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Obituary: HRH The Duke of Edinburgh

16 April 2021


The Duke of Edinburgh inspects Air Cadets outside St Clement Dane’s, Fleet Street, in London, after attending a service there on 1 September 1979. He had become Air Commodore-in-Chief of the Air Training Corps in 1953

The Duke of Edinburgh inspects Air Cadets outside St Clement Dane’s, Fleet Street, in London, after attending a service there on 1 September 1979. He ...

Margaret Duggan writes:

HE HAD been her “strength and stay” for 50 years, the Queen said of her husband on their Golden Wedding anniversary, and the truth of that endured even longer, until his death, aged 99, last Friday morning at Windsor Castle.

In 1952, Prince Philip of Greece, a dynamic, ambitious, and very masculine naval commander, gave up his own career to be consort to his wife, to walk two paces behind her on official occasions, to be excluded from affairs of state to which she was privy, and to carve out some sort of career for himself. It could have been second-rate. Instead it was brilliant.

At the time they were married, King George VI having given his reluctant consent to the thought of anyone taking away his beloved daughter, Philip had been known to refer to himself as “a discredited Balkan prince”. In fact, his royal ancestry was at least as long as, and even more complex than, that of Princess Elizabeth. His “Uncle Dickie”, Lord Louis Mountbatten, claimed that it could be traced back at least 42 generations to Giselbert, Count of Darnan, in AD 846. It had ramifications throughout the ruling houses of Europe, particularly those of several German States, Russia, Denmark and Greece, as well as Yugoslavia and Sweden. As for his British connections he, like the Queen, was a great-great-grandchild of Queen Victoria. He was a great-nephew of Edward VII’s Queen Alexandra, and second cousin to Marina, Duchess of Kent.

He was born on the dining table of an elegant villa, Mon Repos, on the island of Corfu, on 21 June 1921, as Prince Philip of Greece, the fifth child and only son of Prince Andrea of Greece and Princess Alice of Battenberg. He was sixth in line to the Greek throne, and consequently baptised in the Greek Orthodox Church. His grandfather, King George I of Greece, had been assassinated eight years earlier, and his successor, King Alexander, had died from a fatal monkey bite that he had received while trying to protect his pet dog.

In 1913, Prince Andrea’s elder brother, Constantine, had become King, and Philip’s father was serving as an officer in the Greek Army. The family had already been exiled after Constantine had abdicated, but returned to Corfu in time for Philip’s birth. It was at the height of the war with Turkey, as Greece sought to claim part of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. An ill-prepared and equipped Greek army set out to conquer part of Turkey. Andrea, a major-general, was at odds about strategy with the Commander-in-Chief of the army, and though he fought bravely, he was eventually accused of disobeying orders, made the scapegoat for the defeat by the Turks, and faced execution.

It was with the help of George V that the family escaped in a British warship: the baby Philip was carried aboard to be put to bed in an orange crate. It was the last time that Philip was to have a settled family home until his marriage to Princess Elizabeth 23 years later.

The family, now, by royal standards, impoverished, spent only a short while in London before accepting an offer from Andrea’s brother of a home in Paris, and Philip and his four older sisters began their peripatetic life of spending holidays with hospitable relations all over Europe. Philip’s mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, sister to the Mountbatten brothers George and Louis, had been born profoundly deaf and probably with a manic-depressive personality. During the war with Turkey, she had thrown herself into setting up and equipping hospitals and caring for the wounded. Later, she had become interested in spiritualism, and during their time in London she had converted to the Orthodox Church.

A form of religious mania took over, and eventually, when Philip was about eight, her behaviour became so extreme that she was committed to the care of the Bellevue sanatorium in Switzerland, which was the end of their family life. His father shut up the house in Paris and spent his subsequent years drifting between Monte Carlo, Paris, and Germany while Philip was sent to his grandmother, Victoria (Queen Victoria’s granddaughter), at Kensington Palace.

