His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh has passed away, having “died peacefully” at Windsor at the very grand old age of 99. Indeed, he was just two months shy of his 100th birthday. It has been announced that his military funeral (as opposed to a full State Funeral) will be held (in a necessarily Covid compliant way) on Saturday, April 17th, at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. It will be conducted by His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Dean of Windsor, after which the Duke will be laid to rest in the Royal Vault. His coffin will be draped in his personal standard, with his admiral’s cap and sword atop. It is much less than his prodigious service to Queen and country merits but very much in line with his own dislike of undue ‘fuss’.
I am, as is probably well known, an absolutely fanatical monarchist. It was unsurprising, therefore, that within hours of the announcement from Buckingham Palace that Prince Philip had died, I received a message over Facebook from a friend saying “Looking forward to your no doubt informative post on the sad death of Prince Phillip.” I get similar reactions from Facebook friends whenever a prominent figure dies; mostly politicians, actors or sometimes directors, famous aristocrats or distinguished military figures. It seems I have developed a bit of a reputation amongst my Facebook friends as an amateur obituarist, due to my habit of penning potted biographies on my timeline when such people die. But where to even begin with a man like Prince Philip?! How do sum up such an incredible – and long – life or try to sum up a man who was, by any measure, quite extraordinary? But I’ll give it a go.
As most people know, the Duke of Edinburgh was born on the island of Corfu on June 10th, 1921, as HRH Prince Philip [Philippos] of Greece and Denmark. He was a scion of the ancient Danish Royal House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, which had reigned over Greece since 1863, when Prince William of Denmark (a younger son of King Christian IX) was elected King George I of the Hellenes, shortly after Greece’s independence from the Ottoman Empire (there had been a brief dalliance with the Wittelsbach dynasty of Bavaria but that did not pan out). Prince Philip was a grandson of King George and was born in the reign of his uncle, King Constantine I. His father, Prince Andrew [Andrea], was King Constantine’s younger brother. Prince Philip was the fifth child and only son of Prince and Princess Andrew.
Prince Philip’s mother, Princess Andrew, had been born Princess Alice of Battenberg, part of a morganatic branch of the Grand Ducal House of Hesse-Darmstadt. By 1921, most of the Battenbergs had relocated to the United Kingdom. Her father, Prince Louis of Battenberg, was a British admiral, who had served as First Sea Lord during World War I and was married to a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. In 1917, the Battenbergs abandoned their German titles and adopted the Anglicised surname ‘Mountbatten’, with Prince Louis created the 1st Marquess of Milford Haven by King George V.
Unfortunately, at the time of Prince Philip’s birth, Greece was embroiled in the disastrous Greco-Turkish War. Following the Greek defeat in 1922, King Constantine was forced to abdicate and Prince Andrew, who had served as a general in the war, was arrested. Several senior Greek commanders were subsequently executed and Prince Andrew was banished from Greece for life and forced to flee aboard a British warship. Such was the hurry in which the family was evacuated that the baby Prince Philip was supposedly carried aboard in a makeshift cot fashioned from an old fruit box!
These were the dramatic circumstances in which Prince Philip began what would later be called his ‘nomadic’ lifestyle as an ‘impoverished royal’, exiled and stateless. The family originally settled in Paris but the family soon dispersed. Princess Andrew, who had always suffered from frail mental health, suffered a nervous breakdown and was institutionalised in Switzerland. Prince Philip’s four elder sisters all married into German princely families and settled in Germany, so Prince Andrew sent his son to England to live with his Mountbatten relatives. Prince Andrew himself thereafter lived out a rakish existence on the French Riviera. Prince Philip did not see his father again until the funeral of his sister, Cecile, in Darmstadt in 1937 (she and her family had died in a tragic plane crash). It was the first time Prince Andrew and Prince Philip had seen each other in six years. It would also be one of the last. At the outbreak of World War II, Prince Andrew was essentially trapped in Vichy France and died in Monte Carlo in 1944, just before the war ended.
Prince Philip spent much of his youth in the 1920s being passed around various relations – most notably his maternal grandmother, the formidable Dowager Marchioness of Milford Haven (the aforementioned granddaughter of Queen Victoria), who lived at Kensington Palace. He attended Cheam and was later sent to live with his sister, Theodora, who was married to the Margrave of Baden. It was in Baden that he attended Schloss Salem, a school founded by the visionary Jewish educationalist Kurt Hahn. He eventually fled Nazi persecution and moved to Scotland, where he founded Gordonstoun – and Prince Philip followed him.
