Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, won widespread respect for his steadfast and constant support of the Queen.
It was a desperately difficult role for anyone, let alone a man who had been used to naval command and who held strong views on a wide range of subjects.
Yet it was that very strength of character that enabled him to discharge his responsibilities so effectively, and provide such wholehearted support to his wife in her role as Queen.
As male consort to a female sovereign, Prince Philip had no constitutional position. But no-one was closer to the monarchy, or of greater importance to the monarch, than he was.
Prince Philip of Greece was born on 10 June 1921 on the island of Corfu. His birth certificate shows the date as 28 May 1921, as Greece had not then adopted the Gregorian calendar.
His father was Prince Andrew of Greece, a younger son of King George I of the Hellenes. His mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, was the eldest child of Prince Louis of Battenberg and sister of Earl Mountbatten of Burma.
After a coup d’etat in 1922, his father was banished from Greece by a revolutionary court.
A British warship sent by his second cousin, King George V, took the family to Italy. Baby Philip spent much of the voyage in a crib made from an orange box.
He was the youngest child, the only boy in a family of sisters – and his early childhood was spent in a loving atmosphere.
The prince began his education in France but, at the age of seven, came to live with his Mountbatten relatives in England, where he attended a prep school in Surrey.
By this time his mother had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and been placed in an asylum. The young prince would have little contact with her.
In 1933, he was sent to Schule Schloss Salem in southern Germany, which was run by educational pioneer Kurt Hahn. But within months, Hahn, who was Jewish, was forced to flee Nazi persecution.
Hahn moved to Scotland where he founded Gordonstoun school, to which the prince transferred after only two terms in Germany.
Gordonstoun’s Spartan regime, with its emphasis on self-reliance, was the ideal environment for a teenage boy who, separated from his parents, felt very much on his own.
With war looming, Prince Philip decided on a military career. He wanted to join the Royal Air Force but his mother’s family had a seafaring tradition and he became a cadet at the Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth.
While there he was delegated to escort the two young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, while King George VI and Queen Elizabeth toured the college.
According to witnesses, Prince Philip showed off a great deal. But the meeting made a deep impression on the 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth.
Philip quickly proved himself an outstanding prospect, passing out at the top of his class in January 1940 and seeing military action for the first time in the Indian Ocean.
He transferred to the battleship HMS Valiant in the Mediterranean Fleet, where he was mentioned in dispatches for his part in the Battle of Cape Matapan in 1941.
As the officer in charge of the ship’s searchlights, he played a crucial role in this decisive night action.
“I found another ship and it lit up the middle part of it, whereupon it practically disappeared instantly under a salvo of 15in shells at point-blank range,” he told BBC Radio 4 in 2014.
By October 1942, he was one of the youngest first lieutenants in the Royal Navy, serving on board the destroyer HMS Wallace.
Throughout this period, he and the young Princess Elizabeth had been exchanging letters, and he was invited to stay with the Royal Family on a number of occasions.
It was after one of these visits, over Christmas 1943, that Elizabeth placed a photograph of Philip, in naval uniform, on her dressing table.
Their relationship developed in peacetime, although there was opposition to it from some courtiers – one of whom described Prince Philip as “rough and ill-mannered”.
But the young princess was very much in love and, in the summer of 1946, her suitor asked the King for his daughter’s hand in marriage.
However, before an engagement could be announced, the prince needed a new nationality and a family name. He renounced his Greek title, became a British citizen and took his mother’s anglicised name, Mountbatten.
The day before the marriage ceremony, King George VI bestowed the title of His Royal Highness on Philip and on the morning of the wedding day he was created Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth and Baron Greenwich.
The wedding took place in Westminster Abbey on 20 November 1947. It was, as Winston Churchill put it, a “flash of colour” in a grey post-war Britain.
The duke returned to his naval career and was posted to Malta where, for a while at least, the couple could live the life of any other service family.
Their son, Prince Charles, was born at Buckingham Palace in 1948, and a daughter, Princess Anne, arrived in 1950. They were later joined by Prince Andrew (1960) and Prince Edward (1964).
On 2 September 1950, he achieved the ambition of every naval officer when he was appointed to his own command, the sloop HMS Magpie.
