Duke of Edinburgh's life with Queen Elizabeth: Prince Philip was her 'strength and stay'

How Prince Philip went from being smuggled out of Greece as a baby to being married to the queen for more than 70 years

HAMPSHIRE, ENGLAND - UNDATED: In this image, made available November 18, 2007, HM The Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh re-visit Broadlands,  to mark their Diamond Wedding Anniversary on November 20. The royals spent their wedding night at Broadlands in Hampshire in November 1947,  the former home of Prince Philip's uncle, Earl Mountbatten. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)
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If the reign of Queen Elizabeth II is founded on solid ground, then the rock that gave it such strength was her husband, companion and closest friend, Prince Philip.

His passing, at the age of 99, takes the world's longest living monarch into a new and uncharted era. Beyond the initial grief and loss, Queen Elizabeth, 94, must now face a future without the man who was at her side for more than 70 years.

Their relationship can be traced back even farther. The couple were first formally introduced when Princess Elizabeth was just eight years old, at the wedding of Princess Marina of Greece.

It began to develop more seriously at a lunch when the future monarch was 13 and her prince was a dashing 18-year-old student at the Royal Navy College in Dartmouth.

The two began a correspondence that was initially founded on friendship, but would eventually blossom into love and eventually the longest marriage of any British monarch in history.

It was a future that could hardly have been foreseen when the fifth and youngest child of Prince Andrew of Greece and Princess Alice of Battenberg was born on a kitchen table in a villa on the Greek island of Corfu on June 10, 1921.

Despite the grand titles, his early years were far from the courts and palaces of European royalty. Barely a year old, Philip was sent into exile when his uncle King Constantine was forced to abdicate by Greece’s new military government.

Banished for life by a revolutionary court, the infant prince departed the land of his birth on a British Royal Navy warship, sleeping in a makeshift cot made from an orange box.

It was an indication that the young prince could not take for granted a life of privilege. Initially settled in Paris, in a house owned by another member of the Greek royal family, he was sent to school in Britain under the care of his maternal grandmother, Victoria Mountbatten.

There was little contact with his immediate family. His four older sisters married into the German aristocracy, while his mother, tragically, was institutionalised in a mental hospital with schizophrenia. His father dealt with this by taking up permanent residence in Monte Carlo, Monaco.

“My mother was ill, my sisters were married, my father was in the south of France,” he later recalled. “I just had to get on with it.”

At the age of 12, Philip was sent to be educated in Germany at a school owned by a relative, which apparently had the advantage of saving on fees.

Forced into exile by Nazi persecution, the school’s Jewish owner moved to Scotland in 1934, setting up Gordonstoun and with Philip enrolled as one of the first pupils.

Queen Elizabeth II, as Princess Elizabeth, and her husband the Duke of Edinburgh, styled Prince Philip in 1957, on their wedding day. She became queen on her father King George VI's death in 1952.   (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II, as Princess Elizabeth, and her husband the Duke of Edinburgh, styled Prince Philip in 1957, on their wedding day. She became queen on her father King George VI's death in 1952. Hulton Archive / Getty

It was a hardy environment that seemed to suit the teenage Philip, an experiment which he repeated years later with his eldest son Charles, who was reportedly bullied at the school, and described the experience as “Colditz with kilts”, a reference to the notorious German prison camp.

If Philip, who was to take his grandparents’ family name Mountbatten, thrived at Gordonstoun, his future as a minor and relatively impecunious member of European royalty was still uncertain.

Britain's Prince Charles pays tribute to 'my dear Papa'

Britain's Prince Charles pays tribute to 'my dear Papa'

The obvious solution was a career in the military and, on the eve of the Second World War, the 18-year-old prince enrolled as a cadet at Dartmouth Navy College, graduating as top student in 1940.

Five years of distinguished and sometime perilous wartime service followed, with the prince serving in battles in the Mediterranean and Pacific, in the latter witnessing the Japanese surrender as a first lieutenant on HMS Whelp.

Through all this, his relationship with Princess Elizabeth continued to develop. At 17, there were concerns from her parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, that she was too young for a serious relationship.

