HRH the Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth and Baron Greenwich was the grandiose official description that sometimes obscured a man of simple tastes and great common sense. His was a life of dedicated service, covering many areas of interest, but his greatest contribution to the well-being of the nation was the rock-solid support he provided for 72 years to The Queen as she fulfilled the most demanding office in the country.
Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark was born – on a dining-room table – in a villa on Corfu on 10 June, 1921, the only son and fifth child of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and his wife, Princess Alice of Battenberg, later Mountbatten. Despite the baby prince’s imposing heritage, his family was in a state of crisis and his parents were soon to become refugees.
Following setbacks in the Greco-Turkish War of 1919 to 1922, Philip’s uncle King Constantine I of Greece was forced to abdicate and Philip’s father was exiled from Greece for life. He, his wife and baby son, transported in a makeshift crib manufactured out of a fruit crate, were evacuated by a British vessel, HMS Calypso. This, at 18 months old, was Philip’s introduction to the Royal Navy in which he was later to serve with distinction.
Growing up in exile in Paris, Prince Philip’s earliest education was under the supervision of Donald MacJannet who ran The Elms, an American school in the French capital. In 1928 he was dispatched to England to live with his maternal grandmother, Victoria Mountbatten, Dowager Marchioness of Milford Haven, at Kensington Palace. He was sent first to Cheam School then, in 1933, to Salem in Germany for just two terms until the Nazis’ coming to power forced him to follow Salem’s founder, Kurt Hahn, to his new establishment at Gordonstoun in Scotland.
The Gordonstoun regime, beginning daily with a cold shower at 6am, was calculated to make boys hardy and self-sufficient. Philip thrived and became Gordonstoun’s head boy. On leaving school in 1939 he served for a term at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, revisited Greece for a month, then returned to Dartmouth where he graduated in 1940 as the best cadet on his course. Now a midshipman, postings followed to HMS Ramillies, HMS Kent and HMS Shropshire.
After doing courses at Portsmouth in which he gained the top grade in four out of five sections of the examinations, Philip Mountbatten became a sub-lieutenant, RN. He was involved in the battle of Crete and mentioned in dispatches for his service during the Battle of Cape Matapan, when he controlled the searchlights on the battleship HMS Valiant. In October 1942, at 21 years of age, he became one of the youngest first lieutenants in the Navy. In 1943, as second-in-command of HMS Wallace, he devised a ruse that enabled his ship to survive attack by night bombers.
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From 1944 Prince Philip served on HMS Whelp, a new destroyer, with the British Pacific Fleet and was present in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese forces surrendered. By the end of the War he had proved himself a gallant and resourceful officer, also with an aptitude for the more academic aspects of seamanship. He had successfully forged a career for himself in a demanding service, demonstrating wide capabilities and intelligence. Those qualities would serve him well in the unusual course his life subsequently took, though he would be obliged to channel them in a direction largely prescribed by others and subject to the demands of the national interest.
For years Philip had been friendly with George VI’s daughter and heir, the young Princess Elizabeth; they had corresponded since she was 13 years old. In 1946 Philip asked the King for permission to marry his daughter; the King agreed but asked the couple to wait until the princess’s 21st birthday the following year. Their wedding, the first return to public pageantry and normality after wartime austerity, was celebrated at Westminster Abbey on 20 November, 1947.
In dynastic terms it was an equal marriage: Prince Philip’s family, the House of Glucksburg, is the oldest reigning dynasty in Europe and he had to give up his succession rights to the thrones of Greece and Denmark to marry Princess Elizabeth. As a great-great-grandson of Queen Victoria, Philip was the Queen’s second cousin once removed. His uncle Earl Mountbatten of Burma was regarded by some as having had a manipulative hand in the marriage; the couple, however, clearly loved each other and the decades-long outcome, the longest marriage of any British monarch, speaks for itself.
The royal couple enjoyed a brief period of virtually normal married life between 1947 and 1952, during which time their two eldest children Charles (later Prince of Wales) and Anne (later Princess Royal) were born in 1948 and 1950 respectively. The most carefree period of the Queen’s married life, before embarking on her long reign, was from 1949 to 1951 when Prince Philip was posted to Malta and gained his first command, the frigate HMS Magpie. In July 1951 his naval career ended; King George VI died on 6 February, 1952 and for the rest of their lives the Queen and the Duke devoted themselves to the service of the nation.
Some aspects of his situation must undoubtedly have been trying for Prince Philip. The most vexed question, the surname of his children, was resolved in 1960 by a compromise whereby the name of the dynasty remained Windsor, but all descendants of the Queen who did not have the style of Royal Highness or the rank of prince or princess would bear bear the surname Mountbatten-Windsor. From the beginning of her reign the Queen made it clear that there would be no Victoria and Albert-style collaboration over red boxes, keeping her constitutional role strictly to herself, as required by convention, though she may often have consulted her husband informally on knotty problems.
As the Queen must have foreseen, Prince Philip quickly carved out a major role for himself in other areas. It was due to his persistent pressure, in the face of establishment resistance, that the coronation was televised – a moment that undoubtedly enhanced the bond between the monarchy and the nation. By the time he retired from public duties, aged 96, in 2017 the Prince had performed 22,219 solo public engagements, besides those in which he supported the Queen.
He was patron or supporter of more than 780 organizations, most prominent among them the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme for people aged between 14 and 24, helping them realize their potential. By 2006 there were some 225,000 participants at any time, although only half of the candidates achieve an award. Prince Philip’s work on behalf of wildlife dated back to decades before conservation became a fashionable cause. He was UK president of the World Wildlife Fund from 1961 to 1982, international president from 1981 and president emeritus from 1996.
He served as president of the International Equestrian Federation from 1964 to 1986 and patron of the British Heart Foundation for 55 years, during which he supported the creation of nine BHF-funded centres of excellence. Over some seven decades of such initiatives, this man’s dedication touched and improved the lives of countless people.
There were, of course, the famous “gaffes”. On close analysis they turn out to have been remarkably few in number, especially considering the timespan involved, and on proper examination few if any can be considered gaffes at all: they were mostly light-hearted remarks with no offensive content, inflated by the media to non-existent significance.
In the 1980s and 1990s the Royal family struggled, like many British families, with concepts such as divorce. It was particularly difficult when played out under the intense, global media spotlight. The separation and divorce of the Prince and Princess of Wales was a crisis that the monarchy weathered in the end, though. Through three generations – Charles, William and George – the line of succession is secure.
In war and in peace Philip, Duke of Edinburgh was the indefatigable servant of the country. His greatest service was the support he gave to the Queen, with whom the nation deeply sympathises in her great loss. It was Her Majesty the Queen who paid the most appropriate and heartfelt tribute to her husband, in her Diamond Jubilee address to Parliament in March, 2012: “Prince Philip is, I believe, well-known for declining compliments of any kind. But throughout he has been a constant strength and guide.”