Harold Macmillan dismissed Prince Philip as a bore. How wrong he was, says John Hinton
Young Prince Philip
BY PHILIP EADE HARPER PRESS, £20
The United Kingdom’s longest-serving consort, Prince Philip, is perhaps best known for his distinctive sense of humour, to the despair of British diplomats around the world. An Aborigine in Australia was asked: “Do you still throw spears at each other?” After the Coronation, he asked his newly crowned wife: “Where did you get the hat?” Then there was his controversial quip about “slittyeyed” Chinese people and his solution to London’s traffic jams: “The problem is the tourists. If we could just stop tourism, we could stop the congestion.” To a driving instructor in Scotland he posed the question: “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to get them through the test?” He doesn’t seem to care what the media think about his famous gaffes. As the cameras clicked around him, the matron of a hospital in the Caribbean was told: “You have mosquitos. I have the Press.” But Philip should appreciate what an invaluable 90th birthday present Philip Eade, a former journalist on the Daily Telegraph, has given him by writing this new biography about his younger years. For he has succeeded in making the prince a sympathetic and indeed agreeable character.
Given his odd childhood, it’s astonishing that Philip has much of a sense of humour at all. Despite being Prince Philip of Greece, he had no Greek blood – it was just an accident of history that his Danish grandfather had been invited to become King of Greece.
Philip’s father, Prince Andrea, was the fourth son, so was never likely to succeed as king. A cavalry officer in the Greek army, he was mysteriously absent from most of the Turkish war.
Everyone thought Philip’s mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, was mad to have married him but it was a love match at the beginning. She was a great beauty and, though deaf from birth, was excellent at lip-reading. She had four daughters and then gave birth to Philip on the dining room table at the family’s villa in Corfu, in 1921.
But just 18 months later, after the defeat of the Greek army, Andrea was court-martialled, and sent into exile. The family fled to Paris, eventually settling in a villa in St Cloud outside Paris where Philip went to the American school. There, he learned to play baseball before he learned cricket.
But then his mother started going mad. She had strange mood swings and displayed abnormal religious fervour. Barely eating, she took to lying on the floor in order to develop “the power conveyed to her from above”, believing she was the bride of Christ but also “physically involved” with other religious leaders such as Buddha. She was sent to a psychoanalyst who asked his friend, Sigmund Freud, for advice. But then she became erratic again and in May 1930 was sent off to an asylum on Lake Constance. She had some contact with Philip for the first two years then none at all for the next five.
Meanwhile, Prince Andrea closed the house in St Cloud, went off to live with a mistress on the Riviera and – though never divorced – seldom saw his wife again. All four of Philip’s sisters quickly married German aristocrats and Philip was sent to live with his maternal grandmother at Kensington Palace, and then with his uncle Georgie, the Marquess of Milford Haven.
A little lost to say the least, Philip was left basically living on charity, learning the habits of thrift. Occasionally, he would be summoned to great family events where he would stay in grand palaces. Then it was back to cold showers and awful rations at Gordonstoun school.
By the time he left, in 1939, his mother had recovered and he spent his last school holiday staying with her in Athens, before going to Dartmouth Naval College as a cadet. The royal family visited Dartmouth while he was there and he made a great impression on the 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth.
His mother urged him to sit out the war with her in Athens, where she dressed as a nun, setting up soup kitchens and orphanages. Philip wanted to see action in the Royal Navy but frustratingly “Uncle Dickie” Mountbatten pulled strings to keep him out of harm’s way, escorting troopships round Australia, India and South Africa.
But after the invasion of Greece by Italy in October 1940, he was transferred as a midshipman to the battleship HMS Valiant in the Mediterranean Fleet. Among other actions, he was involved in the Battle of Crete and was mentioned in dispatches for his service during the Battle of Cape Matapan where he bravely saved his ship from a night bomber attack. Now a lieutenant, he was invited to spend Christmas 1943 at Windsor Castle where Princess Elizabeth, now 17, was alive with excitement at the prospect of seeing him. He was invited to Windsor again in July, and insiders were soon predicting marriage. The King and Queen were doubtful about the match. But he was gorgeously handsome and Princess Elizabeth was obviously in love.
In March 1947, Philip renounced his claim to the Greek throne and took British citizenship. In July his engagement to Elizabeth was announced, a welcome relief in the years of post-war austerity. Their magnificent wedding, in November 1947, brought together one of the biggest gatherings of royalty that century.
The early years of marriage were blissfully happy, the princess enjoying her new role as a naval wife. Philip had high hopes of soon being promoted to commander – but the early death of the King in 1952 ended his naval career. The Queen seemed to make the transition to monarch easily, yet Philip went into a monumental sulk, complaining that he was being treated like an amoeba. Harold Macmillan noted: “I fear this young man is going to be as big a bore as Prince Albert and as great a trouble.” He was wrong. As this eventful and readable narrative proves, Prince Philip is anything but a bore and has proved in many ways to be the perfect husband.