When historians look back at the resounding success of the second Elizabethan Age, my guess is that Prince Philip will finally get the credit he deserves. He was not only the most tireless consort to the Queen, and energetic working member of the family firm, he was a moderniser who noted everything and questioned everything.
He took on the fusty Establishment that ruled Buckingham Palace in the early 1950s, and helped turn the monarchy into an institution fit for the 21st century. The part he played in the Queen’s life cannot be overestimated, and without his steadfast support, the history of the last 70 years might have been very different.
As the Queen herself said of him on their Golden Wedding Anniversary, “He is someone who doesn't take easily to compliments but he has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years, and I, and his whole family, and this and many other countries, owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim, or we shall ever know.”
But he was not an easy man. In the view of a former Foreign Secretary who knew him well, he was possibly the least understood member of the royal family. He had a fearsome temper, he was impatient, intolerant and he didn’t suffer fools. In a good mood, there was no better company and there would always be gales of laughter coming from his office; in a bad mood, he could reduce grown men to tears. He responded best to people who stood up to him. But inevitably, few dared.
Although never fond of confrontation, the Queen was one person who did stand up to him and they had many disagreements over the years. Lord Charteris, who worked for her for nearly three decades, observed that Prince Philip was the only person on earth who could tell the Queen to “shut up” and vice versa.
Even as newlyweds Philip loudly denounced his wife to all in the breakfast room on their South African tour as a "bloody fool”. On another occasion, he was driving the car, in her opinion, too fast. “If you do that once more,” he said as she flinched, “I shall put you out of the car.” But she could give as good as she got. There was once an incident on the royal yacht, Britannia. Elizabeth locked herself away, declaring, “I’m simply not going to come out of my cabin until Philip is in a better temper.” But despite the ups and downs - and the rumours of affairs, it was a partnership that really worked.
As a close friend of the family once said, “There are some people who don’t need many friends. And those two, they’re just a real love story - taking tea together every day, talking about everything. He might take out a letter and read it to her or crack a joke. They just adore each other.”
“The secret of a happy marriage,” he once said, “is not to have the same interests. It’s one thing not to argue about.”
His interests and passions were eclectic. They ranged from design, science and technology to wildlife and conservation, to fishing and shooting, to polo and carriage driving. He was also a talented artist and a great collector of art and books; he also loved poetry. His personal library at Buckingham Palace housed some 13,000 books.
Her interests were resolutely horses and dogs and she was hugely knowledgeable about the breeding of both. But it was racing she loved. The only activity where their interests overlapped was shooting. She didn’t weald a gun, as he did, but she was passionate about training and working the gun dogs she bred. So while he shot, her dogs picked-up the fallen game.
A lot of Prince Philip’s irritability must have come from frustration - and boredom at some of the more tedious aspects of royal life. He had been a distinguished, if young, naval officer during the war, he had been mentioned in dispatches; by 1950, he had command of his own ship, HMS Magpie. It was a career he loved and the sky could have been the limit; but he had to give it all up to support his wife and her work. That may not sound discordant today, but in 1952 it was very unusual for the traditional roles of men and women to be reversed.
After an itinerant and chaotic childhood they made a home for themselves in Clarence House - it was the first real home he had ever had - but were forced to leave it and live in Buckingham Palace, a vast and impersonal building that has never felt like home. Having already been forced to give up his Greek royal title, he was dismissed and distrusted by Palace courtiers, excluded from much of his wife’s work and not even allowed to give his own name to his children. "I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his children,” he raged."I’m nothing but a bloody amoeba.”
But Philip quickly found other things to do with his time, and his achievements are legion. Passionate about young people achieving their potential, he founded the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme that over eight million young people have participated in worldwide. He was the founding president of the World Wildlife Fund, he was an internationally recognised conservationist and environmentalist, and an expert on climate change. He campaigned, lobbied and raised money tirelessly for over fifty years. He fought to save the country’s playing fields and open spaces from the developers and our historic ships from their watery graves or the breakers yard.
And he took over the family side of life. He managed the estates at Windsor, Balmoral and Sandringham and turned them into shining examples of best practice in sustainable farming and wildlife preservation. He also made them profitable. The Queen left him to it, as she did all matters concerning the children, up to and including the choice of schools to which they went and their early careers. His relationship with his eldest son was always the most difficult. Although similar in so many ways, Charles spent most of his life seeking his father’s approval and scarcely ever finding it.
Prince Philip was irascible, outspoken and sometimes downright rude, but he was a very special human being who brought colour and fun and sparkle to the often repetitive job of consort.
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