An extraordinary life
In the past year, we have all been thrown a curveball by COVID and been forced to adapt to lives that resemble our old ones and yet are very different. Perhaps this turbulent time has left us better placed to understand His Royal Highness Prince Phillip, whose own life echoes and reflects a century that witnessed some of the greatest changes in human history.
When the young Prince captured the heart of Princess Elizabeth, he had an exciting naval career ahead of him. Her father King George V’s death at the age of 56, however, set him on an entirely different course. His autonomous, adventurous life became one of lifelong service and playing second fiddle to his wife, The Queen. He adapted to his new circumstances just as he had adapted, from a very early age to a series of numerous unexpected twists, turns and tragedies.
Prince Philip's early life
Born on the Greek island of Corfu in 1921, eight years after the assassination of his grandfather King George 1st of Greece, Prince Phillip was just one year old when a British warship rescued his family from the hands of revolutionaries. He was smuggled out in an orange crate used as a cot.
The family lived in exile in Paris but his life was again thrown asunder in 1930 when his mother Princess Alice suffered a mental breakdown, was sent to a secure psychiatric clinic and his father abandoned the family to live with his mistress.
Philip was effectively orphaned, put into the care of his uncles and sent to boarding school in England. Both uncles, the Marquis of Milford Haven and Lord Mountbatten, subsequently died prematurely: the former of cancer, aged 44, and the latter in an IRA bomb.
His favourite sister was also killed in an air crash when he was just 16. By the time the Duke of Edinburgh walked behind their mother’s coffin with young Princes William and Harry, he had experienced enough of life’s cruelty and sorrow to understand and guide them at this difficult time.
A life defined by duty
At the beginning of the Second World War, Philip started at the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. As a young naval officer, he was praised for his actions in the decisive Battle of Cape Matapan against the Italian fleet in March 1941. He had been in control of the searchlights as the ship battled an Italian cruiser when he spotted an unexpected second enemy vessel nearby. Some say the Duke of Edinburgh could have become the First Sea Lord had he not married and become a royal consort.
After a life of command and male comradeship, Prince Philip found the adjustment to playing second fiddle to the Queen hard, once describing himself as an amoeba; “I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his own children.” Nevertheless, he dedicated himself to the new role, performing it with gusto. As Britain’s longest-serving consort Prince Philip carried out a staggering 22,000 solo public engagements in his lifetime. He accompanied the Queen on all 251 of her official overseas visits and, even when he was 96 years old, he logged 110 days of public engagement
HRH the Duke of Edinburgh set about modernising the royal family; dusting down some of its more arcane institutions. He insisted royalty and staff no longer had their meals cooked in separate kitchens at the palace, saving huge amounts of waste and money. He also forged a new relationship with the media and in a new era defined by television, was the first member of the royal family to be interviewed on TV in 1961.
Recognising that the monarchy appeared out of step with the new generation, Prince Philip set about engaging with them, primarily through his creation of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, but also with organisations like London Youth, the first charity he patronised in 1947. He pioneered and patronised hundreds of projects with a focus on youth science, the outdoors and sport.