The influence of both Mr Hahn and his time at Gordonstoun upon the life of Prince Philip are so well-documented, I need hardly dilate upon them here, but suffice it to say that Gordonstoun was the making of him (in contrast to his own son, who hated the place). In 1939, Prince Philip went to the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, and joined the Royal Navy, graduating from Dartmouth as the best cadet in his class. It was at Dartmouth, during a visit by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth with their daughters, that Prince Philip first met the young Princess Elizabeth. The King and Queen were being escorted by the Prince’s uncle, the infamous Lord Louis Mountbatten (later Earl Mountbatten of Burma), perhaps one of the most significant royal matchmakers of all time. Lord Louis asked his nephew to escort the young princesses (his third cousins) during the visit. The families were connected through the marriage of Queen Victoria’s son, King Edward VII, to Alexandra of Denmark, a daughter of the aforementioned King Christian IX. Princess Elizabeth was reputedly smitten with Prince Philip from that moment. He was 18 and she was 13 and the two began writing to each other.
This courtship was short-lived, as the Prince saw active service in World War II. He served with distinction, first in the Indian Ocean and then in Ceylon and the Mediterranean. He became a commissioned officer in 1941, again scoring highly in exams. He saw action at the Battle of Crete and was mentioned in despatches at the Battle of Cape Matapan. In 1942, he was second in command aboard HMS Wallace (at just 21, one of the youngest lieutenants in the Royal Navy) and was credited with saving the ship in 1943, during the invasion of Sicily, with his quick thinking in distracting enemy bombers during a night-time raid with a decoy raft lit up with flares. He also served in the British Pacific Fleet and was present for the Japanese surrender at Tokyo Bay in September 1945.
Throughout the war, Prince Philip and Princess Elizabeth had exchanged letters. The young Princess famously kept his portrait on her mantelpiece. When her governess asked her “Do you think that’s wise, Lilibet? People will talk.” She took it down only to replace it later with a new picture of a heavily bearded Prince Philip, saying to her governess, “There you are, Crawfie. I challenge anybody to recognise him now.” He finished the war with a chestful of medals, including the 1939-45 Star, the Africa Star, the Atlantic Star, the Burma Star (with Pacific Clasp), the Italy Star and the 1939-45 War Medal (with Mentioned in Despatches oak leaf). He also received the Greek War Cross and the French Croix de Guerre. He would, of course, add to these over the years to the point where they barely fit on his uniforms! But we can assume these are the ones of which he was, quite rightly, particularly proud.
In the summer of 1946, the Prince formally asked the King for the Princess’ hand in marriage. The King and Queen were both reluctant, given the Prince’s itinerant background and the Queen’s strong preference that her daughter should marry a suitable British (preferably Scottish) aristocrat. The King begrudgingly consented with the proviso that they wait until the Princess’ 21st birthday. If he hoped that would put her off, it was far too late. Princess Elizabeth was deeply in love and nothing would deter her from marrying her Prince. By March of 1947, Prince Philip had formally renounced his Greek and Danish titles and adopted his maternal family’s surname as Lieut. Philip Mountbatten, RN (Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg considered too much of a mouthful) and applied to be naturalised as a British subject (an act that was, in fact, unnecessary, as he was automatically legally a British subject as a descendant of the Electress Sophia of Hanover, owing to an Act of Parliament in 1707). He had even begun to make preparations to convert from his Greek Orthodox faith to the Church of England. The King and Queen realised there was nothing more to be done and the engagement of the Princess Elizabeth to Lieutenant Mountbatten was announced on July 10th, 1947.
Lieutenant Mountbatten was created a Knight of the Order of the Garter and, on the eve of his wedding, the King ennobled his soon-to-be son-in-law with the tiles Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth and Baron Greenwich and granted him the style ‘Royal Highness’. The couple were married at Westminster Abbey. His surviving German relatives were pointedly not invited but his mother, Princess Andrew, attended, notable for being dressed in the full habit of the order of nuns she had founded in Athens during the war. [Princess Andrew hid Jews from the Nazis during the war and, consequently, on her death in 1969 was named Yad Vashem – ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ – by the State of Israel and is buried in Gethsemane in Jerusalem.]
Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh were happily married for an incredible 73 years. We think of them today as an elderly couple but it is worth remembering that they were young once and very much in love. One particularly saucy anecdote I remember reading was shortly after their honeymoon they were visiting the the Duke’s grandmother. Sipping afternoon tea in the garden, Lady Milford Haven complimented the Princess on her complexion, saying “Elizabeth, what lovely skin you have”. The Duke replied, with a twinkle, “Yes, and she’s like that all over.” Their early life, while the King still lived, was particularly happy. The Duke took a desk job at the Admiralty for a time. Their first child, Prince Charles, was born in 1948 and the following year the Duke was stationed on the Mediterranean island of Malta, where the Edinburghs lived the relatively normal and carefree existence of a military couple. In 1950, the Princess gave birth to a daughter, Princess Anne, and the Duke was promoted to lieutenant-commander and given command of his own ship, HMS Magpie. He later became a full commander but, by 1952, with the King’s health failing, it became clear his active naval career was over and the family returned to the UK to support the King in his royal duties.
The Princess and the Duke were both appointed to the King’s Privy Council and began the undertake a series of foreign tours that the King’s ill health would not allow. It was during one such Commonwealth tour, whilst in Kenya, that the Duke got the news that the King had died in his sleep at Sandringham on the morning of February 6th, 1952, at the age of just 56. He had been battling lung cancer. The new Queen was just 25 years old. It must have been a bitter blow to a young couple, who thought they had so much more time. It fell to the Duke to break the news to his wife.
Upon their return to the UK, the Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, and other senior politicians were famously lined up on the tarmac, waiting to ‘claim’ them. This was, of course, a pivotal moment of profound change for the Duke. His life was changed irrevocably. As his daughter, now HRH The Princess Royal, put it in her ITV interview with Chris Ship last night, “From the early stages, I don’t think the structure, in terms of the support to the monarchy, was designed to deal with a ‘consort'”. The initial struggles here are, of course, well-documented (many of them finding their way into the scripts for Netflix series The Crown). There was the infamous tug-o’-war over the Royal Family’s dynastic name – with Sir Winston and the Queen’s doughty grandmother, old Queen Mary, pulling furiously against the Duke and his ambitious uncle, Lord Mountbatten. The Mountbattens lost and their adopted surname was eschewed in favour of retaining the equally confected Windsor, leading the Duke to famously remark “I am nothing but a bloody amoeba! I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his own children.” It was not until 1960 that an Order in Council was issued allowing the use of Mountbatten-Windsor, just days before the birth of the Queen and the Duke’s second son, who was named Andrew after his paternal grandfather. Prince Edward, their final child, came in 1964.
It must have been an incredible transition, particularly back in the 1950s, before the ‘battle of the sexes’, in what was still a very male-dominated society, to go from being a naval commander to walking two steps behind your wife at functions; to attending the State Opening of Parliament and being seated on a chair set slightly lower than Her’s. Yet, as President Obama has remarked, the Duke “showed the world what it meant to be a supportive husband to a powerful woman”. Over more than six decades, the Duke carved out a role for himself in royal life, becoming an inspiration to countless millions across the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth, and the world.
The Queen once described Her husband as Her “strength and stay” and said that “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” and that is pretty much bang on the money. The Duke of Edinburgh was the longest-serving royal consort in our history. Over the years, he has involved himself in many causes and supported, and even created, many charities. In addition to supporting his wife in Her role at ceremonial occasions, official functions, visits, state dinners, overseas tours, living up in every way to his oath at Her coronation to be Her “liege man of life and limb”, the Duke has been a president or patron of more than 800 charitable organisations and good causes; too many to list here but running the gamut of sport, education, industry and the environment. He was a great patron of the arts and sciences and a committed conservationist, long before it was fashionable. Perhaps his greatest achievement, however, was the foundation of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme, which he co-founded with his old mentor Kurt Hahn and the mountaineer Sir Henry (later Lord) Hunt. It started as a relatively small youth awards programme in 1956 but has since expanded to over 144 countries, well beyond the UK and even the Commonwealth. Other prominent patronages included his 64 years as President of the National Playing Fields Association, his more than 50 years as a patron of the British Heart Foundation, and his long-standing support for the World Wildlife Fund. He also served as chancellor of the universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, Salford and Wales and enjoyed a long association not just with the Royal Navy through his personal service – and he eventually rose to the rank of Admiral of the Fleet and was appointed Lord High Admiral on his 90th birthday – but also with the Army and the Royal Air Force. He was a Colonel-in-Chief and Air Commodore-in-Chief of numerous military units, both British and Commonwealth, including being the longest-serving Captain General of the Royal Marines in their history and Royal Colonel of the Grenadier Guards. He held five-star rank in all three branches of the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia and Canada.
