to death.
Baby Philip was smuggled out of the country in an orange crate aboard a ship and the whole family was dropped off at an Italian port city. His sister Sophia later described “the grubby child on the desolate train pulling out of the Brindisi night”.
Phillip spent his boyhood in permanent exile from his motherland, abandoned by his parents and without a stable home. Queen Alexandra 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”.
In the five years he spent at Gordonstoun, a private school on the north coast of Scotland, no-one from his family came to visit. “I don’t think anybody thinks I had a father,” he once said. After his father died he went to Monte Carlo to pick up his possessions and found almost nothing left, just a couple of clothes brushes and some cufflinks.
His childhood moulded a tough, independent man, a natural born leader who had fallen in love with the sea at a young age. “It is an extraordinary master or mistress,” Philip would say later. “It has such extraordinary moods.” He became one of the youngest first lieutenants in the Royal Navy and distinguished himself during World War 2.
Prince Philip carried British passport No 1 (the queen did not require one) and fulfilled as many as 300 engagements a year, but it grated this young man with a powerful physical presence, boundless energy and ambition to play second fiddle to his wife. “I’m just a bloody amoeba,” he once grumbled of his offspring taking his wife’s family name, Windsor, rather than his own adopted surname, Mountbatten.
When a man introduced his spouse as the PhD in the family, saying “She’s much more important than I am”, Philip replied: “We have the same problem in our family.”
Palace life was brutal. “Philip,” said his equerry, “was constantly being squashed, snubbed, ticked off, rapped over the knuckles ... I felt Philip did not have any friends or helpers.”
It didn’t help that at first he was “difficult to deal with ... prickly ... arrogant ... defensive”.
He channelled his boundless energy into sweeping away the fusty cobwebs of royal tradition. Sometimes the rules he unearthed were stranger than fiction. A new bottle of whisky was placed next to the queen’s bed every night. Queen Victoria had once asked for Scotch whisky to combat a cold, and the order had never been rescinded.
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 said.
He insisted royalty and staff no longer had their meals cooked in separate kitchens at the palace. He answered the telephone himself. He installed a kitchen in the family suite and fried eggs for breakfast while the queen brewed tea. He bought the queen a washing machine. He carried his own suitcase, telling the footmen: “I have arms. I’m not bloody helpless.”
He insisted that his children, unlike their royal predecessors, went to school and he allowed Prince Charles to go to university.
He liked to drive fast, often relegating his chauffeur to the back seat. He would also pilot his own planes. He once had a near miss with a passenger jet.
Philip’s gaffes throughout the years were legendary, and appeared to confirm the stereotype of the inbred royal with more blue blood than grey matter. His admirers can take comfort in the knowledge that he was an equal-opportunities offender, insulting people of all races and all walks of life.
In 1961 he criticised British industry as a bastion for “the smug and the stick-in-themud”, calling failures in manufacturing and commerce “a national defeat”.
In 1995 he asked a Scottish driving instructor: “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to pass the test?”
“Do you know they have eating dogs for the anorexic now?” (to a blind woman with a guide dog during a royal tour).
On a visit to Australia in 2002, he asked an aboriginal leader: “Do you still throw spears at each other?”
“It’s pleasant for once to be in a country which is not ruled by its people,” he said while visiting the Paraguayan dictatorship.
And speaking about smoke alarms in 1998 to a woman who had lost two sons in a fire, he said: “They’re a damn nuisance. I’ve got one in my bathroom, and every time I run my bath, the steam sets it off.”
And famously, “You’ll be getting slitty eyes” (warning a group of British students not to stay too long in China).
The salacious tabloid fodder their children effortlessly generated often overshadowed the tireless work performed by Philip and his consort. Moulded in the Churchillian tradition of “keep buggering on”, their lack of discipline befuddled him.
There was odious Andrew, accused of partying with a convicted paedophile and underage girls. His wife Sarah of toe-sucking and money-grabbing fame. And recently the Meghan and Harry soap Oprah and the claim that an unnamed member of the royal family had questioned the skin colour of their baby.
The younger Charles, part milksop, part moegoe, was recorded having telephonic conversations with his long-time mistress too cringeworthy to reprint. Diana was once described by writer Christopher Hitchins as a “simpering Bambi narcissist” cavorting in the Med with a slippery playboy.
A 1994 biography, The Prince of Wales by Jonathan Dimbleby with the co-operation of Prince Charles, claimed that while Philip indulged “the often brash and obstreperous behaviour” of his daughter Princess Anne, he was openly contemptuous of his son, whom he thought of as “a bit of a wimp”.
According to Andrew Morton, in his book Diana: Her True Story, written with Diana’s co-operation, Charles told her that his father “had agreed that if, after five years, his marriage was not working, he could go back to his bachelor habits”.
Former Guardian royal correspondent Stephen Bates writes that Philip took care to conceal his intellectual interests, which included poetry and theology, behind his bluff exterior. He had a fine private art collection and had a personal library of more than 11,000 books.
Clerics visiting Balmoral or Sandringham to preach Sunday sermons could be disconcerted by his beady-eyed scrutiny from the front pew, writes Bates.
Philip gave between 60 and 80 speeches every year on his vast range of interests which he would research and type out himself. In 1986 he bought a “splendid gadget” that he called “a miniature word processor”.
He often displayed his dry wit and once told students and staff at the Chesterfield College of Technology: “A lot of time and energy has been spent on arranging for you to listen to me to take a long time to declare open a building which everyone knows is open already.”
Long before conservation became fashionable he warned of the “greedy and senseless exploitation of nature”. In 1982 he spoke of “a hotly-debated issue directly attributable to the development of industry ... the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere”, which he referred to as the “greenhouse effect”.
When Philip retired from public life in August 2017 Buckingham Palace calculated he had completed 22,219 solo engagements since 1952 and put his name to more than 800 charities.
After retiring he spent most of his time living in simple fashion in a cottage on the Sandringham estate in Norfolk, where he decreed that “the walls should be white and the ceiling the same colour as the carpet”.
An extraordinary man who lived an extraordinary life.
Philip was constantly being squashed, snubbed, ticked off, rapped over the knuckles ...