"All too often, I fear, Prince Philip has had to listen to me speaking," said the Queen on her golden wedding anniversary in 1997 (as she repeated the offence). "Frequently we have discussed my intended speech beforehand and, as you will imagine, his views have been expressed in a forthright manner. He is someone who doesn't take easily to compliments but he has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years, and I, and his whole family, and this and many other countries, owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim, or we shall ever know."
It was a masterstroke of understatement. "Forthright" doesn't begin to describe the Duke of Edinburgh. He was one of the most irascible, outspoken and downright rude figures in public life . He was also one of the most visionary, inquiring, hard-working and effective – and while his habit of putting his foot in his mouth (for which he coined the term "dontopedalogy") might have made the politically correct hyperventilate, it provided years of delicious amusement to the rest of us. The country will be a duller, blander, poorer place without him.
His achievements were as remarkable as they were varied. He had an insatiable curiosity about how things worked, he was fascinated by design and technology, industry and engineering – and a champion of them all, initiating prizes and awards for each. He had one of the very first mobile phones ever produced and was using a laptop computer ahead of all his family.
He was a sportsman, an ornithologist, an oil painter; he was a pilot, a yachtsman and an international equestrian. He founded the world-famous Guard's Polo Club and wrote the international rule book for carriage-driving. He was a patron of the arts; he bought or commissioned more than 2,000 works, he collected political and royal cartoons, and books. He had more than 13,000 volumes, most of them non-fiction, ranging from history to cookery.
As the founding, table-thumping president of the World Wildlife Fund, he was an internationally recognised conservationist and environmentalist, and an expert on climate change; campaigning, lobbying and raising money tirelessly for 35 years. He was a champion of the countryside, of biodiversity and organic farming; he was passionate about shooting, fishing and deer stalking, and the management of game stock and habitat. He was passionate about giving young people the opportunity to achieve their potential. He fought to save the country's open spaces from the developers and our historic ships from their watery graves or the breakers' yard.
He managed the estates at Balmoral, Windsor and Sandringham, and turned them into shining examples of best practice in sustainable farming and wildlife preservation. He attempted to modernise the antediluvian practices at Buckingham Palace. He initiated informal lunch parties for him and the Queen to meet interesting people from a variety of different fields. He opened up the royal palaces to the public, set up a lucrative caravan park at Sandringham and a farm shop at Windsor selling produce.
He turned the old private chapel at Buckingham Palace into the Queen's Gallery , allowing the public access to the Royal Collection for the first time, which was so successful it was repeated in the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. He wrote 14 books, he presented television programmes and delivered more than 5,000 speeches and lectures – averaging eight a month for 58 years and most, if not all of those, he wrote himself. He was patron of 800 charities. The list goes on and on and on. The man was a powerhouse.
When Ascot racecourse was being redeveloped in the mid-2000s, at a cost of £185 million, the aim was to improve facilities but also crowd circulation. The day the designer and his team were presenting the plans to the Queen, the Duke and Prince Charles, they knew they had a problem in one small area. They had looked at it again and again, computer experts had looked at it with all the latest technology. They would iron it out eventually. But at the end of the presentation, Prince Philip, then aged 82, stood up, walked across to the diagram and, pointing his finger to the precise spot that was under scrutiny, said: "You've got a crowd-circulation problem there."
But his greatest achievement was being what his wife called her "strength and stay". She was just 21 when he married her in November 1947; he was 26. They reasonably expected to have years together before she became Queen. It was not to be; in February 1952, the King was dead, their roles were reversed and all semblance of normal family life was gone. He had fought with distinction in the British Navy during the war , and had a high-flying peacetime career ahead of him as well as command of his own ship. Suddenly, he didn't even have command of his own home.
Speaking about his grandparents at the time of the Diamond Jubilee in 2012, Prince William acknowledged the sacrifice the man he called Grandpa had made. "In the world that they were in, it was almost back to front. The Queen was taking on her role in a man's world. The Duke of Edinburgh was taking on the role of consort as a very successful naval commander – and would have been an even bigger one. Yet both of them carved their own paths and have done that ever since, to brilliant standards. Together, they're a very good team."
