One of the best royal biographies I have ever read was penned in 2011 by Philip Eade. Its title? Young Prince Philip: His Turbulent Early Life. We are all so familiar with the Windsor lineage but over and above his Greek blood, Prince Philip’s family has been largely forgotten. But their story goes some way to explaining why the ninety-six-year old Duke of Edinburgh has been such an exemplary consort to his wife The Queen.
Within eighteen months of his birth in the palace of Mon Repos on Corfu, Prince Philip was forced to flee with his parents Prince Andrew of Greece & Denmark and Princess Alice of Battenberg who had met at King Edward VII’s coronation. The Greek monarchy rose and fell with alarming regularity in the first half of the 20th century and Prince Andrew barely escaped a court martial and a bullet before a British warship was sent to rescue he and his family.
From early childhood, Prince Philip was sent to boarding schools and holidayed with his uncle Lord Louis Mountbatten. In 1930 his parents separated. Prince Andrew lived in hotels on the French riviera with his mistress while Princess Alice returned to Athens where she suffered great hardship during World War II. Prince Andrew died in Monte Carlo in 1944 not having seen his wife, son or four daughters for five years.
Prince Philip must have developed great self-reliance, resilience and his black sense of humour from his troubled family. All four of his sisters married German princes; three of whom were high ranking Nazis. When his sister Cecile, her husband and two children were killed in a plane crash in 1937, Goering attended the funeral. During the war Prince Philip was a British Naval officer while his in-laws fought with Hitler.
Before he married Princess Elisabeth, Prince Philip’s mother had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, forcibly sectioned and spent two years in a Swiss sanitarium. When Prince Philip and Princess Elizabeth did marry despite concerns from King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1947 none of his sisters were invited to the wedding. The royal wedding was a love match but one imagines Prince Philip was grateful to find a stable family in the Windsors.
In 1949 Princess Alice founded an order of nuns inspired by her aunt the Grand Duchess Ella of Russia who had been murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) allegedly commented ‘what can y0u say of a nun who chain-smokes and plays canasta?’ Princess Alice sailed down the aisle of Westminster Abbey in her grey nun’s habit when Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953. This time Prince Philip’s sisters Theodora, Margarita and Sophie were invited as were their German husbands.
I had no idea that for the last two years of her life, Princess Alice came to live with Prince Philip and The Queen at Buckingham Palace where her presence could be sensed as she walked the corridors puffing on her cigarettes. I don’t think anyone can underestimate the scrutiny Prince Philip was under in the early years of the reign. And yet he passed with flying colours.
Princess Marina told Dickie Mountbatten that she thought her cousin Philip was ‘coping with it in the right way. He has a charming approach with people & an easy manner & speaks it seems very well in public. Never too much in the background & yet not too much in front, He has his own opinions & plays an intelligent part in things. I think & pray they are very happy’.
And so after seventy years of marriage to The Queen, Prince Philip has proved Princess Marina right. For a man of action such as he to accept what was essentially a supporting role was a sacrifice as well as an agreement. But the Duke of Edinburgh never allowed himself to be emasculated or feel self-pity for being The Queen’s plus one. From the few loose lips at the royal households it seems clear that if HM reigns, it is the Duke of Edinburgh who rules behind palace doors.
So now he is set to retire from public life as of Autumn 2017 or, in his words, ‘stand down before I fall down’. It has already been announced that The Queen’s children and grandchildren will accompany her on a full diary of engagements that only recently ceased to include long haul tours. I think now would be a very good moment for Theresa May to commission a new Royal Yacht Britannia as a retirement gift for Prince Philip and The Queen.
I am sure we have not seen the last of the Duke of Edinburgh but I do think he has more than earned a private life this late in the game. I don’t think anyone would blame The Queen for sharing his retirement although HM ruled that out in 1952. The Duke’s stepping down from public service does prepare the way for a time when The Queen may no longer be able to keep-up with her busy calendar.
Once again Prince Philip is acting in The Queen’s best interests and tacitly reminding the nation that both are now in their nineties. Though I hope it is a long way off, I do think King Charles – or George as he may assume a new regnant name – and Queen Camilla will be worthy successors to the British monarchy’s most enduring and successful marriage.