Prince Philip: monarchies today and what his life has meant for the British monarchy. Part I

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Coronation portrait of HM Queen Elizabeth II with HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, June 1953. Photo credit: Cecil Beaton, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

IO – HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh passed away last Friday, the 9th of April 2021. In the beginning his early life was viewed by some in the British establishment as almost too dramatic. Besides being Danish-Greek and having to flee Greece at a very tender age, he had three sisters married to Nazis and a mother who spent several years in mental institutions and yet managed to save Jewish lives during the Second World War. It appears to have taken a while for the British establishment and perhaps even the Prince himself to come to terms with his colourful background and the fact that he was a European who did not really come from anywhere. In some ways in the first part of his life he could almost be described as a displaced person.

Peter Carey, the British historian from Oxford who now resides in Indonesia and is known for his great work on the life of Prince Diponegoro views Prince Philip from a historical perspective remarking, “Britain has a historic legacy of monarchy but for monarchy to survive it must adopt a conservative agenda and that means reform in order to survive because nothing is static and I am interested to know if Prince Philip in his limited constitutional position was a reformer, a radical, a reactionary or that there were parts of his life when he was one or the other.”

Valerie Holland is a Singaporean Australian whereas her sister Gillian Arnold is Singaporean. They come from a Eurasian family whose British ancestor arrived with Sir Stamford Raffles and their family has lived in Malaysia and Singapore for several centuries. Their father who was a leader of the Eurasian community met Prince Philip in 1956 at the Melbourne Olympics and again in 1957 at Malaysia’s independence celebrations. Gillian says laughingly that her father said the Prince swore a lot – a fact that in fact endeared him to many of his subjects who enjoyed his outspokenness. Meanwhile her sister Valerie Holland explained, “I have always given my full vote towards support of the Queen and completely marvel at her ability to devote her whole life to serve her country. Likewise, Prince Philip has been her strongest supporter for 73 years and in his own way has added colour and humour to the Palace! Theirs was a romantic union and they certainly were always united in placing their duty to country first.

His sudden death will be a great loss to the Queen, and I do not know anyone who does not feel enormous sadness for her.  Theirs was a great marriage, a supportive partnership and a life time of devotion to the UK and the Commonwealth. I only hope that he will receive a fitting send-off despite the pandemic restrictions!

As I am now residing in Singapore, I can also add that Singaporeans enjoy being in the diverse family of the Commonwealth. Like Australia we hope that this will remain a strong and positive bond for a long time.”

Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip on 11th July 1947. Photo credit: Nationaal Archief . Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

It has been said that the British public prefers a sort of Sunday lunch, afternoon tea, walk-in-the park image of royalty projected through a good and harmonious family life. However, most people in the world are in fact likely to prefer this sort of image of stability emanating from a head of state. One of the most psychologically powerful images in society is that of family and it can be said that most people are members of many sorts of family. Besides one’s own personal family there is often an office family, a club family – and a royal family is the national family. In some way a royal family is also every citizen’s family. From similar remarks by both the Queen and Prince Philip’s many admirers and supporters it is apparent that what the monarchy supplies is unity, stability and seamless continuity and that while all royal events reflect this, coronations especially are a chance to celebrate it. In fact, coronations are a religious service, a fact which Queen Elizabeth as head of the Church of England took very seriously at her coronation.

When Prince Philip arrived on the scene as Princess Elizabeth’s potential spouse he was looked at askance. Who was he? He was Greek, Danish and German. He also had some Russian blood and was a polyglot who was fluent in German, French and English. So, notwithstanding the fact that Queen Victoria was his great, great grandmother in the beginning he was viewed by many as a foreigner. Some of the old guard at the palace are reportedly even said to have referred to him as “that Greek” despite being unable to speak Greek and having lived there only for the first 18 months of his life. When Prince Philip married Princess Elizabeth Britain had just come out of the Second World War victorious and still had an empire on which the sun never set but despite their vast empire which included so many races and ethnicities the British often looked at foreigners with suspicion.

Added to all this Philip appeared to have no proper family. After the age of 7 he was no longer brought up by his parents but appears to have been shunted around to relatives and boarding schools rather like an orphan. His father had moved to the south of France where he died in 1944 and his mother was institutionalized in Switzerland whereas his sisters had married German royalty. Prince Philip’s marriage to Princess Elizabeth was just after the Second World War when Germany was still looked upon by many as the enemy and the Queen Mother was very British without all the German bloodlines of her husband and her attitude is reported to have been very anti-German.

So, who was Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh?

The former royal villa Mon Repos where Prince Philip was born. Photo credit: Marc Ryckaert (MJJR), CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons .org/licenses/by/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

He was born Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark at the Villa Mon Repos on the island of Corfu on the 10th of June 1921. Mon Repos is a pleasant villa that is a comfortable walk from the town of Corfu along the waterfront from the old fortress, then through forest grounds not far from the beach. His father was Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark who inherited Mon Repos after his father, King George I of Greece was assassinated during World War I.

Prince Philip’s grandfather, King George I was in fact a Danish prince born in Copenhagen who at the age of 17 was unanimously elected by the Greek National Assembly to become the King of Greece and who was the first of the Danish Greek Glucksburg dynasty to rule Greece. It is perhaps interesting to note that King George I came from a modest but extremely ambitious Danish royal family with a very active policy of extending its power through marriage. His sister, Alexandra was married to the British king while his sister, Dagmar became the consort of the Tsar of Russia and his sister, Thyra was married to the King of Hanover. When King George accepted the throne of Greece it was with the background of a family intent on spreading its dynastic influence and he was determined to keep the Greek throne unlike his predecessor King Otto from Bavaria who the Greeks deposed.