Prince Harry concurred. "Regardless of whether my grandfather seems to be doing his own thing, sort of wandering off like a fish down the river, the fact that he's there – personally, I don't think that she could do it without him, especially when they're both at this age."
A close family friend said of them: "There are some people who don't need many friends and those two, they're just a real love story – taking tea together every day, talking about everything. He might take out a letter and read it to her or crack a joke. They just adore each other."
There were persistent rumours of affairs, and if they were true, they seem to have been irrelevant. Their relationship was strong, loving and mutually supportive from the day of their marriage to the end, but it was always lively. According to Gyles Brandreth, who knew Philip for many years: "When the Duke is critical of his wife, berating her for paying more attention to the dogs when she should be listening to him, or wondering out loud why she spends so much time on the telephone or telling her she is wearing the wrong clothes for a shooting expedition, the Queen is quite capable of answering back, saying to him, 'Oh, do shut up.'
"On one occasion, he threatened to 'put her out' of the car. On another, she locked herself in her cabin on the Royal Yacht Britannia, declaring: 'I'm simply not going to appear until Philip is in a better temper.' Lord Charteris, who worked for the Queen for 27 years, summed up the success of the union: 'Prince Philip is the only man in the world who treats the Queen simply as another human being. I think she values that.'"
For such a dominant and opinionated man, having to play second fiddle to his wife must have been hard. When she became Queen, he wanted the family to carry on living in Clarence House – the first proper home he'd known – but her private secretary and the Prime Minister insisted they move to Buckingham Palace. He wanted his children to have his name but even that was vetoed. "I am nothing but a bloody amoeba," he raged (some say reducing the Queen to tears). "I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his own children."
Lord Brabourne, Lord Mountbatten's son-in-law, said: "Philip was constantly being squashed, snubbed, ticked off, rapped over the knuckles. It was intolerable. He laughed it off, of course, but it must have hurt."
"The problem," said his friend and equerry for many years, Mike Parker, "was simply that Philip had energy, ideas, get-up-and-go, and that didn't suit the Establishment, not one bit."
"I was told 'Keep out' and that was that," the Duke told Brandreth. "I tried to find useful things to do."
Life had never been easy for Prince Philip and the abrasive front was perhaps his way of coping with a lifetime of loss. He was born on June 10 1921, on the island of Corfu, the fifth and youngest child (by 20 years) of Prince Andrew of Greece and Princess Alice of Battenburg (Lord Mountbatten's sister). Commonly called 'Phil the Greek', he didn't actually have a drop of Greek blood in him; his ancestry was German, Danish, Dutch and Russian and, like the Queen, he was a great-great-grandchild of Queen Victoria. His grandfather, George I of Greece, was assassinated by an anarchist eight years before Philip was born; his father was sentenced to death by a kangaroo court a year after his birth but escaped by fleeing with his family to Paris.
At the age of eight, any sense of security disappeared. Philip was sent to Cheam, the preparatory boarding school in England; his father, a depressive, moved on his own to a small flat in the south of France (and died there at the end of the war). His mother, who suffered from bipolar disorder and was profoundly deaf, was committed to an asylum in Switzerland – later going into a nunnery in Greece – and his four sisters all married and moved with their husbands to Germany.
Thereafter he lived a peripatetic life between school, various family members in England and his sisters' homes, seeing nothing of his mother and little of his father. With the rise of Hitler during the 1930s, visiting his sisters became more difficult and in 1937, the one to whom he was closest was killed along with her entire family in a plane crash. A year later, his favourite uncle and guardian, Georgie Milford Haven, died of cancer. Philip was not yet 17. Looking back on it, the Duke said: "It's simply what happened. The family broke up. My mother was ill, my sisters were married, my father was in the south of France. I just had to get on with it. You do. One does."
