When the Prince of Wales paid his moving tribute to his “dear papa”, saying that he and the royal family would miss him enormously, his pain was palpable. Charles said his father was a “much loved and appreciated figure” and a “very special person”. His words came from the heart.
For years the narrative in the media and in dramas like The Crown was that they had spent a lifetime quarrelling and that Princess Anne was the son he wished he’d had. This is wrong. The reality is that in the last decade or so both men, whose love for one another was never in doubt, had mellowed. They understood and respected each other. They may still not have agreed with each other, but each would listen to the other’s point of view.
They shared common ground on many areas; on nature, on religion. They both loved to paint, Philip in oils, Charles mainly in watercolours. Perhaps most importantly Philip increasingly felt Charles’s time had come and he was proud at the way he had stepped up as the Queen’s “liegeman” on his own retirement. He admired the way Charles was running the Home Farms at Windsor and Sandringham as organic entities.
It is a contrast with Charles’s childhood. Alpha-male Philip’s firm hand when dealing with the rather sensitive, deep-thinking Charles overwhelmed his early years. Philip felt that tough love was crucial to avoid his son being over-indulged.
He showed little affection to his eldest son. Charles’s education at Gordonstoun School — a place and educational system he loathed, calling it “Colditz in Kilts” — led to the strained relationship continuing into adulthood. In later years it is understood that Philip felt, with hindsight, he had failed to appreciate character traits where his son’s capabilities were quite brilliant.
Far from the quiet introvert his father mistook him for, Charles had real talent as an actor, an artist and writer. He was sharp-witted, funny and charming, without being loud or boisterous. He was a pretty good sportsman too and a brilliant shot. Charles had an inner resilience — a steel — that perhaps Philip failed to see.
Perhaps the worst time in their relationship was when the Prince and Princess of Wales’s marriage fell apart due to their incompatibility and adultery.
Philip tried hard to help the warring couple find common ground. Few outside royal circles were aware how hard he worked during the breakdown of Diana’s marriage to Charles. Philip actually enjoyed a good rapport with Diana at the start. Claims that she hated Philip were not true.
Their relationship had begun well too. The two would chat at functions and he helped her conquer her innate shyness. As Charles and Diana’s marriage began to fail, Philip tried to help, writing his daughter-in-law in warm and encouraging correspondence, signing off with the word “Pa”.
“Diana showed me some of the correspondence between the two of them. They were very warm and genuine,” said the princess’s personal protection officer at the time, Inspector Ken Wharfe.
“There was nothing aggressive in the letters, the duke was encouraging and praising her. All the talk that Diana hated the Duke of Edinburgh is wide of the mark. It certainly was not the case when I was with her,” added the respected police officer who retired as her bodyguard in 1993 after eight years guarding her.
Even after the formal separation of the Prince and Princess of Wales in November 1992, Philip continued to try to heal the divisions and save the failing marriage or to at least find a solution that would not damage the institution. That said, in the end, he was exasperated by Diana. Charles found a rare moment of solace in a letter he received from his normally critical father, who wrote that he felt Charles had displayed the “fortitude of a saint” by putting up with the princess.
It was also wrongly suggested that Philip’s domineering nature had been partly responsible for the doomed royal marriage. Philip in no way forced Charles to marry Diana.
What’s more — and this is significant — Charles didn’t consider him in any way to blame for what turned out to be a “cataclysmic’ mistake”.
If anything, the situation and his indecisiveness backed him into a corner he could not get out of. Or as he put it, he was “between the devil and the deep blue sea”.
A landmark date in Charles and Philip’s relationship was the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. Afterwards, their relationship improved. Four days of celebratory events culminated in an appearance by the Queen on the Buckingham Palace balcony in front of a huge, cheering crowd.
Prince Philip’s absence that June day was a catalyst for a major shake-up in thinking at the heart of the royal family. Senior palace insiders remarked privately that it had simply looked wrong for the then 86-year-old monarch to be entering St Paul’s Cathedral for a celebration of her own life in the complete absence of a male family member at her side as a supporter.
As the party had rolled on, news emerged that, on the advice of his doctors, the duke would have to miss the jubilee concert, organised by singer Gary Barlow, and he had even been hospitalised. Among the media, there was a mood of genuine concern. Fortunately, on cue, Prince Charles stepped up to the mark and left his mother visibly moved by his kind, warm and in places emotional speech in praise of her at the end of the concert.
It was when he made a poignant reference to the Duke of Edinburgh, who was in hospital just a few miles away, that the Queen’s stiff upper lip for once appeared to weaken, if only for a moment. He continued: “Your Majesty, millions, we are told, dream of having tea with you. Quite a lot nearly had a picnic with you in the garden of Buckingham Palace.
“The only sad thing about this evening is that my father could not be here with us because, unfortunately, he was taken unwell. But, ladies and gentlemen, if we shout loud enough he might just hear us in hospital and get better.” Spontaneous cheers and applause broke out.
One senior figure said: “It is fair to say that [Charles and Philip] have never been closer since the duke retired. Without royal duties to worry about he could become a father and grandfather. At last he had time.”
The last time Charles saw his father in person was on Tuesday last week when he stopped at Windsor Castle en route to London from Highgrove. They spoke on the phone regularly too.
Despite his fearsome reputation, Philip was always self-effacing when asked to talk about himself. Any discussion of his accomplishments always made him feel uncomfortable.
In truth he was a modest man. He didn’t believe in talking about himself. One of the best pieces of advice he gave was to talk about everything but yourself.
Philip said before his death that he didn’t want an extravagant public celebration should he reach his landmark 100th birthday on June 10 this year. It was, after all, not his style. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph in 2000, when discussing the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday, Philip made it clear he had no desire whatsoever to reach the same age. In a typically flippant remark, he said:“I can’t imagine anything worse. Bits of me are falling off already.”
Sadly, for the rest of us, he did not reach that milestone birthday. He and Charles were in constant contact towards the end and Philip told his son to look after the Queen.