I was inspired to buy this because I’d read extracts of it in the press. Prince Philip has always struck me as being self-effacing and self-sacrificing, and his role can’t have been an easy one. I was hoping to find out some more about him as a person, and his experiences as a young man.
What I discovered surprised me in many ways, because I had only a very vague idea about Prince Philip’s Danish royal ancestry. His paternal great-grandfather, through a rather unexpected sequence of succession, became Christian IX of Denmark in 1863; and shortly afterwards his grandfather, William, was visited by a delegation from Greece who invited him to be their king. What would you say to such a request? Really? OK, I’d ask to see their Crown Jewels, but that’s just me!
So William became George I of Greece (confused? – he had many Christian names) and it was his fifth son, Andrea, who was Philip’s father. It therefore came about that Philip’s family knew and loved the country of Greece and looked on it as their home.
On his mother’s side, Prince Philip was descended from the Grand Duke Louis IV of Hesse, who had married Alice, one of Queen Victoria’s daughters. Alice’s grand-daughter, also called Alice, was Philip’s mother. It needs a certain degree of concentration to take on board all the offspring of these families and their marriages into some of the many dynasties within pre-War Europe. Many of them are important, however, because their kindness served to give Prince Philip a home at various stages in his young life.
I can’t even begin to summarise the book, and it wouldn’t be right in any case. Suffice to say that, several generations down the line, Greece rejected its new royal family and Philip’s closest relatives became scattered about Europe and America just as Nazi Germany was beginning to flex its muscles. While he was at school in England, Prince Philip suffered the loss of his sister and her family in an air crash, and his mother, a dedicated wartime nurse, was moved for the sake of her own mental health into a sanatorium. The book has left me with quite a lot of regard for Alice, and a deep sympathy for Prince Philip, who seems to have grown a stiff upper lip before anyone took the trouble to notice.
Despite the plethora of facts and dates, and a judicious smattering of anecdotes, I don’t really feel as if I have grasped the true nature of Prince Philip; in a way, I feel almost as if I am trespassing on his privacy even by commenting on the book, so I cannot imagine what Mr Eade, as his biographer, must have felt. Writing a biography of a rather unwilling subject must have been a job that demanded sensitivity and perseverance in equal measure. In his Author’s Note, he acknowledges the assistance of Sir Brian McGrath, Prince Philip’s extra equerry: “While Sir Brian never pretended that my project was especially welcome, neither was he in the least bit obstructive.”
Mr Eade has done his research very thoroughly, and his tone is authoritative and impartial – only when describing the moments of loss or hardship does a certain note of sympathy creep in. My impression of the young Prince Philip is that he was gifted in so many ways, devastatingly handsome, enthusiastic about life in general, and after the breaking up of his family he was very much in need of love and stability, which he found with our future Queen. His instinct to protect himself from further emotional hurt probably hardened his attitude towards others, in a way that made his manner often appear abrupt or harsh.
I gained some insight into the lives and values of Victorian and post-Victorian upper class society, enough to make me glad that I didn’t live among them. The sadness and suddenness of Princess Elizabeth’s accession to the throne is perhaps the most telling of all: it came as a huge shock to Prince Philip, who was rising rapidly through the ranks of His Majesty’s Navy and was relishing the security and privacy of his new family life. The sacrifices and changes he then faced would have daunted any husband, let alone the physically energetic, intelligent and ambitious young man that he was.
And that is really it. I admire Prince Philip no less and I appreciate his background a bit more, but I would certainly not wish to take the Mountbatten family tree as my specialist subject on Mastermind.
While this is an interesting biography, I think that we can glean just as much from Prince Philip’s actions, his dedication and abiding presence by the side of our Queen throughout her reign, and for that he deserves the honour of our country.
‘Young Prince Philip: His Turbulent Early Life’ is written by Philip Eade and published by Harper Press
Click here to view the book on the publisher’s website.