From there, he went to stay with his mother’s elder brother, George, who had recently succeeded as the second Marquis of Milford Haven. Georgie, as he was known, became Philip’s guardian and surrogate father during his adolescence and early teenage years. (Philip only occasionally saw his real father; and his mother, despite her early devotion to him, had disappeared from his life completely.) It was from the Milford Havens’ home at Lynden Manor on the Thames that Philip was sent to Cheam, England’s oldest prep school. Already there was his cousin David, Uncle Georgie’s son, who became one of Philip’s closest friends and eventually his best man.

PA/© Anwar Hussein/allactiondigital.comThe Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh relax at Balmoral, 1974

It was a tough regime at Cheam, but Philip came to thrive on it. He was described at the time as arriving with a “strange name [Prince Philip of Greece; he had no surname] with a shock of white hair”, speaking and writing French better than he did English. But he was good at games, won the prize for mathematics in his first term, and appeared so full of self-confidence that he was never bullied.

For many of his shorter holidays, he went back to Uncle Georgie and his wife, Nada, but when it came to the beginning of each holiday, he never knew where he would be spending it. The Milford Havens remained his base in so far as he had one. He became increasingly fond of his grandmother at Kensington Palace and frequently visited her, but, during his longer holidays, he usually went to one or more of his German relations, though even Nada’s South African brother-in-law Sir Harold Wernher and his wife became honorary uncle and aunt with whom he stayed for long periods near Market Harborough.

He had developed a remarkable resilience, independent confidence, and, despite his impatience and quick temper, was always apparently cheerful and ready to help. It was a strength of character which stood him in good stead throughout many turbulent years.

Though his cousin David became head boy of Cheam, Philip did not stay long enough. With almost no consultation, he was removed to Salem school in Germany, which had been set up in a wing of the ancient monastery, home of his sister Dorothea and her husband, the Margrave of Baden. Kurt Hahn had been its headmaster, but had already fled to England by the time Philip arrived there in 1933, shortly after Hitler came to power.

Under the new headmaster, the regime was that of the Hitler Youth, and the boys had to listen to the Führer’s tediously long radio talks. But, after not much more than a term, Philip was on the move again, this time back to Britain and to Gordonstoun, the school in north Scotland which Hahn had founded.

There were only 27 boys when Philip arrived, though the school grew rapidly after that. The emphasis was on “character-building” with a spartan regime — fresh air, cold showers, games, seamanship, domestic chores and gardening, and the boys expected to help with renovating what had been a neglected building. Philip’s holidays continued to be spent with his widely spread family, many of them now in an increasingly Nazified Germany, though, during a short stay in England, he attended the wedding of his cousin Princess Marina of Greece to the then Duke of Kent in Westminster Abbey, when one of the bridesmaids was the eight-year-old Princess Elizabeth. It was the first time that they set eyes on each other.

Philip needed all his resilience to survive the emotional rollercoaster of the next two years. When he was 15, he was taken to meet his mother for the first time in five years. Alice had recovered much of her equilibrium and was living in Bonn, though she planned to return to Greece to found an order of nuns. No one really knew what effect the meeting had on her son. Then, when he was 16, Hahn had to break the news to him that his favourite sister, Cecile, with her husband, the Grand Duke, and their two sons, had all been killed in a plane crash on the way to a family wedding to which Philip had also been going.

He went alone to Germany to the funeral, walking in procession with his surviving brothers-in-law, who were in Nazi uniform, and with his uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten, behind him as a Royal Naval officer, greeted by Heil Hitler salutes. Not long after, his Uncle Georgie, who had been his guardian since his real father had abdicated that responsibility, died of cancer.

After some while Lord Louis, Uncle Dickie, stepped forward to assume that role. Philip returned to Gordonstoun, still spending holidays with his sisters in Germany and his grandmother in Kensington Palace, but increasingly with the Mountbattens. He became head boy with the report that he was “universally trusted, liked and respected”, a born leader who would “need the exacting demands of a great service to do justice to himself”.

