Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh led a remarkable life — and a most unusual one — at the very epicenter of British public life, which also touched a wide range of business organizations. He will be remembered as Queen Elizabeth II’s great support throughout her reign, the longest serving and living consort in British history.
In recent years, he’s arguably been less widely known to the general public, though his controversial portrayal in the Netflix
series “The Crown” by actor Matt Smith propelled him to public attention in a version viewed by many as tilted to his disadvantage. Likewise, the British media tended to focus on his controversial comments and supposed gaffes, which eclipsed his wider achievements.
It was up to him to carve out a role for himself because he had no defined place within the British constitution.
Prince Philip was an active patron of numerous business organizations concerned with engineering, architecture, the Design Council, chemistry and aeronautics. He chaired a committee for the Queen’s Award to Industry, and he was an engaging fundraiser.
The outline of his life is well documented. He was born a prince of Greece and Denmark on a kitchen table in Corfu on June 10, 1921. Until the birth of King Constantine in 1940, he was heir to the Greek throne (after his uncles and father). Raised as a minor member of that family, he accompanied it into exile in December 1922, after which the family lived in Paris, disconnected from their royal roles and with little money. Prince Philip was lucky to have two rich aunts who paid for his education — Princess George of Greece (Marie Bonaparte), whose immense fortune derived from her grandfather, François Blanc (made from gambling in Hamburg and Monte Carlo), and Edwina Mountbatten, granddaughter of Ernest Cassel, who had extensive interests in banking, mining and heavy industry.
His uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten, was ambitious on his behalf and was instrumental in converting him from being a minor Greek prince in exile into a British naval officer. Prince Philip served gallantly throughout World War II.
He never had any money of his own, but his financial prospects improved after he married Princess Elizabeth in 1947. When she became queen in 1952, he was able to buy his mother an apartment in Athens, and said later that, unlike most other men, he did not have to earn his living. This liberated him to pursue more personal interests. He took on the running of the royal estates at Windsor, Balmoral and Sandringham, to alleviate pressure on the queen. As consort, he saw his prime duty as supporting her, and in that he did not fail. When not required, he explored numerous other projects, involved with the services, education, his award program, youth enterprises and charitable causes.
Many of these were involved directly or indirectly with business: Philip was a modernizer, and he sought out successful entrepreneurs and captains of industry to guide him. One such figure was the distinguished chemist Harold Hartley, with whom he discussed many issues, reporting how businessmen and statesmen had no interest in visiting Australia, while commending the welfare state in New Zealand. Hartley inspired him to establish the study conferences at Oxford, which addressed the living conditions of factory workers.
It was at a fundraiser a few years ago that Philip convened a group of rich Canadians at Buckingham Palace, greeting them with the opening thrust: “So — are you muppets going to put your hands in your pockets?” This appealed, and they obliged. His speeches were more widely listened to than they might have been had he remained a naval officer. When he went to Paris with Queen Elizabeth on a state visit he made a controversial address to the Chamber of Commerce, prompting the ambassador, Christopher Soames, to distance himself by describing it as “very much his own.”
Prince Philip applied a military (or perhaps naval) logicality to all he did. If he took on a project, he backed it thoroughly and saw it through. He relished an argument and accepted nothing at face value. He possessed the impatience of a man who was eager to implement his plans. He was quick to spot incompetence and ignorance. He had a particular dislike of chairpersons of companies who swanned in to deliver slick speeches on royal visits, and liked to catch them out if they had not mastered their brief. Only when his well-kept archive is accessible to an official biographer will the full extent of his endeavors be appreciated.
In a remarkable life, he was ahead of his time on climate change and other green issues, and the precursor of the many interests later developed by his son, Prince Charles. Like Queen Elizabeth, he wasted no time worrying what people thought of him but just got on with the job. His position in British life was unique and is unlikely to be repeated.
Hugo Vickers is a biographer and broadcaster, specializing in the 20th century and the royal family. He wrote “Elizabeth, the Queen Mother” in 2006 and has also written books on actress Greta Garbo and photographer Cecil Beaton.