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.
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.
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.
Prince Philip, despite his permanently secondary role, has tried to make his own mark on British life, an effort that began straightaway. From the beginning he made himself a confident presence on the stump, one at first far more confident than that of his wife, and has made a gradual attempt over the years to modernize the monarchy, whatever that may mean from one decade to the next. Early on he sought to be, as one writer has dubbed him, a “Prince Albert of the jet age,” an advocate for science able to turn “statistics into patriotism” for a public in need of both instruction and bucking up. Even his famous gaffes can still endear him to a world now weary of sanitized, politically approved speech. (To a British student who had made a hike through Papua New Guinea, he said, “So you managed not to get eaten, then?” Of a Scottish driving instructor, he asked, “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to pass the test?”)
But his most auspicious role—aside from siring the next heir to the throne—will probably be the example he has set of smiling, unostentatious loyalty to family and country alike, an example the coming flock of royals would do well to heed.
Tracy Lee Simmons, author of Climbing Parnassus, is writing a book about Thomas Jefferson.