The Duke of Edinburgh, 1921-2021: Renaissance Man, Family Man and tireless pillar for Queen and country

As the world pays its final respects to the Duke of Edinburgh, royal biographer Hugo Vickers looks at the man and his incomparable contribution to the nation.

It is likely that only now will Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, begin to be fully appreciated for the contribution that he made to the life of Great Britain. In his later years, it became amusing for the press to paint him as a caricature: a peppery, rather inconsiderate man, forever putting his foot in it. One journalist followed him on an African trip and confided to The Duke’s detective that, for him, it had been a wasted journey as no gaffe had been made.

This trivialisation of so much of what The Duke did was tiresome for him, although he pressed on regardless, with a clear vision of what he aimed to do and the drive to follow it through until the goal was achieved.

Prince Philip’s life was nothing if not an unusual one, particularly as seen by a generation growing up in the new millennium, when most of the restrictions that circumscribed his youth have been laid aside.

The son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark, he was born a Greek prince with no Greek blood, on June 10, 1921, at Mon Repos, a villa in Corfu, overlooking the Ionian Sea. His father didn’t set eyes on him for several months, as he was away with his regiment, serving in the ill-fated Asia Minor campaign, at the end of which, in 1922, he was tried and nearly executed.

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Philip’s mother was Princess Alice of Battenberg, a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria. He was very much the youngest of the family, the long-awaited boy after four girls born between 1905 and 1914.

“Prince Philip looked forward to a long career in the Royal Navy and he would have gone to the top of his profession… However, there were other plans for him”

Following Prince Andrew’s trial, the family was spirited out of Greece in a British warship and thus Prince Philip was raised in Paris, before going to Cheam, a preparatory school in England. He then went to Salem and finally to Kurt Hahn’s fiercely outward-bound school, Gordonstoun, in Scotland, before entering the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. Prince Philip’s early life was far from easy. As was normal in extended families at that time, he seldom spent holidays with his parents, but was farmed out to other families, where it was thought he’d have fun with children of his own age.

Prince Phillip of Greece, later the Duke of Edinburgh, wearing traditional Greek dress, aged 9. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Although this might have been tempered by parental influence in the home, his father was, in the 1920s, a man somewhat broken by his experiences in Greece. And his mother suffered a severe religious crisis in 1929, when Prince Philip was only eight. Suddenly, she left for a clinic in Switzerland, to which he was rarely taken. After her release, she disappeared into Germany and so began the first of two periods of five years during which he had no contact with her at all.

Prince Philip was fiercely loyal to the memory of his father, but it can hardly be claimed that his father did his bit by his boy. When Princess Alice went to the clinic, he closed down the family home in Paris and began a nomadic life between the French capital, the South of France, Germany and, occasionally, London. Prince Philip thus had no home from the age of eight until he married. This crisis he weathered, with many relations taking him in and with the guiding hand of his grandmother (the Dowager Marchioness of Milford Haven) in the background, who brought him up more as a son than a grandson, a fact more than appreciated by Princess Alice in later life.

Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten takes a turn at bowling whilst off duty at the Petty Officers’ Training Centre in Corsham, Wiltshire, 1st August 1947. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Prince Philip’s identity was further complicated by his being a Prince of Greece, and when his cousin, Prince Peter, made an unsuitable marriage to a Russian lady in 1939, there was a brief period when he was warned that he might one day be King of Greece. Fortunately, in 1940, Crown Princess Frederika gave birth to a son, Constantine, and he was spared that fate.

When war broke out, Prince Philip was on a visit to Athens from Dartmouth. His mother and grandmother felt that the British Royal Navy was no place for a foreign prince and thought he should spend time in Greece. However, George II of Greece intervened and sent him back to England.

Prince Philip served with distinction with the Mediterranean Fleet and also with the British Pacific Fleet, being mentioned in despatches following the Battle of Cape Matapan in February 1942.

Prince Philip looked forward to a long career in the Royal Navy and the general impression was that, on his own merits, he would have gone to the top of his profession, as did his grandfather Prince Louis of Battenberg and his uncle Earl Mountbatten of Burma before him.

However, there were other plans for him. In 1947, he married Princess Elizabeth and thus he realised that the day would come when he would be needed to serve as consort to a reigning monarch.

Country Life’s report on the royal wedding.

Within a mere five years, in 1952, Elizabeth’s father, George VI, fell ill and died. Prince Philip was then only 30 and had given up an active naval career the previous year.

From 1952 until the end of his life, Prince Philip was always on hand to assist The Queen. She undertook no foreign tour or state visit without him and there were a great number of joint engagements in England. He never failed to support her.

“His library contained more books on birds and on religion than on any other topics”

Having been thwarted in his naval career, he wasted no time in using his new position to promote other interests. Early in the new reign, he organised The Duke of Edinburgh’s Study Conference at Oxford in 1956. This sought to address the human problems of industrial communities within the Commonwealth and what was left of the Empire.

