The Magazine

Philip the Good

The royal consort as hero.

Feb 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 21 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
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Last April’s wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, ubiquitously covered from Westminster Abbey by every medium from satellite to iPhone, served up a reminder that even we in this constitutional republic, where all are equal, can always be counted on to get caught up with the lives of those who are a good deal more equal than others.

Prince Philip with Queen Elizabeth in 2007

Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth (2007)


This proves especially true of British royalty, whose rituals of continuity and, even more, decorum offer up an object of contemplation raised a bit above pop stars and celebrity criminals. While the coming crop of princes and princesses gives us the faces of the future, Philip Eade’s new biography explores the bumpy early life of one of the less visible yet markedly more stalwart of the current House of Windsor, His Royal Highness Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, diminutively labeled in the subtitle as “the man who married Queen Elizabeth II.” But as Eade shows, there’s a good deal more to Prince Philip than simply a man who made a good marriage. On the day he married the future monarch he was already a man of remarkable achievements, his own man—and he became the queen’s man only at a cost of vast personal sacrifice.

At first blush, the purpose of this book is less than obvious. The ground covered here has been conspicuously plowed by others, Gyles Brandreth, Hugo Vickers, and, 20 years ago, Tim Heald among them. A browse through Eade’s bibliography and notes doesn’t disclose any deep vein of new ore he has been availed of; most of his sources are secondary ones. Nonetheless, engraved, tea-stained hints dropped in the acknowledgments suggest that Eade has made himself enough of an insider for his labors to have been eased by named associates within Buckingham Palace, and the tact with which he handles both obscure biographical facts and chance wads of furtive innuendo gives us further confidence in the tale he tells—one especially worth telling in the wake of an errant generation of royals that has done little to enhance respect or bolster the sense of otherworldly splendor that monarchy has customarily served to inspire.

Prince Philip, now the longest-serving royal consort in British history, belongs squarely to a time when one simply got on with one’s job with sunny aplomb and didn’t whine over the personal fulfillment that jobs sometimes fail to provide. As with the queen herself, his life has not been about glamour. It’s been about duty.

That loyal, compliant disposition surely is due in part to pedigree. Philip’s marriage might be among the last of the old imperial kind. Although he hailed from northern European stock, he was born, by that curious dynastic alchemy of marital alliances, sixth in line to the Greek throne in 1921. His grandfather had been George I of Greece, whose children grew up speaking Greek to one another at home and English to their parents—who then spoke German to each other. It was that kind of family. Yet their cushions weren’t of deepest velvet; they were poor by royal standards.

Philip’s early life got overshadowed by his family’s ignominious departure from Greece when his father Andrea, a commander in the field, was made a scapegoat for defeat after he refused to carry out what he had deemed defective orders at Sakaria during World War I. Philip himself became a child of domestic turmoil and disunion, with a wandering father and mentally strained mother who was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic in Germany and committed in 1930 for several years. But at least the boy had the benefit of numerous kin, starting with immediate aunts and grandparents, willing to take him in for protracted periods. He was tossed about for several years from one household and school and country to another, and probably it was not until he was taken on by his Mountbatten relations in England that he felt his first sense of belonging.

Here’s a rearing to give any armchair therapist pause. By every right Philip should have been profoundly mal-adjusted, a Prozac punk-in-waiting; but a personality—not to say a character—cannot always be so blithely and cheerlessly forecast. Philip later summed up his entire approach to living pungently if unsatisfactorily to the softer-minded: “You are where you are in life so get on with it.” It’s a point of view that adds up to a philosophy.