Prince Philip’s early years - Childhood tragedy to the Queen’s greatest consort

Robert Jobson
·16-min read
<p>The royal couple first met — fleetingly — in 1934</p> (S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Archive)

The royal couple first met — fleetingly — in 1934

(S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Archive)

Prince Philip, who has died at the age of 99, had something of nomadic childhood.

The future Queen’s consort was born on a dining-room table at his family’s villa on Corfu on June 10, 1921. His mother, a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, was Princess Alice of Battenberg, whose family took the name Mountbatten.

His father Andrew, a major-general in the Greek army, was the son of George I, a former Danish prince who was installed as king of Greece in 1863 and assassinated in 1913. Andrew had left Athens to take up his command the day before the birth and did not see his only son for months.

Named Philippos, a prince of Greece and Denmark, the “splendid, healthy child”, in his mother’s words, was sixth in line to the Greek throne. His family, however, was vulnerable. Greece was at war with Turkey and, after a heavy defeat for which the royals were blamed, a faction of officers seized power in September 1922 and forced Andrew’s brother King Constantine to abdicate.

Andrew, warned by a hostile minister that his son and four daughters would soon be orphans, was court- martialled in Athens. Although he was spared death — following British intervention — the prince was sent into exile. At the behest of his cousin, George V, the family were spirited to safety in the cruiser HMS Calypso. Philip was not yet two.

With no money or papers, the refugees made their way to Britain before Andrew’s elder brother Prince George of Greece and his wife gave them a lodge in the grounds of their mansion in Saint Cloud, a suburb of Paris. Supported by relatives, the family enrolled Philip in an American school known as the Elms, where Alice encouraged the headmaster to set up a Cub Scout group and put her son’s “great vitality to good use”.

The years of turmoil had taken a toll on Philip’s parents and their marriage. Alice’s mental health declined in the late Twenties and she was eventually committed to a psychiatric clinic in Switzerland in May 1930. Philip was soon entrusted into the care of her brother George Mountbatten, 2nd Marquess of Milford Haven, in England. Aged nine, he started at Cheam school in Surrey, where he won a clutch of sports trophies and joined the cricket first XI.

By the end of 1931, his four older sisters had all married members of the German nobility and, from the summer of 1932 to 1937, Philip did not hear from his mother. She later took holy orders, becoming a Greek Orthodox nun.

Meanwhile Andrew, who had shut the family home at Saint Cloud, moved to southern France. Although he remained involved in Philip’s education, Andrew saw him only intermittently in the years that followed. He was to die in Monaco in 1944, separated from his son by the war. Years later, asked about the break-up of his family, Philip said: “I just had to get on with it. You do. One does.”

Getty Images
Getty Images

In 1933, apparently in line with the wishes of his sister Theodora, he briefly joined her husband’s school at Salem in south Germany. Its co-founder, the Jewish intellectual Kurt Hahn, fled the rise of the Nazis and founded Gordonstoun, a boarding school in Moray, Scotland, where he developed a testing, spartan regime. To his relief, Philip returned to Britain in 1934 to attend the school. He again excelled at sport, becoming captain of the hockey and cricket teams, and later acted as head boy. Hahn’s ethos was to stay with him.

In the spring of 1937 he saw his mother for the first time in almost five years but, aged 16, was hit by a double tragedy. That November his pregnant sister Cecile died in a plane crash in Belgium with her husband and children. Hahn, who broke the news to Philip, recalled that his sorrow “was that of a man”.

Briefly reunited with his estranged parents at the funeral in Germany, Philip suffered another blow the next April when George Mountbatten died from cancer at the age of 45. His care fell to his other maternal uncle Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten, a friend of the royals. It was Dickie, later Earl Mountbatten of Burma and First Sea Lord, who was to change Philip’s life for ever by urging him to pursue a career in the Royal Navy.

Love and war

Philip first met Elizabeth, fleetingly, in 1934 at the wedding of his cousin, Princess Marina of Greece, to the Duke of Kent, Elizabeth’s uncle, in London. Five years later, in July 1939, Elizabeth, who had forgotten the meeting and was now first in line to the throne, toured Dartmouth Naval College with her parents.

Lord Mountbatten was present and Philip, an 18-year-old cadet, was given the duty of looking after the princess and her younger sister Margaret, his third cousins. Elizabeth, then 13, was smitten. Philip took her off to play croquet and to the tennis courts to have “some real fun jumping over the nets”.

The next day he and fellow cadets joined the royal party for tea. Elizabeth’s governess, Marion Crawford, wrote that the princess’s eyes followed him everywhere.

George VI had hardly noticed Philip until it was time to leave. As the royal yacht sailed away, Philip and a few cadets took charge of several small craft and set off in pursuit. A gale set in and his fellow cadets turned back, but Philip kept on rowing while Elizabeth watched him through her binoculars, captivated. The King eventually spotted him and remarked: “The young fool. He must go back!” Philip’s boldness, however, had made a lasting impression on the young princess. He was no fool in her mind.

