Back in the heyday of nineties lad culture, Prince Philip epitomised a certain ironically-but-not-ironically loveable member of the older generation. Lauded in Loaded magazine on at least one occasion as the Greatest Living Englishman, to many young men Phil was something of a “Legend!!!”
He had fought with great courage in the war; he was regularly rude to foreigners, which was obviously a bonus; he liked to ride and sail and shoot things and he was unsentimental and uncompassionate almost to a comic degree, which felt reassuring at a time when a new-found emotional incontinence made many feel uncomfortable.
This cult status was only heightened by his legendary gaffes, of which there are enough to fill a book (indeed there is a book). There was the time that Philip accepted a gift from a local in Kenya, telling her she was a kind woman, and then adding: “You are a woman, aren’t you?” Or the occasion he remarked “You managed not to get eaten, then?” to a student trekking in Papua New Guinea. Then there was his World Wildlife Fund speech in 1986, when he said: “If it has got four legs and it is not a chair, if it has got two wings and it flies but is not an aeroplane, and if it swims and it is not a submarine, the Cantonese will eat it.” Well, he wasn’t wrong.
Outrageous to some but endearing to others, he was the sort of man you’d want to go for a pint with, perhaps the ultimate compliment that an Englishman can pay to another Englishman. Yet of course, Prince Philip wasn’t an Englishman in any real sense. He was born in Corfu but grew up outside Paris speaking French; ethnically he was mostly German although he considered himself Danish, his family originating from the Schleswig border region.
He was also, despite his demeanour of Royal Navy officer briskness, a citizen of nowhere in an age of movement. From a very young age he was a stateless person, nationally homeless. Indeed, Philip was an outsider in a way that even Meghan Markle wasn’t; at his wedding in 1947, his three surviving sisters and two brothers-in-law were not permitted to attend because they were literally Britain’s enemies, having fought for the Germans. A third brother-in-law had even been in the SS, working directly for Himmler, but had been killed in the conflict.
That he was able to transform himself into the quintessential “Greatest Living Englishman” is testimony not just to his personal determination but also to the powerful cultural pull of Britishness. That the Prince of Nowhere became its figurehead was more than fitting for a great age of migration and transition in which the Royal Family survived and even flourished.
Even his religion was slightly exotic. He was Greek Orthodox until he converted to Anglicanism on marrying Elizabeth — what with his wife due to become supreme head of the Church and everything — but his ties with eastern Christianity remained. His great-aunts Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine and Tsarina Alexandra are both martyrs of the Russian Orthodox Church, having been murdered by the Bolsheviks; Philip’s mother went on to become an Orthodox nun and a “Righteous Among the Nations” for saving a Jewish family during the Nazi occupation of Greece, spending much of her time in squalid poverty. More well known is that Philip himself is considered a god in some parts of the world.
Due to his great longevity, Philip’s life came to span a period of social change that is almost unprecedented, and almost no one in history viewed such a transformation from the front row.
His parents were part of the largely German extended aristocracy who ruled almost all of Europe before it all came crashing down in 1918. When he died on Friday morning, aged 99, it marked a near-century in which all the great ideological struggles had been and gone; he had been born before the Soviet Union but outlived the Cold War, the War on Terror and — almost — Covid-19.
The world that Philip was born into was a far more violent and dangerous place than ours. In the year he was born, Irish rebels were still fighting Black and Tans; over the course of 12 months the Spanish and Japanese prime ministers were assassinated, there was a coup in Portugal and race riots in the United States. Germany was rocked by violence from the far-Left and far-Right, while in Italy a brutal new political movement, the Fascists, secured 30 seats in parliament, led by a trashy journalist called Benito Mussolini.
The worst violence, however, took place in Greece and Turkey. Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, what remained of Turkey was marked for permanent enfeeblement by the Allies. But much to everyone’s surprise the country’s force were roused by the brilliant officer Mustafa Kemal, who led the Turks to victory. Constantinople was lost to Christendom for good and thousands of years of Hellenic culture was put to the flames in Smyrna.
The Greek royal family, north German imports shipped in during the 19th century, bore much of the popular anger for this disaster. King Constantine fled to Italy, and his brother Andrew was arrested and only escaped execution through the intervention of his relative Britain’s George V. Andrew’s wife Alice, their four daughters and infant son Philip fled to France, completely impoverished but with the one possession that ensures that aristocrats are never truly poor: connections.
