Prince Philip: Why so much of what you think you know about the Duke of Edinburgh is wrong

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Looked at from the outside, the Duke of Edinburgh was a kind of living model of the British establishment – ever-present at all those State ceremonial occasions, Trooping the Colour, openings of Parliament. 

Lean, imperious, with an eagle’s stare and a hawk nose, dressed in the bearskin and scarlet of colonel of the Grenadier Guards, or the gold and dark navy of Lord High Admiral; and caught when in mufti, perhaps carriage-driving, in tweeds and bowler, even a top hat.

Standing more or less to attention at the Queen’s side across nine decades, rigid with duty, terse with words, with the grimace of a man unlikely to suffer fools gladly, Prince Philip looked the part of the insider’s insider.

This, no doubt, is how millions of people will remember him. And yet it completely, utterly misunderstands him. It fails to get anywhere near the unusual, shy, self-critical, and sometimes radical figure that he was. The Duke of Edinburgh was always an outsider. All the uniforms, medals, awards, titles and adulation never really hid this truth.

Looked at from the outside, the Duke of Edinburgh was a kind of living model of the British establishment – ever-present at all those State ceremonial occasions, Trooping the Colour, openings of Parliament. (Pictured: On duty during a 1984 tour of Canada)

He came from a class and a generation which didn’t believe in emotional exhibitionism. He rarely complained – or, as he would put it ‘belly-ached’. But he had a woeful, desperately, lonely and destabilising upbringing, and suffered many frustrations in his adult life.

He was born on Corfu because, in a classic 19th Century royal stitch-up, his grandfather, a Danish prince, had been chosen as the new king of Greece. 

But instability haunted the young Philip from his first weeks: after a disastrous war against Turkey, there was a coup in Greece and the baby’s father, Prince Andrew, an army officer, was arrested by the vengeful junta that took over the country.

Had King George V not intervened, Philip’s father might have been executed by firing squad. Plenty of his friends and colleagues were. As it was, he, his four sisters and his parents were able to escape in a British destroyer.

Baby Philip was, according to royal legend, carried aboard in an old orange crate.

George V’s intervention was not surprising: Philip’s mother, Princess Alice, had been born at Windsor Castle and he was related to the British Royal Family through multiple cousinly connections. But, after settling near Paris, this royalty-for-hire family began to break up.

Alice, suffering from a form of religious mania, ended up in a Swiss clinic before becoming a devout nun in the Greek Orthodox Church. Philip’s father, rather less devout, headed to the Riviera where he settled down with a mistress and led a casino life. Eventually the four sisters married German princes.

Nobody, it seemed, was much around to look after young Philip. Sent to school, first in Germany just as the Nazis were taking power, he was then dispatched to Britain under the nominal care of his uncles, the Marquess of Milford Haven and Lord Mountbatten. In fact, apart from holiday breaks, he barely saw them. 

As an eager, and brilliant, young recruit to the Royal Navy,Philip served bravely, was decorated and promoted, and ended that war having risen from midshipman to a naval officer who colleagues thought might have made it all the way to Admiral (Pictured in 1946)

He spent his time at the newly-founded Gordonstoun School in Scotland, under the watchful eye of the man who was probably his major male influence, the Jewish-German educationist Kurt Hahn. 

Gordonstoun was a very tough, somewhat puritanical school and Hahn, who had been a significant diplomatic figure in the Kaiser’s Germany before having to flee Hitler, had a bleak view of the modern world. To combat moral decay, Hahn wanted a cadre of no-nonsense, unsentimental, tough young men (women were not involved). Philip was one.

Indeed, much in the adult Duke of Edinburgh, with his distaste for the mealy-mouthed and the sloppy, can be traced back to Gordonstoun and Kurt Hahn. This was certainly the origin of his most famous achievement as Consort, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme.

By this stage in his life, the young Philip might have seemed a most unpromising recruit for the British establishment. He might be bluff and anti-blubbing but he carried deep emotional scars from family and abandonment, and had been encouraged to take a pessimistic view of modern times.