Within months, the Second World War broke out and Philip was sent to sea. As a Greek citizen he was at first deployed as a “neutral foreigner” serving on escort and convoy missions. After Italy invaded Greece in 1940 he was assigned to HMS Valiant, a battleship that would soon see action in the Mediterranean.

As a midshipman, he was mentioned in dispatches for his operation of searchlights during the night-time Battle of Cape Matapan in 1941, when the British destroyed several Italian warships, and awarded Greece’s War Cross of Valour.

By the time of the Allied invasion of Sicily in June 1943, Philip had been assigned as first lieutenant to the destroyer HMS Wallace. Sixty years later a veteran, Harry Hargreaves, recalled how Philip saved the crew after a German bomber attacked the warship in the dead of night. During a lull in the bombardment, the prince came up with a plan to dump a wooden raft overboard with smoke floats that would give the appearance of blazing debris. The pilot was duped and the Wallace sailed away.

“Prince Philip saved our lives that night,” Mr Hargreaves later recalled. “He was always very courageous and resourceful and thought very quickly. You would say to yourself, ‘What the hell are we going to do now?’ and Philip would come up with something.”

In 1944 Philip transferred to HMS Whelp, a destroyer that saw action in the Pacific as part of a British fleet involved with joint operations with the US navy, including the landings at Iwo Jima. He was in the Whelp in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered in 1945. Asked, at 90, about being thrust into combat at such an early age, he replied: “Well, so were lots of other people of my generation.”

A royal marriage

Elizabeth had not forgotten Philip. During the war she kept a photograph of him in her room and the pair wrote to each other. He occasionally visited Windsor Castle on leave, but the blossoming relationship was never made public. In January 1946, he arrived back from the Far East and was later posted to the Royal Navy Petty Officers’ School in Corsham, Wiltshire. In a letter, Elizabeth, who turned 20 that April, wrote that it was after this that she and Philip “started seeing more of each other”.

In her memoirs, Marion Crawford described the prince’s MG roaring into the forecourt of Buckingham Palace and Philip getting out, “always in a hurry to see Lilibet”. For her part, Elizabeth remembered having “great fun” being driven around in the car — of which Philip, she wrote, “was very proud”.

In the summer of 1946 Philip was invited to Balmoral, where he is understood to have proposed in the heather, wearing a borrowed pair of plus-fours. Thanking Queen Elizabeth, his future mother-in-law, he wrote: “To have been spared in war and seen victory, to have been given the chance to rest and re-adjust myself, to have fallen in love completely and unreservedly, makes all one’s personal and even the world’s troubles seems small and petty.”


The announcement was delayed until July 1947, after Elizabeth had reached the age of 21 and returned from a tour of South Africa. By then, Philip had undergone the process to become a naturalised Briton, relinquished his royal titles and taken the Mountbatten name. Before the wedding, the King created him Duke of Edinburgh, Baron Greenwich and Earl of Merioneth.

The ceremony took place in Westminster Abbey on November 20, 1947. Two thousand guests were invited and 200 million people around the world listened on the radio. Afterwards Philip’s mother Alice wrote to him: “I was so comforted to see the truly happy expression on your face and to feel your decision was right from every point of view.”

The couple honeymooned at Broadlands, Lord Mountbatten’s home in Hampshire, which they would revisit decades later to celebrate their 60th anniversary, and Birkhall on the Balmoral estate. On their return the couple moved into Buckingham Palace as a temporary residence until their marital home, Clarence House, was ready.

During the honeymoon, Philip wrote to his mother-in-law to tell her of his ambition for his and Elizabeth’s marriage. He wanted, he said, “to weld the two of us into a new combined existence that will not only be able to withstand the shocks directed at us but will also have a positive existence for the good”.

Queen and country

Despite his best intentions, Philip soon found that he was treated like an outsider by the palace’s “Old Guard” and leading establishment figures. Harold Macmillan, later Conservative prime minister, epitomised their attitude when he wrote in his diary: “I fear this young man is going to be as big a bore as Prince Albert... it was really much better when royalty were just pleasant and polite.”

These obstacles were to become more apparent after the coronation in 1953. For the time being, Philip had a new home to decorate, a young family and a naval career. In November 1948, six days before his and Elizabeth’s first anniversary, their son Charles was born. Philip was playing squash at the time and, on hearing the news, dashed back to the palace, picking up champagne and carnations.

In October 1949, Philip was posted to Malta as the second-in-command of the destroyer HMS Chequers and Elizabeth decided to divide her time between the island, where Lord Mountbatten and his wife hosted the couple, and her baby at home in Clarence House.

It was one of the happiest periods of Philip’s life as a sailor and the closest he and his wife came to living an ordinary married life. They entertained themselves with picnics and swimming trips and Elizabeth behaved like other young officers’ wives of the time, shopping, going for coffee and visiting the hairdresser. When she was six months pregnant with her second child, Elizabeth went home again. Anne was born in August 1950. A second son, Andrew, would follow in 1960 and a third, Edward, four years after that.

