Traumatized By His Own Childhood In Exile, Philip Dedicated His Life To Protecting The Monarchy
It’s hard to believe knowing the reputation Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, had in his final years as a staunch defender of “traditional values,” and an institution marred in racism and colonialism, but the consort of Queen Elizabeth II was actually quite progressive for a royal. He helped to usher in a more modern spirit at the Court of St. James, closing the gap between the monarchy and the British public, and instilling a more inclusive atmosphere around the historically reclusive institution.
Prince Philip died last Friday at the age of 99, only two months short of his 100th birthday. He had been the longest serving, and living, consort of a British monarch, having served alongside his wife, Elizabeth II, for 69 years. That is 12 more years that the second longest reigning consort, Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III. (Yes, THAT King George III, and yes, Bridgerton fans, THAT Queen Charlotte)
A few weeks ago, after the Prince Harry and Meghan Markle fracas, I wrote a long piece about how the British Royal Family has repeatedly made stupid mistakes and decisions based on its obsession with keeping faith with the public; the key, in the minds of the royals, to their survival. However, the royal family has also made some progressive decisions that have worked in the family’s favor and helped maintain the shifting social realities of the past century. At the helm of many of these decisions, good and bad, has been Prince Philip. That will be his legacy, and there is a lot of personal history and trauma behind his dedication to protecting the Windsor Dynasty.
Denmark And Greece
The understand how Prince Philip built this legacy, we have start from his roots. A big part of the duke’s progressive vision for the monarchy came from his very own experience as a member of the Greek Royal Family. Philip was born in Corfu, Greece on June 10, 1921. Though born Greek, his family had not an ounce of Greek blood. Therein lain the problem.
Philip’s paternal grandfather, Prince Christian of Denmark, was born an obscure Danish noble with distant connections to the British, Prussian and Danish monarchies. His life changed dramatically when the Danish House of Oldenburg died out and his father inherited Denmark’s throne as King Christian IX. To solidify his tenuous hold on the crown, Christian married off his daughters to several royal families. They included the future Queen Alexandra of the United Kingdom, Elizabeth II’s great-grandmother. Christian also had plans for his sons as well. His eldest son would inherit Denmark’s crown, and the king found a prime spot for his second son on the Balkan Peninsula.
At that time, Greece had only been about thirty years removed from being liberated after centuries of Ottoman rule. After more than a millennia of having its culture, language and religion suppressed by Turks, Greece was finally able to reclaim its place amongst the nations of Europe. It was a rocky start. The German king Otto who was chosen to rule Greece after its liberation never gained a foothold in the country and was overthrown in 1862. That led the Greeks to search the royal families of Europe for another suitable contender. The Habsburg possibility, Maximilian, was out of contention, as he was already setting up his ill-fated empire in Mexico City, and the British, French and Prussian monarchies offered candidates, but ultimately it was Prince Christian, through the influence of his father, who was chosen to rule as King George I. Greece, down in Southern Europe with its ancient culture, traditions, language, orthodox religion and historical place in the world, was to be ruled by a family from a Germanic kingdom of Barbarian roots. This would go about as well as you might imagine.
Rather than making the obviously smart choice of a Greek bride, George I married a Russian princess, Olga, further alienating the royal family culturally from the people they ruled. This would have dire consequences. We’ll get to those consequences in a minute.
The British Connection
Prince Philip’s mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, was born in 1885 in the same place her son died last Friday and was laid to rest this weekend, Windsor Castle. A great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and a great-niece by marriage to the Greek king’s sister, Queen Alexandra, Alice was born deaf and learned to lip read in English and German, and eventually Greek and French. She grew up in Germany and England. She was a bridesmaid at the wedding of her future daughter-in-law’s grandparents, King George V and Queen Mary.
Because so little was understood about medicine at the time, Alice’s deafness was often mistaken for mental illness, and her condition lead to years of suffering at the hands of scientists and doctors, including the infamous Dr. Sigmund Freud.
