It belied the truth of a far more complex individual: a refugee Greek-Danish prince with a backstory that could have been penned by Hollywood, and also reformer who tried to drag the royal family into the 20th century.
Born on June 10 1921, to the Danish house of Glucksberg, at the summer palace of the Greek Royal Family, on the island of Corfu, Philip was the only son of Prince Andrew of Greece and his wife, Princess Alice of Battenburg. From the late 18th century, as the great houses of Europe intermarried, “royalty” in Europe became ever more homogenous, and through the spiderweb of his family tree, he was related to practically every other royal family on the continent.
None of that helped when, in 1922, his uncle King Constantine I abdicated and the family were forced into exile. Legend has it that the one-year-old Philip was carried to France in a crib made out of an orange crate.
Though technically a Greek prince, he never spoke the language and grew up in Paris speaking French and German, while considering himself a Dane. His childhood was chaotic and infused with tragedy.
Shortly after the abdication, his mother began to experience significant mental health problems. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, she was sent to an asylum in Switzerland. Meanwhile, Philip’s four older sisters all married and moved to Germany, while his father disappeared to Monte Carlo, abandoning Philip. Aged just seven, the young prince was sent to live with his maternal grandmother in England.
Seeking to reunite the family, in 1933 Philip was brought over to Germany by his eldest sister—a timing that coincided with the rise to power of Hitler. When Philip’s Jewish head teacher, Kurt Hahn, fled Nazi Germany and opened Gordonstoun school in Scotland, Philip followed.
Gordonstoun was a new type of English private school that encouraged boys to be tough and resilient, and it fit Philip to a tee.
Across the North Sea, his sisters became ever more embroiled in the German regime. In Scotland, Philip went the opposite direction, becoming ever more British. Following the death of his sister Cecilie in a plane crash in 1937, the gulf widened. As the clouds of conflict gathered, the family simply disintegrated.
Obliged to fend for himself, Philip joined the Royal Navy and soon found himself on the opposite side of the rest of his family in the conflict that erupted in 1939. That year, in a meeting engineered by his ambitious uncle Louis Mountbatten, he met 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth, the heir to British throne.
Elizabeth was immediately smitten by the tall young man, writing that she had met a “Viking God.” The two began to exchange letters and in 1946 got engaged. They married in Westminster Abbey on the November 20, 1947, despite Elizabeth’s mother’s misgivings. When they did, none of Philip’s siblings were invited.
Wartime rationing, which had yet to end, meant that the event was billed as an “austerity” wedding. But that was just spin. There were 2,500 gifts, including a shawl, woven by Mahatma Gandhi, which Queen Mary, the bride’s grandmother, wrongly assumed to be one of his loincloths and a carefully orchestrated insult. An estimated 200 million people listened to the live radio broadcast—making the event, and the couple, a massive ratings hit. Wrung out by a decade of war, the British grasped the rare opportunity to enjoy a national celebration. Hundreds of thousands turned out on the streets to cheer the royal celebrities.
Since the beginning of the 19th century, as the powers of the Crown had waned, a new purpose had been sought for the otherwise empty vessel of Britain’s constitutional monarchy. The war had shown that it could be used as a focus of unity. The royals could be turned from “rulers” into a sort of national family, and in this attractive young couple seemed to fit the bill.
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. A blissful five years and two children followed.
But in 1952, everything was thrown into disarray when King George died, and the 27-year-old Elizabeth was thrust onto the throne.
While Diana was later to famously claim that there were “three people” in her marriage—herself, Prince Charles and Camilla—there were at least 55 million in Philip and Elizabeth’s. As Elizabeth dedicated her life to her people at Westminster Abbey at the Coronation on June 2, 1953, it seems to have sparked something of an existential crisis in her spouse.
His career was now over, and he was destined to become the spare part. Philip and his Uncle Louis maneuvered to make him relevant and hatched a plot to change the royal family’s name from the House of Windsor to the House of Mountbatten. But when Prime Minister Winston Churchill got wind of it, a prolonged battle of wits ensued, and it was one Philip ultimately lost. It was only in 1957 that he accepted the title of “Prince.”
Philip tried to forge a distinct role as second fiddle to the woman who had come to represent Britain. He set up the Duke of Edinburgh award, a scheme aimed at getting young people out in search of adventure. He became patron to more than 816 charities and designated himself First Officer of the Good Ship Windsor.
He had ideas about modernizing the royal family that might be called “improving optics” today, though not everything went to plan. A 1969 BBC fly-on-the-wall documentary, instigated by Philip to show life behind the scenes, turned into an unmitigated disaster: “The Windsors” revealed the royals to be a fairly normal, if very rich, British upper-class family who liked barbecues, ice cream, watching television and bickering. The mystery of royalty took a hit below the waterline from their own torpedo, a self-inflicted wound from which they never quite recovered.
Shown once, the documentary was never aired again. But it had an irreversible effect, and not just by revealing the royals to be ordinary. By allowing the cameras in, Philip opened the lid to the prying eyes of the paparazzi who could legitimately argue that since the Royals themselves had sanctioned exposure, anything went. From then on, minor members of the House of Windsor were picked off by the press, like tethered animals on a hunting safari.
As the 1970s turned into the 80s, Philip made matters worse by encouraging his son Charles to marry the painfully young and naive Diana Spencer. Charles and his father had a turbulent relationship. The heir to the throne loved poetry and theater and was open with his emotions. His father preferred to shoot things and bottle everything else up inside. The rift allegedly lasted years.
Which is not to say that the Duke of Edinburgh was some wholly impassive monster. For most of Charles and Diana’s disastrous marriage, Philip demonstrated enormous kindness to the Princess of Wales and related to her his dismay at his son’s behavior. When she died, he guided his grandsons through the fallout. And his eight grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren in turn seem, to have unanimously adored him.
Asked by the actor Matt Smith to sum up his granddad in a 2016 encounter, Prince William proffered: “Just one word — legend!” And it seems that his cousins and other younger members of the royal family shared the opinion.
As the news of Philip’s death resonates, many Britons may perhaps find themselves surprised at their sense of loss. Few of us can remember a time without him. He has been there like the BBC and the gray skies for all of our lives, one of life’s constants.
He also had relevance. He might not have been the captain of the ship he married into, but Philip steered the Crown through the turbulent waters of the postwar years.
More than that, he was a loyal and constant consort to the Queen. Her “rock,” her greatest adviser and most trusted friend. In hindsight, she and the defenders of the monarchy were very lucky indeed that this child refugee pitched up on the shores of the realm some 90 years ago.