Prince Philip: Why so much of what you think you know about the Duke of Edinburgh is wrong

Looked at from the outside, the Duke of Edinburgh was a kind of living model of the British establishment – ever-present at all those State ceremonial occasions, Trooping the Colour, openings of Parliament. 

Lean, imperious, with an eagle’s stare and a hawk nose, dressed in the bearskin and scarlet of colonel of the Grenadier Guards, or the gold and dark navy of Lord High Admiral; and caught when in mufti, perhaps carriage-driving, in tweeds and bowler, even a top hat.

Standing more or less to attention at the Queen’s side across nine decades, rigid with duty, terse with words, with the grimace of a man unlikely to suffer fools gladly, Prince Philip looked the part of the insider’s insider.

This, no doubt, is how millions of people will remember him. And yet it completely, utterly misunderstands him. It fails to get anywhere near the unusual, shy, self-critical, and sometimes radical figure that he was. The Duke of Edinburgh was always an outsider. All the uniforms, medals, awards, titles and adulation never really hid this truth.

Looked at from the outside, the Duke of Edinburgh was a kind of living model of the British establishment – ever-present at all those State ceremonial occasions, Trooping the Colour, openings of Parliament. (Pictured: On duty during a 1984 tour of Canada)

He came from a class and a generation which didn’t believe in emotional exhibitionism. He rarely complained – or, as he would put it ‘belly-ached’. But he had a woeful, desperately, lonely and destabilising upbringing, and suffered many frustrations in his adult life.

He was born on Corfu because, in a classic 19th Century royal stitch-up, his grandfather, a Danish prince, had been chosen as the new king of Greece. 

But instability haunted the young Philip from his first weeks: after a disastrous war against Turkey, there was a coup in Greece and the baby’s father, Prince Andrew, an army officer, was arrested by the vengeful junta that took over the country.

Had King George V not intervened, Philip’s father might have been executed by firing squad. Plenty of his friends and colleagues were. As it was, he, his four sisters and his parents were able to escape in a British destroyer.

Baby Philip was, according to royal legend, carried aboard in an old orange crate.

George V’s intervention was not surprising: Philip’s mother, Princess Alice, had been born at Windsor Castle and he was related to the British Royal Family through multiple cousinly connections. But, after settling near Paris, this royalty-for-hire family began to break up.

Alice, suffering from a form of religious mania, ended up in a Swiss clinic before becoming a devout nun in the Greek Orthodox Church. Philip’s father, rather less devout, headed to the Riviera where he settled down with a mistress and led a casino life. Eventually the four sisters married German princes.

Nobody, it seemed, was much around to look after young Philip. Sent to school, first in Germany just as the Nazis were taking power, he was then dispatched to Britain under the nominal care of his uncles, the Marquess of Milford Haven and Lord Mountbatten. In fact, apart from holiday breaks, he barely saw them. 

As an eager, and brilliant, young recruit to the Royal Navy,Philip served bravely, was decorated and promoted, and ended that war having risen from midshipman to a naval officer who colleagues thought might have made it all the way to Admiral (Pictured in 1946)

As an eager, and brilliant, young recruit to the Royal Navy,Philip served bravely, was decorated and promoted, and ended that war having risen from midshipman to a naval officer who colleagues thought might have made it all the way to Admiral (Pictured in 1946)

He spent his time at the newly-founded Gordonstoun School in Scotland, under the watchful eye of the man who was probably his major male influence, the Jewish-German educationist Kurt Hahn. 

Gordonstoun was a very tough, somewhat puritanical school and Hahn, who had been a significant diplomatic figure in the Kaiser’s Germany before having to flee Hitler, had a bleak view of the modern world. To combat moral decay, Hahn wanted a cadre of no-nonsense, unsentimental, tough young men (women were not involved). Philip was one.

Indeed, much in the adult Duke of Edinburgh, with his distaste for the mealy-mouthed and the sloppy, can be traced back to Gordonstoun and Kurt Hahn. This was certainly the origin of his most famous achievement as Consort, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme.

By this stage in his life, the young Philip might have seemed a most unpromising recruit for the British establishment. He might be bluff and anti-blubbing but he carried deep emotional scars from family and abandonment, and had been encouraged to take a pessimistic view of modern times.

What helped was the coming of the Second World War. As an eager, and brilliant, young recruit to the Royal Navy, Philip served bravely, was decorated and promoted, and ended that war having risen from midshipman to a naval officer who colleagues thought might have made it all the way to Admiral. By that time, he had first glimpsed the Queen as a young girl – she had been just 13 when they first met – and then begun to court her.

By now, many of his lifetime traits were visible – a bounding, irrepressible energy, a combative outspokenness in speech and a gleeful relish in upending conventions and shocking the pompous. 

He could certainly be a disconcerting figure. I remember trying to make small-talk with him about Charles Darwin, and saying that I thought he was the most important Briton of the Victorian period. He gave me a long glance – but ‘glance’ is the wrong word: it felt more like being thoroughly scoured with bleach. ‘I intensely dislike generalisations,’ he said, before turning on his heel.

Yet his conversational pepperiness, which caused him so many rows with the press, and spread so much offence, at least to journalists, derived not just from an impish sense of humour but from a deep sense of impatience. The Duke hated sloppiness, fudging, evasion. Time was always short. So much needed doing: get on with it.

Those who knew him well thought that he was always much harder on himself than anyone else. In 1960, he famously coined the word ‘dontopedalogy’, which he defined as ‘the science of opening your mouth and putting your foot in it, a science which I have practised for a good many years’.

The frustration came from the fact that, with the clear sight of an outsider, he was strongly critical of the British Establishment, and British business and industry more generally. After he married the Queen in 1947, he had to cope with an immense amount of snobbery and sneering from courtiers and senior politicians, who delighted in mocking him as ‘the German’.

After he married the Queen in 1947, he had to cope with an immense amount of snobbery and sneering from courtiers and senior politicians, who delighted in mocking him as ‘the German’. Pictured: Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh in a wedding photograph in 1947

After he married the Queen in 1947, he had to cope with an immense amount of snobbery and sneering from courtiers and senior politicians, who delighted in mocking him as ‘the German’. Pictured: Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh in a wedding photograph in 1947

When he first wore the kilt, he curtsied to the King. In footage from the Coronation, he organises and bosses around assorted nobility and crowned heads for the photographers, as if they were dim sheep. He certainly knew Germany better than they did: three of his four sisters had married Germans who served Hitler in the war – one of them rising to become an SS colonel, working with Himmler. Such in-laws were excluded from his wedding.

As a boy, he had been sent to school at Schloss Salem, just as the Hitler Youth (whom he mocked) were taking over the place. His brave and dedicated service in the British Navy never counted much among civilian snobs, compared with those German connections.

Next Page