Prince Philip's Diamond Jubilee: the original Royal Rock
Longest-serving royal consort in British history described himself as an 'amoeba' – but the nation owes him more than it knows
HIS IMAGE is that of the Prince of Faux Pas, the Duke of Indiscretion, but throughout the 60 years of the Queen's reign, the presence of Prince Philip has been a godsend to his wife. He's the original Royal 'Rock' and Elizabeth's reliance on her unflappable husband is said to have been crucial in recent years in steering the Good Ship Windsor through some stormy seas.
But of course the Duke is well versed in navigating a smooth passage through choppy waters. When their paths first crossed in the summer of 1939 Philip - who had been born on a kitchen table in Corfu - was a 17-year-old cadet at Dartmouth Naval College. According to the Queen's biographer, Sarah Bradford, Philip "was blond, handsome and self-reliant, cocky to the point of arrogance. He was flirtatious but emotionally cool".
This coolness was put to the test during World War Two when Philip, serving as a midshipman aboard HMS Valiant, was mentioned in despatches during the Battle of Cape Matapan off the coast of Greece in March 1941. During the engagement, the Royal Navy destroyed five Italian vessels, the 19-year-old Philip picking out enemy targets in the darkness with the Valiant's searchlight.
"The beam lit up a stationary cruiser, but we were so close by then that the beam only lit up half the ship," he wrote recently in a foreword to a book about the battle. "At this point all hell broke loose, as all our eight 15-inch guns, plus those of the flagship and Barham's started firing at the stationary cruiser, which disappeared in an explosion and a cloud of smoke."
When he returned from the war, Philip had little to offer Elizabeth materially. His father had died in 1944, bequeathing his son "only a pair of monogrammed hairbrushes, cufflinks and some old suits". His mother, Alice, who'd suffered a nervous breakdown when he was a boy, was living in Greece. Philip lived with his grandmother (Victoria Mountbatten) at Kensington Palace where his uncle, Louis Mountbatten, did his best to engineer a match between his nephew and Elizabeth.
King George VI was unimpressed. "We both think she is too young for that now," he wrote to his mother, Queen Mary, although he did add: "I like Philip. He is intelligent and thinks about things in the right way." The fact that Philip's three elder sisters had all married German princes was another factor that worked against any possible marriage.
But Philip had Elizabeth in his beam and over the next year they fell in love. Buckingham Palace announced the engagement between Princess Elizabeth and "Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, RN" in July 1947. The king had been won over, too, by his prospective son-in-law, writing to his daughter: "I know, always count on you, and now Philip, to help us in our work… I can see that you are sublimely happy with Philip, which is right."
Philip assured his new wife that "my ambition is to weld the two of us into a new combined existence that will… have a positive existence for the good".
What he hadn't expected, however, was for his wife to be Queen quite so soon. Though the 56-year-old King had been in poor health for a while, his death on 6 February 1952 was a terrible shock. John Colville, the private secretary to Winston Churchill, the then Prime Minister, recalled in his diary that Churchill had wept on learning the news: "I tried to cheer him up by saying how well he would get on with the new Queen," wrote Colville, "but all he could say was that he did not know her and that she was only a child."
The 25-year-old Queen and her husband were on a tour of Africa when they heard of the King's death. Philip had the news broken to him by his private secretary, Commander Michael Parker: "He looked as if you'd dropped half the world on him," remarked Parker. "He took [his wife] up to the garden and they walked up and down the lawn while he talked and talked and talked to her."
As Philip comforted Elizabeth his mother wrote to him offering both condolence and advice: "I know how fond you were of your father-in-law and how much you will miss him. I think much of the change in your life this means. It means much personal self-sacrifice."
One of the sacrifices made by Philip was to resign his commission in the Royal Navy. "It was naturally disappointing," he has subsequently said. "I had just been promoted…but then, if I stopped and thought about it, being married to the Queen, it seemed to me my first duty was to serve her in the best way I could."
When he knelt before her at Elizabeth's coronation in 1953, Philip vowed that he would "live and die for her". Nearly 60 years later he is still by her side, the longest-serving royal consort in British history. "He has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years," the Queen has confided. "And I, and his whole family, and this and many other countries, owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim or we shall ever know."
Philip, for his part, has done his best to stay in the background, remaining an unobtrusive support. Only in the last two decades has he acquired a reputation for plain-speaking, calling the Chinese "slitty-eyed", describing the Scots as drunks and enquiring of an aborigine during a 2002 visit to Australia: "Do you still throw spears at each other?"
But then if a man's spent half a century in the shadow of his wife, surely he's allowed the odd gaffe, a bark of frustration at the decades of self-sacrifice his mother warned him about. As Philip himself muttered after learning that his children Charles and Anne would bear the name Windsor rather than Mountbatten:. "I am nothing but a bloody amoeba, the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his own children." ·