His four children have all paid tribute to him following his death. I think it is pretty well-known – and not too controversial to say – that his relationship with his eldest son, the Prince of Wales, had been at times complicated (no doubt a consequence of his troubled relationship with his own father) but the Prince of Wales has today paid a touching tribute to his ‘dear Papa’ (and, perhaps a little redundantly given his own ample collection of titles, has succeeded to his father’s peerage, as the nominal 2nd Duke of Edinburgh). The Duke was clearly close to his eight grandchildren (famously walking with Princes William and Harry behind their mother’s coffin following her death in 1997). He also had ten great-grandchildren (with an eleventh currently on the way). Apart from his family and his country, to both of which he was devoted, the Duke’s other great love was sport. A keen polo player until he was begrudgingly cajoled into retiring in 1971, he later took up carriage driving with a fierce passion (later writing the rule book for the sport). He enjoyed rugby and was also an enthusiastic yachtsman and a pilot, accruing over 5,000 flying hours (having earned his RAF wings in 1953). He did oil painting and was an avid collector for art of various kinds.
Of course, the Duke will also be remembered for his incredible longevity. In addition to being the longest-serving royal consort he is the oldest-ever male member of the Royal Family and, although he has suffered periodic bouts of ill health and occasional hospitalisations in recent years, he remained in remarkably robust health well into his 90s and only formally retired from royal duties in 2017, at the age of 96. He had, by then, completed well over 22,000 solo engagements over the 70 years he had been the Queen’s consort. In 2019, the 97-year-old was involved in a car accident in which he flipped his Range Rover twice and emerged with barely a scratch. I think many of us had reached the conclusion that Prince Philip was immortal but, sadly not. He will also be remembered for his great wit and sense of humour – often misrepresented in the press as tactless ‘gaffes’. He was also called ‘irascible’, even ‘rude’. He was certainly fairly plain-spoken and no sufferer of fools. Possibly one of my favourite Prince Philip ‘clips’ is the one of a clearly irritated Duke snapping at a fussing photographer to “Just take the f***ing picture!” He could be ‘politically incorrect’ but he was very rarely mean or seeking to offend; he was usually attempting – successfully – to put people at their ease with an off-the-cuff joke. Many of the more tasteless remarks attributed to him, he flatly denied having ever said. I think one of the funniest I read recently was during a visit to Australia, upon arrival he was apparently questioned by a customs official, who explained he had to ask the same standard questions that he asked everybody. On asking the Duke “Do you have a criminal record?”, the Duke is said to have replied, “I had no idea that was a still a requirement.”
Above all, the Duke should be remembered for his part in one of the great love stories of our age. His life is a tale of devotion to duty to his adopted country, driven in no small part by his deep and abiding love for his wife, Her Majesty the Queen, and it is to Her that we should turn our thoughts now – though Her daughter-in-law, the Countess of Wessex, remarked earlier today to well-wishers that “The Queen has been amazing”. Would we expect anything less from our incredible Sovereign?
Prince Philip was – much like his Victorian predecessor as consort, Prince Albert – a remarkable visionary, light years ahead of his time. He was an innovator – and great patron and supporter of other innovators. He was a philanthropist. He was a bona fide war hero, a good sailor and a patriot. But, above all, he was a loving husband and a doting father, grandfather and great-grandfather. In many ways, the Grandfather of the Nation. He was a very great man and we shall not see his like again.
Rest in Peace. God save the Queen!
His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth, Baron Greenwich, Royal Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Member of the Order of Merit, Grand Master and Principal Knight Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order, Knight of the Order of Australia, Additional Member of the Order of New Zealand, Extra Companion of the Queen’s Service Order, Royal Chief of the Order of Logohu, Extraordinary Companion of the Order of Canada, Extraordinary Companion of the Order of Military Merit, Lord of Her Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council, Privy Counsellor of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada, Personal Aide-de-Camp to Her Majesty and Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom.
[The Duke also held a number of foreign honours, including Knight of the Order of the Elephant (Danish) and Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Redeemer (Greek), Grand Cross of the Order of St Olav (Norwegian), Knight of the Royal Order of the Seraphim (Swedish), Grand-croix of the Légion d’honneur (French), Grand Cordon of the Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum (Japanese), Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Carlos III (Spanish), along with many, many others.]