But his naval career was about to be curtailed. The worsening health of George VI meant his daughter had to take on more royal duties and needed her husband by her side.
Philip took leave from the Royal Navy in July 1951. He never returned in an active role.
The duke was not a man to carry regrets, but he did say in later life that he was sorry he had been unable to continue his career in the navy.
Contemporaries have said that he could, on his own merit, have risen to become first sea lord.
In 1952, the royal couple set off on a tour of the Commonwealth originally planned to be undertaken by the King and Queen.
It was while they were staying at a game lodge in Kenya in February that word came through the King had died. He had suffered a coronary thrombosis – a fatal heart blood clot.
It fell to the prince to break the news to his wife that she was now Queen.
A friend later described Prince Philip as looking as if “half the world” had dropped on him.
Deprived of his naval career, he had to create a new role for himself, and Elizabeth’s accession to the throne raised the whole question of what that was to be.
As the coronation approached, a Royal Warrant proclaimed that Prince Philip would have precedence after the Queen on all occasions, yet he was never to have any constitutional position.
The duke was full of ideas about how best to modernise and streamline the monarchy but became increasingly disillusioned by the entrenched opposition from a number of the palace old guard.
He channelled some of his energies into an active social life. He and a group of male friends met every week in rooms above a restaurant in Soho, central London.
There were long, convivial lunches and visits to nightclubs and he was often photographed with glamorous companions.
One area in which the duke was given free rein to exercise his authority was in the family, although he lost the battle over the name his children would carry.
The Queen’s decision that the family would carry the name of Windsor, rather than his own family name of Mountbatten, was a bitter blow.
“I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his children,” he complained to friends. “I’m nothing but a bloody amoeba.”
As a parent, Prince Philip could appear brusque and insensitive.
According to Prince Charles’s biographer, Jonathan Dimbleby, Charles was reduced to tears in his youth by public reprimands from his father and the relationship between father and eldest son was never easy.
Strength of character
Philip insisted that Prince Charles go to his old school, Gordonstoun, in the well-intentioned belief that its regime would help counter his son’s somewhat retiring nature.
In the event the young prince hated the school, where he suffered homesickness and was often the target of bullies.
The duke’s attitudes reflected the difficult nature of his own, sometimes lonely, childhood.
He was forced from an early age to develop self-reliance and found it difficult to understand that not everyone shared his strength of character.
One of Prince Philip’s main concerns was for the welfare of young people, and in 1956 that interest sparked the launch of his phenomenally successful Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.
Over the years it enabled some six million able-bodied and disabled 15 to 25-year-olds the world over to challenge themselves physically, mentally and emotionally in a range of outdoor activities designed to promote teamwork, resourcefulness and a respect for nature.
“If you can get young people to succeed in any area of activity,” he told the BBC, “that sensation of success will spread over into a lot of others.”
Throughout his life the duke continued to devote much time to the scheme, attending various functions and involving himself in its day-to-day running.
He was also a passionate advocate for wildlife and the environment, although his decision to shoot a tiger while on a trip to India in 1961 caused a furore.
The publication of a photograph, in which the tiger was displayed as a trophy, only made matters worse.
However, he threw his considerable influence and energy behind the World Wildlife Fund, later to become the World Wide Fund for Nature, and seemed a natural choice as its first president.
“I think it’s marvellous we have such a fantastic variety of life on this planet, all interdependent,” he told a BBC interviewer.
“I think also that if we humans have the power of life or death – or extinction or survival – we ought to exercise it with some sort of moral sense. Why make something extinct if you don’t have to?”
He upset some conservationists when he defended grouse shooting.
“If you have a game species, you want it to survive because you want to have some next year – exactly like a farmer. You want to crop it, you don’t want to exterminate it.”
But he was widely praised for his commitment to preserving the world’s forests and campaigning against overfishing in the oceans.
Prince Philip also took a keen interest in industry, visiting factories and becoming patron of the Industrial Society, now known as the Work Foundation.
It was to a group of industrialists in 1961 that the duke displayed characteristic bluntness when he told them: “Gentlemen, it’s time we pulled our fingers out.”
This tendency to be forthright was interpreted by some as boorishness and sometimes got him into trouble. He certainly gained a reputation for misjudging situations, particularly when he was abroad.
