The life and times of a thoroughly modern royal
By Nathan Morley
Prince Philip set the tone for the royal family of the post-war era.
In fact, he grew up at the speed of war. As a young lieutenant aboard the battleship Ramillies in the Mediterranean fleet, Phillip ran the gauntlet of German U-boats preying on Allied targets between Cyprus, Malta, Egypt and Gibraltar. For any man, let alone a 19-year-old, it was an exhausting and dangerous existence. Against this background, he joined H.M.S. Valiant and took part in a skirmish off Cape Matapan when seven Italian warships were destroyed, earning him a mention in dispatches.
In 1945, while Europe celebrated the collapse of the Third Reich, his war continued with a posting to the Pacific where he witnessed the Japanese surrender onboard the battleship Missouri. ‘We had spent years fighting the Japanese and suddenly were in Japan, it was most extraordinary,’ he later recalled. ‘It was a great relief, there was a wonderful feeling…life was different’.
On returning to London, a brief romance with Princess Elizabeth led to marriage in 1947. ‘I can see that you are sublimely happy with Philip … but don’t forget us,’ King George VI pleaded with Elizabeth. ‘You were so calm and composed during the service and said your words with such conviction that I knew it was all right.’
However, Phillip would be no ordinary prince. His military experience gave him a sense of purpose and prompted him to continue his naval career. It wasn’t until 1953 that his exploits on the ocean waves were brought to an abrupt end when King George VI died and Elizabeth became queen and he assumed the role of consort.
In his new career, he undertook as many as 300 engagements per year, along with state visits and Commonwealth tours. Whist some thought he would have trouble adapting to civilian life, Prince Phillip embraced his royal duties promoting sports, education, and — long before it became fashionable — environmental issues.
He was well read, and enjoyed literature on wildlife, sport, design, engineering and inter-faith dialogue. In fact, his personal library contained more than 13,000 volumes, more than six-hundred of which focused on religion. ‘His faith in Jesus Christ was an important part of his life and one which shaped who he was,’ The Archbishop of York, The Most Reverend Stephen Cottrell said last night, in the first of a flurry of tributes from the Church.
Unlike many senior royals, Phillip liked to small talk, and much to the dismay of the previous generation, was happy to meet the press. Asked in 1968 if he had detected any change to the public attitude towards the monarchy, he replied: ‘Very considerably. The monarchy is part of the fabric of the country and as the fabric alters so does the monarchy and the people’s relation to it’. In 1961, he became the first Royal to be interviewed on television.
In the course of time, his typical no-nonsense military manner, combined with verbal indiscretions, often became source of embarrassment earning him the moniker ‘Duke of Hazard’. In 1969, he stunned TV viewers by going public about Palace pay and perks. ‘We go into the red next year,’ he admitted. ‘Now, if nothing happens, we shall either have to move into smaller premises, who knows. I shall probably have to give up polo fairly soon, things like that…’ (a more generous Civil List, linked to inflation, flowed soon after).
Although Queen Elizabeth always acknowledged his gaffes with mock reproachful looks, it is doubtful if any other royal personage has been forced to make so many apologies. In a somber moment, he once lamented how stupid it was that his reputation for gaffes stuck to him more persistently than anything else.
Whilst his utterances sometimes appalled his friends, they delighted journalists.
In the early 80’s, much to Margaret Thatcher’s horror, he was rapped for blaming the USSR for the arms race, saying world tension was ‘largely the creation of Soviet military aggression’. When a controversial biography alleged he thought his son, Prince Charles, was a lightweight lacking the discipline to be a good king, it opened an orgy of vitriolic scrutiny. ‘I have never made any comment about any member of the family in 40 years, and I’m not going to start now,’ he snapped. On another occasion, his remarks were more forgivable. After surveying the moneyed enclosure at Ascot, he looked at the clothes of the over-privileged and blurted out: ‘Ghastly’ – everybody heard.
Even at the age when most people retire, Phillip still had thirty more years of public service ahead.
In many ways, the 1990s was a disastrous decade for the Royal Family, with divorces, salacious scandals, the fire at Windsor Castle and continued hostility from the press. Asked at the time how he saw the future of the monarchy, he said it wasn’t fair to share his views. ‘I’m just here,’ he groaned. ‘That’s all there is to it.’
However, he once revealed with merciless candour that his position forbade him from ‘just being able to walk into a cinema or go out to a nightclub or go to a pub,’ but conceded the compensations outweighed the burdens.
Prince Phillip finally bowed out of public life in May 2017, at the age of 95. ‘I’m discovering what it’s like to be on your last legs,’ he joked before raising his hand and waving goodbye. Although he may be gone, his most lasting and successful achievement the ‘Duke of Edinburgh Award’ scheme, an education programme for teenagers and young adults, will continue to flourish.
Nathan Morley is a journalist, news anchor, and columnist based in Cyprus. He is author of the forthcoming Disney’s British Gentleman: The Life and Career of David Tomlinson— April 30, 2021 — available on pre-order.
(Catholic Herald, 11 April, 21)