In 1903, Alice married the seventh child of King George and Queen Olga of Greece, Prince Andrew, and relocated to Athens. Between 1905 and 1914, she gave birth to four daughters.
It is commonly, truthfully, said that Philip and Elizabeth besides being husband and wife, were cousins. This is true, they are distant cousins through both Philip’s mother, a member of the British Royal Family, and father, through the Danish Royal Family. Philip’s mother, Princess Alice, and Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, are both great-grandchildren of Queen Victoria. Also, Philip’s father, Prince Andrew, and Elizabeth’s grandfather, King George V, are first cousins, both grandchildren of King Christian IX of Denmark.
Philip’s Traumatic Childhood
The injurious experiences that drove Philip to be a reformer and a progressive started even before he was born. Remember when I said the Danish-Russian Royal Family ruling over Greece would have dire consequences? Well, those came to a head during World War I. The Greek people supported siding with the Allies in the war against Germany, Austria-Hungary and Greece’s sworn enemy, the Ottoman Empire. The Greek king Constantine, son of George I, wanted to remain neutral. This was in part due to his own German roots through his grandmother, Queen Louise of Denmark. King Constantine badly misread the Greek public. He was deposed and the whole royal family, including Prince Andrew, Princess Alice and their children, were sent into exile in 1917. They were returned to Greece the next year when the country became embroiled in a war with the Ottoman Empire’s successor country, Turkey, after the latter refused to give Greece its territories on the Aegean Coast promised at the end of World War I by the defeated Ottomans.
While Greece and Turkey were at war, Princess Alice gave birth to her only son and youngest child, Philip, in Corfu in the Ionian Sea, 50 miles east of the heel of Italy. Fourteen months after Philip’s birth, Greece was defeated by Turkey. Prince Andrew, who was the military commander in the war, was blamed for the loss and the royal family was once again sent into exile. Prince Andrew narrowly escaped execution for treason, saved only by the British, who sent a warship to Athens Harbor as a threat. Baby Philip escaped Greece on that warship in an orange crate.
The family settled in Paris, but Princess Alice, already marginalized due to her condition. was so scarred by the experience of being twice exiled in five years, she suffered a nervous breakdown and ended up institutionalized. Their adult daughters married into German nobility and young Philip was sent to the United Kingdom and raised primarily by Alice’s younger brother, Louis Mountbatten (who was the Lord Mountbatten assassinated by the IRA in 1979). Philip did not even have a surname, so he adopted his uncle’s surname of Mountbatten, an Anglicization of the German royal house Alice and Louis was born into – Battenberg.
It was in living in England as a teenager that he met his future wife, the Princess Elizabeth, and married her in 1947 after serving in the Royal Navy in World War II, setting the stage to be consort to the future queen regnant.
The trauma of having fled Greece and seeing his family torn apart in exile at such a young age left a huge impression in Prince Philip, and he focused his work on making sure that his young family in London avoided a similar fate.
The Consort’s Influence
When Philip became consort, he and his wife were heading a monarchy that had already been damaged by the abdication of Elizabeth’s uncle sixteen years earlier. Philip’s mother-in-law and predecessor as consort, the Queen Mother, did a lot of the leg work to repair the monarchy’s tattered reputation with the British public, and Philip picked up where she had left off, and moved in an even more progressive direction.
It was Philip who urged his wife to make changes to how the monarchy connects with the public. He pushed to open up the palace to common Britons to meet their monarch, a tradition previously reserved only for the nobility and the upper class. He urged the queen to do more radio and later television speeches, beginning with her landmark televised Christmas speech in 1957, which she continues to do annually to this day. In fact, in many times during her reign, the queen took her husband’s advice and used television as a medium to speak to her people in times of crisis. Most recently, she gave a well-received speech at the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic urging national cooperation and unity in the face of the country’s first lockdown.
