The Love Story of the Century
Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh and husband to Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain, passed away on Friday 9th April, aged 99. He was barely 2 months away from his 100th birthday. He was buried in the crypt underneath St George’s Cathedral in the hallowed grounds of Windsor Castle on Saturday 17th April, after a family funeral. In strict adherence to his wishes – and given also the realities of Covid — it was a very low-key family affair.
For more some 73 years, the Duke faithfully served as royal consort; putting duty before everything else; a loving husband and a doting father to his children. While she reigned over the realm as monarch, he held sway at the home-front as head of the tribe; keeping “The Firm” in steady-state in good times and in bad.
It has been said that a few bloodlines rule the entire world. His spiderweb of kinship linked him with many of the royal families of Europe; from the Hohenzollerns and Hapsburgs to the Romanovs and Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. He and Elizabeth were third cousins removed; both of them great-great grandchildren of Queen Victoria. His mother Princess Alice of Battenberg (1885-1969) was a niece to Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, wife of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. He never forgave the Russian Bolsheviks for murdering his relatives, the Romanovs. In 1993, his DNA was used to identify their remains from a pit in Yekaterinburg.
He was born Philippos Schleswig-Holstein Sonderburg-Glucksburg at the royal Old Fortress in Mon Repos, in the Greek island of Corfu on 10 June, 1921. His parents were Prince Andrew of Greece and Princess Alice of Battenberg. He was a member of both the Greek and Danish royal families by virtue of his patrilineal descent from George I of Greece and Christian IX of Denmark.
After the war against the Turks (1919—1922) in which the Greeks lost, his uncle King Constantine I was forced to abdicate in September 1922. The royal family were banished from Greece forever. His parents moved to France where they lived in rather penurious circumstances in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Cloud; with handouts from a wealthy aunt, Marie Bonaparte, Princess George of Greece and Denmark.
His mother suffered a mental breakdown. Having been diagnosed of paranoid schizophrenia by doctors, including Sigmund Freud, she was confined to a sanatorium in Switzerland. His father abandoned the family and went off to Monte Carlo with a mistress. His three elder sisters moved to Germany where they married into prominent families that were associated with the Nazis.
At the age of 8, he was sent to England; a poor, lonely prince who was often shuffled from one relative to another during school vacations. He attended the local school while living at Kensington Palace with his maternal grandmother, Victoria Mountbatten, Dowager Marchioness of Milford Haven and his uncle George Mountbatten, 2nd Marquess of Milford Haven.
In 1933, he was sent off to a boarding school in Germany owned by the family of his brother-in-law, Berthold, Margrave of Baden. With the rise of the Nazis, the school’s Jewish founder, Kurt Hahn, fled to Scotland, where he founded the famous Gordonstoun School. Philip was sent there after just two terms in Germany.
Kurt Hahn had a rather quirky philosophy of education. He believed that adolescence is a form of mental illness that was best cured with cold baths in winter. Philip seemed to have taken to the school’s rather Spartan regimen. But his son Charles, who was later sent there, hated it. Charles on his part made sure to spare his own sons the Siberian ordeals of Gordonstoun. William and Harry were sent, instead, to perhaps the poshest of them all, Eton College; a stone throw from Windsor Castle. Floreat Etona!
With hardly any prospects, his uncle Louis Mountbatten encouraged the young prince to go into the navy. In 1939, he enrolled in the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. That same year, King George VI was visiting the naval academy. As fate would have it, Cadet officer Philip Mountbatten was instructed to show the king’s daughters Elizabeth and Margaret around college.
For the young Princess Elizabeth, it was love at first sight. She was smitten by the tall and dashingly handsome naval cadet officer. She later wrote in her diary that she had met a “Viking god”.
According to Philip’s uncle Louis Mountbatten, no doubt with some exaggeration, “The colour drained from her face and then she blushed. She stared at him and for the rest of the day followed him everywhere. She was in love from the beginning.” She was 13 and he 18. They began a long-term correspondence and friendship that blossomed into holy wedlock.
Philip graduated in 1940 as best cadet of the year. He was soon called up to active service as World War II broke out. He served on warships in the Indian, Mediterranean and Pacific Oceans. He was promoted to lieutenant in July 1942. He was present at Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered to General Macarthur in July 1945.
In the summer of 1946, he formally asked the King for the hand of his daughter in marriage. The engagement was announced in July 1947. Not everybody was enthusiastic. One of them was Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, who, until her death in March 2002, always referred to him as “the Hun”. Some of the courtiers sniped at his pennilessness. Many distrusted his German roots, including his larger than life and overly ambitious uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten. Others worried that he was allegedly “rough, ill-mannered, uneducated and would probably not be faithful”.
