Philip the sportsman

Laura Elston, PA Court Reporter
·5-min read

The Duke of Edinburgh was an accomplished all-round sportsman with a particular passion for polo and carriage driving.

He achieved international standard in both and, after being forced to give up polo at the age of 50 with an arthritic wrist, became a member of Britain’s world champion carriage driving team.

Carriage driving
The Duke of Edinburgh drives through a water obstacle during the Famous Grouse National Carriage Driving Championships at Windsor (PA)

A schoolboy athlete, he threw the javelin well.

He played hockey and cricket, once taking the wicket of England’s Tom Graveney in a Duke of Norfolk’s XI match.

He tried football and rugby without distinction, and swam and scuba-dived, practising in the Buckingham Palace pool.

Philip playing cricket
The duke bowling during a 12-a-side cricket match (PA)

An accomplished yachtsman, he competed regularly for 50 years at Cowes.

He missed only three Cowes Week regattas between 1947 and 1997 when he decided not to register as skipper of a yacht.

Philip also took on the country pursuits of hunting, shooting and fishing, and was a high-flying pilot.

The duke sailing
Philip helping the yacht Yeoman in the Sigma 38 Fleet at Cowes during the Admiral’s Cup (PA)

But it was polo that he enjoyed the most.

For 20 years he played uncompromising polo, picking up numerous trophies as well as plenty of injuries.

Encouraged by his Uncle Dickie – Earl Mountbatten of Burma – Philip played polo during a naval posting to Malta in 1949.

He had first taken up the sport briefly before the Second World War and, back in Britain following the Queen’s accession in 1952, became one of the country’s leading players.

Philip played at Cowdray Park in Sussex, where Lord Cowdray was instrumental in reviving the game in Britain after the war.

Philip playing polo
The duke, with his left arm bandaged, as he returned from practice at Cowdray Park (PA)

In 1956, Philip was among the founders of the Household Brigade Polo Club at Smith’s Lawn, Windsor Great Park, and he captained the Windsor Park team.

In 1966, he was chosen to play for England in a tournament in Argentina but was unable to take part due to a Government £50 travel allowance limit on British nationals.

He would have become the first member of the royal family to have represented his country at sport.

Philip, whose normal position was back, had been chosen on merit because he was the second-highest-rated polo player at the time.

Hurlingham Polo Association, the sport’s ruling body, raised Philip’s handicap to five in 1964, after he had scored 50 winning goals, which left only one other English player, Paul Withers, with a higher handicap of six.

What he called his “dodgy wrist” prompted Philip to give up polo in 1971 after which he decided to find a new sport to concentrate on.

“I suppose I could have left it at that, but I have never felt comfortable as a spectator,” he admitted.

Tennis, golf and squash were no good for his wrist and sailing would have taken him away from home at weekends.

“It then suddenly occurred to me that this carriage driving might be just the sport,” Philip said.

The Royal Windsor Horse Show
Philip taking part in the pony four-in-hand at the Royal Windsor Horse Show in 2005 (Tim Ockenden/PA)

The duke as president of the International Equestrian Federation had initiated drafting the first international rules for carriage driving in 1968, which sparked an interest in the sport.

In 1971, he went to Budapest to watch the first European championship and then the World Championships in Germany in 1972 to see how the rules were working.

Philip began training himself, starting with five bays from the Royal Mews and a four-in-hand driver at Sandringham with help from Major Tommy Thompson, former riding master of the Household Cavalry.

He began his competitive career in 1973.

In 1980 he was a member of the victorious British team at the world carriage driving championships held at Windsor and of the UK’s bronze-medal-winning team in the European championships in Switzerland the following year.

Towards the end of the 1980s, he ceased driving four-in-hand teams but continued to drive competitively with teams of ponies.

By far his most famous convert was Lady Penny Romsey, whom he coached. He also taught his daughter-in-law, the Countess of Wessex.

The sport was a hazardous one and Philip had what he called his own “annus horribilis” in 1994 with “no less than eight disasters”.

“I must have got a bit too close to the rails on the way off it. The next thing I knew I was out of my seat and flying through the air to the left,” he wrote of one of the incidents in his aptly titled book 30 Years On And Off The Box Seat.

Even in his 80s, the duke still competed and retained his love of the fast-paced sport.

On a mini motorbike at Windsor
The duke and Lady Penny Romsey riding mini motorbikes as they check out the course at the Royal Windsor Horse Show (Andrew Parsons/PA)

“I am getting old,” he wrote. “My reactions are getting slower and my memory is unreliable, but I have not lost the sheer pleasure of driving a team through the British countryside.”

He eventually retired from the sport in his mid-80s when many his age had ceased to be involved with competitive sports decades ago, but he still took part non-competitively in his 90s.