Prince Philip, who has died aged 99, lived the most “extraordinary life”, says the BBC’s Jonny Dymond. The “first gentleman in the land”, grandson of the king of Greece, was born “on a kitchen table” in Corfu — the family preferred a home birth. Aged one, the little prince was smuggled out of Greece in a fruit crate when a coup in 1922 nearly put his father, Prince Andrew, on the chopping block. Philip happily bobbed along in a British destroyer sent by his second cousin, George V, to exile in Paris.
A swashbuckling sea life suited him, says Marilyn Berger in The New York Times. He loved sailing – although he had so little patience with the Queen’s passion, racing, that he had his top hat “fitted with a radio so that he could listen to cricket matches”. He first found his feet as “best all-round cadet” at the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth in 1939, battled the Nazis at sea and was on a US battleship when Japan formally surrendered in 1945. “Had his life gone differently, few doubt that he would have achieved distinction on his own merits,” says The Times.
But his fate was to turn a “walk-on part” in the British monarchy into the century’s starring Royal role, says Simon Jenkins in The Guardian. An effortlessly gracious “rock for a hard-working wife”, he proved a “rather modern sort of man”. The teenage Elizabeth was besotted, telling her father he was “the only man I could ever love” after she clapped eyes on the handsome 6ft 1in naval officer. In the 1950s, the young queen and her husband “burst on to a drab scene”, dazzling crowds with their wit and charm. “Where did you get that hat?” he asked his wife, eyeing her twinkling crown minutes after her coronation.
Philip was “the most misunderstood man of his generation”, says The Daily Telegraph. Dubbed irascible, and said to drop “bricks”, he was in fact “clear-thinking and positive”, subtly instigating changes within the monarchy. The man who was so often presented as an ignorant philistine took immense pains to be well informed. In 1990 his biographer, Tim Heald, counted 8,385 volumes in his private library at Buckingham Palace – 560 books on birds, 456 on religion, 352 on the Navy and ships, and 209 books of poetry. He came to loathe the newspapers, once “accidentally” showering reporters with water at a Chelsea Flower Show.
But at home he showed – by palace standards – a common touch. When the telephone rang, he answered it himself, setting a royal precedent. He bought the Queen a washing machine and carried his own suitcase, telling the footmen: “I have arms. I’m not bloody helpless.” Certainly, Elizabeth had no doubt about his importance to her. “He has, quite simply, been my main strength and stay all these years,” she said on their golden wedding anniversary in 1997, “and I owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim or we shall ever know.”
Prince Philip in his own words
“When a man opens a car door for his wife, it’s either a new car or a new wife.”
“British women can’t cook.” In Britain, 1966
“I declare this thing open, whatever it is.” On a trip to Canada, 1969
“If the man had succeeded in abducting Anne, she would have given him a hell of a time while in captivity.” After a gunman attempted to kidnap Princess Anne, 1974
“If you stay here much longer, you’ll all be slitty-eyed.” His most notorious comment to British students in China, on a state visit in 1986
“Yak, yak, yak. Come on, get a move on.” Shouted from the deck of Britannia to the Queen, who was chatting with her hosts on the quayside in Belize, 1994
“How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to get them through the test?” To a driving instructor in Oban, Scotland, 1995.
“You managed not to get eaten, then?” Suggesting to a student who went trekking in Papua New Guinea that the tribes there were still cannibals, 1998
“You’re too fat to be an astronaut.” To Andrew Adams, 13, who told Philip he wanted to go to space, 2001
“I wish he’d turn the microphone off.” At the Royal Variety Performance, watching Elton John, 2001
“Bits are beginning to drop off.” Ahead of his 90th birthday, 2011