His mother wanted him to return to Greece with her; his father wanted Philip to join the Greek Navy; while Philip himself wanted to become a fighter pilot in the RAF. But it was largely by Lord Louis’s influence that he finished up at Dartmouth in the Royal Navy. As at school, he excelled in all physical activity and leadership qualities, and more than adequately in technical subjects. And he was beginning to be noticed more widely. On the abdication of Edward VIII, when Princess Elizabeth suddenly became heiress presumptive to the throne, his name appeared in the media among possible bridegrooms, an idea that had already taken root in Mountbatten’s mind.

Philip’s first significant meeting with the Princess was in July 1939, when he was still at Dartmouth and she was 13, and, with her family on the royal yacht, visited the naval college. Mountbatten engineered several meetings between Philip and Elizabeth, though the Prince found the young Princess Margaret livelier company. But it was reported that Elizabeth was clearly impressed by what her governess, Marion Crawford, described as the young Viking, and was thrilled to watch him row furiously after the royal yacht as she left the harbour.

Two months later, war was declared just as Philip had arrived in Greece with his mother. He was now second in line to the Greek throne, but he wanted to continue his career in the Royal Navy and fight on the British side, despite his German family connections. Back at Dartmouth, he was awarded the King’s Dirk as the best all-round cadet, but as a “neutral foreigner” he was barred from fighting. Though he applied for naturalisation as a British citizen, he was told that it could not be decided until after the war. It was Mountbatten who pulled strings with George VI, and a compromise was reached with Philip’s being posted as a midshipman on a battleship escorting Australian and New Zealand troops to Egypt.

The situation changed for him when Italy attacked Greece and so brought Greece into the war on the Allied side. On a more modern battleship, Valiant, he saw his first action. It also enabled him to spend five weeks of social life with his mother in Greece. Whenever ashore, he was a lively young naval officer, never one to refuse a party, happy to be among pretty girls, and always seizing the chance to explore any new territory.

Early in 1941, Valiant was engaged in a major battle with the Italian fleet, after which Philip was mentioned in dispatches for his skill in handling the searchlights. He later returned to Dartmouth for his sub-lieutenancy qualifications. At this time, he had a Canadian girlfriend, Osla, with whom he had a long and happy but said-to-be “innocent” relationship. After dangerous months on a destroyer on east-coast convoys, he was invited to spend Christmas 1943 at Windsor Castle. According to “Crawfie”, the royal governess, 17-year-old Elizabeth had already confided that he was “the one”, and Crawfie recorded that “it was a grave and charming young man who sat there with nothing of the rather bumptious boy” he had been. He looked more than ever “like a Viking, weather-beaten and strained, and his manners left nothing to be desired”.

By this time, he was surrounded by a conspiracy of relations intent on his marriage with Elizabeth. Osla had married a diplomat. He and Elizabeth were exchanging letters, and, after service in the Far East as First Lieutenant on HMS Whelp, during which time he heard of the death of his father, he returned to England in 1946 to Corsham, near Bath, from where he was a frequent visitor to Buckingham Palace, dining informally with the two Princesses. But it was when he was invited to Balmoral in 1946 that he finally proposed and was accepted.

The King, reluctant to “lose” his favourite daughter, did not want them to marry until the following year, when Elizabeth would be 21. As for Philip, he suffered a considerable degree of hostility from deeply conservative courtiers who saw him as “no gentleman” and suspiciously German. It was a hostility that made the early years of his married life both uncomfortable and frustrating. With the journalistic help of Tom Driberg MP, however, who made it clear that Philip had left Greece as an infant and had never wanted to be anything other than British, and with the approval of the Admiralty and the agreement of the King, Mountbatten not only engineered Philip’s naturalisation, but ensured that he should be known as HRH Prince Philip.

PAPrince Philip of Greece (centre left, kneeling) performs as King Melchior in a nativity play at his public school, Gordonstoun, on 12 December 1938

This was the cue for the press to demand to be told whether he was to marry the heir to the throne. The media and public were very divided about whether they wanted yet another foreign prince, especially as it was known that his dynastic name was Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg. The College of Arms suggested a change to Oldcastle, an Anglicised version of Oldenburg, the German duchy where the royal house of Greece and Denmark had originated, but it was thought to sound plebeian, and so Philip somewhat reluctantly agreed to take his uncle’s name of Mountbatten.