Three hundred participants came from every part of the globe. Prince Philip conceived the idea from the visits he had paid to different industries when accompanying The Queen to Canada, on the Coronation tour of the Commonwealth and Nigeria. He soon concluded that each workplace was much the same, but the communities that ran them were very different. The aim of the conference was to identify the important things that affected the individual in a world of fast-moving industrial change.

In the same year, he founded The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme, to encourage youngsters in outward-bound activities.

Prince Philip at helm of his yawl, ‘Bloodhound’, during Cowes Regatta. (Photo by George Silk/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

He also became interested in conservation and ecology. His two main passions were birdwatching and the quest for religious knowledge and his library contained more books on birds and on religion than on any other topics. He had been fostered in this by Robin Woods, Dean of Windsor between 1962 and 1970. Woods was credited with having brought two opposing poles together: Prince Philip and the Church of England.

From this grew St George’s House, opened by The Queen in 1966, where Prince Philip often attended conferences and chaired the annual St George’s House Lecture inside St George’s Chapel. He explored a number of issues in A Question of Balance (1982), stressing the importance of the individual and commenting: ‘The more people were educated the less common sense they seemed to have.’ He urged that prisoners be given dual sentences, a relatively short spell of punishment, followed by a different period of rehabilitation and training.

Michael Mann, Dean of Windsor between 1976 and 1989, has written of Prince Philip’s ‘questioning mind and deep concern about scientific and religious issues’. The Duke himself talked of his ‘need to reconcile science and theology’.

“He had an enormous capacity for work, tackled his tasks promptly and efficiently and thought nothing of returning after an evening engagement to answer the numerous queries”

Prince Philip painted with a certain charm, often rising early to record a scene on his travels. He made a study of The Queen reading the paper at breakfast at Windsor Castle.

He was a keen photographer, too, producing a book called Birds from Britannia (1962), which contained 80 ornithological images taken on his 1956 and 1959 world tours, enlivened by his own informed commentary.

The Duke was also a keen art collector. He commissioned Feliks Topolski to record the Coronation and owned a study of an open day at Topolski’s studio, in which Prince Philip is depicted in the unlikely company of the famous Indian dancer Ram Gopal. His extensive travels in the Antipodes drew him to Australian artists, such as Sidney Nolan and Donald Friend. He was inspired to collect independently of the works of art officially presented to The Queen and him: as he explained to Michael Hall in a 1994 interview for Country Life, ‘a very small proportion of what we’re given is hangable’.

The Duke of Edinburgh at work on one of his hobbies, painting, 19th June 1969. A scene from the television documentary ‘Royal Family’. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

He played polo until arthritis forced him to give up, whereupon he took up carriage driving, competing all over the country and representing Great Britain at six world championships (winning gold in 1980) and three Europeans. He combined an intense interest in the World Wildlife Fund (renamed the Worldwide Fund for Nature and, later, WWF), with an enjoyment of shooting at Sandringham and stalking at Balmoral.

Racing bored him, hunting held no allure. It’s tempting to suggest that music was not his first interest, yet he commissioned a Te Deum from Benjamin Britten for St George’s Chapel.

Nelson Mandela and the Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham Palace. (Photo by PA)

In later life, he relished his word processor, finding that it enabled him to type out his thoughts and instructions at a speed that kept pace with his brain. He had an enormous capacity for work, tackled his tasks promptly and efficiently and thought nothing of returning after an evening engagement to answer the numerous queries put to him.

He was not always easy. When an apology might have smoothed things, it failed to materialise. There were other men to whom the words ‘thank you’ came more readily. This was the legacy from his unsettled early life and was a shield to a surprisingly modest, even shy interior. He could be disarmingly boyish in manner.

“Extracts from thoughtful letters from him to Diana, Princess of Wales, showed him to be a sensitive and caring influence within his family”

Prince Philip was reserved, not given to sharing his feelings, and yet who can forget his reassuring presence, when, straight-backed at the age of 76, he walked with his son and grandsons behind the coffin of Diana, Princess of Wales? In a telling moment, when the cortège passed under the arch at Horse Guards and he thought he was momentarily safe from the cameras, he gave Prince William a pat on the back, bracing him for the remaining walk to the Abbey.

His household always said that he would continue working until he dropped. He very nearly did, only stepping away from public engagements in 2017 and even a broken rib couldn’t keep him away from the wedding of his grandson, Prince Harry, in 2018.

Barack Obama and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh inspect the guards during a Ceremonial Welcome in the gardens of Buckingham Palace on May 24, 2011. (Photo by Samir Hussein/WireImage)

In his last years, the public impression of him changed somewhat, partly when extracts from thoughtful letters from him to Diana, Princess of Wales, trying to hold that marriage together, were released and showed him to be a sensitive and caring influence within his family, not hesitating to tackle difficult problems.

Likewise, as he continued to support The Queen, it was gradually realised that here was a man totally dedicated to the support of Britain. Future consorts will be lucky to have such comfort for as many years.

The Queen remained devoted to him and her words at the Golden Wedding lunch in 1997 still encapsulate his role to perfection: ‘He is someone who doesn’t take 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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