As preparation for the wedding progressed, he took steps to become a naturalised British subject. He dropped his Greek royal titles. He also dropped his Germanic surname and went for the more anglicized maternal surname of Mountbatten. He was also received into the Church of England, even though he had been baptized into the Greek Orthodox Church. A day before the wedding, he was bestowed with the title of Royal Highness. And on the morning of the wedding, became Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth and Baron Greenwich of Greenwich in the County of London. He was also ennobled as a Knight of the Garter.
The wedding of the century took place at Westminster Abbey in the glorious autumn morning of 20 November, 1947; witnessed by more than 200 million across the world on TV and radio.
Philip was a breath of fresh air to an otherwise staid and increasingly colourless monarchy. According to an eye-witness, “The Queen was young and beautiful. Philip was Prince Charming incarnate: handsome, brave and armed with a very un-British set of sparkling white teeth.”
During the ceremonies at Westminster Abbey, her father the king was heard to mutter: “I wonder if Philip knows what he is taking…One day Lilibet will be queen and he will be consort. That’s much harder than being a king, but I think he’s the man for the job.” It became a prophecy come true!
After a brief honeymoon at the Mountbatten family home, Broadlands, Philip returned to his naval duties. He served at the Admiralty before being sent on a course at the Naval Staff College, Greenwich. He was later posted to the naval base in Malta. The couple always recalled those years with very fond memories.
In November 1951, Philip and Elizabeth were on a grand tour of the Commonwealth. In January 1952, while they were staying at Sagana State Lodge in Nyeri County, Kenya, the lot fell on Philip to break the news to her that the King had died and that she was now Queen. They left immediately. Philip ended his naval career in July, 1952, when Elizabeth became Queen. He had risen to the rank of Commander. Incidentally, his son Charles and grandchildren William and Harry were to follow the same path into the navy.
The coronation took place at Westminster Abbey on 2nd June, 1953. Princess Elizabeth Windsor became Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain. The Duke’s family were not invited; given that it was advisedly impolitic to invite German families that were so intimately connected with the Nazis not too long ago. The bells tolled in all the churches and cathedrals of England as they had done with every coronation since time immemorial.
Recently, a review of the old 1950s film of the royal wedding showed the odd spectacle of a lone nun who was following the royal couple from a distance. It turned out to be the Duke’s mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg. In the thirties, she had managed to escape from her forced confinement in a mental sanatorium. Having wandered all over Europe for several years, she eventually settled in Athens, where she founded a monastic order committed to helping children and the poor. Philip bought a flat for her in Athens; but for all practical purposes was never involved in her life until her death in December 1969.
During the royal coronation at Westminster Abbey in November 1947, Prince Philip knelt down before his wife and vowed to be her “liege man of life and limb” — her faithful servant for life. Many of my gentle readers have asked me why he himself was never crowned king. The reason is simple. In the constitutional conventions of the British monarchy, a female royal consort can be crowned Queen, but a male royal consort cannot become King. We, however, foresee challenges for Camilla Parker Bowles when Prince Charles becomes King.
Having resigned from a naval career he loved so much; the lack of an official role becameincreasingly frustrating. The Queen made up for this deficiency by drafting a letter patent which decreed that, in all matters of precedent, he shall be treated as next to her on all occasions. As required by protocol, he always walked a step behind Her Majesty.
Philip also wanted his children to bear his own family name of Mountbatten. Churchill and the government preferred Windsor. A compromise was reached in Mountbatten-Windsor. He complained rather bitterly that he had become a “bloody amoeba”.
Like all marriages, the royal couple had their own ups and downs. Britain itself had gone through triumphs and disasters. The post-war years were filled with glorious optimism. The Suez debacle in 1956, however, signaled the end of Empire. The sixties brought with them a kind of old-world weltschmerz. Britain became “the sick man of Europe”. British accession to the Common Market in 1973 brought some renewed hope. In the eighties, Margaret Thatcher and the New Tories reinvented Britain as an entrepreneurial, market-driven economy. But it was a new form of capitalism without a soul.
After 47 years of membership of the EU, the British voted to leave in June 2016. After prolonged, agonizing negotiations, Brexit formally came into force on force on 31 January, 2020. We predict that the Commonwealth will become even more important for British trade and diplomacy in the decades to come.
For many of us, Britain is regarded as the Mother Country. The Queen remains the titular head of the Commonwealth; an organization that has endured as a symbol of hope in a divided world. She is also Head of State for 16 Commonwealth realms ranging from Canada to Australia, New Zealand and the islands of the seas. Philip was her constant companion during most royal visits to the Commonwealth dominions.