After Cheam, he was sent to a school in Salem, Germany, owned by his sister and brother-in-law, and run by the pioneering educationist Kurt Hahn. Hahn was forced out of Germany by the Nazis and moved to the wild north-east coast of Scotland where he founded Gordonstoun. Philip went with him. Hahn believed challenging physical exertion and self-discipline was as important as academic study. Gordonstoun was harsh. "My best schoolmaster is the Moray Firth," he said, of the icy waters into which he launched pupils in small sailing dinghies. "I was wet, cold, miserable, probably sick and often scared stiff," said the Duke, "but I would not have missed the experience for anything. In any case the discomfort was far outweighed by the moments of intense happiness and excitement."
The teenage Philip flourished in that punishing environment and the rest of his life was heavily influenced by it. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the sensitive eldest son he sent there. For while the Duke deferred to the Queen in all matters royal, and in all the years never set eyes on state papers, in the domestic department he ruled the roost. Decisions about the children and their upbringing and education were entirely his.
The sadness is that the relationship with Prince Charles was never better. They were so alike in so many ways – including the fearsome temper – and shared so many of the same passions and goals. The Duke was rough with him – more so than with his other children, mistaking perhaps his son's sensitivity for weakness. But he liked what he saw in the next generation and was an important figure in the lives of Princes William and Harry , particularly after their mother's death.
The Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme, which they founded together in 1956, was pure Hahn. It is all about challenge and adventure and that sense of achievement and personal fulfilment that both men believed every young person should be given, no matter what their background. It is now operating in 132 countries and more than seven million young people have taken part in it. Prince Edward (who will inherit his father's title) took over the day-to-day running of the organisation many years ago, but the Duke was still greeting and congratulating Gold Award winners at St James's Palace at the age of 90.
He was never just a name on the notepaper. The first charity he took on after his marriage was the National Playing Fields Association (NPFA), now rebranded as Fields in Trust, which aims to stop Britain's open spaces and sports fields from being sold and concreted over by developers. "I want to assure you," he announced, typically, at his first meeting, "that I have no intention of being a sitting tenant in the post." He immediately redrafted a £500,000 appeal that was to go out in his name and masterminded a publicity campaign to back it up.
He worked regularly at the NPFA office, then situated in Buckingham Gate, walking there from Clarence House where he lived, and went all over the country raising money and opening new playing fields.
He played in charity cricket matches, held fundraising lunches at Buckingham Palace and made an appeal film; he even persuaded Frank Sinatra to donate the royalties from two of his bestselling records. He raised hundreds of thousands of pounds through his efforts, and in four years playing fields were being opened at the rate of 200 a year.
The Duke's former private secretary, Brigadier Sir Miles Hunt-Davis, once said of him: "In a sense, his life is very simple. It is 100 per cent support for the Queen. The organisation of his life is based entirely on the Queen's programme." He was reassuringly by her side on every foreign tour, every UK tour, every visit to schools, hospitals, disaster scenes – wherever she went, he was with her, and he was there to share and enliven every state occasion. As Sir Miles said: "He'll be the one lifting children over the barrier to meet the Queen, or directing her attention to someone in the crowd or showing something of interest which he knows she will enjoy."
One former foreign secretary thought him the least understood member of the Royal family. "His roughness came from the fact that he led an extremely boring life and every now and again felt compelled to stir the waters. He was a radical within a very traditional cast of mind and he was a very good consort. He always noticed if the Queen had forgotten to talk to someone or if the conversation had been cut short or didn't go quite right and he would be there to take care of it."
I saw this for myself during a visit they made to the Surrey town of Dorking in 2004. Walking his usual two paces behind, he spotted a disconsolate child in the crowd, clutching a single daffodil, whom the Queen had missed. He went across to the barrier, lifted the little mite over it and told her to go and give her flower to the Queen.
