While those who were interested in the christening at St James Palace were focused on his famous great- grandmother, I was more interested in the baby’s great-grandfather. The Queen’s husband was a year older than HRH Prince George of Cambridge when he escaped with his life, lying in a hastily improvised cradle which was actually a drawer from a chest of drawers.
His father, Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark, had been arrested in a Greek revolution in 1922, five years after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. His mother, Princess Alice, Queen Victoria’s great-grand-daughter, once known as the prettiest princess in Europe, was the niece of the deposed and dead Russian Tsarina Alexandra.
One of Victoria’ numerous grandchildren, King George V of England was cousin both to Tsar Nicholas of Russia – in fact they looked so alike it was hard to tell them apart – and also to Tsarina Alexandra, and he had refused them refuge in 1917, for fear of provoking revolution in England. So his cousins and their children, the four ravishing archduchesses, and the haemophiliac Tsarevitch were murdered in the cellar at Ekaterinberg.
It was this dreadful memory which spurred George V into sending a battleship to rescue his Greek relatives, taking off Philip’s father from Greece, and then picking up Philip, his mother and sisters who were living under surveillance in Corfu. They were all decanted at Malta. The family went to Paris, where it dissolved. Prince Andrew retired to Monte Carlo to become a playboy, Philip’s mother who was born deaf, though she had learned to lip-read in three languages, retired to a sanatorium in Switzerland with schizophrenia, and the sisters married German princelings, one of them at sixteen. The little boy Philip was shuttled between boarding school in England, his sisters in Germany, and his grandmother in England, another of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren, and his uncles, one of whom was Lord Mountbatten, later murdered by the IRA with members of his family. Philip rarely saw his mother.
When his close sister Cecile, perished in a plane crash on her way to a wedding with her husband, two children and other family members, Philip, by then seventeen, walked in her funeral procession, just as he walked with his grandson William in his mother Diana’s funeral procession sixty years later. In between he’d attended Salem School which aimed to: ‘Build up the imagination of the boy of decision and the will-power of the dreamer, so that in future wise men will have the nerve to lead the way they have shown, and men of action will have the vision to imagine the consequences of their decisions.’ Kurt Hahn, the headmaster, fiercely scrutinised the strength of character of any child admitted to the school. So even though his sister and her idealistic husband subsidised the school, Philip was put through the hoops to prove his worth, and with those values, no wonder the Nazis closed in on Hahn, forcing him to flee to Scotland where he founded Gordonstoun School, and where Philip ended up too.
When war came, Philip joined the Royal Navy, and so for seven years was cut off from his sisters in Germany. Now he camped with his grandmother and an uncle until they both died, and then moved in with Lord Mountbatten – not an easy childhood, with absent parents and no home. Yet the combination of heredity (and there’s no room here to go into his fascinating forbears), environment, set-backs and an active enquiring intelligence resulted in an interesting man of many parts. He was also one of the handsomest young men in the world, as a quick glance at his wedding photos show.
No snob either – at his wedding in Westminster Abbey where everyone brought out their jewels and furs for the first time since the war began, he wore his shabby well-worn naval uniform, disdaining to wangle clothing coupons in order to re-place it. But he had changed his name from Schleswig- Holstein – Sonderburg – Glucksburg to Mountbatten – well you would, wouldn’t you?
He had made a love match with the young Princess Elizabeth, and though they knew what the future held, they didn’t envisage her father dying at 54 and thus changing their lives forever. Philip was devastated, as it meant leaving his naval career. While the Queen is always the soul of discretion, the Duke of Edinburgh, as he became, has always been famous for being outspoken, direct, and frequently controversial. But he’s always brought humour and humanity to the boring protocols of Royalty. When he met Malala at Buckingham Palace recently, he said to her – accurately – “in this country, parents send their children to school to get them out of the house”, causing Malala to break into laughter, and clap her hand over her mouth, and her father to laugh out loud too.
Unlike the consort of Dutch Queen Juliana, he has never caused a huge scandal over dishonest corporate dealings, and unlike Queen Margaretha of Denmark’s husband, he’s never stomped off in a hissy fit and disappeared for days at a big Royal wedding, because he felt he wasn’t getting the respect he deserved. Unlike the Spanish King, he hasn’t gone off on African safari shooting elephants with a well-established mistress, and unlike the King of Sweden he’s never had a string of other women either. He enjoys the company of women – with four sisters that’s a given, but though Fleet Street has tried very hard, it’s never been able to pin anything on him.
If Prince George’s parents are sensible, they’ll go to him for advice, as well as to Mrs Middleton. Though the Queen is famous for indulging her children and not reprimanding them, Philip was the head of their family and his philosophy for bringing up children was wise and kind.
Talking of teenagers he told one biographer “Children go through enormous changes. For a time they’re in phase with life around them, then they go out of phase and become unliveable with, and everything they do is wrong and cross-grained and maddening – and then suddenly it all comes right for a bit – then they go off on another tack…
“It’s no good saying do this, do that, don’t do this, don’t do that. You can warn them about certain things, that’s about the most you can do, or you can say , this is the situation you’re in, these are the choices, on balance it looks as though this is the sensible one, go away and think it over, and come back and let me know what you think.”
Philip said he felt that his children’s feelings never went unconsidered or that reasonable requests were denied:
“It’s very easy when children want to do something, to say no immediately. I think it’s quite important not to give an unequivocal answer at once. Much better to think it over. Then if you eventually say no I think they really accept it. If you start by saying no, and they persist in the argument until you realise you could perfectly well have said yes, you get into a situation where they won’t ask you any more, or you find you’re stopping them doing things which in fact it would be perfectly reasonable for them to do.”
He’s used his position to further and encourage innovation in industry, and championed the environment and preserving wildlife before anyone else was green. Some would think that the luxury and splendour in which he has lived since becoming the Queen’s consort is a good swap for the normal life he was so reluctant to give up, his career in the navy and his privacy. But for an intelligent man of action, who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, it must have been a tough life, always one step behind his wife. He has often been misunderstood, and often doesn’t get the credit for his indispensable common sense, for his fortitude, and the deep loyalty and love he’s always given his family – Queen and country have been lucky to have him, and so is his great-grandson George.
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
The asparagus season is just beginning, and though it’s hard to go past lightly steamed asparagus and melted butter, I also enjoy it placed on some silver foil, sprinkled with olive oil, salt and pepper, covered and baked for 15 minutes or so in a medium oven. Or steamed, blanched, and eaten with a Japanese dressing of one teasp dried mustard, one teasp hot water, one egg yolk, one tablesp dark soy sauce, one teasp freshly chopped ginger or half of dried, and salt to taste. Mix the mustard with the water, add the other ingredients, and pour over the asparagus. Eat within three hours.
Food for thought
We have enough people who tell it like it is – now we could use a few who tell it like it can be. Robert Orben, American comedy writer and Gerald Ford’s speech-writer.