Prince Philip: A True Renaissance Man

Many of us should not have been shocked by the death of the Duke of Edinburgh last Friday at the grand age of ninety-nine. Of course, we all knew it was going to happen at some point and his recent hospital stay and heart operation suggested that life was finally catching up with the longest serving consort to a monarch. Yet despite the inevitability of his passing, I am sure I am not alone in feeling shocked that he had died. I think many of us believed that he was some form of super hero and would go on to live for many more years yet. Surely, he would live to witness his one hundredth birthday?

Since the Duke’s death, there has been an immense outpouring of tributes to the man who in many ways modernised the monarchy. There have been thousands of messages worldwide from those whose lives he touched in some way. A recent YouGov poll discovered that over a fifth of the population of the United Kingdom have met or seen him at some point. He carried out over twenty thousand solo engagements; he was a patron of over eight hundred charities; over six million young people throughout the world have taken part in the young people’s award scheme which bears his name; in the distant island of Tanna, Prince Philip was even worshipped as a god. He filled not just every day of his life but every hour, minute and even second. His was certainly a life dedicated to public duty and service. He stood at the side of the Queen as her consort for nearly seventy years. Whether you support the idea of a monarchy or not, I am certain that even a die-hard republican will admit that Prince Philip was one of the most remarkable and inspiring public figures this country has ever known.

Unlike many members of the Royal Family, Prince Philip was not born into a carefree and privileged life. He was the only boy in a family of five children with his four sisters all being much older than him. His family were living at a villa in Corfu known as Mon Repos, when his mother gave birth to him on the dining room table on the 10th of June 1921. Philip was a member of the Greek and Danish royal families with his great-grandfather being Christian of Denmark. When the Greeks won independence from the Ottoman Empire, Prince Philip’s grandfather came from Denmark to become George I of Greece. Philip’s father Andrew was the fourth son of George I of Greece and married the great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, Princess Alice of Battenburg.  Philip’s family were exiled from Greece when he was a mere eighteen months old. Therefore, the family had to rely on the kindness of their relatives in taking them in.  They settled in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Cloud lent to them by a wealthy aunt and Philip was sent to an American school there.

Philip’s childhood was somewhat nomadic. He came over to England to stay with his maternal grandparents and attend Cheam school. When his mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia and placed in an asylum in Switzerland, Philip’s father went to live in Monte Carlo with his mistress. Philip had little contact with his mother for the rest of his childhood. He attended Gordonstoun in Scotland, which was to impact considerably on his view of education. Kurt Hahn had founded the school and believed in a progressive form of education training the mind and body with a belief in the importance of outdoor pursuits, sport, and public service.

Philip’s uncle, Louis Mountbatten, known in the family as Dickie, steered Philip into joining the Royal Navy and thus he began his naval career at Dartmouth in 1939 aged just eighteen. In July 1939 on a visit to the Naval College by the then King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth, Philip was tasked with entertaining their two young daughters, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. Princess Elizabeth was a mere thirteen years old but according to the girls’ nanny, Marion Crawford, “Lilibet never took her eyes off him the entire time.” It was little wonder. Philip looked like a Viking with his blonde good looks and piercing blue eyes. After this initial meeting, Elizabeth and Philip began to write to each other but it was to be a considerable time before they saw each other again.

Philip’s Uncle Dickie encouraged Philip to pursue the courtship of Elizabeth and thus in 1946 Philip proposed to Elizabeth and they informed her parents, the King and Queen, of their intention to marry. Elizabeth’s mother, Queen Elizabeth was somewhat wary of Philip and would have preferred her daughter to marry someone of a similar background to herself in the aristocracy. There was a slight concern that Philip’s uncle Dickie might try and influence the monarchy with his nephew married to the future queen. However, Princess Elizabeth was determined to marry the handsome Philip and so the King agreed on the proviso that the couple would wait until Elizabeth was 21. The engagement was officially announced on the 9th of July 1947 with a wedding planned at Westminster Abbey on the 20th of November 1947. Philip relinquished his Greek and Danish titles and converted to the Church of England. He became a British citizen and took the surname Mountbatten from his maternal relations. On the morning of the wedding, the King conferred upon Philip the titles of Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth and Baron Greenwich of Greenwich in the County of London. The wedding was broadcast on the radio to a worldwide audience of some two hundred million. After a honeymoon at Broadlands – the family home of the Mountbattens, the couple set up home at Clarence House and their first two children, Charles and Anne were born in 1948 and 1950.

