Something in the Water

At 92-years-old, the Duke of Edinburgh has seen it all, from the horrors of war to family tragedy. Here’s a look at the life of Prince Philip, a man famed as much for his social faux pas as his notably military achievements.

 By Chris Ritchie

There must be something in the water at Buckingham Palace. Although it’s fair to assume that members of the Royal family are well looked after, have the best medical care available and are probably not on a diet of fast food, both the Queen and her husband, Prince Philip, remain remarkably active in their various duties and, perhaps more remarkably, seem as sharp as ever.

The Duke of Edinburgh is surely a source of inspiration for the elderly, having just celebrated his 92nd birthday. Born in 1921 in Corfu, Greece, Philip has led an extraordinary life. He was raised into the Greek and Danish royal families and was just a baby when the family travelled to France after exile. He was educated there, and then in England.

His early years were beset with tragedy and a rapidly dissipating family unit. Having moved to England in 1928, by the time he was 10, his four sisters had married and uprooted for Germany, his mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia and put into an asylum, and his father had fled to Monte Carlo. He, too, was then shipped off to Germany in 1933 and soon after to Scotland. While there, he lost his sister Cecilie’s family in a plane crash, and the next year, Lord Milford Haven, his guardian and uncle, died of cancer.

Then, aged 18, no doubt seeking some stability, Philip signed up with the British Royal Navy. He served with the Mediterranean and Pacific fleets in World War II, in 1942 notably becoming one of the youngest first lieutenants, aged just 21. It was not just an honorary title (of which he holds many) – Philip saw frontline action; indeed, he received the Greek War Cross of Valour. Rising through the ranks, when he eventually left active service in 1957, he had reached the rank of Commander. The reason he left the Navy? His wife had just been crowned the Queen of England.

During his early naval years, Philip had been writing to his distant cousin Elizabeth, and following the war he was given permission by her father, King George IV, to marry her. Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten (he had taken his grandparents’ surname when becoming a British citizen) and Elizabeth were married in 1947. Philip became the Duke of Edinburgh, beginning an illustrious career which would, among many other achievements, see him become patron to over 800 organisations (as well as presidencies and chairmanships of a huge number of bodies), have his own hugely respected and successfully award scheme and, perhaps above all, find himself a loving father to four and grandfather to eight.

Philip has brought a lot of colour to the British royal family, and not just in terms of his affable, direct personality. He has been directly involved in shaping the equestrian sport of carriage driving and was a keen polo player until forced to stop in 1971 due to arthritis. He was also a keen sailor and no stranger in the skies, having notched up over 5,000 flying hours. When not out and about, Philip has dabbled in oil painting and is said to have built up quite a collection of art, including contemporary cartoons.

He’s certainly got a sense of humour, although one that has proven divisive. While some people believe him to be (in his own words) a “cantankerous old sod” who makes offensive remarks, others think he is just, well, funny. In 1986 he described his trip to Beijing as “ghastly”. He told a female solicitor in 1987 that he thought it was “against the law for a woman to solicit” and on seeing his son, the Duke of York’s house in 1986, informed him that it looked “like a tart’s bedroom”.

In 1995, he surprised a Scottish driving instructor: “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to pass the test?” and in 1967 said how much he would like to visit Russia – “although the bastards murdered half my family”!

Celebrities have suffered at his hands too. On hearing that Madonna was to sing the theme tune for the Bond film Die Another Day, he asked if he would need ear plugs. He also asked actress Cate Blanchett to fix his DVD player because she worked “in the film industry”. Welsh singer Tom Jones has copped the Duke’s ire on two occasions. He opined, “It’s difficult to see how it’s possible to become immensely valuable by singing what are the most hideous songs” and described him as a “bloody awful singer”.

However, back at home Philip’s serious side has seen him, perhaps due to his own experiences as a young boy, remain an unrelenting family man with a strong sense of emotional awareness. Having persuaded his son Charles to propose to Lady Diana in 1981, he then intervened when their marriage was on the rocks in 1992 and later wrote to Diana suggesting that she and Charles look at things from each other’s point of view. Following her death in Paris in 1997, Philip showed great sensitivity in sheltering her sons, William and Harry, from the media, helping them through an experience that surely no children should have to endure. The Queen has referred to him as her “constant strength and guide” – no surprise considering they’ve been married for 65 years.

And so, having reached 92, the Duke remains perhaps the best loved royal character next to the Queen. In recent years his health has become a concern, in the realms of media speculation at least. But apart from publicly stating, on turning 90, that he was cutting back on his royal duties as he had “done his bit”, and a few stays in hospital beds over the years (in fact he spent his 92nd birthday in hospital), Philip is an enduring national – and international – treasure.