King George I reigned for 50 years until his assassination in 1913. He appears to have done his best to become a good king for the Greek people. Unlike King Otto, he was allowed to refer of himself as King of the Hellenes rather than the King of Greece which was far more popular with the Greeks as the Hellenes covered more territory. In Denmark he had been known as Prince William but upon ascending the Greek throne he began using his middle name George – probably a more familiar name for Greeks than William, for George is one of the most important patron saints of Greece. Arriving at the age of 17 he rapidly learnt Greek and later married the Russian Grand Duchess Olga Constantinovna of Russia in 1867. He deliberately chose a wife who was an Orthodox Christian – as are most Greeks – because one of the terms of his becoming king was that his children would be raised in the Greek Orthodox tradition. In this way despite privately being a Lutheran he reassured his subjects of his children’s religious upbringing.

Portrait of the father of Prince Philip, Prince Andrew of Denmark and Greece in 1913 by Philip de Laszlo (1869-1937). Photo credit: Philip de László, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

King George I was succeeded by his son King Constantine I who was Prince Philip’s uncle. After a career in the military Prince Philip’s father, Prince Andrew served as a major general in the Greek army during the Greco-Turkish War (1919–1922) but the war did not go well for Greece, and Prince Andrew was blamed for the loss of Greek territory. He was arrested, court marshalled and found guilty of disobeying orders during the Battle of Sakarya. He fled with his family on a cruiser, the HMS Calypso sent by Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, King George V. Prince Philip who was still a little baby was placed in an orange crate fashioned by the sailors. 

Prince Philip, his 4 sisters and their parents lived in Paris until Philip was about 7 years old when his family separated. His mother had a nervous breakdown. Philip’s sisters who married into the German nobility moved to Germany and his father moved to the South of France. In 1937 tragedy struck when his sister Cecillie who was pregnant at the time, her husband the Duke of Hesse by Rhine and their two young sons were killed in a plane crash. Cecillie was his favourite sister and it must have been very traumatic for Prince Philip. It was only at his sister’s funeral that he first saw his mother again. Once the War broke out Prince Andrew was trapped in the South of France until his death in 1944. The husbands of his remaining three daughters fought for the German side while his son Philip was fighting for the British. All during the War he was unable to communicate with his son whom he never saw again. After the War Prince Philip flew to the South of France to pick up his father’s belongings including a signet ring which he always wore thereafter.

Prince Philip’s mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg in 1903. Photo credit: User Riera on ca.wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Prince Philip’s mother was Princess Alice of Battenburg who was the daughter of Princess Victoria of Hesse by Rhine, and the great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Her father was Prince Louis of Battenburg. She married Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark in 1903. After the family fled Greece and were living in France she suffered a nervous breakdown in 1922 and was institutionalized in Switzerland. Among the doctors treating her was Dr Sigmund Freud. At the age of 7 Prince Philip was sent to England to live with his maternal grandmother Princess Victoria of Hesse by Rhine.

Princess Alice was released in the mid-1930s and was very angry with her relatives for placing her in a mental institution. She returned to live in Greece where she volunteered for the Red Cross and soup kitchens. The princess was a deeply religious woman and helped save Jews by hiding them during the War. In 1949 she became a nun and founded the Order of the Christian Sisterhood of Martha and Mary.

After the fall of King Constantine II of Greece and the imposition of military rule in Greece in 1967, she was invited by her son and daughter-in-law to live at Buckingham Palace in London, where she died two years later. In 1988, her remains were transferred to the Church of the Russian Orthodox convent of Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem.

Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip at a country retreat after their wedding in November 1947. Photo credits: Sagers, Harry/Anefo. Nationaal Archief. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Prince Philip meanwhile, was sent to a boarding school in Germany at Schule Schloss Salem in Germany because it was owned by the family of his brother-in-law, the Margrave of Baden. During the Nazi era the Jewish founder of the school, Kurt Hahn, fled and founded Gordonstoun School in Scotland. Philip was placed there and taken care of by his mother’s British relatives the Battenbergs who had by then Anglicized their name to Mountbatten. Later Prince Philip served in the royal navy and was commended for his bravery. He witnessed the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay. By then he had already met and fallen in love with Princess Elizabeth. Prince Philip became a naturalized British subject and took his maternal family name Mountbatten. In 1947 he married Princess Elizabeth.

Peter Carey believes that despite being parted from her at the age of 7 the most important figure in Prince Philip’s life was his mother, “As far as I can see, it was his mother who went through hell, suffered severe psychological illness but came out having found a deep faith and in the last 2 years of her life had a profound effect on Prince Philip; leading him to set up a retreat centre for mid-career Anglican priests to recharge their faith.”

Prince Philip and his mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg in 1966 at the marriage of Prince Karl of Hesse. Photo credits: unknown photographer/Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

His mother’s last letter to him read, “Dearest Philip, be brave, and remember I will never leave you, and you will always find me when you need me most. All my devoted love, your old Mama.”

In the end Prince Philip’s life which began so dramatically ended very peacefully at Windsor Castle. His daughter-in-law Countess Sophie of Wessex, the wife of his youngest son Prince Edward described his death, “It was right for him. It was so gentle. It was just like somebody took him by the hand and off he went. Very, very peaceful…” and this must have been very comforting for Queen Elizabeth II who described it as a miracle. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

If you enjoyed this article you may want to read Part II of the series: https://observerid.com/prince-philip-monarchies-today-and-what-his-life-has-meant-for-the-british-monarchy-part-ii/