What helped was the coming of the Second World War. As an eager, and brilliant, young recruit to the Royal Navy, Philip served bravely, was decorated and promoted, and ended that war having risen from midshipman to a naval officer who colleagues thought might have made it all the way to Admiral. By that time, he had first glimpsed the Queen as a young girl – she had been just 13 when they first met – and then begun to court her.

By now, many of his lifetime traits were visible – a bounding, irrepressible energy, a combative outspokenness in speech and a gleeful relish in upending conventions and shocking the pompous. 

He could certainly be a disconcerting figure. I remember trying to make small-talk with him about Charles Darwin, and saying that I thought he was the most important Briton of the Victorian period. He gave me a long glance – but ‘glance’ is the wrong word: it felt more like being thoroughly scoured with bleach. ‘I intensely dislike generalisations,’ he said, before turning on his heel.

Yet his conversational pepperiness, which caused him so many rows with the press, and spread so much offence, at least to journalists, derived not just from an impish sense of humour but from a deep sense of impatience. The Duke hated sloppiness, fudging, evasion. Time was always short. So much needed doing: get on with it.

Those who knew him well thought that he was always much harder on himself than anyone else. In 1960, he famously coined the word ‘dontopedalogy’, which he defined as ‘the science of opening your mouth and putting your foot in it, a science which I have practised for a good many years’.

The frustration came from the fact that, with the clear sight of an outsider, he was strongly critical of the British Establishment, and British business and industry more generally. After he married the Queen in 1947, he had to cope with an immense amount of snobbery and sneering from courtiers and senior politicians, who delighted in mocking him as ‘the German’.

After he married the Queen in 1947, he had to cope with an immense amount of snobbery and sneering from courtiers and senior politicians, who delighted in mocking him as ‘the German’. Pictured: Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh in a wedding photograph in 1947

When he first wore the kilt, he curtsied to the King. In footage from the Coronation, he organises and bosses around assorted nobility and crowned heads for the photographers, as if they were dim sheep. He certainly knew Germany better than they did: three of his four sisters had married Germans who served Hitler in the war – one of them rising to become an SS colonel, working with Himmler. Such in-laws were excluded from his wedding.

As a boy, he had been sent to school at Schloss Salem, just as the Hitler Youth (whom he mocked) were taking over the place. His brave and dedicated service in the British Navy never counted much among civilian snobs, compared with those German connections.

His chosen family name, Mountbatten, was a clumsy anglicisation of Battenberg and helped persuade the then Tory Cabinet that it must not become the surname of the dynasty, which would remain Windsor.

Philip was bitterly hurt by this and some of his grandchildren have responded by hyphenating the name. Archie, for example, son of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, has been christened with the surname Mountbatten-Windsor.

In fact, Philip always thought of himself as fundamentally Scandinavian, in particular Danish – which was, in a family sense, absolutely true. The Duke was, among other things, the Queen’s Viking.

For the Queen and Philip it seems to have been love almost at first sight, a genuine coup de foudre. They were lucky people. Four children followed quickly.

Nothing made the Duke of Edinburgh angrier than press stories about his alleged affairs. As a young married man, it’s true, he was immensely attractive and found the stifling conventions of London Court life intolerable. He hung around a racy, hard-drinking, dirty-story-telling set. But he was also attended everywhere by a private detective and none of this makes him a philanderer.

Finding solace in his art: He flew aircraft, painted pictures and wrote books. There was far more to Philip than his action-man image – as this picture of him painting in 1969 reveals

No, first and foremost, he was an awkward, probing, sceptical outsider. A practical man, he saw through the self-congratulatory and delusional puffery of much of 1950s British industry. He realised things were going to have to change if Britain, his attractively stable adopted home, was to succeed in the post-war world. So he threw himself into encouraging industrial and commercial modernisation, devouring books on management and touring factories. He was an tenthusiast for innovations such as Sir Christopher Cockerell’s hovercraft – which Philip dented on a sea trial, characteristically, by taking it across the waves too fast.

And he caused a satisfactory quantity of offence in 1961 by telling captains of industry: ‘Gentlemen, I think it is time to pull your fingers out.’ They regarded this as another ‘gaffe’ and didn’t listen to him properly.