By 1951, Philip was well on the way to an accomplished career and had been appointed to his first command, the frigate HMS Magpie. Fate was to intervene. The king’s health, long faltering, took a turn for the worse in the summer. As preparations were made for Elizabeth to take up more of his royal duties, Philip left the Navy on “indefinite leave”, flying home from Malta in July. A successful tour to Canada followed and, at the end of January the next year, he and Elizabeth travelled to Kenya on a royal visit. George VI, only 52 but with his body wracked by cancer, saw them off at London Airport. Three days later the couple travelled to Sagana lodge and from there drove after lunch on February 5 to another lodge, Treetops. They spent the night watching the wildlife, oblivious to the events unfolding at home.

At 10 Downing Street Winston Churchill was informed that George VI had died in his sleep at Sandringham, the royal home in Norfolk. The Prime Minister did not want to go public until the new queen was told but had no choice. It would be four hours before Philip heard the news, whereupon he steeled himself and took Elizabeth outside for a walk in the garden at Sagana. On the afternoon of February 6, 1952, he told his 25-year-old wife that her father had died and she was queen.

Nothing would ever be the same for either of them. When Elizabeth arrived in London, she was met at the airport by Churchill. Philip waited at the top of the aircraft steps until his wife, and queen, took the lead. It would be that way for the rest of his public life.

After months of preparation, with Philip chairing the Coronation Commission, Elizabeth was crowned on June 2, 1953, at Westminster Abbey. Philip, in his uniform as Admiral of the Fleet, swore to be her “liegeman of life and limb and of earthly worship”, before touching her crown and kissing her on the cheek (he later asked her: “Where did you get that hat?”). The ceremony was broadcast on television, for the first time, across the UK and the rest of the world to some 350 million people. Decades later, in an interview to mark his 90th birthday, Philip spoke of his disappointment at having to give up his career. He knew, however, that his “first duty” was to his wife — and monarch.

Crusading consort

As well as on public engagements across the UK, Philip accompanied the Queen on her Commonwealth tours and state visits. The first of these was the coronation tour from November 1953 to May 1954, when the couple visited countries in North America, the Caribbean, Australasia and Africa, travelling almost 44,000 miles by plane, car, rail and sea. The couple returned to a rapturous reception: after four appearances on Buckingham Palace’s balcony, with the last just before 11pm, the well-wishers were only persuaded to leave once the floodlights were turned off. Although the couple never again completed so long a tour, this roving role was to be the blueprint for their lives.

There was no template, though, for being the husband of the monarch. Philip’s exact title was debated at the highest levels of government — with Churchill suggesting Prince Consort — but he rejected any additions and only received his princehood from the Queen in 1957. He saw no state papers and, despite being a member of the House of Lords, by convention never spoke in the chamber.

As he had discovered after the wedding, he was not considered by senior courtiers to have any real standing. When one remarked to him disdainfully that he would get used to Windsor Castle in time, he retorted: “Thank you very much — my mother was born here.” Philip knew these new circumstances would be his challenge and decided to turn them to his advantage. He recalled: “There were plenty of people telling me what not to do. ‘You mustn’t interfere with this.’ I had to try to support the Queen as best I could without getting in the way. The difficulty was to find things that might be useful.”

Drawing on his experiences at Gordonstoun, and with the help of his old headmaster Kurt Hahn, he established the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award in 1956. He appointed John Hunt, leader of the British expedition that had scaled Everest three years earlier, as the scheme’s first director. The activity programme was born of Philip’s belief that the young should be given opportunities to learn about resilience, teamwork and develop a range of skills. By the time the scheme marked its 60th anniversary, more than 2.5 million awards had been earned.

It was typical of the hands-on involvement that helped give many organisations a push and in some cases, in Philip’s inimitable style, a good shove. It was as president of the World Wide Fund for Nature, first in the UK and later the international organisation, that he was perhaps at his most outspoken.

In 1984, when asked about the most serious issues facing the world, he said that the human population was reaching “plague proportions”, wiping out other species. The prince was a major force in the conservation movement and spoke frequently on the topic, later publishing collections of his speeches, alongside his works on bird-watching and carriage-driving.

He owned one of the first electric cars, had a lifelong interest in design, technology and innovation and was, in 1961, the first member of the royal family to give a televised interview, using it to warn about Britain’s technical skills. It was in this manner that Philip was able to play a part in areas that the Queen could not and would not have got involved in, modernising the monarchy and making it more relevant to the wider public. He introduced training programmes for the household staff and oversaw the opening of the Queen’s Gallery, at Buckingham Palace, to display parts of the Royal Collection.

This forward-thinking culminated in the pivotal moment when he invited the cameras in to film his young family, in Royal Family, shown on the BBC and ITV in 1969. Some 30 million people tuned in to see what the royal family did behind the scenes, including Philip frying sausages at a Balmoral barbecue.

Critics said the documentary, which has never been shown since, was a mistake, stripping the monarchy of its mystique. Yet Philip recognised that light had to be let in on the institution. After the programme aired, he said: “If people see whatever head of state as individuals, as people, I think it makes it much easier for them to accept the system.”

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