Philip continued his successful career in the Navy. He was posted to Malta, where the couple were able to live a relatively normal life. Philip was considered to be a brilliant naval officer and he was eventually promoted to Lieutenant Commander and given command of HMS Magpie. He would probably have continued to rise through the Navy had it not been for the premature death of his father-in-law, King George VI in 1952, meaning that Elizabeth was now Queen. Philip had no choice but to relinquish his naval career and support his wife. Inevitably there were discussions concerning the surname of this Royal House. Apparently, Louis Mountbatten had given a dinner party in which he had toasted to the new Royal House of Mountbatten. It was said that Queen Mary learned of this and was so incensed by the suggestion that she spoke to the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who advised the Queen to retain Windsor. This clearly riled the Prince and he privately grumbled that, “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.” The Queen rectified the situation in 1960 just before her third child Prince Andrew was born, issuing an order in Council that Mountbatten-Windsor would be the surname of her and Philip’s male-line descendants who did not possess the HRH style or the title of Prince or Princess.

Early in her reign, the Queen, with Philip at her side, undertook an arduous seven month tour of thirteen countries of which she was Head of State. For Australia and New Zealand, this was the first time the countries had been visited by a reining monarch. Something like three quarters of the population of Australia turned out to see the beautiful young Queen and her dashing consort. Throughout the Queen’s nearly seventy-year-reign, Philip has been constantly at her side, often walking two steps behind, whether supporting her on vital Commonwealth tours or visiting a factory in some little-known area of the UK.  From the outset Philip was never given a job description of what a consort should do and thus over the following decades he carved out the role for himself. There are many similarities between Philip and Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert. With their shared interests in a wide range of fields, and their desire to modernise, both men could be considered to be polymaths.

One of Philip’s first projects was the design and layout of HMY Britannia. A vessel designed to take the monarch on her tours of the Commonwealth. Philip then took the ship to some of the most remote parts of the Commonwealth without the Queen. This tour awakened within him a fascination for other cultures, science, and nature. When Philip returned from his travels, he was eager to share his knowledge. Philip was one of the first people to understand the power of the new medium of television since he had already pushed for the Coronation ceremony to be filmed in 1953. The significance of the filming of the Coronation can never be underestimated. It meant that the population could finally see the Queen and the Royal Family instead of only knowing them as sombre figures depicted in stilted photographs on a wall. Few are aware that Philip produced some educational programmes for children providing for the first time detailed knowledge of other Commonwealth countries and their cultures and religions. Philip was not only interested in culture, but he was fascinated by science and technology, keeping pace at all times with scientific and technological advances. In 1957, he produced a science documentary, The Restless Sphere concerning the International Geophysical Year which ran from July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958. During this year, the USSR launched Sputnik 1 and the USA set up NASA. Philip also championed environmental causes and he was the first UK President of the World Wildlife Fund.

It might seem remarkable to us now but in his day, Philip was considered a moderniser because he wanted to encourage new thinking in the monarchy. In 1961 he was the first royal to give a television interview. He also gave press conferences where he agreed to answer direct questions. In 1969, he allowed television cameras to film a documentary of the Royal Family, which was seen by over 350 million people throughout the globe. This was the first time that people could see exactly how the Royal Family lived, as well as how they worked and carried out their duty. Although many later believed that the documentary was not wholly productive and did much to demystify the mystique of the monarchy, it is a fascinating programme even over fifty years later.

As a keen sportsman, Philip also helped to develop the equestrian event of carriage driving. Perhaps his most significant achievement would be the founding of the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme in 1956 in order to give young people “a sense of responsibility to themselves and their communities.” He has also established the Commonwealth Study Conference, an opportunity for people from all over the Commonwealth and all walks of life to leave their usual roles and, with a diverse group of people, examine the relationship between industry and the community around it.

Of course, there is yet another side to Philip to be considered and that is his roles as husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. It is said that the Queen has always permitted him to be the head of the family and as such his children and grand-children in paying tribute to him have all mentioned that he was an exceptional listener, being able to advise any member of his family. Perhaps in summing up his public life, we should look to the words of his greatest advocate, his wife of over seventy-three years, HM The Queen, who when speaking on the occasion of her fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1999 stated that

‘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.’

H. R. H. The Duke of Edinburgh (1921 - )

PRINCESS MARY

THE FIRST MODERN PRINCESS

BY ELISABETH BASFORD

IS AVAILABLE HERE

'Princess Mary: The First Modern Princess' by Elisabeth Basford review |  Tatler

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