Although he was born a prince, Philip was seen by some to be “not good enough” to marry the then Princess Elizabeth. Separated from his family for much of his life, and having attended schools in four nations by the time he was 13 years old, Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark made the United Kingdom his home. As the patriarch of the British Royal Family, he did not always find it easy to spend most of his adult life walking behind his wife, but the legacy he created still lives on today.
Prince Philip: A Prince Without a Home
Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was born Prince Philippos Andreou Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg on June 10, 1921, on the dining room table in the family’s villa on the Greek island of Corfu. Philip was the fifth (and final) child and only son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and Princess Alice of Battenburg. Philip was born into the line of succession of both the Greek and Danish royal families. In 1862, Greece overthrew the first king of the independent Greek state and searched for a new one. After Prince Alfred of the United Kingdom was rejected, Prince William of Denmark, the second son of King Christian IX, was unanimously approved by the Greek Parliament in 1863 as the new monarch. Just 17 years old, William adopted the regnal name of King George I of Greece. Prince Philip was George I’s grandson.
In the Greco-Turkish War, the Turks made great gains in 1922, and Philip’s uncle and high commander of the Greek expeditionary force, King Constantine I, was blamed for the defeat and forced to abdicate. Prince Philip’s father was initially arrested, and in December 1922, a revolutionary court banished him from Greece for life. Philip’s family escaped to Paris, where his aunt, Princess George of Greece and Denmark, lived. Legend has it that the infant Philip was carried out of Greece in a cot made from a fruit box.
In addition to Greece and Denmark, Philip also had ties to the United Kingdom. On his mother’s side, he was a great-great-grandson of Queen Victoria (and thus a third cousin to his future wife). He was also the grandson of Prince Louis of Battenberg, who, despite his Austrian birth, enlisted in the British Navy when he was just 14 years old. (Battenberg later anglicized the family name to Mountbatten, which Philip later adopted as his own.) Philip was sent to a traditional preparatory school in Surrey, England, between 1930 and 1933. While there, he was under the care of his Mountbatten relatives.
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Philip’s father, a prince with no country, occupation, or military command, abandoned his family and moved to Monte Carlo. Philip’s mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1930 and sent to an asylum. Over the next three years, all four of his older sisters married German princes and moved to Germany. The young prince without a country to call home also found himself without any immediate family. He was unable to stay in touch with his sisters once the Second World War started.
From Schoolboy to Naval Officer
Philip’s school life started at an American school in Paris, the preparatory school in Surrey, and one year at Schule Schloss Salem near the Bavarian Alps. The founder of Schule Schoss Salem, Kurt Hahn, was Jewish and fled Germany in 1933 because of the Nazi regime. Hahn went on to found Gordonstoun School in Scotland. Philip started to attend Gordonstoun in 1934.
Hahn’s vision of education included a modern education that would develop its students into community leaders along with an extensive outdoor education program. Philip thrived at Gordonstoun and was commended for his leadership skills, athletic prowess, participation in theatrical productions, lively intelligence, and pride in his workmanship. (Philip’s son Charles famously loathed his time at Gordonstoun, once referring to the school as “Colditz with kilts.”)
In 1939, Philip left Gordonstoun and entered the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, England when he was 18. After completing a term, he briefly saw his mother for a month in Athens but returned to the Naval College to continue his training in September. He graduated the following year as the best cadet in his course. In 1940, Philip started his military career in the Royal Navy as a midshipman stationed on a battleship in the Indian Ocean.
He was transferred to Europe and had a successful military career. Promoted to first lieutenant at just 21, he later saw service with the British Pacific Fleet and was present in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrender was signed in 1945. He was also awarded Greece’s War Cross of Valour. In 1946, Philip was made an instructor at an officers’ school in England.
The Prince Meets the Princess
Prince Philip first briefly met the future Queen Elizabeth in 1934 at the wedding of his cousin, a princess of Greece, to Elizabeth’s uncle, the Duke of Kent. Elizabeth didn’t seem to remember this meeting (she was only eight years old). However, five years later, and now first in line to the British throne, Elizabeth and her younger sister Margaret accompanied their parents on a visit to the Dartmouth Naval College in July 1939. As an 18-year-old cadet, Philip was tasked with entertaining the young princesses while their parents were elsewhere at the college. The following day, Philip joined the royal party for tea. The princesses’ governess wrote that 13-year-old Elizabeth’s eyes “followed him everywhere.”
During the Second World War, Philip and Elizabeth stayed in touch. She kept a photograph of him in her bedroom, and they exchanged letters. When Philip was on leave, he was occasionally invited to Windsor Castle by the British Royal Family. Many did not think that Philip would be a suitable mate for the heir presumptive to the British throne. He was viewed as a foreigner, and according to one diplomat, he was thought to be “rough, ill-mannered, uneducated and … probably not faithful.”
By 1946, Philip was being invited to the British Royal Family’s summer residence Balmoral, and it was here that they secretly got engaged. Elizabeth’s father didn’t want any formal engagement to be announced until she reached her 21st birthday the following year. News of the engagement leaked; according to one poll, 40% of the British public disapproved of the match because of Philip’s foreign background and German relatives. Early in 1947, Philip abandoned his Greek and Danish royal titles, adopted the surname Mountbatten, and became a naturalized British subject. The engagement was announced to the public in July 1947. Three months later, Philip was officially received into the Church of England (he had been baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church).