I also encountered the "roughness", although that wasn't the word I would have used. It was long ago when I fronted a prime-time television programme. (I also wrote books about his family, and my father was a Fleet Street editor – reasons perhaps not to like me.)
I was asked to help present prizes to Duke of Edinburgh's Gold Award winners. For many years they had been too numerous for him to do the presentations personally, and I was one of several "celebrities" asked to do it for him. Each of us was put into a state room at St James's Palace with a group of recipients and we were told that when we had done our stuff, the Duke would come into all the rooms, we would each be presented to him and he would chat to the young people. He came into my room as planned, he spoke genially to all the young recipients, joked with them, congratulated them heartily on their achievements. But when he was introduced to me the smile vanished from his face, he looked me up and down – I swear he snorted, but I could be making that up – and he turned on his heels and walked off without a handshake, a hello or a thank you.
Age didn't mellow him. When the managing director of a leading wind farm company introduced himself to the Duke at a reception in November 2011, he got the 90-year-old's unabridged views on wind turbines. "They're absolutely useless," he said, "completely reliant on subsidies and an absolute disgrace." As ever, his remarks were manna from heaven to the critics of wind farms, while everyone else roundly abused him.
However controversial or roughly expressed, the Duke's opinions were never based on ignorance or prejudice. He had an extraordinarily inquiring mind and read and researched voraciously. A former director of the Royal Society, of which he was president, worked with him for 17 years and never lost his admiration for the Duke.
"He was pretty fantastic, he was pretty daunting and could be pretty awful," he said. "He would turn up here and be in a foul mood and make life very difficult. He could be quite rude to people, and unkindly rude, but after two or three hours he was invariably in a good mood again. In environment committee meetings with lots of real experts, the Attenboroughs of this world and others, he was the master of the total brief, no doubt."
After the shooting of 16 schoolchildren in Dunblane in 1996, while the Government rushed a bill through Parliament to ban handguns, 160,000 of which were owned by law-abiding members of shooting clubs, the Duke of Edinburgh, castigated though he was for it, offered the voice of logic. "I can't believe," he said, "that members of shooting clubs are any more dangerous than members of a squash club or a golf club or anything else. If a cricketer, for instance, suddenly decided to go into a school and batter a lot of people to death with a cricket bat, which he could do very easily – I mean, are you going to ban cricket bats?"
Everyone I have spoken to who ever worked for him agrees that the Duke could be unspeakably rude. He was also a bully and had a fearsome temper, sometimes reducing grown men to tears – one former director of the DoE Award Scheme used to break into a sweat every time he saw the Duke and had to give up the job.
Those that stuck it, wouldn't have swapped him. He was the ultimate professional; he was a punctilious timekeeper, a brilliant chairman, a passionate ambassador and lobbyist, a tireless speaker and phenomenally hard-working.
A former chairman of the RSA said: "He was the most challenging and terrific RSA president, reading everything and commenting forcefully on anything he didn't like. When we were changing the RSA governance, I remember us sending out the new proposals to all 40-odd council members. He was the only one to return it, annotated with suggestions and corrections handwritten in the margins."
He was the perfect complement to the Queen . While she was shy, he – if in the mood – was outgoing and happy to crack jokes. Lord-Lieutenants who accompanied royal visits say they always knew which room the Duke was in by the gales of laughter coming from it. His banter often backfired – and whole websites are devoted to his "gaffes". They were usually off-the-cuff remarks said to make people feel at ease – and no matter what the headlines screamed, the people to whom he was speaking were seldom, if ever, offended.
A famous example was his remark during a visit to an electronics company in Scotland that a fuse box with a mass of wires coming out of it looked as though it had been put together by "an Indian". While the British press again condemned him, he was praised in India. "At last," said one of the country's leading newspapers, "someone speaks the truth. He's absolutely right; our electrical systems in India are appalling…"
The Duke was typically unapologetic. "Have you ever been to India and looked at a fuse box there?" he said. He knew about fuse boxes: he was the hardwiring that put the spark into the Royal family for 73 years.
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