After the family disasters of his early life, the really big blow as he settled into the role of Consort was that he never had any mechanism or system to make proper use of his energy and intellect. Where he did find a role, he quickly made a difference – in shaking up the running of Buckingham Palace, or greatly raising the profile of the World Wide Fund for Nature.

But he could easily have been a dynamic source of modernisation and chivvying at the heart of the British state.

He certainly had the ideas – new ways to engage British youth; new enthusiasms about everything from energy efficiency to environmentalism; a restlessly curious mind, well-read and forceful in expression. He chaired committees. He made speeches. He flew aircraft, painted pictures and wrote books. But he never had his hands on the levers of real power.

He mourned the useful and exciting naval career that was cut off, brutally, when he married Princess Elizabeth. He could seem like a caged wild creature, prowling palaces, snarling at gawpers and rattling his gilded, wrought-iron bars.

No one could ever fault his duty. The patron of innumerable charities, a tireless fundraiser for good causes and almost always at the Queen’s side during interminable global tours and local visits, he always got on with it and did his bit. But monarchy is not a constitutional system which wants, or expects, practical work from its emblematic figures, and the Duke of Edinburgh found it hard to reconcile himself to this truth.

The bigger charge against him was that he turned out to be a poor father. Given his own childhood, this would have been unsurprising. From Gordonstoun to the Navy, he had grown up in a ferociously male world. If he wasn’t an empathetic, emotionally open modern man, that’s hardly a shock. It is often said that his son Charles was a disappointment and that Philip was, in turn, a disappointment to Charles.

Although the two of them were profoundly different in temperament, they always shared more than much of the outside world understood. Charles drew his spiritual interests in part from his father and the same is true about his passionate interest in nature, farming and environmentalism.

No one could ever fault his duty. The bigger charge against him was that he turned out to be a poor father. Given his own childhood, this would have been unsurprising. (Picture taken in 1968 at Windsor Castle)

Both men sought solace in painting, with both rather better than adequate with their brushes. The Duke of Edinburgh was said to have found his son’s adultery hurtful and incomprehensible, but the Windsors are hardly the first family to have struggled with different sexual mores during the second half of the 20th Century.

Those who know best, his children and grandchildren, talk of a wise, engaged and listening man. And the Duke got on very well with the younger children. There is plenty of unaffected, impossible-to-stage film footage of horseplay to prove it.

Much later on, when Charles’s marriage to Diana broke down, he wrote the Princess letters he meant as kind, loving and helpful advice. In the depths of her misery, she didn’t agree – but again, that was hardly his fault. After her death, he worked hard to support William and Harry and maintained a warm relationship. Many men would be quietly proud of such a record.

What is undoubtedly true is that he was a man of his time. He was sensitive and, friends said, shy. He thought deeply about some of the biggest modern problems, such as the effect of the human population on the planet, and he had any eager amateur’s interest in science. But he presented a bluff and often forbidding exterior to the world. He was deeply interested in religion. He read philosophy, and poetry but he spoke as if he didn’t. In many ways, he did represent the Britain of the beginning of the Queen’s reign – a much more military society, hierarchical, terse, buttoned-up, inclined to see the rest of the world’s human families in crudely stereotyped terms.

Like many of that generation, he probably found younger Britons incomprehensibly scruffy, tattooed, overweight and self-pitying. As the British changed so, a bit, did the Duke. He was an early thinker about environmental protection, pollution and the destruction of wild spaces. If he was never the dangerous socialist radical, he never lost his belief that most things, most of the time, deserved to be challenged and shaken up.

One of the Queen’s great achievements is that throughout her long reign, she kept her personal opinions so effectively hidden. She understood that she was an emblem – a symbol of the nation – and symbols shouldn’t speak.

Her consort and supporter for so many decades no doubt understood this as well; she couldn’t have been such an effective monarch without him. But unlike her, he never found it easy.

His death will leave her bereft. But isn’t it extraordinary that such a lonely boy, whose own family was so shattered, goes to his grave as the patriarch of such a huge, basically happy and varied family?

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