13 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Prince Philip
Just how well did you know the Duke of Edinburgh? Here are 13 little-known facts about Prince Philip, from his origins as a Prince of Greece and Denmark, to his passing in April 2021 at the age of 99.
Prince Philip wasn’t born a British subject
Queen Elizabeth II and her consort, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, came to represent Britain itself in the nearly seven decades she has been on the throne. But you might not know that her husband wasn’t exactly British—at least he wasn’t until he married her. Before he was the Duke of Edinburgh, the young Philip was Prince of Greece and Denmark, nephew of the Greek king, and born on the Greek island of Corfu in 1921. He was not a British citizen, although his ancestry could be traced to multiple countries including Germany and England. “If anything, I’ve thought of myself as Scandinavian, particularly Danish,” he said in a 1992 interview. Although we may think of him as the quintessential English gentleman, he only renounced his titles and became a British citizen, choosing the name Philip Mountbatten, in preparation to marry then-Princess Elizabeth.
He had a turbulent childhood
In chin-up British fashion, the Queen and her husband tended not to be very open about Prince Philip’s difficult early years. When the Greek royal family was ousted, his family fled the country with baby Philip lodged in a fruit crate. After settling in exile in France, Philip’s family went through more changes: His older sisters married and moved away, his father left, and his mother, who suffered from mental illness, entered a psychiatric hospital. “My mother was ill, my sisters were married, my father was in the south of France—I just had to get on with it,” the BBC reports he said. Young Philip was shuttled off to boarding schools in England, Germany, and Scotland for the rest of his childhood.
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His relatives were Nazis
His older sisters didn’t just get married: They got married to Nazis. When Philip’s sister Cecile and her husband, both Nazi party members, died in a plane crash in 1937, young Philip was sent to Germany for the funeral and had to walk in the procession among Nazi soldiers. None of Philip’s sisters were invited to his wedding in 1947, but the royal couple reunited with his German relations in 2015. Prince Philip, of course, couldn’t help who his relatives were, and he himself went on to fight for the Allies as a Royal Navy officer in World War II. Also, Philip’s mother, Princess Alice, sheltered Jews during World War II when she was living in Athens. She was honoured with the title “Righteous Among the Nations on Princess Alice” by Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem for her actions and is buried in Jerusalem.
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Queen Elizabeth’s father didn’t approve of Philip
The young Princess met the dashing Prince when she was just 13, and the two corresponded as friends for many years before their romantic relationship blossomed. But a Time magazine article from 1957 points out that the Princess’ father, King George VI, “strongly disapproved” of the match. “Despite Philip’s British background and his fine war record, George VI was deeply worried about how British opinion…would take to a Greek Prince as the husband of the heiress presumptive,” Time reported. “There was also something about his daughter’s brash young man with his loud, boisterous laugh and his blunt, seagoing manners that irritated the gentle King.” Plus, Philip was poor (by royal standards, at least), exiled, had German roots and Nazi relatives, and wasn’t considered a proper choice for the princess. Elizabeth had to make the case for her Prince, but her wishes eventually won over her father—and the country. The couple wed on November 20, 1947.
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He’s related to the Queen
Intermarriage between cousins may be frowned upon these days, but it historically tended to be commonplace—even the famously in love Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were first cousins. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s family connection wasn’t quite that close, but they were third cousins, as both were great-great-grandchildren of Victoria and Albert themselves. Historically, it was imperative to marry amongst royalty to secure power, and there were only so many options. And so today, it’s unlikely for any modern royal not to be descended from Queen Victoria: As her nine children were married off to royalty all over the continent, she’s known as “the grandmother of Europe.”
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He didn’t want to give up his naval career
Just because Philip and Elizabeth were in love, doesn’t mean there weren’t hurdles in their marriage. Although the Duke is rightly lauded for his naval career, he felt he had to give it up all too soon when she suddenly became Queen. “I thought I was going to have a career in the Navy but it became obvious there was no hope,” he reportedly said. “There was no choice. It just happened. You have to make compromises. That’s life. I accept it. I tried to make the best of it.” He revealed in a 1992 interview in the Independent that instead of some of his royal charity positions, “I’d much rather have stayed in the Navy, frankly.” Even his grandson, Prince William, admits it must have been hard for his grandfather to have given up his own ambitions to support the Queen. “But he does it fantastically well,” Prince William told ABC News. “He’s never complained. Well, he has complained a little bit, but not sort of too openly.”
