Prince Philip’s 90th Birthday
“He is someone who doesn’t take easily to compliments. He has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years, 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.”
These words were spoken by Elizabeth II about her husband Prince Philip during the celebration of their golden wedding anniversary in 1997. As he celebrates his 90th birthday, they ring as true now as they did then. Since he gave up his naval career to support his wife as she took on more duties from her terminally ill father, and then had to come to terms with life as a consort when Elizabeth became queen at the tragically early age of 25, he has given her the most consistent support. Even now, although he’s lightening his workload, he isn’t slowing down all that much, and there’s no sign of retiring. He is only 90, after all.
In interviews he’s always minimised his sacrifices and embodied the typically British attitude of “keep calm and carry on.” He wasn’t always British, though, and he’s had some life experiences that would challenge anyone’s calmness. He was born a prince of Greece and Denmark, the son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and Princess Alice of Battenberg, a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria. His parents fled Greece while he was still a baby, after the disaster in the Greco-Turkish war, for which Prince Andrew, among others, was blamed. The family lived in exile in Paris for a while, and Philip was sent to school in England. In the meantime his family dispersed – his sisters all married, his father moved to Monaco, and his mother was institutionalised for mental and emotional disorders.
During these upheavals, he was looked after largely by his maternal grandparents, Louis Mountbatten, Marquess of Milford Haven, and his wife Victoria, eldest daughter of Queen Victoria’s second daughter Alice. Their younger son, also called Louis, later Earl Mountbatten of Burma, was a major influence in his nephew’s life, something that caused a few problems later on. Philip attended Gordonstoun School in Scotland, a new school started by Kurt Hahn of Salem School in Germany, which Philip had also attended before the Nazis made it impossible for him to continue there. After school he followed his grandfather and uncle into the Navy, and it was at Dartmouth College during his training that he met the 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth.
As has been related many times already, Princess Elizabeth was instantly smitten by the handsome and confident Prince Philip, and they corresponded throughout the war. After the war she let her parents the King and Queen know that she wanted to marry Philip. They were doubtful, as were the Establishment in general. By then, people had become used to members of the royal family marrying into the British aristocracy rather than foreign royalty, a practice approved of by many senior Household members, who were part of the aristocracy themselves. They regarded the outspoken, dashing, and relatively impecunious Greek prince with deep suspicion. His closeness to Louis Mountbatten, previously a great friend of the Duke of Windsor, did not sit well with Queen Elizabeth, and by all accounts, she and Philip spent considerable time and energy vying for influence with Princess Elizabeth, even more so after the princess became Queen.
Philip was a restless and highly energetic moderniser, a pragmatist who wasn’t necessarily swayed by the argument “we’re not changing because we’ve always done it this way.” After his wife’s accession his attempts to implement streamlining and modernisation were met with a stone wall. To add insult to injury, the Queen was persuaded to formally announce that the royal house would remain the House of Windsor even though she’d married a Mountbatten. Some years later this particular slight was rectified by the introduction of the double-barrelled Mountbatten-Windsor surname, but not before Prince Philip’s famous “bloody amoeba” outburst.
As Prince Philip said in an interview, there are obvious duties for a queen consort, especially on the domestic front regarding things like entertaining and hiring of domestic staff, which do not mesh all that well with a male consort. So it was hard for him to find a place for himself, especially with the subtle sabotage from the old guard. It was made clear that, unlike Prince Albert, he was not to help the Queen with the part of her job involving the government. His attempts to streamline Sandringham House were gently vetoed by the Queen Mother. And so it went on. It must have been incredibly frustrating to have to give up a promising naval career for life as a bloody amoeba. But he kept (relatively) calm and carried on.
As a result, he has amassed a huge range of charities and other organisations, of which the most notable are probably the World Wildlife Fund and the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. He refuses to take credit for the latter, but has obviously been very closely involved with it and has not simply been a figurehead. As an ex-naval officer, he is closely involved in supporting the military and holds several ranks in the three services. He is Ranger of Windsor Great Park. He was also very much the head of his small family, something of a necessity given the enormous demands on the Queen’s time. He accompanies the Queen on her official overseas visits and her ceremonial duties in Britan, and he finds time for equestrian and artistic hobbies. He is also the longest-serving consort of a British monarch. And as if that wasn’t enough, he’s worshipped as a god by some of the tribes on the island of Vanuatu.
Even with all these accomplishments, he was apparently reluctant to have any celebration or commemoration of his birthday, especially in a year with so many other royal events, but he was overruled, and there’ll be a thanksgiving service at Windsor on Saturday. There is also a display of photos, drawings, paintings, and memorabilia at Windsor Castle (here), as well as a set of commemorative coins, shown here. The official royal family website has a page dedicated to his 90th birthday, which can be seen here.
Kurt Hahn once said of him, “Prince Philip is a born leader, but he will need the exacting demands of a great service to do justice to himself. His best is outstanding, his second best is not good enough.” The British people can be grateful that he has given his best to his adopted country for so long.
Photo of Prince Philip in 2008 by Flickr member southbanksteve and used under Creative Commons licence.
Photo of the Queen and Prince Philip at NASA/GSFC in May 2007 by NASA/Paul E. Alers, public domain.
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