Prince Philip: His Life and Legacy

Prince Philip: His Life and Legacy  

by Mark Lynn

March 9, 2021

             In his book Philip and Elizabeth: Portrait of a Royal Marriage, Gyles Brandreth writes that among the oft-repeated phrases uttered throughout the long life and reign of Queen Elizabeth II, “My husband and I…” will be one of the most memorable. “They were a double act,” he continues. “They still are. At every key moment in the Queen’s reign - at every significant event - every one - the Duke of Edinburgh has been there.”
Today the world awoke to the news that His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, passed away at Windsor Castle after weeks of struggling with undisclosed health issues. He died just two months before attaining his 100th birthday; something he had previously said he had no intention of reaching. In 2000, when his indomitable mother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, reached her centenary, the Duke of Edinburgh remarked with a laugh his thoughts on accomplishing the same feat: “God, I don’t want to live to be a hundred, I can’t imagine anything worse.” Sadly for Her Majesty and the members of their family, but, in some strange way, happily for him, his wish was respected.
In his early life, he was a dashing, straight-talking naval officer, cast out of his homeland as an infant and reared in countries that largely dismissed him as a foreigner with little prospects. Connected by blood to most of Europe’s royal houses, his illustrious pedigree nevertheless failed to leave most with any sense that he would amount to much. He proved them all wrong. He captured the heart of the most eligible young woman in the entire world, married her, and stood by her side as she went on to become the longest-serving female head of state in world history, and he in turn the longest-serving consort in that position.
The story of how the Duke of Edinburgh went from a penniless Greek prince to the progenitor of all future British kings and queens is a remarkable one, and at the same time in some ways he does present a slightly complex legacy. Over the years, especially as we transformed into a world heavily preoccupied with political correctness, he became more famous (or infamous) for a series of “gaffes” that have imprinted the image of a cantankerous, outdated, and, perhaps, slightly prejudiced old man upon the minds of younger generations. Presenting a balanced view of his legacy is necessary, but those cannot be the focus at the expense of his many remarkable accomplishments, which include spearheading environmental conservation and encouraging the industriousness of young people. Prince Philip’s story is in many ways a thoroughly modern one. But, like most areas of his life, there is a dichotomy to this, for as modern as he was in outlook (he had a keen interest in technology and particularly in making his family seem as modern as possible), he also stood as an integral pillar within an institution that is widely viewed as outdated and archaic. This dichotomy is another key element of assessing the Duke’s legacy. There never has been any clear way to define him.
Take, for example, this portrait commissioned in 2017, the year of his 70th wedding anniversary with the Queen as well as the year he officially stepped back from public engagements. 

Painted by Australian artist Ralph Heimans, it depicts the Duke of Edinburgh standing in the Grand Corridor of Windsor Castle. At the end of the corridor is the door to the Tapestry Room, where his mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, was born in 1885 in the presence of her great-grandmother, Queen Victoria. For a man regularly derided for his foreign roots (the British press often called him “Phil the Greek”, and even his own mother-in-law was heard to sneer at him as “the Hun”), this portrait clearly shows his close family connections to Great Britain. Many seem to forget, or perhaps never realized, that, like his wife, Prince Philip was a great-great-grandson of Queen Victoria. 

The Heimans portrait also reveals some other curiosities. The Duke is dressed in a suit and white bow tie with the light blue sash of the Order of the Elephant draped over his shoulder. The Order of the Elephant is the highest order of chivalry bestowed by the monarchy of Denmark, and its depiction was a clear nod to Philip’s roots within the Danish royal family. Indeed, his title at birth, which he gave up just a few months before his marriage to Elizabeth in 1947, was “His Royal Highness Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark”. This leads us into the story of the Duke’s ancestral background, which, like his own life, is filled with curious contradictions. 

In 1863, Prince Philip’s paternal grandfather, Prince William of Denmark, accepted the offer of the Greek national assembly to become the new king of Greece. He changed his name to George and, having adopted the official title “King of the Hellenes'', set sail for Athens. King George I spent fifty years presiding over a country with an ancient history but still relatively young as a modern, independent nation. A deranged madman put an end to George’s efforts when he shot the king in the back in 1913.

