Prince Philip… the glowering, cantankerous icon that never let Her Majesty down

PRINCE PHILIP spent a lifetime doing what the generation who fought the war and built the peace always did. He got on with it.

There was no preening for the cameras with the Duke of Edinburgh. There was no explaining, no complaining and no sucking up to sycophantic broadcasters.

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Prince Philip was the indefatigable, occasionally foul-mouthed rock on which the modern Royal Family was built.

“Just take the f***ing picture!” he barked at a photographer during a Battle of Britain event in 2015.

The exchange was typical. He never showed the slightest yearning for the world to love him.

And yet his contribution to the monarchy — and to this country — is beyond measure.

It is impossible to imagine the Queen reigning so well and so long without Philip by her side.

For 73 years he was married to the most famous woman in the world. He was consort to the longest-serving monarch in British history, living a long lifetime of palaces and tiaras and privilege. And yet — more than any member of the Royal Family — if you had a relative who came from that generation, there was always something that you recognised about Philip.

In his humour. In his straightforward manners. In his stoicism and resilience.

He drove himself around until a bad car crash in 2019 persuaded him it was time to surrender his licence. He was 97 at the time.

The historian David Starkey described Philip as a kind of “HRH Victor Meldrew”. He was well aware of his public image. “A cantankerous old sod,” was how he defined it.

He took his role as the Queen’s consort deadly seriously.

Michael Parker was an Australian comrade from the war who became Philip’s first Private Secretary in 1947. On Parker’s first day at work, the Duke of Edinburgh explained how he saw his own job.

“To never let her down,” Philip said. And that was the noble cause to which he devoted his long life.

The Duke of Edinburgh was never one of those royals who are adored. Not like Diana or her children or — though we prefer to forget it now — Prince Andrew.

And, of course, there is a special place in the nation’s heart for the Queen herself, who has a genius for defining the national mood with a few words.

“We’ll meet again,” she said at the height of the pandemic — and grown men wept.

Philip never inspired the same kind of warm emotions.

Typical of a man from that generation, there was always an emotional distance about him that could be mistaken for coldness.

My own father — another hard, old Royal Naval veteran — was the same.

You didn’t hug these men. You didn’t ask them if they were OK.

They didn’t do the touchy-feely stuff. If they ever shed tears, it was behind closed doors.

And yet there is an affection for Philip in this country that feels a lot like love.

For an incredible 69 years the Queen has been on the throne, as 14 Prime Ministers — from Winston Churchill to Boris Johnson — have come and gone. It is a stunning life of service to this nation.

And through all those long years, Philip kept the promise he made at the start of her reign.

He did his job. He did his duty. And he never let her down.

Just as the Queen has served this nation with an unfaltering, life-long commitment, so Philip served the Queen.

Philip was the ultimate royal outsider. He was a glowering, flinty-eyed icon of the British establishment for so long that it is easy to forget what a controversial figure he was when he married into the Royal Family in 1947.

Meghan Markle brought the sparkle of Hollywood celebrity to her royal wedding. Lady Diana Spencer was part of the 1,000-year-old landed gentry, an aristocrat who could lay some claim to being posher than Prince Charles.

But Philip was the royal interloper with nothing beyond a distinguished war record and a rough-hewn charisma.

No money. No family. He signed himself “Philip, Prince of Greece” in the Royal Navy during the war. But by then, the Greek monarchy had no palace, no court and no throne. He wasn’t even British.

In a world that was infinitely more xenophobic than it is today, an air of the alien clung to Philip. And it clung to him for decades.

The term has fallen out of use over the years but when I was a kid, in the Sixties, you heard it all the time. “Phil the Greek” they called him. The term was particularly cruel because Philip was born on a kitchen table on the Greek island of Corfu on June 10, 1921, the only son and youngest child of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and Princess Alice of Battenberg, displaced European royals who still had their historic titles but little else.

By the time Philip was ten, they didn’t even have each other.

His parents’ marriage fell apart, his father leaving for the delights of Monte Carlo while his mother left to join a religious order.

Between the gaming tables and God, Philip’s family was broken to begin with and ended up smashed to smithereens.

His father died penniless in Monte Carlo in 1944. His mother struggled with her mental health for the rest of her life.

His four sisters all married Germans within a year of each other in 1930 and 1931.