Philip had a traumatic childhood. The family had no money, his parents’s marriage was falling apart, and his four sisters were all much older, and were soon all married to German aristocrats (the second youngest would soon die in an aeroplane crash, along with her husband and children). He got through it by making a joke of everything, and by being practical.
This is where, I think, his “Legend!!!” status came from; in the 1990s there was a great divergence in how we dealt with mental anguish. We were now supposed to open up and show our feelings, even if we didn’t want to. Nothing better illustrated this great emotional divide than the tragic death of Prince Philip’s daughter-in-law Diana, after which the Queen and Duke’s emotional restraint felt dangerously out-of-touch; the tabloids demanded they cry publicly, to join the wailing crowds outside.
Yet many of us felt that this was not emotional liberation but emotional tyranny; some people get through hardship and trauma by a very public display of emotion; others do it by focussing on the practical. It doesn’t mean they’re not hurting, necessarily. From an early age, Prince Philip endured his fair share of grief — he just got through it by making plans and doing something useful.
The future Greatest Living Englishman had first attended school in England when he was seven, but two years later his mother, who went deaf and suffered from schizophrenia, was sectioned. His father had gone off to the south of France to live with his mistress in true aristo-bounder style.
And so, through a connection via one of his sister’s husbands, the poor, lonely boy was sent off to a new school — in Nazi Germany. Which was as fun as can be imagined.
Schloss Salem had been co-founded by stern educator called Kurt Hahn, a tough, discipline-obsessed conservative nationalist who saw civilisation in inexorable decline. But by this stage Hahn, who was Jewish, had fled to Britain, and Philip did not spend long at the school either, where pressure from the authorities was already making things difficult for the teachers. He laughed at the Nazis at first, because their salute was the same gesture the boys at his previous school had to make when they wanted to go to the toilet, but within a year he was back in England, a refugee once again.
Here he attended Hahn’s new school, Gordonstoun, which the strict disciplinarian had set up in the Scottish Highlands. Inspired by Ancient Sparta, the boys had to run around barefoot and endure cold showers, even in winter, the whole aim of which was to drive away the inevitable civilisational decay Hahn saw all around him. To 21st century ears it sounds like hell on earth, yet Philip enjoyed it, illustrating just what a totally alien world he came from.
But what really set his world apart from ours is the idea of duty. Philip was a talented naval officer, and fought with great courage at the battle of Cape Matapan in 1941 when British and Australian forces had decisively beaten the Italians. He ended the war one of the Navy’s youngest first lieutenants. Some say he could have risen to the top; but he had fallen in love with Princess Elizabeth in the meantime, and the rest is history – and TV.
Towards the end of his time on earth Philip came to have that rare, cursed honour of having his life dramatised in his own lifetime. The Crown covered the great social change of the period, but also reflected it. The modern monarchy had been established by George V, who with his radio broadcasts kept the House of Windsor on the throne by making them celebrities. Yet it relied on a culture of gentleman’s agreements and shame among editors and journalists.
By the 1970s that was collapsing, and the sense of restraint Philip had grown up with had disappeared. In season one of The Crown, Philip’s sister-in-law cannot marry for love because divorce was impermissible in the Church of England and their feelings did not come before ancient, sacred rules. By the end of season four almost all of the royal marriages have collapsed.
Indeed, the House of Windsor seemed stuck with the worst of both worlds, with an old-fashioned lack of emotional development and empathy, and a modern lack of duty.
Yet of all the institutions that have lost the faith of the public in this period — the Church, Parliament, the media, the police — the Crown itself has done better than most at surviving, curiously well-adapted to a period of moral change, even moral anarchy. The House of Hanover/Windsor, since their arrival in this country in 1714, have been noted above all for their ability to adapt. And just as they survived the Victorian age by transforming themselves into the bourgeoise, domestic ideal, so they have survived the new Elizabethan era, even if it is ending on another downward note with the estrangement of his grandson Prince Harry.
There was once a time when the Royal’s German blood was a punchline for comedians. Now it is the royals who are deeply British while the country itself is cosmopolitan and globalised. The census results next year will show a society that has seen greater demographic change than the preceding four or five thousand years combined, the second Elizabethan age being characterised more than anything by a transformational movement of people. Prince Philip, the Greek-born, Danish-German wanderer who came to become the Greatest Living Englishman, perhaps epitomised that era better than anyone else.