During the Golden anniversary of their wedding in November 1997, Her Royal Majesty eulogized the prince as, “my strength and stay in all these years”. He once confided to a friend that his job, “first, second and last” was never to let Elizabeth down. They have endured so much together: Her late sister Margaret’s troubled life; the failed marriages of Charles and Diana and that of her daughter Princess Anne. Diana’s tragic death in an automobile accident in a Parisian tunnel in August 1997 cast a shadow. The recent estrangement of Prince Harry and his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, from the royal household have dented the image of the royal family. These events may deepen the uncertainties regarding the future of the monarchy.
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip first visited Nigeria in 1956. Coincidently, my own parents’ wedding took place in the grand old church in Randa during the week of that royal visit in February 1956. Mother Dearest told me that the glow of the royal visit cast a glorious light over their own wedding. The second time the royal couple came to our country was in December 2003, on the occasion of the Commonwealth Summit in Abuja.
Prince Philip was prone to embarrassing gaffes. In our age of political correctness, his jokes grated with many. For example, hetold our own President Olusegun Obasanjo during a state visit to Britain in 2003, “You look like you’re ready for bed,” (in reference to his flowing agbada). Addressing a gathering of the General Dental Council, he proudly announced that he was the inventor of “dentopedology”, which he defined as, “the science of opening your mouth and putting your foot in it”. He belonged to a bygone age.
Despite his foibles, the Duke took his dharma seriously; performing, according to Buckingham Palace sources, 22,191 solo engagements, 637 overseas visits and 5,493 speeches. He believed that “the purpose of monarchy is to serve the people, not the other way around”. He once told a Canadian audience: “If at any stage people feel that the monarchy has no further part to play, then for goodness’ sake let’s end the thing on amicable terms.”
A keen outdoorsman, he promoted physical exercise and fitness. He also took on charitable causes ranging from the arts to the sciences, sports and wildlife. He was for many years the head of the Worldwide Fund for Nature.He will also be remembered for the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme that has helped more than 2 million youths find a meaning and a purpose for their lives.
While the Queen reigned as monarch; he ruled the household. Decisions regarding the children were largely his. He also took on the task of managing the Queen’s vast assets, valued at over $500 million; including Windsor, Balmoral and Sandringham. He also pursued hobbies such as sports, painting and aviation. He painted a remarkable impressionist watercolour of the Queen having breakfast by herself. He also reputedly loved long walks and reading – he was said to have a large collection of history books.
He nurtured close friendships with notable businesspeople, including the chemist Harold Hartley, with whom her created the Oxford Study Conferences to address the living conditions of factory workers.
According to the writer Hugo Vickers, “Prince Philip applied a military (or perhaps naval) logicality to all he did. If he took on a project, he backed it thoroughly and saw it through. He relished an argument and accepted nothing at face value. He possessed the impatience of a man who was eager to implement his plans. He was quick to spot incompetence and ignorance. He had a particular dislike of chairpersons of companies…if they had not mastered their brief.”
Right from the early years of their marriage, rumours were rife about other women. The duke was obviously a socialite who enjoyed partying and revelling with his friends. But there has been no evidence of infidelity. The lawyers would insist that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. According to the former Archbishop of York and Primate of England, Rt. Rev. John Sentamu who was close to him, Philip was a man of deep faith who had knowledge of and appreciation for, holy scripture.
There were also innuendoes that the Duke was deeply resentful of the close friendship between Her Majesty and their family friend and horse-racing manager, Lord Porchester, Henry Herbert Earl Carnarvon. In the famous documentary, The Crown, the actor starring the Queen declares: “I have nothing to hide from you. Porchey is a friend,” she tells her husband. “And yes, there are those who would have preferred me to marry him. Indeed, marriage with him might have been easier, might have even worked better than ours. But to everyone’s regret and frustration, the only person I have ever loved is you.”
According to royal historian Robert Lacey, “Their life together was always built on regular separations”, including, apparently, separate bedrooms from very early on. Despite the rumours and innuendoes, he remained to the very end her soulmate, lover, best friend, confidante and trusted adviser. Until he moved to the royal estate at Sandringham in his last days, they unfailingly had afternoon tea and dinner together.
Asked the secret of his long and happy marriage, he was quoted as saying, “tolerance is the one essential ingredient…You can take it from me, the Queen has the quality of tolerance in abundance”.
In his eulogy to his grandfather, Prince Harry declared: “My grandfather was a man of service, honour and great humour. He was authentically himself, with a seriously sharp wit, and could hold the attention of any room due to his charm—and also because you never knew what he might say next.”
Prince William was once asked to sum up his grandfather. He responded: “Just one word — legend!” Even in death, the legend lives on. And it will live on for as long as England endures.
On the Pacific island of Tanna in Vanuatu, a green and beautiful country that I visited several years ago, the Duke is worshipped as a reincarnation of one of the venerable ancestral gods. The sunset of an era.
Sic transit gloria mundi.