I first saw Prince Philip in ‘real life’ in 1970, during Cowes Week, when my family watched him coming ashore from the Britannia in the royal barge to fly up to London for the Queen Mother’s seventieth birthday celebrations. It seems almost incredible that, forty-two years on, he has, only days ago, been out on the water again in that very same craft. As I write, he is ensconced in the King Edward VII hospital recovering from an infection, but the most recent memory for all of us is of him marking time to the Sailors’ Hornpipe, wearing the full day-dress uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet.
Prince Philip was born on 10th June 1921, on the isle of Corfu, son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and Princess Alice of Battenberg. However, shortly after the Greco-Turkish War (1919-22) his family was exiled and he was initially taken to live in a house in Saint-Cloud, on the outskirts of Paris. Eventually, he moved to England to live with his maternal grandmother, widow of Admiral Prince Louis of Battenberg (who, during WW1, had changed his name to Mountbatten). He was educated at an American school in Paris, Cheam Preparatory School in Berkshire, Schule Schloss Salem (founded by Kurt Hahn) for a short time in 1933 before Kurt Hahn established Gordonstoun School near Elgin in Scotland, to which Prince Philip transferred. Tragedy struck the family with undue frequency in the 1930s – Prince Philip’s mother was consigned to an asylum with schizophrenia; his father went to live in Monaco, so Philip effectively became an orphan. His sister Cecilie, her husband the Grand Duke of Hesse and their children were killed in an air crash in 1937; his uncle, George, Marquis of Milford Haven, (brother of Lord Louis Mountbatten) died in 1938 of cancer. However, with Lord Louis being his guardian, Prince Philip’s choice of career was not a surprise.
For, from that time, things improved, and in 1939, aged 18, Prince Philip joined the Royal Navy and in that year first developed a bond with Princess Elizabeth, who he escorted around the Britannia Royal Naval College during a visit by the King. Soon after this encounter, he and Elizabeth started a correspondence that was to continue throughout the dark days of the war and culminate in their marriage in 1947, when the princess was just 21. Prince Philip, always a lively individual (described as ‘boisterous, but always polite’ by the head of his school in Paris), and a natural sportsman, was to make an ideal naval officer; he passed out of Dartmouth as top cadet in 1940 and served with distinction throughout the war, earning a Mention in Dispatches for his handling of the searchlights during the Battle of Cape Matapan whilst still a midshipman, aboard the battleship HMS Valiant. He achieved top grades in his promotion courses, soon becoming a sub-lieutenant and then lieutenant. When appointed 1st Lieutenant of the destroyer HMS Wallace in 1942, aged 21, he was one of the youngest seconds-in-command in the navy. In 1944 he was transferred to the destroyer HMS Whelp in the British Pacific Fleet, which was moored in Tokyo Bay at the surrender of Japan in 1945.
Prince Philip continued to serve in the Royal Navy after the war, and in 1950 was promoted lieutenant-commander and, shortly before the Accession of Her Majesty the Queen, to commander. He also continued and indeed expanded his sporting interests, becoming a keen polo player, sailor, and (according to my late father) not a bad cricketer (indeed, my father recalled him playing on the beautiful ground at Arundel Castle with the Duke of Norfolk’s XI). The Accession of the Queen inevitably put paid to Prince Philip’s very promising career in the navy, but the commissioning in the mid-fifties of the new Royal Yacht, Britannia, enabled him to keep in close contact with matters nautical, and, indeed, he circled the globe in her, opening the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne and visiting Antarctica. He also developed a keen interest in sailing, resulting in the acquisition of the racing yacht Bloodhound built by Camper & Nicholson’s and of 1936 vintage, in 1962. He entered races frequently in the sixties and seventies during Cowes Week, and passed on his enthusiasm to his children, particularly Prince Charles and Princess Anne, who were with him on the day I saw him in 1970. I remember also his sailing instructor and friend, Uffa Fox, who was famously recorded giving a very ‘Hampshire’ rendering of ‘A Life on the Ocean Wave’.
Riding has always been a passion of the Royal Family, and Prince Philip is no exception. Lord Mountbatten introduced him to polo in the 1940s, and he soon became an accomplished and serious player, his team Windsor Park winning the British Open tournament at Cowdray Park in 1957 and 1966. He continued to play until 1971, by which time Prince Charles had also become an accomplished player and a member of the team. Though he has continued to take an interest in the sport right up to the present day, injury to his wrist meant that after 1971 his equestrian interests, as an active participant, took a different path, and in 1973 he took up competitive carriage driving, and, although he gave up carriage racing as such a few years ago, even last Sunday he was out carriage driving at Windsor in the morning.
Prince Philip is as one would expect a naval officer to be – straightforward, commanding and with antennae for hogwash, which means he is not very tolerant of banality, stupidity or sentimentality. His waspish sense of humour is, of course, world-renowned, his so-called ‘gaffes’ in the annals of royal folklore – only, of course, they were not gaffes at all, but rather good quips and wind-up lines. I like the one he reputedly said to the President of Nigeria: he remarked to the president, who was in full flowing robes, “You look as if you’re ready for bed.” He rarely remarks on political matters, but when he does, he is invariably right. Spot on on the subject of wind-farms, for example, which really are expensive white elephants, and on the late and very much lamented Royal Yacht Britannia, which, as he said, could have continued in service for years, but was axed for purely political reasons.
Prince Philip has always been a popular ladies’ man – certainly, ladies I know who know him think he is attractive, and even today he has not lost his ability to charm. So it is not at all surprising that Princess Elizabeth, when aged thirteen in 1939, thought he was wonderful, In spite of some difficulties, soon resolved, particularly over the matter of the family surname in the 1950s, ever since Prince Philip promised to be the Queen’s ‘liege-man of life and limb’ at the Coronation in 1953, he has been an unstinting and utterly supportive Consort – in fact, the longest-lived male Consort in British history. The Queen has referred to him as a rock she can lean upon, her ever-constant support, and he was indeed very conspicuous by his absence during the third and fourth days of the Jubilee weekend, especially when the Service of Thanksgiving took place.
Because Prince Philip has, in effect, always been around, there has been a tendency to take him for granted, and sometimes the more po-faced, or shall we say, self-righteous, elements of the media have castigated him for remarks which were only ever intended in jest. I think the people of this country have overtaken the media in accepting, and, indeed, admiring Prince Philip’s non-conformity to political correctness, and when, at the weekend, the huge crowd attending the Diamond Jubilee Concert were informed of his consignment to hospital, it was a measure of genuine affection for him that, not only was he cheered to the skies, but the people spontaneously chanted ‘Phi-lip, Phi-lip’.
He is very understated about his achievements, which are many. Apart from his illustrious war service, he founded the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme with Kurt Hahn back in the fifties, which has helped and challenged many thousands of young people, he has been instrumental in the gradual ‘modernisation’ of the monarchy, is patron of many charities and other organisations, Chancellor of Cambridge University from 1976 to 2011, Colonel in Chief or Royal Colonel of many regiments, Captain-General of the Royal Marines, and most recently, Lord High Admiral. He has also been a very active patron of the World Wildlife Fund, founded in 1961. And, still, he carries out a remarkable schedule of engagements.
It remains for us to wish him both a speedy recovery, and a very Happy Birthday.
It remains for us to wish him both a speedy recovery, and a very Happy Birthday.