Perhaps the most notable moment in Prince Philip’s history as consort came in the late 1960s, when he invited the BBC to film a documentary called Royal Family, which showed the everyday lives of the royals. The documentary was widely panned when it aired in 1969, with even renowned television host David Attenborough warning that it could “kill” the monarchy. The queen later banned the documentary and it hasn’t been showed in the UK since 1977. It has since leaked on the internet. However, modern historians consider the documentary, and the duke’s ease in appearing on television news programs and sitting for interviews during that time, as a major step forward in terms of the monarchy reclaiming its populist mantle in the late 20th Century.
Despite the common wisdom otherwise, and the way it was portrayed in the 2005 movie The Queen, it was Prince Philip who apparently nudged his wife into giving the speech to the nation after the death of Princess Diana. That speech helped to quiet the harsh criticism lobbed at the queen and the royal family that week, and helped the monarchy escape perhaps its greatest threat during Elizabeth’s reign. The move, along with his choice to support his grandsons’ decision to walk behind Diana’s coffin at her funeral – and walk with them – humanized the royal family and helped erase the bad taste that developed in the mouths of the British people in the wake of Diana’s death.
What He Got Wrong
Philip’s desire to help his wife’s family sustain their position was a noble one, and one that he will be rewarded with as his legacy, but it may have been largely unnecessary.
Unlike Philip’s grandfather, King George of Greece, not a single monarch since William of Normandy came to power without a drop of English blood. Even when the Stuarts, who were Scots, and the Hanovers, who were German, inherited the throne, they did so through recent English ancestors: The Stuarts through Henry VIII’s sister Margaret and the Hanovers through James I’s daughter Elizabeth. No English monarch came to power the way Philip’s family did in Greece.
Nine centuries of tradition and relative stability, including having been overthrown in the 17th Century for a decade, anchored the British monarchy in a way Philip’s family never even tried to anchor itself in Athens.
Further, monarchies that still existed at the time when Elizabeth became queen have largely survived through now, with the exception of just a few. The ones that have been abolished, like Nepal and Iran, were after extraordinary circumstances. In Nepal’s case, it happened a few years after a massacre, committed by the crown prince, leads to the deaths of nearly the entire royal family.
In fact, some monarchies that were abolished in the 20th Century were restored during Elizabeth’s reign, including those in Spain, Cambodia, Kuwait and Greece, though the latter was later overthrown again for a final time in 1967. In the past seven decades, monarchies that survived the upheaval of the early- and mid-20th century, tended to find some stability in the later part of the century. It’s not entirely clear the British monarchy was ever truly in danger during Prince Philip’s time as consort, even during its nadir in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death.
What He Got Right
It’s worth noting though that while some of Philip’s decisions and influences may have led to mistakes, those mistakes often did lead to great successes in the long term. There is no doubt that opening the British monarchy up to the people through television and meeting with commoners fit the trend of the royals crafting a contemporary populist image that sustained them for a millennium.
Sure, without Philip, it is entirely possible Britain would have become a Republic, and the royal family exiled. There were a number of crises where Philip’s quick-thinking and progressive ideas, as well as influence over his wife, helped. The Diana speech the most obvious example. I don’t think it is likely that Philip alone was the key to the monarchy sustaining, but he may just have been the key for it to sustain in the future.
Despite his own mixed success, the one place where his influence may pay off is on his descendants, especially his grandchildren, who have been quick to adapt to changing times themselves. Prince William, the future king, has often spoken of his grandfather as big influence in the way he approaches his role as a royal. His more public image; his openness and comfort talking to members of the public, come directly from Prince Philip, as does Prince Harry’s very open and genuine personality. There’s no doubt that Prince Harry’s decision to sit with his wife and Oprah Winfrey last month is the product of Prince Philip’s influence, for better or for worse. The desire to control the story and the narrative and directly communicate with people, rather than allowing it to go through the media spin machine, is a trait the duke brought to the family.
If Prince Philip’s record as consort is one of mixed success, it is entirely possible his true successes still lie ahead in the generations of royals he leaves behind. If that is the case, then in another 99 years, history may look back at the duke as the most consequential British consort in history.