King George’s fourth son, Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark, was Philip’s father. He harbored a lifelong devotion to the Greek army and married a beautiful, English-born princess, Alice of Battenberg. Alice herself came from a no less interesting background. Through her mother, Alice’s great-grandmother was Queen Victoria, the great Queen-Empress of the British Empire and the “grandmother of Europe”. Alice’s father, Prince Louis of Battenberg, was a minor German princeling who moved his way to the top of the British Royal Navy. The onset of the First World War and the anti-German hysteria that came with it forced Louis of Battenberg out of office, and in 1917 he was also forced to give up his German royal titles in favor of a more British name, Louis Mountbatten. 

The wedding of Prince Philip’s parents marked one of the last occasions where European royalty gathered before the Great War extinguished many great monarchies on the continent. Princess Alice’s aunt was Empress Alexandra, wife of the doomed last Russian tsar, Nicholas II. Both of them attended the wedding. Four daughters were born to Andrew and Alice, during a time when everything that would have been familiar to them came crashing down. Along with the aforementioned destruction of European monarchies, Alice’s uncle and aunt in Russia were assassinated by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Greece itself was not immune to the precarious waters of this decade, as Andrew’s brother, King Constantine I, went into exile for refusing to enlist his kingdom on the side of the Allied Powers. Andrew and Alice also left with their young daughters, but the Greek royals came back in 1920 just as the country had embroiled itself in another war with its longtime rival, the Turks. 

It was against this backdrop of the Turkish war that Prince Philip, his parents’ fifth child and only son, was born on June 10, 1921 on the kitchen table of the family’s villa, Mon Repos, on the island of Corfu. Christened “Philippos” in the local Greek Orthodox Church, Philip quickly became the darling of his family. The year after his birth, however, the first seed of instability that defined Philip’s childhood would be planted. Following Greece’s humiliating defeat at the hands of Turkey, the Greek monarchy was sent packing once again, and Philip’s father, Prince Andrew, appeared before a military tribunal to answer for charges that he had contributed to the defeat through incompetence. A group of army colonels and government ministers, accused of the same crime, were sent before a firing squad, and Andrew himself very nearly faced a similar fate. It was thanks to the intervention of Andrew’s cousin, King George V of Great Britain (incidentally, the grandfather of his future daughter-in-law, Elizabeth), that a British warship arrived in Corfu to spirit away Andrew and his family. The infant Philip was brought aboard the ship in a makeshift crib fashioned out of an orange crate. 

From that moment on until his marriage to the future queen, Prince Philip’s life would be defined by upheaval, instability, family separation, and being shuffled back and forth between various royal relatives in France, Germany, and England. Luckily for Philip, he did have the distinction of being connected to illustrious and wealthy family members. Unluckily for Philip, his parents were largely absent from his childhood. In 1930, his mother, Princess Alice, suffered a nervous collapse and was committed to a sanitarium. Afterward, Prince Andrew closed down the family home, effectively renounced his role as parent to his young son, and spent the rest of his life along the French Riviera. Philip’s four sisters all married German princes, and he was left alone, moving back and forth between his maternal grandmother and his mother’s two brothers. 

In 1937, Philip’s third sister, Princess Cecilie, perished in a horrific plane crash along with her husband and their two sons (Cecilie was pregnant at the time, resulting in the discovery of her unborn child’s remains among the wreckage). The tragedy left a scar on Philip, but the funeral also marked the first time he had seen both of his parents together in years. His mother somehow snapped herself back to normalcy after her daughter’s death, and while Philip would never live permanently with her again, they resumed regular contact. 

Prince Philip finished his secondary education and enlisted at the Naval College at Dartmouth in 1939. That same year, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth paid a visit to the college, accompanied by their young daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret. Prince Philip sportingly acted as a chaperone to the two princesses, and many have pointed this out as the first real time Philip and Elizabeth encountered one another. 