The couple continued their romance anyway, which had now moved beyond letter writing with the war ended. In the summer of 1946, Philip proposed, and Elizabeth accepted, defying protocol by not consulting her parents first.

August 1951:  Princess Elizabeth with her husband Prince Philip Duke of Edinburgh and their children Prince Charles and Princess Anne.  (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
August 1951: Princess Elizabeth with her husband Prince Philip Duke of Edinburgh and their children Prince Charles and Princess Anne. Getty Images

The marriage was agreed anyway, on condition that the engagement was kept secret until 1947, when Elizabeth turned 21. The wedding took place on July 10 that year at Westminster Abbey, a breath of fresh air and much needed romance for a grey Britain exhausted by war and austerity, and was broadcast on radio worldwide to an audience of 200 million.

For a while, the fairytale continued for the princess and her new prince, a royal title bestowed by King George, who also named him Duke of Edinburgh. Charles, their eldest son, was born the following year, followed by daughter Anne in 1949.

Philip had resumed his naval career, rising through the ranks until he was promoted to his first command, the sloop HMS Magpie, stationed in the Mediterranean.

A tour of the Commonwealth in 1952 offered the couple a chance to reunite. By February, the royal couple had reached Kenya, relaxing for a short break at the famous Treetops Lodge.

FILE - In this Oct. 9, 1982 file photo, Britain's Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip looks back as they drive through the crowd of athletes and officials during the closing ceremony of the 12th Commonwealth Games, in the Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Sports Centre, Brisbane, Australia. Buckingham Palace officials say Prince Philip, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, has died, it was announced on Friday, April 9, 2021. He was 99. Philip spent a month in hospital earlier this year before being released on March 16 to return to Windsor Castle. Philip, also known as the Duke of Edinburgh, married Elizabeth in 1947 and was the longest-serving consort in British history.  (AP Photo/Pool, File)
Britain's Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip drive through the crowd of athletes and officials during the closing ceremony of the 12th Commonwealth Games in, Brisbane, Australia in 1982. AP

In London, the condition of King George, who was suffering from lung cancer, deteriorated, and he died in his sleep in the early hours of February 6. The news was broken the following day to his daughter, now Queen Elizabeth, by Prince Philip, now consort to the monarch as well being a husband and father.

The moment was a turning point for a man who had, until that point, had something of a reputation for chafing against the strictures of royalty. He grumbled about giving up his navy career, had complained and was overruled, by no less than Winston Churchill, that his children should take the family name Mountbatten rather than his wife’s house of Windsor.

“I am nothing but a bloody amoeba. I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his own children,” he is reported to have said at the time.

The complaining, at least about his role, stopped with the coronation. By the time he officially retired from royal duties in August 2017, when – at the age of 96 – he had completed more than 22,000 solo engagements.

He could not, though, be accused of being a silent partner. Over the years, Philip became famous – perhaps infamous – for his off-the-cuff remarks that often flew in the face of contemporary sensitivities.

“If you stay here much longer you will go home with slitty eyes,” he told a British student on a visit to China in 1986. “Aren’t most of you descended from pirates?” he asked residents of the Cayman Islands.

The president of Nigeria, while wearing traditional costume, was told: “You look like you’re ready for bed,” while an Aboriginal leader on a tour of Australia was asked: “Do you still throw spears at each other?"

So frequently did these decidedly non-politically-correct bon mots occur down the years, that they created anticipation as much as offence. It solidified the public image of the Duke of Edinburgh as something of a throwback, even a reactionary, a plain speaker, scornful of progressive theories, dismissive of contemporary morality and rooted in an age when men were men, women were ladies and all upper lips were stiff.

In these circumstances, many wondered what he made of his own children, three of whose marriages ended in divorce. He was often thought to have a particularly difficult relationship with his eldest son and heir to the throne.

In an interview with biographer Giles Brandreth for his 95th birthday, the duke reflected: “He's a romantic and I'm a pragmatist. That means we do see things differently.”

Referring to Charles's view of his father, he said: “And because I don't see things as a romantic would, I'm unfeeling”.