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He wasn’t happy his children couldn’t have his last name
Prince Philip also resented that his kids couldn’t even take his last name—or rather, that Queen Elizabeth wouldn’t allow it, as she wanted to keep to her name of the House of Windsor after their marriage. “I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his own children,” he reportedly said. In 1960, the couple reached a compromise: Although the royal house itself would remain as Windsor, their descendants, should they need a last name, would be called Mountbatten-Windsor.
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He’s a secret romantic
Even with their early squabbles, Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth were very much in love—even if they didn’t talk about it often publicly. “To have been spared in the war and seen victory, to have been given the chance to rest and to re-adjust myself, to have fallen in love completely and unreservedly, makes all one’s personal and even the world’s troubles seem small and petty,” Philip wrote in a personal letter to Elizabeth’s mother. Over the years, he gave her gorgeous presents like a ruby and diamond brooch she favours for holiday occasions. In return, she gave him a knighthood for their 70th anniversary.
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He has a naughty sense of humour
Prince Philip was well-known for his straightforward (some might say rude) manner, wicked quips, and occasional habit of putting his foot in his mouth. A few of the gaffes over the years? Speaking about a Scottish tartan, he said, “That’s a nice tie…Do you have any knickers [underpants] in that material?” To bombing victims, the Duke said, “After a fire it is water damage that is the worst. We are still drying out Windsor Castle,” referring to the 1992 fire. During a recession, he said, “Everybody was saying we must have more leisure…now that everybody’s got more leisure time they are complaining they are unemployed.” Then there’s this gem from 1961: “British women can’t cook.”
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He was the most popular royal among the palace staff
According to Matt Smith, who played Prince Philip in the Netflix series The Crown, the Duke was the favorite royal among the staff. “In the royal house he’s the most popular of all of them—if you’ve talked to any of the staff, Philip’s the one they all love really,” Smith said in a Variety interview. “I think more than a lot of them, he’s a bit more of a man of the people. The royal protocol hasn’t dogged him in quite the same way his whole life, and there’s a sort of rebellion in him and a naughtiness and a cheekiness. I think he’s quite affable and open by all accounts with the staff. They all love him.”
He met Archie before the Queen
Another way Prince Philip has broken royal protocol? He met his latest great-grandchild, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s son, Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor, before the Queen—although by accident. Queen Elizabeth and her husband weren’t supposed to be introduced to the new royal until later in the day, but Prince Philip ran into Prince Harry and wife Meghan on their way to talk to the press. “We just bumped into the Duke as we were walking by, which was so nice,” the Duchess told photographers. Whoops!
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He helped Prince William on the day of his mother’s funeral
The royal family was famously quiet in the days after Princess Diana’s tragic death in 1997—and have been criticized for it. The Queen and Prince Philip spent the time helping young Princes Harry and William through the grief over their mother’s passing. The Duke reportedly did not always get along with Diana, but in reality, Philip helped William find the courage to walk in the funeral procession. At first, the Duke was protective of the boys and their participation in the walk, reportedly saying with uncharacteristic emotion, “We are talking about two boys who have just lost their mother.” But as Prince William wrestled with the decision, he gave the young man strength and support. “If I walk, will you walk with me?” he asked the 15-year-old prince. Both William and his grandfather, along with Prince Harry, Prince Charles, and Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, walked behind her coffin. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, that walk,” Prince William said in the BBC documentary Diana, 7 Days.
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The Queen couldn’t have done it without him
The Duke may have been a secret feminist: He was not intimidated by his powerful wife, always stood by her side, and in fact, was the only one allowed to take her on. “Prince Philip is the only man in the world who treats the Queen simply as another human being—I think she values that,” her former private secretary Lord Charteris reportedly said. “And, of course, it is not unknown for the Queen to tell the Duke to shut up.” The Queen’s grandson, Prince Harry, even told ABC News, “Without him, she would be slightly lost, I think.” Although she didn’t often reveal her feelings for her husband, the Queen herself has acknowledged, in a rare show of vulnerability, “He has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years. I…owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim or we shall ever know.”
Next, read up on Prince Philip’s special relationship with Canada.