He made one of his most controversial comments while accompanying the Queen on a state visit to China in 1986. He made what he thought was a private remark about “slitty eyes”.
The tabloids went into a frenzy, although it seemed to cause little concern in China.
On a visit to Australia in 2002, he asked an Aboriginal businessman whether “you still throw spears at each other”.
While he was heavily criticised in some quarters for such remarks, others saw them as reflecting someone who was his own man and who had refused to become bound by political correctness.
Indeed, many saw his so-called “gaffes” as nothing more than an attempt to lighten the atmosphere and put people at their ease.
Throughout his life, Prince Philip maintained an enthusiasm for sport. He sailed, played cricket and polo, excelled at carriage driving and was president of the International Equestrian Federation for many years.
The tensions with his eldest son resurfaced with the publication of Jonathan Dimbleby’s biography of Prince Charles.
The Duke of Edinburgh, it was said, had pushed Charles into his marriage to Lady Diana Spencer.
Yet the duke was more solicitous than many critics would allow during the difficult years when his children’s marriages were disintegrating.
He took the lead in attempting to understand the problems, prompted perhaps by his own memories of the difficulties of marrying into the Royal Family.
Prince Philip was greatly saddened by the ending of the marriages of three of his four children – Princess Anne and Prince Andrew, as well as Prince Charles.
But he always refused to talk about personal matters, telling a newspaper in 1994 that he had not done so before and was not going to start then.
Advancing years barely slowed the pace of his life. He continued to travel extensively, both for the World Wide Fund for Nature and with the Queen on state visits abroad.
And he made a personal pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1994 to visit the tomb of his mother. Her wish to be buried there had been fulfilled.
There was another poignant moment for him during the 50th anniversary of VJ Day in 1995.
Prince Philip had been on a British destroyer in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered and, on the anniversary, he joined other veterans of the Far East campaign in marching past the Queen on The Mall.
He also expressed sympathy for those former prisoners of the Japanese who had found it hard, or indeed impossible, to forgive what had been done to them.
His brusqueness mellowed a little in later years, prompted by the public’s sometimes hostile attitude to the Royal Family after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
In 2007, letters between the duke and the princess were published in an attempt to refute claims that he had been hostile to his daughter-in-law.
Dubbed the Dearest Pa letters, they showed he had been a source of great support to Diana, a fact underlined by the warm tones in which she wrote to him.
Mohamed Al Fayed, the father of Diana’s last companion, Dodi, even suggested at the inquest into her death that she had been murdered on Prince Philip’s orders – an allegation the coroner strongly rejected.
Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was a strong-willed and independent man who found himself at the centre of British society.
He was a natural leader whose role forced him always to take second place; a man with a combative temperament that frequently sat uneasily with the sensitivities of his position.
“I’ve just done what I think was my best,” he once told the BBC. “I can’t suddenly change my whole way of doing things, I can’t change my interests or the way I react to things. That’s just my style.”
Retirement from public life
The duke retired from public life in August 2017 after decades supporting the Queen and attending events for his own charities and organisations.
Buckingham Palace calculated he had completed 22,219 solo engagements since 1952, and Theresa May, the then prime minister, thanked him for a “remarkable life of public service”.
Philip celebrated his 70th wedding anniversary later that year.
A hip replacement operation did not stop him driving his carriages around the grounds of Windsor Castle, and he survived a serious car accident while driving near Sandringham in January 2019.
Two women in the other car were injured, and the duke voluntarily surrendered his driver’s licence.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Philip and the Queen moved to Windsor Castle, and were given a vaccine in January 2021.
‘My strength and stay’
Philip was successful in using his position to make a huge contribution to British life and played his part in helping the monarchy come to terms with changing social attitudes over the years.
But his greatest achievement was undoubtedly the constancy and strength of his support for the Queen in the long years of her reign.
He believed his job was, as he told his biographer, “to ensure the Queen can reign”.
At a speech given at a celebration to mark the couple’s golden wedding anniversary, the Queen paid tribute to her husband, the longest-serving royal consort in British history.
“He is someone who doesn’t take easily to compliments, but he has quite simply been my strength and stay all these years. And 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.”
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