A Naval Officer’s Early Married Life
The night before his wedding, Philip was given the style “Royal Highness,” and on the morning of November 20, 1947, he was made Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth, and Baron Greenwich by his bride’s father. (He was not made a British prince until 1957.)
Philip continued in his naval career, and the couple mainly lived in Malta from 1949 to 1951, which was probably the closest Elizabeth ever got to “normal life” as a naval officer’s wife. (They returned to the island in 2007 to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary.) By this time, they had had their first two children: Prince Charles, born in 1948, and Princess Anne in 1950. The children spent much of this time in the UK with their grandparents.
In 1950, Philip was promoted to lieutenant commander, and in 1952, he was promoted to commander, although his active naval career had ended in July 1951. When they married, the young couple expected to live a semi-private life for the first 20 years of their marriage. However, Elizabeth’s father first fell ill in 1949, and by 1951, it wasn’t expected that he would live a long life.
At the end of January 1952, Philip and his wife set off on a tour of the Commonwealth. On February 6, Philip broke the news to his wife in Kenya that her father had died. Now the Queen of England, Elizabeth and her consort returned to the UK. He would never again walk into a room before his wife.
The Role of a Male Consort in the British Royal Family
Being consort to the Queen was not something that came easily to Prince Philip. He was forced to give up his naval career and play a supporting role to his wife for the rest of his life. Prince Philip and his uncle put forward suggestions to change the name of the House of Windsor to House of Mountbatten or House of Edinburgh. When the Queen’s grandmother heard of this, she informed Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who in turn advised the Queen to issue a proclamation saying that the British Royal Family would remain the House of Windsor. Philip grumbled, “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.” In 1960, the Queen issued an Order in Council, which meant that all of the couple’s male-line descendants who were not styled as Royal Highness or prince or princess would have the surname Mountbatten-Windsor.
Prince Philip Creates His Legacy
In 1956, Prince Philip established the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. This stemmed from the type of education Philp received at Gordonstoun. He believed that young people should be given the chance to learn about resilience, teamwork, and develop a range of other skills. Divided into three Awards – Bronze, Silver, and Gold – by 2017, over six million young people had participated in the program in the UK, and over eight million young people had taken part worldwide.
The scheme still operates in more than 140 countries. In the UK, the Award forms a part of several apprenticeships and training schemes, while employers seek Duke of Edinburgh Award holders when recruiting because of the desirable skills acquired (volunteering, physical activity, practical skills, expeditions, and a residential setting experience at Gold level).
In 1952, Prince Philip was invited to become president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He surprised his audience with a speech he had written himself and was more substantial than ceremonial. An American correspondent commented that the US president had no scientific advisor, unlike the British queen. Philip’s interest in science, technology, and the environment remained with him throughout his life. In the 1960s, Philip and Elizabeth completed their family with the arrival of Prince Andrew in 1960 and Prince Edward in 1964.
Over his lifetime as the longest-serving consort in the British Royal Family, Prince Philip had taken on more than 22,100 solo Royal engagements. He had been the patron of some 800 organizations, especially those focused on the environment, sport, industry, and education. When he retired in 2017, he had visited 143 countries in an official capacity. Philip was even regarded as a god by the people of two villages on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu after he visited the nearby New Hebrides in 1974. Philip was probably highly bemused by this, but he sent the villagers a few photos of himself in later years, including one of him holding a ceremonial club they had given him. When Prince Philip passed away, the villagers went into formal mourning.
Philip was also an accomplished polo player, helped establish the sport of carriage driving, was a keen yachtsman, and received his Royal Air Force wings, Royal Navy helicopter wings, and private pilot’s license in the 1950s. He collected art and painted with oils; he even enjoyed cartoons.
Prince Philip Remembered
Prince Philip officially retired from formal duties in 2017, aged 96, after years of slowly declining health. He was able to attend the weddings of two of his grandchildren in 2018, walking unaided. He drove until 2019, when he was involved in a car accident at age 97. He surrendered his driver’s license three weeks after this accident but continued to drive on private land for some months after that.
He passed away of old age on April 9, 2021, at 99 years old. He was the longest-serving royal consort in world history. He is currently interred at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor, although it is expected that he will be moved to the King George VI Memorial Chapel to be reunited with his wife when his eldest son ascends to the throne.
Prince Philip was also known for his wit, which at times could be what is now considered to be politically incorrect.
Once, when asked if he was looking forward to spending Christmas with his family in the 1980s, he replied, “You must be joking. It means trying to stop the grandchildren from killing each other or busting up the furniture and acting as marriage guidance counsellor to their parents.”
To a Scottish driving instructor in 1995, he said, “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to pass the test?”
In 2000, when offered wine in Rome, he snapped, “I don’t care what kind it is, just get me a beer!”
In 1967, he quipped, “I’d like to go to Russia very much – although the bastards murdered half my family.”
About his daughter’s love of horses in 1970, Philip remarked, “If it doesn’t fart or eat hay, she isn’t interested.”
However, perhaps the words that best summed up Prince Philip were spoken on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary in 1997 by the woman who knew him best. Queen Elizabeth described him as “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, in this and many other countries, owe him a greater debt than he would ever claim or we shall ever know.”
In a nod to Philip’s naval career, “stays” support the mast of a sailing vessel. It wasn’t easy for Philip to spend his adult life publicly keeping two steps behind his wife, but in his own way, he modernized the British Royal Family as we know it, and he did not live in his wife’s shadow.