To most people, Prince Philip, who died just weeks short of his 100th birthday, is remembered by most as the man who walked a couple of steps behind the Queen. When he was remembered in his own right, it was often the result of one of his famous verbal gaffes, like the time he asked a Scottish driving instructor “how do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to pass the test?” Or the time when he was in Nigeria, he greeted the country’s President who was wearing traditional robes “you look like you are ready for bed.”
Philip was 26 years old when he married Elizabeth in 1947 and that is when people in Britain and around the world got their first look at him. But that dashing 26-year-old had a fascinating background. He was a great-grandson of Queen Victoria, and Elizabeth was a great-great granddaughter, making the pair distant cousins. Queen Victoria had nine children and most of them were married off into the various royal families around Europe. Philip’s ancestors went on to occupy no less than nine European thrones, namely, British, Russian, Greek, Norwegian, Belgian, Romanian, Yugoslav, Spanish and Danish.
He was born on the Greek Island of Corfu. His father was Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark, though essentially a German, as was his mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg. There was a lot of political turmoil in Greece and Philip’s family was forced to flee Greece, when Philip was an infant. They settled in Paris living in a modest house provided by a generous aunt. Philip received his primary education in Paris and as a result he was fluent in French, he could also speak German and English. Oddly, though he was a Prince of Greece, he never mastered the Greek language. Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien recalled meeting Philip in 1967 at Expo and commenting on the fact that Philip’s French was so good. Philip told Chretien, “I was speaking French before you were born.”
During the 1920’s Philip’s family survived on handouts from their various relatives. They did a lot of extended “visiting” around Europe and the United Kingdom. In 1929, Philip’s father abandoned the family and ran off to Monaco to live with his mistress on her yacht. There, he descended into a life of gambling and womanizing and he died near the beginning of the second world war. Philips’s mother suffered a mental breakdown and had to be hospitalized. When she emerged from hospital, she became a reclusive spiritualist and started to wear nun’s garb.
In the late 1920’s Philip was sent to the United Kingdom to attend Cheam School, living with his maternal grandmother, Victoria Mountbatten, In the next three years, his four older sisters married German princes and moved to Germany, two of them married Nazis. In 1933, he was sent to Schule Schloss Salem in Germany, owned by the family of his brother-in-law. With the rise of Nazism in Germany, Salem’s Jewish founder, Kurt Hahn, fled persecution and founded Gordonstoun School in Scotland, to which Philip moved after two terms at Salem.
In 1939, encouraged by his uncle Louis Mountbatten, Philip joined the British Navy. While he was receiving training at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth The Royal family toured the facility. During the visit, the Queen and Louis Mountbatten asked his nephew Philip to show the King’s two daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret around. Elizabeth fell in love with Philip, and they began to exchange letters when she was 13.
Very shortly thereafter Philip graduated top of his class and entered military service serving on ships in Australia, in the Indian Ocean, and in October 1940, he was transferred from the Indian Ocean to the battleship HMS Valiant in the Mediterranean Fleet where he served with distinction, saving his ship from a bomber attack. In 1944, he moved on to the new destroyer, HMS Whelp, where he saw service with the British Pacific Fleet. He was present in Tokyo Bay when the instrument of Japanese surrender was signed.
Returning to Britain after the war, Philip asked the King for his daughter’s hand in marriage. The King granted his request, provided that any formal engagement be delayed until Elizabeth’s 21st birthday the following April. By March 1947, Philip had abandoned his Greek and Danish royal titles, had adopted the surname Mountbatten from his mother’s family, and had become a naturalised British subject. The engagement was announced to the public on 10 July 1947. After living a nomadic existence for most of his life, Philip settled into the role he would play for the next almost 75 years.
In 1980 Prince Philip paid a visit to Hamilton. He laid the cornerstone for the Hamilton Public Library, visited a church, and then went to the Hamilton Airport to tour the fledgling Warplane Heritage where he chatted with members, some of whom he had met earlier at an event in Texas.