(L to R) The Duke of Edinburgh, Prince William, Earl Spencer, Prince Harry and Prince Charles walk outside Westminster Abbey during the funeral service for Diana, Princess of Wales, 06 September. Hundreds of thousands of mourners lined the streets of Central London to watch the funeral procession. The Princess died last week in a car crash in Paris. / AFP PHOTO / RTR/WPA POOL / JEFF J. MITCHELL
Princes William and Harry with (L to R) their grandfather, Prince Philip, their uncle, Earl Spencer, and their father, Prince Charles in the funeral cortege for Diana, Princess of Wales, on September 6, 1997. The Princess died on August 31, 1997 in a car accident in Paris. Jeff J. Mitchell / AFP

A more nuanced view dispels some of the cliches. It was generally assumed he had little time for his daughter-in-law Diana, particularly after her divorce from the Prince of Wales in bitter and very public circumstances.

Yet letters he wrote to Diana were always signed with an affectionate “Pa”. Of his son’s adulterous affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles, who he later married, Philip wrote: “Charles was silly to risk everything with Camilla for a man in his position. We never dreamed he might feel like leaving you for her. Such a prospect never even entered our heads.”

His public interests revealed a deep concern for the natural world and support for young people. He was one of the founders of the Worldwide Fund for Nature and in 1956 created the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, a series of physical and mental challenges designed to inspire and empower modern youth. Over the years, the duke became patron or member of nearly 800 organisations, from the British Heart Foundation to the Grand Order of Water Rats – a showbusiness charity.

His interests included engineering, carriage driving, piloting aircraft until his 70s, and attempting to create a truffle orchard on the family estate at Sandringham. He made more than 5,000 speeches and, in 1961, became the first member of the royal family to be interviewed on television.

The duke also showed an awareness of his, and the royal family’s role, in a modern, democratic society. At a press conference in Canada in 1969, he observed that: “It is a complete misconception to imagine that the monarchy exists in the interests of the monarch. It doesn't. It exists in the interests of the people. If at any time any nation decides that the system is unacceptable, then it is up to them to change it.”

In his later years there were increasing concerns about his official workload. He was briefly admitted to hospital for a chest infection in 2008, was treated for chest pains in 2011 and missed celebrations of the queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012 for a bladder infection that was followed by minor surgery.

His withdrawal from royal duties was announced in August 2017, but the duke retained the knack of staying in the public eye, including overturning a Range Rover in an accident on the Sandringham Estate in April 2019, after which, at the age of 97, he admitted it was time to give up driving.

In 2018, he underwent a hip replacement but was able to walk unaided to the wedding of his grandson, Prince Harry, to Meghan Markle, six weeks later. In October the same year, he was seen riding with Queen Elizabeth in Windsor Great Park.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on July 17, 2002 Britain's Queen Elizabeth II (L) and Britain's Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (R) chat while seated during a musical performance in the Abbey Gardens, Bury St Edmunds, during her Golden Jubilee visit to Suffolk, east of England. Prince Philip, the 98-year-old husband of Queen Elizabeth II, went into hospital on Friday, December 20, 2019 for precautionary treatment on a pre-existing condition, Buckingham Palace said. / AFP / Fiona HANSON
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, chat while seated during a musical performance in the Abbey Gardens during her Golden Jubilee visit to Suffolk in July 2002. Fiona Hanson / AFP 

That relationship will be remembered as his greatest and most lasting achievement. It always had a romantic side, despite the weight of the crown. He designed a bracelet of diamonds as his wedding present to Elizabeth, and was said to have given her the pet name “Cabbage”.

He was her most trusted source of advice. According to the queen's former private secretary Lord Charteris: "He's the only man in the world who treats the queen simply as another human being. I think she values that. And it is not unknown for the queen to tell the duke to shut up."

As the queen observed in a speech at the celebrations for their golden anniversary in 1997: “He has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years.”

How will she continue now her strength and stay is gone? It is a question only she can answer, by drawing deep from the memories of what was, and still is, an enduring love affair.

Duke of Edinburgh's life – in pictures