Philip’s brothers-in-law included an SS colonel who was on Heinrich Himmler’s personal staff.

It was a chaotic childhood, loveless and rootless. As a boy, Philip was shuffled between various distant relatives and countries.

At 12 he was being educated at Schloss Salem in Germany, where the Hitler Youth amused him greatly because their salute was identical to the gesture schoolboys used when requesting a toilet break.

At 14, he was being educated on the coast of Scotland at a new public school called Gordonstoun.

And at 18 he was a young Naval cadet, showing the young Princess Elizabeth, then 13, around the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, with her kid sister Margaret.

For Elizabeth, it was love at first sight. All through the war she kept a photograph by her bedside of the handsome, bearded young officer serving in her father’s Navy.

When Philip began courting her after the war, the Palace — rocked by the abdication in 1936 of Edward VIII for the love of Wallis Simpson — looked at him askance.

Philip had no prospects, no home and no religion beyond a vague attachment to the Greek Orthodox church into which he was baptised as a baby.

King George VI, Elizabeth’s doting father, finally relented and their marriage in 1947 gave Philip all the things he had never known: A home, a family and the security of knowing you are deeply loved.

It is still a jolt to see those black-and-white photographs of the courting couple. One fact shines through. They were clearly crazy about each other.

Philip and Elizabeth were married at Westminster Abbey on November 14, 1947. The Duke of Edinburgh, as he now was, went one better than Meghan. Not a single member of his family was invited to the wedding.

The life he led at the Queen’s side was not the one he expected.

His mother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, lived until she was 101 and it would have been reasonable to expect the young Edinburghs, as they were known, would have many happy, private years to themselves bringing up their young family before Elizabeth became Queen.

It was not to be.

By the end of the war, Philip had risen to become one of the youngest first-lieutenants in the Royal Navy.

And he would have stayed in the service — there were predictions he would have become First Sea Lord — had George VI not died aged just 56, when Philip found himself married to the new Queen.

She was just 25. They had two small children. And life would never be the same for the couple again.

Philip’s career in his beloved Royal Navy was over. A landlocked life of service and duty stretched out before him. There are reports the Queen’s early accession to the throne threw Philip into a long bout of depression. He got on with it — but it can’t have been easy for this macho figure, this free spirit and leader of men to live his life in history’s ultimate supporting role.

Husband to one monarch and father to the next, always seen in relation to the Queen, his wife, and the future king, his son.

Never in the shadows but for ever one step behind and to the side, hands clasped behind his back, still with the ramrod-straight bearing and demeanour of those who have served, a hint of amusement in those blue eyes. Philip was always old-school writ large.

Whatever regrets he might have had, he has kept them to himself.

Diana had Martin Bashir. Charles had Jonathan Dimbleby.

Meghan and Harry have Oprah Winfrey and James Corden. Andrew had Emily Maitlis.

Philip never felt the urge to explain himself. Probably just as well. For when he opened his mouth, it was usually to firmly insert his equestrian riding boot.

“Oh no, I might catch some ghastly disease,” he exploded in Australia in 1992 when offered the chance to pet a cuddly koala bear.

“How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to pass the test?” he enquired of a Scottish driving instructor in 1995.

“You can’t have been here for very long,” he said to a British tourist in Budapest in 1993. “You haven’t got a pot belly.”

They were the cracks of a man who didn’t really do small talk but whom cruel fate had shoved into a very long lifetime of small talk. And he got on with it.

I remember him on the day of Diana’s funeral. I can see him now, walking in the dazzling sunshine through those silent streets behind Diana’s coffin with those two broken boys, his grandsons, and his shattered son.

Philip looked devastated too. But he also seemed to be the one holding it all together, enduring the unendurable and leading by example.

I do not believe that terrible walk behind Diana’s coffin would have been possible for Charles, William and Harry if Philip had not been there.

At times he was brusque, rude, impatient and prone to the kind of crack that these days will get you cancelled on Twitter. He was harder on his sons than his daughter, because that generation of fathers always were.

The sons were never quite tough enough for the old man.

But he was unfaltering in his service to the country that gave him a home, a family and a wife to love for a lifetime.

Dying just short of his 100th birthday, missing out on his birthday card from the Queen, Philip can rest well, knowing he kept the promise he made so very long ago.

He never let her down.

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