Tuesday, February 27, 2024
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Prince Philip, the Queen’s ‘rock’


THE Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, has died just three months from his 100th birthday, having served his country, the monarchy and his wife for more than 70 years.

He had walked unaided into King Edward VII Hospital in London on February 16 as ‘a precautionary measure’ after feeling unwell. It was announced that his condition wasn’t Covid-19 related. He was discharged on March 16 following treatment for an infection and a successful procedure for a pre-existing heart condition, and returned to Windsor Castle. 

Philip was an exceptional individual with extraordinary inner resources that he needed from a very early age to cope with a traumatic and unstable childhood. Despite this start, he acquired a laudable war naval record and accepted a secondary – one step behind – role to marry the Queen (then Princess Elizabeth) at a time when men made all the major decisions.

Although known for his tactless remarks, he could maintain enormous restraint but opened up in private conversations with people he trusted about his traditional conservative views. Although he sometimes appeared grumpy he was both unpretentious and down to earth. Above all, he was an exemplary consort, to Her Majesty the Queen. Their marriage was the longest of any British sovereign and a love story that held fast despite life’s ups and downs. 

The Queen described him as her ‘rock’. In a 1997 speech to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary, she said her husband ‘was someone who doesn’t take easily to compliments, but he has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years.’  

Prince Philip’s response was pragmatic with a dash of humour: ‘I think the main lesson that we have learnt is that tolerance is the one essential ingredient of any happy marriage. It may not be quite so important when things are going well, but it is absolutely vital when the going gets difficult. You can take it from me that the Queen has the quality of tolerance in abundance.’

Prince Philip was born on the Greek island of Corfu on 10 June 1921, the only son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Princess Alice of Battenberg. Following a war with Turkey and the rise of a new military government, his family was exiled from their country. Philip was only 18 months old when he was carried to safety in a cot made from a fruit box.

The young prince was subsequently sent from country to country.  By the time he was ten his parents had separated. His father went to live with another woman while his mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was committed to a sanatorium in Switzerland, leaving Philip homeless and without a family. 

He found some sort of stability at Gordonstoun, a tough boarding school in Scotland where he learnt leadership skills. He later insisted that Prince Charles, a rather sensitive boy, went there too to harden him up. Charles hated it but his two younger brothers, Princes Andrew and Edward, got on well there.

After school Philip joined the Royal Navy, rising to the rank of Commander. He was actively engaged in the Second World War, serving in the North Atlantic on convoy protection duty. His natural ingenuity and leadership saved the crew of his ship, HMS Wallace, when it came under attack from an enemy bomber. Philip suggested throwing a wooden raft overboard with smoke floats, hoping in the darkness, the enemy would think the flaming raft was their target. It worked and the ship escaped disaster.  

Philip met Elizabeth at a royal family wedding in 1934 when she was eight and he was 13. Five years later they met again at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. They fell in love and exchanged letters for years while Philip was serving in the Navy. Elizabeth’s parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother), did not approve of the match, not least because Philip had no money and a dysfunctional background. She was offered other suitors but remained adamant that she would marry only Philip.

 After the war Philip became a British subject and adopted the surname Mountbatten. When the King finally gave way, one of the conditions Philip had to accept to in order to marry Elizabeth was that their children would not bear his name. He was furious. ‘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,’ he was reported as saying.

The couple married on November 20 1947. Philip was given the title of His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh but had to wait to be called Prince Philip until 1957. Prince Charles was born almost a year after their wedding, followed in 1950 by Anne, to whom Philip was always particularly close. 

Before Elizabeth became Queen, the couple lived in Malta where Philip, still serving in the Navy, was stationed. It was the only time they lived a relatively normal life.

The coronation took place on June 2, 1953. Philip was the first to swear allegiance to the new Queen. He also gave up his promising career in the Navy so he could support his wife. 

The marriage subsequently went through a difficult time. Like his grandson Harry much later, Philip began to feel irritated and hurt that he didn’t have a role within the Royal Family. After creating the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme to give young people ‘a sense of responsibility to themselves and their communities’, he took a break. Between 1956 and 1957 he took a world tour during which he opened the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne and was the first royal to cross the Antarctic Circle. 

In 1960 Prince Andrew was born followed by Prince Edward. Philip initiated the popular Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, opened in 1962. He learnt to fly, played polo and then took up carriage driving. He also enjoyed painting and reading. 

When he stepped back from public life in 2017, aged 96, he had completed 22,219 solo engagements since 1952 and had been a patron, president, or member of more than 780 organisations, as well as accompanying the Queen on many of her engagements. 

During the 2020-21 lockdown the royal couple mostly stayed at Windsor Castle, meeting for lunch and dinner and spending more time together than they had in decades. 

It was a difficult year for both of them. Prince Andrew was pressured to resign from all public roles as a result of his association with the Jeffrey Epstein sex trafficking scandal, and Harry and Meghan left the royal family to live in Los Angeles with little grace or gratitude.  The Duke must have been deeply hurt, for public duty meant more than anything to him – except for the Queen.

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Angela Levin
Angela Levin
Angela Levin is a journalist, royal commentator and author of the biography Harry: Conversations with the Prince.

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