All this was happening while the Royal Family was on a tour of South Africa, and great discretion was maintained. It was only on 9 July 1947 that the engagement was announced. On the whole, the media were approving, and made the most of Philip’s UK connection and his wartime career. The public also approved, though there were many demands for an austerity wedding at a time when the country was broke and almost everything was rationed. In keeping with the general mood, Philip continued to wear his war-worn naval uniform and drive his tiny sports car.

The wedding was planned for 20 November. Shortly before it, Philip was received into the Church of England by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, at a private service in Lambeth Palace. And, on the eve of the wedding, George VI created him Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth, and Baron Greenwich, in compliment to Scotland, Wales, and the Royal Navy. There were 1500 wedding presents, including a turkey from Brooklyn “because they don’t have anything to eat in England”, and a tray cloth woven by Gandhi, which shocked Queen Mary because she mistook it for a loincloth.

Royal-family members arrived from all over Europe, with the exclusion of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Philip’s three surviving sisters. His mother was the only member of his immediate family at the wedding in Westminster Abbey, which, in the event, was far from austere. Philip was married in his ordinary naval uniform, but wearing the Garter and his grandfather’s ceremonial sword. The first few days of their honeymoon were at Broadlands, the Mountbattens’ home in Hampshire, and they then sought greater seclusion at Balmoral.

Back in London, they had to live at Buckingham Palace for some months while their future home, Clarence House, was being renovated. Philip not only found it frustrating to live with the in-laws, and his job at the Admiralty boring, but also faced considerable hostility from the stuffier courtiers. Elizabeth soon became pregnant, and, during this time, there were considerable rumours about the parties that he attended and the male and the female company he kept. Gradually, though, he began to win approval for the royal duties he took on, and for the speeches he made in which he showed his intelligence and independence of mind.

They moved, with the infant Prince Charles, into Clarence House in July 1949, the first home that Philip had had since the temporary one that his parents had taken in Paris. He took a greater interest in domestic arrangements than Elizabeth, but it was not long before he was posted to Malta, where Lord Mountbatten was commanding the First Cruiser Squadron. Elizabeth joined him for two long spells (leaving Charles behind), and it was there that she lived the nearest to a “normal” life that she ever experienced, driving herself round the island and taking part in the social life. It was in Malta, with Elizabeth’s encouragement, that Philip developed his passion for polo.

He was given his first command on the frigate HMS Magpie, and soon had a reputation for running a tight ship, working his crew hard so that she became a “cock ship”. It was much to his dismay and disappointment when his naval career came to an end in July 1951 with George VI’s deteriorating health.

The King had lung cancer. His operation to remove a lung delayed a state visit that Elizabeth and Philip were due to make to Canada and the United States. It was Philip who convinced the King, together with the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, and Winston Churchill as Leader of the Opposition, that it would be safe for him and Elizabeth to fly across the Atlantic to make up time. The tour was such a great success that another tour of South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand was planned for early the following year. It was on 31 January 1952 that they said goodbye to a clearly ailing King, never to see him again. It was Philip who had to break the news to his wife while they were staying at the Treetop Hotel in Kenya that she was now Queen.

It was devastating for Philip. There was no question of his resuming the career that he loved, and from now on he would always be two paces behind his wife and officially excluded while she took over the affairs of state. Moving back into Buckingham Palace, he spent the first few weeks ill with yellow jaundice and depression. It did not help that Churchill’s government made it clear that they wished the Queen to take her father’s name of Windsor rather than continue with Philip’s Mountbatten.

PAOn their knees in prayer, the Queen and Prince Philip are blessed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, during the thanksgiving service for their silver wedding anniversary, in Westminster Abbey, in 1972. Kneeling on the other side of the Duke of Edinburgh is Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother

Elizabeth did what she could to provide him with a role, giving him charge over the royal estates and all their domestic affairs. But the stuffier courtiers took a long time to recognise his talents and his enormous energy. He did, however, make his mark as President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, making it clear that he had a mind and intelligence of his own. He involved himself in the preparations for the Coronation, and on the day he was the first to kneel before his wife and swear allegiance.

