There have been a few moments in the past few years when the House of Windsor and people across Britain and the Commonwealth universally held their breath as Prince Philip tussled with potentially life-threatening illnesses, but the Queen’s unwavering consort seemed to be invincible. So when the news came of his death – even though this lion of a man had recently undergone heart surgery and was just two-months-and-a-day shy of his 100th birthday – the world was shocked, then terribly sad and overcome with an affection that grew as the myriad details of his life unfurled.
It was midday in the UK on Friday, April 9 when Buckingham Palace released the statement no one was expecting. In the days that followed, many felt it heralded the end of an era. “It is with deep sorrow that Her Majesty The Queen announces the death of her beloved husband, His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. His Royal Highness passed away peacefully this morning at Windsor Castle. The Royal Family join with people around the world in mourning his loss.”
Immediately global media paused to deliver hour after hour, day after day of heartfelt tributes to this extraordinary man, reminiscences from a life of duty, service, action, his larrikin humour discussed, his unparalleled character regaled.
Speaking on behalf of the royal family, Philip’s firstborn, Prince Charles, was noticeably humbled by the public reaction. “My dear Papa was a very special person who I think above all else would have been amazed by the reaction and the touching things that have been said about him and … we are, my family, deeply grateful for all that. It will sustain us in this particular loss and at this particularly sad time.”
Comments from the Prince's siblings followed. Losing Philip had left “a huge void” in the Queen's life, said Prince Andrew. “It has been a terrible shock,” added Prince Edward. And in an unusually personal statement, Princess Anne shared, “My father has been my teacher, my supporter and my critic, but mostly it is his example of a life well-lived and service freely given that I most wanted to emulate.
Throughout his life, Prince Philip was seen as the ultimate consort, the crisp, assiduous husband-in attendance, whose role was to support the Queen in public and cherish her in private. It was a job he did astonishingly well, but his success concealed a little-understood twist at the heart of the royal marriage.
Philip’s toughness was no act. Duty was everything to him, and his dedication to the Queen and the monarchy was absolute. Yet the perception of the Prince as an unyielding royal hard-case, harsh of word and scornful of human weakness, was never entirely true. For the real Philip was the product of a traumatic childhood which, though he tried hard to suppress, ultimately shaped his psyche. He could be tricky and prickly but also incredibly compassionate, and his legacy will be as the outsider who painstakingly modernised the dusty House of Windsor.
Raised in exile, Philip saw his parents’ marriage disintegrate. His father drifted into a dissolute life of gambling and drinking. His mother left to join a religious order and was later committed to an asylum. The family money ran out, and young Philip was passed around among relatives, from school to school and from country to country. It can’t have been easy but Philip endured, his energy and humour driving his path.
He eventually reached England at the age of nine, and in some ways he remained a displaced person for the rest of his life. Many years later when an interviewer asked what language he spoke at home, Philip paused and replied: “What do you mean, ‘home’?”
It was only when he fell in love and married the 21-year-old Princess Elizabeth – soon to be Queen of what was still the British Empire – that Philip finally found a real sense of belonging. Marriage gave him a base, a family, a standing in the world and a stability he had never known. In exchange for all this, he vowed to give Elizabeth his complete and unswerving loyalty.
“He told me when he offered me my job,” remembered Mike Parker, an Australian naval officer who became Philip’s first private secretary, “that his own job – first, second and last – was never to let the Queen down.”
To say that the Prince delivered on this commitment barely describes the enormity of his contribution to the Queen’s long, successful reign.
Philip was born on the Greek island of Corfu in June, 1921, the fifth child and only son of Prince Andrea of Greece and Denmark and Princess Alice of Battenberg. The family’s grand lineage – they were closely connected to all the noble dynasties of Europe – disguised its collapsing fortunes. Before Philip was 18 months old, the Greek government was overthrown in a military coup – the result of a disastrous war with Turkey – and his father sentenced to death, later commuted to “perpetual banishment”, for alleged incompetence in his role as a senior army officer.
Philip’s father’s first cousin, King George V, obligingly supplied a Royal Navy ship to take the family into exile, and baby Philip journeyed to safety in a cot that the sailors on board had fashioned from an orange box to keep the tot safe. But Andrea’s hopes of his family being allowed to settle in London were dashed by political complications, and they were effectively dumped in the small, dusty port of Brindisi at the bottom of Italy, “the most dreadful place I have ever been to,” wrote Philip’s older sister, Sophie. They made their way by train to Rome, then to Paris, where they managed to beg temporary quarters from friends.
Of Andrea and Alice’s five children, Philip was the youngest by seven years. He was adored by his sisters, which made their ultimate separation harder to bear. Alice had always been intensely religious, but the family’s traumas appeared to push her over the edge. She took to declaring that she was a saint with healing powers, and the bride of Christ. In 1930 she was interned in a secure psychiatric clinic in Switzerland. This committal effectively destroyed the family unit. Andrea drifted away, eventually settling in a small seafront flat in Monte Carlo, where he passed his time playing roulette and drinking. He died a lonely, broken figure in 1944.
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