‘Philip once met an Australian man, who said, ‘My wife is a doctor of philosophy and much more important than I am.’ Philip said, ‘Ah yes, we have that trouble in our family too.’ ‘ Queen Elizabeth II in a speech in Australia, 1954.
For anyone born after November 1947, when he married Princess Elizabeth, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh has always been there, in the background of our lives. In February 1952 he was suddenly thrust into the limelight upon the death of his father-in-law, George VI, obliged to give up his successful career in the Royal Navy to become consort to the world’s longest-serving monarch. At his death on 9 April 2021, aged 99, he had been married to Elizabeth for 73 years.
On two occasions I’ve been in close proximity to Prince Philip. In addition, when writing my book Princess: The Early Life of Queen Elizabeth II I interviewed two people who have known him (and, separately, Elizabeth) for most of their lives, and a third, a friend of the Queen’s since their teenage years, who met him just before they got engaged.
The first time I encountered him was in 1994 at Windsor Great Park. A family member worked closely with Princess Anne in a voluntary organisation and we were invited with her to attend a special event in the Park, at which the Queen Mother, the Queen and Prince Philip were present. After the royal bands had played their rousing music and we’d eaten our picnics, I noticed (as no-one else seemed to) a shiny black car slowly starting on the drive through the park back to the castle. As the road was a private one, there were no outriders, nothing to stop me getting up close. Suddenly I found myself running alongside the car and peered in. There were the Queen and Prince Philip, on their own, just feet from me. I couldn’t help myself. As I whipped out my camera like one of the paparazzi, the Queen looked over at me and smiled. Prince Philip, by contrast, kept his eyes straight ahead and moved his lips. I think he was saying something like, ‘Bloody stupid woman.’ Here’s the result:
The next time I saw Prince Philip was around 2005, when I was invited as a member of the Chamber of Commerce to be part of a reception for him and the Queen as they opened a science innovation in Stevenage, Hertfordshire. They landed by helicopter in the grounds of nearby Knebworth House (as Martha Lytton-Cobbold, their hostess, told me), while we waited at the venue on our stadium-type seats, for the royal couple were to watch a children’s dance display first.
Suddenly around the corner they came, as familiar as one’s favourite grandparents and causing an unexpected surge of affection: the Queen prettier and more dainty than she looks on television, with the most beautiful complexion, the Prince still handsome with an air of ruggedness that must have been so attractive to the young Princess Elizabeth. I was lucky to be in the row behind them, just to their right. I barely saw the dancing, I just watched them watching. Their attention never wavered, despite the many thousands of such displays they must have seen.
When they walked around the centre, I followed them closely, observing their reactions. The scientific aspects would greatly appeal to Philip, for he had that bent of mind, a legacy of his brilliant uncle Georgie Mountbatten, elder brother of Lord Louis, with whom he spent much time as a young boy in Britain in the absence of his exiled father and fragile mother, who was forced to spend time in an asylum. Again, both he and the Queen looked utterly captivated by everything they were shown. How lovely for those who had the chance to talk to them direct.
When I was researching my book Princess I found out much about Philip I didn’t know. I spoke several times to Lady Butter (Myra), who was related to him though the Mountbattens: her aunt, the Russian Countess Najada (Nada) was married to his uncle Georgie. Philip spent a lot of time with her family when Myra was young; she also played with Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. Among other things, she told me how Philip (older than her) used to give her his bus tickets, which she collected! He was always kind to her. She also spoke of sad times in his young life, which her family helped him with.
I met the Queen’s (now late) cousin, the Hon, Margaret Rhodes, who, since being widowed, lived in a house given to her by the Queen in Windsor Great Park. She told me of how clever Philip was, how terrified she used to be when seated next to him – she could never think of anything interesting to say, and he always had a view on everything – and how beastly the courtiers were to him in the early days. The Queen’s friend Lady Penn also shared her memories of him when she first met him. Above all, I learned much about his challenging early life which in many ways made him the ideal husband and consort of the Queen. How he will be missed by so many.
Note: Prince Philip was also related to Myra’s niece Sacha, the Duchess of Abercorn, whose godfather was Philip’s uncle, Earl Mountbatten. I interviewed Sacha for my book Duchesses: Living in 21st Century Britain. Sadly she has since died. My tribute to her is elsewhere on my website.
Jane’s book Princess: The Early Life of Queen Elizabeth II is published by Lyons Press (part of Rowman & Littlefield) and by Lume Books. Some signed copies are available from her direct.