Prince Philip overcame a childhood of upheaval, tragedy and abandonment before finding stability at the Queen’s side
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Despite his royal lineage, the many privileges Prince Philip experienced then were in stark contrast to his early years, which were marred by upheaval, tragedy and abandonment.
Known for his loyalty, strength of character and irreverent sense of humour, there was more to the man than commonly known – and his unorthodox upbringing played a key role.
“What you have to understand about him,” an unnamed family member once said, “is something that very few realise – that beyond the sense of duty and obligation is a great natural shyness.” Pressing the issue further, a close friend of Prince Philip added, “It’s more than shyness. He lacks some sort of emotional middle. I think it springs from a deep insecurity.”
Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark was born at 10am on 10 June 1921 on the kitchen table of the family’s Corfu home, Mon Repos. The youngest child of English-born Princess Alice of Battenberg – Lord Louis Mountbatten’s sister and the great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria – and Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark, Philip was sixth in line to the Greek throne. Christened Philippos, he was doted on by his four older sisters – Margarita, Theodora, Cecilie and Sophie.
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In his book Young Prince Philip: His Turbulent Early Life, author Philip Eade tells how the family’s housekeeper described Philip as “the sweetest, prettiest baby” with a very healthy appetite. It’s a claim backed up in part by Philip’s late mother Alice, who wrote in a letter three weeks after his birth, “He is a splendidly healthy child, thank God.”
But despite Philip’s promising start in life, these were volatile times in Greece. His father, a major general in the Greek army, was ousted by revolutionary forces, and the family fled to France aboard the HMS Calypso. According to eyewitnesses, the 18-month-old prince was carried aboard the Royal Navy gunboat in an orange crate.
Exiled in Paris, the family depended on the charity of friends and extended family. For eight years they lived in the Saint-Cloud suburb of the city and a wealthy relative paid for the young prince to attend the English-speaking MacJannet American School. By that age, Philip had learnt to speak English, French and German, but – ironically – not Greek.
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“If anything, I’ve thought of myself as Scandinavian. Particularly, Danish,” he later said, adding, “We spoke English at home.” He also learnt to use sign language to communicate with his mother, who was left completely deaf after contracting German measles as a child.
Giving an insight into Philip’s lively nature, Alice informed the head teacher that her son had “plenty of originality and spontaneity”, and she asked that he be allowed to work off his energy playing games and learning “Anglo-Saxon ideas of courage, fair play and resistance”.
Most of his classmates at MacJannet were American, and it’s said that Philip learned to play baseball long before cricket, and that he even spoke with an American drawl.
In more recent years, his relative and lifelong friend Lady Myra Butter described him as a “boisterous and bullish” child, adding “and he hasn’t really changed much as a person at all”!
Sadly, the cracks had already begun to show in his parents’ marriage. His mother was suffering with a form of mental illness and, in 1931, when Philip was just nine, she was confined to Bellevue Sanatorium, a Swiss psychiatric hospital. He wasn’t to hear from her again until spring 1937. She later turned to religion and became a nun.
Meanwhile, Philip’s father was often absent, living in Monte Carlo with his mistress on her yacht. A compulsive gambler, he died in 1944. “When he needed a father,” said Michael Parker, Prince Philip’s first private secretary, “there just wasn’t anybody there.”
By the time Philip was 10, his four sisters had also all left home, marrying into the German nobility. Philip was effectively abandoned. “It’s simply what happened,” he later said, dismissing the notion that his family life had an adverse effect on his childhood. “The family broke up – my mother was ill, my sisters were married and my father was in the south of France. I just had to get on with it. One does.”
“Getting on with it” required going to live with his uncle Georgie, Marquess of Milford Haven, and attending boarding school in Cheam, Surrey with his cousin David.
Asked if the move was unsettling, Philip later replied in a typically no-nonsense fashion, “Well, I just lived my life – I haven’t been trying to psychoanalyse myself all the time.”
Indeed, Philip seemed remarkably well balanced according to school friends’ recollections. “When you think of all the problems he had, being shovelled around, it was a remarkable achievement. He wasn’t bullied. Nobody would ever have had a poke at him because they’d have got one back!” one of his contemporaries revealed.
In the autumn of 1933, Philip was sent to a school in Germany co-founded by his sister Theodora’s father-in-law Prince Maximilian of Baden and the charismatic Jewish educator Kurt Hahn. Aged 12, Philip arrived at Schloss Salem just as political tensions were building in Germany. Hahn fled to Britain that year to escape Nazi persecution.
A former pupil at the experimental school recalled of Philip, “He wasn’t really integrated into the community. He had little opportunity to make real friends… he was really very isolated.”
Luckily, a few months later, in the spring of 1934, Philip was enrolled at a new boarding school called Gordonstoun, founded by Kurt Hahn in the north-east of Scotland. Pupils were expected to run a quarter of a mile before breakfast, shower in cold water and do exercises while their teachers read to them.
At Gordonstoun, he finally experienced a sense of belonging. Extremely competitive, he excelled at hockey and sailing, and later became head boy. School friends remembered him as “charming, gifted and unshowy” with a “tremendous confidence from somewhere”.
But just as life was looking up, tragedy struck. Cecilie, his favourite sister, was killed in a plane crash along with her husband and two children in 1937. Tasked with breaking the harrowing news to Philip, Hahn later recalled, “His sorrow was that of a man.” Philip himself said he would never forget “the profound shock” he felt over the death of his sister and her family.
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At age 16, Philip had to travel alone to attend the funerals in Germany. Photographs show him walking solemnly behind the coffins through streets festooned with swastikas. Six months later, his uncle Georgie died of cancer, aged 46. Philip wrote just a single word in his diary: “Heartbroken.”
His uncle, Lord Mountbatten, took Georgie’s place as his guardian and mentor and, at age 18, in 1939, Philip entered the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. Philip’s distinguished naval career had begun.
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