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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Eade capably describes Philip’s stint at Gordonstoun, the school founded in Scotland by a German and run along his own idiosyncratic lines, a place whose motto was “More is in you,” and that sported a less than orthodox view of learning. But the school made a success with an ambitious, dedicated staff. Boys were required through systematic effort to develop qualities of leadership by measurable accomplishments, physical and otherwise, and the school’s site nestled in a grand old house on the coast made a fine training ground for hearty sailors. Oddly, though, Eade fails to disclose the curriculum; one would think the boys did nothing but play hard and nap and run and sail, but they probably read a few books, did a spot of algebra, and practiced a bit of piety between matches and races.

Philip acquitted himself well at Gordonstoun—where he was often “naughty” but “never nasty”—and was, according to his headmaster’s report, “universally trusted, liked, and respected,” a boy with “the courage of his tastes and his convictions.” (Imagine a student being formally praised or, for that matter, chided for his tastes nowadays.) “His best is outstanding—his second best is not good enough,” perhaps a perceptive evaluation of a spirited lad who might have been a mite too worldly and whose “love of the moment” might pose a potential danger for his future. Still, his sound mind and “natural courtesy” would probably see him through whatever the world might whack at him.

He still carried a Greek passport. Yet when George II prevailed on him to resume his position in the family and return to his native country to enter the Greek Nautical College, Philip begged off, claiming England as his home. So he elected to sit for the entrance examinations of the Royal Navy, and it was during the war to come that Philip, a rising naval officer, distinguished himself for his bravery and resourcefulness, operating on various vessels and seeing battle several times in the Mediterranean.

He rose quickly during the war, and by war’s end—Eade reports that Philip stood on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay to witness the Japanese sign the instruments of surrender in September 1945—his naval career was sliding along one of the fastest tracks possible. All was going his way. He took command of his first ship in his mid-twenties, was reputed to be an omni-competent officer, and found in the Navy not only a career but a way of life that suited him better than any other. He might have become admiral of the fleet one day.

But such a plan couldn’t have reckoned on Princess Elizabeth, the young heiress to the throne whom he had known since he was an adolescent and with whom he had been corresponding for years. The proper flirtation that had budded into a romance would eventually end that naval career, along with much of the independence that had made it possible. His sense of duty would find another sphere of action.

This book takes us up to Philip’s courtship and the early years of his marriage—years of continual, and sometimes demeaning, frustration, especially to a young man who had so recently tasted command. Before the wedding his relations with the royal family were tense; the taciturn King George VI slowly came round to the match, and the queen, whose brother might have intrigued against Philip, liked the young man well enough but didn’t think he quite had their sense of humor and in private called him “the Hun”—an unveiled reference to a good many of Philip’s siblings and other relatives who had married Germans and some of whom had become Nazi functionaries during the 1930s, a fact that made the prospective marriage none too popular in some sectors of the British public.

Once they came around, however, and after Philip relinquished his claim to the Greek throne (and was also indefinitely relieved of his naval duties), he and Princess Elizabeth were married amid the gray austerities of postwar Britain in 1947. He even gave up small things for the sake of his new bride—smoking, for one thing. But one’s heart warms with the story of his taking a stiff gin and tonic before spiriting off to Westminster Abbey for the wedding.

Eade handles rumors of Philip’s pre-marriage dalliances, most of which have been ventilated before, carefully and for the most part skeptically. He also gives a sympathetic treatment to Philip with the hostility he endured at the hands of palace sycophants and nitpickers who were always quick to fault his lack of delicacy in matters he’d not had the opportunity to learn about while fighting a war. Indeed, some of his trials would be reminiscent of later tribulations suffered by younger royals were it not for the parenthetical fact that he suffered his with dignity.