That is certainly not true. Given that they were both part of the same extended European royal family (third cousins through their mutual descent from Queen Victoria, as well as second cousins once removed through King Christian IX of Denmark), it is likely that Philip and Elizabeth had some prior meetings that no one can ever truly know pinpoint for certain. They certainly were both present at the 1934 wedding of Elizabeth’s uncle, Prince George, Duke of Kent, to Philip’s first cousin, Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark. The significance of the 1939 visit to Dartmouth, however, is that it marked the point when thirteen-year-old Elizabeth fell in love with her handsome, dashing cousin. Philip, aged eighteen, was understandably not terribly interested in the young princess at that point, but as World War II got underway, Elizabeth grew up and they began a regular correspondence. 

The Second World War was an exciting time for Prince Philip. He served in the Indian Ocean aboard the HMS Ramillies, then transferred to the Mediterranean aboard HMS Valiant following the Axis invasion of his native Greece. His service in the battle of Crete warranted his mention in dispatches, and he received the Greek War Cross for his efforts. Philip became a first lieutenant at age 21, one of the youngest sailors in the Royal Navy to hold the rank. He then saw action in the Pacific aboard HMS Whelp, and was present in Tokyo Bay for Japan’s surrender to the Allies.

Naval life meant everything to Philip. It gave him purpose, it gave him responsibility, it gave him a sense of belonging; more than understandable given how he spent his entire childhood as a stateless and homeless foreigner. He also began to crave more stable roots of his own, and marriage soon entered his thoughts. Certainly, Prince Philip had no trouble attracting the interest of women. Tall, straight-talking, good looking (he was often described as being “like a Viking”), Philip was well-liked by men and irresistible to women. He was linked to a number of European royals, including one of his cousins, the future Queen Alexandra of Yugoslavia, but there is scant proof that any substantial romances came out of these. The summer after the war ended, Philip went to King George VI and officially asked for the hand of his daughter, Elizabeth. The King, a sailor like Philip, accepted the request but asked that any official engagement wait until the princess turned 21. At the time of her 21st birthday, Princess Elizabeth was carted off on a tour of South Africa with her parents and sister, officially to solidify the bonds between the South Africans and the Empire, but also (according to some) in a vain attempt by the King and Queen to put some physical and emotional distance between their daughter and her intended suitor. 

It was a futile effort. Elizabeth had committed herself wholly to Prince Philip since that occasion at Dartmouth in 1939, and no other man ever came close to drawing her interest. Philip, for his part, had to make himself amenable to the British public. His foreign title, foreign roots, peculiar family (a mother out of a mental asylum, a father dallying in the south of France?!) all made him a rather suspicious figure for their future queen to give her hand in marriage to. The public relations machine went to work. In early 1947, the decision was made to turn Philip into a fully naturalized British subject. He renounced his title as Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark and became Philip Mountbatten, the surname which his maternal grandfather adopted back in 1917. He also converted from Greek Orthodoxy to Anglicanism, and finally, in July 1947, the official announcement came forth that Her Royal Highness The Princess Elizabeth would marry Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, RN. 

The wedding took place at Westminster Abbey on November 20, 1947. Winston Churchill described it as “a flash of color” as Britain struggled to recover from the ravages of war. Philip received the title “Duke of Edinburgh” from his father-in-law, and the happy couple settled down to a rather peaceful marital existence. Two children were born over the next three years - Prince Charles in 1948, Princess Anne in 1950 (Prince Andrew and Prince Edward followed some years later) - and Philip continued with his duties in the Royal Navy while Elizabeth quietly trained for her future role as monarch. She was also more than happy to play the doting wife of a naval officer. Some of the couple’s happiest moments were spent on the island of Malta when the Duke was stationed there with the Mediterranean Fleet. 

This quiet life came to an abrupt end on February 6, 1952. Elizabeth and Philip were in Kenya on an official visit when they got word that King George VI had died. Philip’s private secretary, Mike Parker, remarked that it looked as though the world had crashed down upon the Duke when he was told that his wife had now become Queen. It would not be an easy transition from a naval officer to the consort of the Sovereign. 