And that promise was kept. Though he was heard on occasion to call her a “bloody fool”, his loyalty and support never wavered. He busied himself with innovations wherever he could, from introducing a programme of training for new footmen in the Palace to instituting the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and expanding the National Playing Fields. He accumulated patronages and became President of the World Wildlife fund in Britain. It was he who suggested that the bombed-out chapel at Buckingham Palace be converted into the Queen’s Gallery, with an ever-changing exhibition of art from the Royal Collection. And, though he was allowed no influence over state banquets, it was he who instituted the modest luncheons at the Palace, hosted by the Queen and Philip, for half a dozen guests at a time, drawn from a wide area of national life.

The range of his interests was almost limitless, and included a serious interest in theology and the impact of faith on the world. The arrival of Robin Woods as Dean of Windsor (later to become Bishop of Worcester) enabled a development of the work of St George’s Chapel in the Castle to become an unseen influence through many years. The Prince and the Dean worked together to set up St George’s House in one of the large houses within the castle walls, to be a place of in-service training for senior clergy, and of consultation between leaders in many areas of society and of different denominations and faiths.

The Prince was involved at every stage, and when chief executives, theologians, academics, journalists, and clergy were invited for several days at a time to discuss matters of national concern, he occasionally was able to take part. He was particularly interested in gatherings of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian leaders, and persuaded all the main religions to issue “Declarations on Nature”, an expression of his own intense interest in the environment.

He himself declared that “the relationship between scientists and theologians has been one of my hobby horses.” In 1984, the letters between the Prince and Michael Mann, a later Dean of Windsor, were published under the title A Windsor Correspondence. It shows the Prince wrestling with the concept of evolution from a Christian standpoint, and he clearly had read and could quote from On the Origin of Species.

He had the agnosticism common to so many Anglicans: “Whether ‘God became man in Jesus Christ’ is a philosophical question; what is a matter of fact is that Jesus tried to show us how to live so that the world would become a better place.” All fundamentalism worried him, and, at the time of writing the letters, he was particularly concerned to discredit the Creationists.

PAThe Queen and Prince Philip at Sandringham after attending church on Christmas Day 1992

He was Chancellor of Cambridge and Edinburgh Universities; he wrote books, including books on theology and spirituality, and delivered lectures. He valued all his formal ties with the Armed Services, and was deeply interested in industry, promoting the Queen’s Awards to Industry, for Export, and for Enterprise. He acquired one of the earliest personal computers at the age of 64 and mastered it. He was always fascinated by gadgets. He competed internationally at both polo and carriage-driving, and wrote the definitive rule book for the latter. Though he finally had to retire from polo, he carried on with recreational carriage-driving, together with fishing and shooting almost to the end of his life. And, perhaps surprisingly, he was a competent watercolourist.

As a father, however, he came in for criticism. Gordonstoun was a school that suited his tough personality, but it was far from appropriate for the very different temperament of his eldest son, and Prince Charles was most unhappy there. And it was the Duke who is said to have done most to persuade Charles to marry the very young Diana, again — in the event — an unwise choice.

For some years after Diana’s death, outward appearances seemed to suggest a coolness between the Palace and the Prince, especially with the Prince’s remarriage. But, by the time of the Diamond Jubilee, that clearly was no longer the case. And, true to form, on that occasion, at the age of 90, Prince Philip had stood at the Queen’s side in driving wind and rain for four hours on the Royal Launch, clearly interested and enjoying all that was going on, despite what must have been growing discomfort that put him into hospital for the next few days. It was one of the disappointments that had punctuated his life that he could not share in the rest of that weekend’s festivities.

For all his gaffes — and there were many, which stemmed from his irascibility and robust sense of humour — and even taking into account his near-disastrous determination to continue at the wheel of his Land Rover until he was in his 98th year — he was a truly remarkable man, who took on a role totally unsuited to his personality, and yet made a brilliant success of it.

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