Among the photographs The New York Times used to commemorate Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh — who will be buried from Windsor Castle Saturday, April 17, having died there Friday, April 9, two months short of his 100th birthday— was a 2017 photo in which the natty duke faces the camera smiling amid a sea of red-garbed Canadian soldiers. They are virtually all facing right. It encapsulates Prince Philip, a part of and yet apart from the British monarchy. He was “the strength and stay” of Queen Elizabeth II (her words) through 73 years of marriage, the longest in British royal history. But he served crown and country with a confounding mix of devotion, action, humility and crotchety humor, along with a patronizing snobbery that critics have called impolitic at best and prejudiced at worst.
How much of this stemmed from being what biographer Ingrid Seward described as “an alpha man in a beta role”? Alpha males throughout history have reveled in being strong enough to consort with strong women. Alexander the Great — child of a tough, many historians would say ruthless, mother, Olympias, queen of Macedon (in what is now northern Greece) — loved strong older women like the deposed Queen Ada of Caria (in what is now Turkey), whose reign he restored on his way to conquering the Persian Empire in 331 B.C. When stylish first lady Jacqueline Kennedy took Paris by storm in June 1961, her husband, President John F. Kennedy, said, “I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I have enjoyed it.”
But Alexander and JFK were the alphas in their worlds. Prince Philip, seemingly destined for a career in the Royal Navy, was the product of a time in which a man strove to be the alpha in his own family at least. And yet, he was required to give up an ascendant career and walk several paces behind his wife. Did he chafe at that, as depicted in “The Crown,” in which he has been played brilliantly by Matt Smith as a young man and Tobias Menzies in middle age? He did.
“I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name (Mountbatten) to his children,” he said when Queen Elizabeth was persuaded to keep Windsor as the name of her royal house, BBC News reported. “I’m nothing but a bloody amoeba!.”
The canny queen not only combined their last names as Mountbatten-Windsor — which they would pass on to untitled descendants — she also made Philip a prince and First Gentleman of the land, taking precedence even over Prince Charles, the eldest of their four children and heir to the throne, with responsibility for all the royal estates and big family decisions. (As prince consort, however, Philip could never have been king or inherited the throne.)
He in turn rewarded that trust by remaining by her side as well as by undertaking more than 22,000 solo engagements all over the world. Still, it was — as other royals have discovered — a confining job even as it afforded him privileges and opportunities other men only dream about. That might explain — but not excuse — his rude comments to others. Prince Philip was the type to cut “tall poppies” down, and that included the at times overly grand monarchy. Occasionally, he managed that with humor, albeit a needling one, as when he reportedly gave his wife a washing machine as a birthday present.
And yet, there was a part of him that must’ve been grateful to the monarchy, which gave him not only a family and a sense of purpose but an identity. Born Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark and related to much of continental royalty through his and Queen Elizabeth’s mutual ancestors, Queen Victoria and King Christian IX of Denmark), he was, as he would later acknowledge, really Philip of nowhere in particular. He was sixth in line to the throne of Greece, a country which had an off-again, on-again relationship with a modern monarchy that had been imposed on it. His father was the feckless Prince Andrew. His mother, the British-born Princess Alice of Battenberg (Anglicized to Mountbatten), would suffer a breakdown, be institutionalized, find religion, establish an order of Greek Orthodox nuns and rescue Athenian Jews in World War II. (Her backstory and reunion with her son constitute one of the most poignant episodes of season three of “The Crown.” She is buried in Jerusalem and honored among the righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem.)
Born on the island of Corfu and smuggled out of Greece, in an orange crate no less, when he was 18 months old — along with the rest of his family, fleeing a military coup — Philip bounced around some of the best schools in France and Germany before landing under the care of his maternal British relations. At Gordonstoun — a rigorous, holistic Scottish school founded by Jewish refugee Kurt Hahn, with whom Philip had studied in Germany — Philip blossomed, excelling at sports. In five years there, though, he never received a visit from his by now far-flung immediate family — his father having embarked on a life of pleasure in Monte Carlo, his mother on her own odyssey from madness to faith; and his much older sisters having wedded German royalty and ultimately Naziism.
Gordonstoun would, however, prove to be the making of Philip. He and Hahn, whose methodology would have a profound effect on American education, would go on to found the Duke of Edinburgh Award for youth around the globe to take on community projects that build life skills. Gordonstoun would lead Philip to the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, where he was the best cadet of his class, and distinguished service during the Allied invasion of Sicily and with the British Pacific fleet in World War II.
It was during the royal family’s tour of Dartmouth in 1939, however, that Philip met the 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth. She was immediately smitten with the cadet’s dashing manner and Apollonian looks and soon began writing to him regularly. They became engaged in 1946 with the reluctant permission of her doting father, George VI, who asked that they wait until she turned 21 the following year to marry. They were wed on Nov. 20 of that year, embarking on a period in which Elizabeth was basically a Navy wife. (She would later call their time posted to Malta the happiest of her life.)
But George VI’s increasing ill health required the young couple to take on more royal responsibilities. When he died on Feb. 6, 1952, they were in Kenya on a tour of the Commonwealth. It was Philip who broke the news to his wife.
With the death of his father-in-law, Philip’s role changed forever though he made the most of it – undertaking the technological modernization of the monarchy and speaking up for the ecological movement, much as his ancestor, Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, had done in the 19th century. (There was, when you think about it, a lot of Albert in Philip. Both were forward-looking. Both brought Teutonic efficiency, pragmatism and activism to their consort roles. Both were viewed at first as foreign-born outsiders, even though they devoted their lives to Great Britain.)
Philip’s calling is seen as increasingly obsolete in the woke age of Harry and Meghan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex, who fled the strictures of the monarchy. The world that created white alpha males like Prince Philip is receding. But it’s worth noting that when faced with a crisis of identity similar to that of Meghan — he gave up his Greek and Danish titles and his Greek Orthodox faith — he chose to stay and forge a new identity as the Queen’s man, maritime author and wildlife advocate. (Though he did retain a certain sympathy for other outsiders who came into the royal family, as his intense relationship with Diana, Princess of Wales, attested.)
When he announced his retirement in 2017 at age 96, an admirer said it was a shame he was “standing down.” Not so, Prince Philip quipped, when it was getting harder to “stand up.”
Whatever else you may think of His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, you cannot but admire his ability to serve by standing by.
– Georgette Gouveia