First, there was the issue of the royal house’s name. Much has been made in the Netflix series The Crown about Prince Philip’s fury over his wife and children not adopting his surname, Mountbatten. Philip indeed remarked at the time that he was “just a bloody amoeba” when it was declared that the Queen and the royal family should maintain the name of Windsor (which, it bears noting, had only been adopted during World War I in 1917 by George V in order to distance the royal family from its German roots). The name Mountbatten wasn’t the issue - it was a name he had adopted from his mother’s family, and even then it was a name they only began to use during the First World War in order to diminish their German connections. For Prince Philip, it was the principle of the matter, that the wife and children of a man should take his family name, whatever that name might be. For a person of Philip’s generation, it is only understandable that he held firm to such views. 

The other aspect that made Philip’s early years as consort difficult were the ongoing prejudices leveled against him by the Establishment, i.e. the courtiers and “flunkies” that work behind the scenes in service of the British monarchy. To them, it didn’t matter that Philip had given up his position as a Greek and Danish prince, or had served with distinction in their country’s navy. He was still too foreign, far too pushy, and uncomfortably outspoken. He had already remodeled his and Elizabeth’s first marital home, Clarence House, to include every kind of modern innovation possible. When they reluctantly moved to Buckingham Palace following the Queen’s accession, Philip applied his industriousness to turning the palace (described by many as a “mausoleum” rather than a home) into one with modern technology, including an intercom system and improved electricity. For the Establishment, this was a step too far, and there were multiple instances where the Duke’s attempts to bring the monarchy in step with modern times were dismissed by stuffy aristocrats and secretaries. 

He might have complained about all of this behind closed doors, but in public the Duke put his frustrations aside and committed himself wholly to supporting the Queen. For nearly seven decades, he loyally accompanied her on countless trips around the world, appearing alongside her at banquets, state dinners, and memorials. Year after year, he offered his hand to her whenever they entered the Palace of Westminster annually to open Parliament, and quietly took his place on the throne beside hers as she read the manifesto outlining her government’s agenda.  

His steadfast devotion to the Queen remained the guiding light of his life from 1952 onwards, but that was never going to be enough for a man as energetic, if not impatient, as the Duke of Edinburgh. He founded the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, aimed at assisting adolescents and young adults in fulfilling their potential and making good use of their skills and talents. In 1961, decades before environmental conservatism became the fad du rigueur, Prince Philip helped co-found the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), and has been outspoken ever since about the importance of wildlife conservation. Renowned naturalist David Attenborough once said, “his importance to conservation worldwide has been absolutely huge.” He also was a lifelong proponent of sport, and proved instrumental in helping establish the formalized rules for carriage racing. Indeed, the Duke was always a man on the go.

Yet recent generations had come to develop a very different perception of the Queen’s husband. He developed a propensity for putting his foot in his mouth, leading to endless press coverage in the 1990s and 2000s over his multiple “gaffes”. True, he was recorded telling a group of British students studying in China not to stay too long lest they become “slanty-eyed”; he once asked an African tribal leader if they still ate people; he once told a group of deaf children at a rock concert “no wonder you’re deaf listening to this lot!” At best, his comments could have been interpreted as cringe-inducing in the way an elderly uncle tends to utter something embarrassing at a family dinner. At worst, his comments were taken in some areas as a sign of how deeply prejudiced he and the whole royal institution were.

This assessment of the Duke’s life makes no attempt to gloss over the complex layers that come with any racial and social analysis of the British monarchy. The history of colonialism and a clear sense of privilege by an exclusive group of people on the basis of their birthright alone is difficult to rationalize through a postmodern 21st century lens. The very fact that we are even speaking of the Duke of Edinburgh’s death can be largely attributed to the woman with whom he had the great fortune of entering into matrimony. Still, even if one were to strip away the fact that he enjoyed a 74-year marriage to one of the most enduringly famous women of the modern age, the circumstances of his life would be difficult to write off as uninspiring. How he soldiered through the difficulties of his early years (by any standards, even royal ones, they were nonetheless difficult) and contributed his life to supporting his wife and his adopted country will fascinate generations to come. 

Rest in peace, Your Royal Highness.