Sailor, sportsman, hero – and royal husband

Constant consort: Prince Philip was the longest-serving consort in British royal history.

Did he see more change than any of us will? Prince Philip has died aged 99. He led an extraordinary life and was a witness to some of the most momentous events in world history.

Boarding the British battle cruiser HMS Calypso in December 1922, the royal couple knew they were lucky to escape Greece with their lives. Prince Andrew’s uncle, King Constantine, had been forced to abdicate; he himself had been imprisoned. Now, with his wife Princess Alice, he was being exiled. With them, carried in a cot made out of a fruit box, was their one-year-old son – Prince Philip.

It was the beginning of a life filled with both privilege and deprivation, caught between a deeply traditional past and an uncertain future. Through his mother, Philip was a member of the Danish royal family as well as the Greek, but where he really belonged was far from obvious.

His parents settled in Paris, but at seven he was sent to boarding school in England. Shortly afterwards, his mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia and sent to an asylum, where she spent two years. For the rest of his childhood, he hardly saw her. He experienced another tragedy at 16 when his sister Cecilie was killed in an air crash.

After five years at a Scottish boarding school, Gordonstoun, Philip went to the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth as a cadet. Graduating in 1940, he spent the rest of World War Two on active service, proving himself to be a brave and resourceful officer.

The war took him far and wide. He served on ships protecting convoys in the Indian Ocean and on Britain’s east coast. He was mentioned in dispatches after the Battle of Cape Matapan, off Greece, and involved in the Battle of Crete. At 21 he became one of the youngest first lieutenants in the Royal Navy.

A year later, the ship of which he was second in command, HMS Wallace, took part in the invasion of Sicily. When it came under attack from night bombers, he devised an ingenious plan – launching a raft billowing with smoke which distracted the enemy and allowed the Wallace to escape.

The end of the war found him serving in the Pacific Ocean. On 2 September 1945, he witnessed Japan’s official surrender being signed aboard a ship in Tokyo Bay.

Philip first met his future wife in 1939, when she was just 13. Princess Elizabeth was visiting the Royal Naval College with her parents, and he was asked to act as their escort. He proposed to her seven years later, and on 20 November 1947, they were married in Westminster Abbey. The service was broadcast by BBC radio to 200 million people across the world.

Philip continued with his naval duties until 1951, by which time the couple’s two eldest children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne, had been born. The following year, King George VI died, and Philip began a new chapter in his life as the Queen’s husband.

There was much debate about what he should be called and what his position would be within the royal family. Before marrying, he had renounced his Greek and Danish royal titles to become a British citizen, and had been given the title of His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh. In 1957, the Queen made him a prince.

Did he witness more change than any of us will?

Seismic century

Some say, yes. When he was born, few people had cars or travelled by air. Much of the world was ruled by imperial powers. Communism was in its infancy, many women did not yet have the vote and there was no welfare state. Computer science barely existed; TV, the atom bomb, heart transplants and space rockets had yet to be invented. Some towns were still waiting for electricity.

Others argue that the pace of change increases all the time, and the inventions of the last 99 years might be nothing compared to those ahead of us. Flying cars and colonies on Mars could become things we take for granted in the next few decades; entirely new forms of energy might be developed. Climate change could transform our geography, politics and whole way of life.

You Decide

  1. Would you want to live in a palace if it meant being married to someone much more important than you?
  2. Due to the pandemic, members of the public will not be able to attend the Duke’s funeral. How could they pay their respects from home?


  1. One of Prince Philip’s greatest legacies will be the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme. Visit its website to see how you could take part.
  2. Write your own 600-word biography of Prince Philip, exploring his life and what you think he represented and achieved.

Some People Say...

“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.”

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (1921 – 2021)

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that for a man of action like Prince Philip, acting as a royal consort was not easy: accompanying your wife on her official duties is a far cry from commanding a naval vessel. But he carved his own niche, carrying out over 22,000 official engagements on his own, acting as patron to some 800 organisations and founding the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme. In his younger days, he let off steam by competing in sports such as polo and carriage driving.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around what Prince Philp’s life would have been like if he had not married the Queen. There is a good chance that he would have remained in the navy until retirement age. However, given the pressure on royalty to marry each other, he might have ended up marrying the heiress to the throne of another country. He might even have been offered a throne in his own right.

Word Watch

Short for His or Her Majesty’s Ship, a title given to vessels in the Royal Navy.
In Greek mythology, Calypso was a nymph who enchanted Odysseus on his journey home from the Trojan war. A calypso is also a Caribbean song.
Give up the throne. The king was blamed for Greece’s defeat in a disastrous war against Turkey.
A mental illness often accompanied by delusions and hallucinations. The term derives from two Greek words meaning “divided” and “mind”.
Philip had four older sisters, all of whom married German princes.
The school was founded by a Jewish refugee from Nazism, Kurt Hahn, whom Prince Philip greatly admired. But Prince Charles hated his time there, describing it as “Colditz in kilts”.
Mentioned in dispatches
Mentioned in a commander’s official report on a battle to his superiors, as a result of brave or resourceful action.
Battle of Cape Matapan
A battle in which British and Australian ships sank or badly damaged several Italian ships. It took place in March 1941.
Battle of Crete
A major setback for the Allies, when German forces captured the island in May 1941.


PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.