At the end of April 1930 the eight-year-old Prince Philip of Greece was invited to join his maternal grandmother, Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine (1863–1950), for a family holiday in Germany at the Neue Palais in Darmstadt, just south of Frankfurt. It was a wonderful chance for the boy to be reunited with his sisters and cousins, along with his fragile and deaf mother Princess Alice—especially since his father Andrew had, by this date, effectively deserted the family.
But Grandmother Victoria had other plans. Deeply concerned about the mental wanderings of her daughter Alice, she had been consulting Professor Karl Wilmanns, a local expert on insanity, and he had recommended some intensive, long-term treatment in a sanatorium. On 2 May 1930 Victoria arranged a day out for Philip and his sisters Cecilie and Theodora—who got back home to discover that their mother had vanished. In their absence, Professor Wilmanns had paid a visit, had restrained and sedated Alice with an injection of morphine and scopolamine, a nerve-paralysing agent, and had then bundled her into a car to drive her down to the Bellevue sanitorium on the shores of Lake Constance over 200 miles away. Philip would not see his mother again for years—and with his father moving to Monte Carlo around the same time, the boy was effectively an orphan.
Philip had already suffered a parentally solitary childhood. A major-general in the Greek army, his father Andrew was often away, making no contact with his only son for months on end.
There was, above all, the issue of Philip’s remoteness from his mother, who was sincere and devoted but unable to listen in any real sense to anything her son wanted to tell or ask her. When these emotional gaps were compounded by the trauma of his mother’s dramatic disappearance in May 1930 it was hardly surprising that Philip should start to exhibit signs of what psychologists describe as ‘avoidant behaviour’. The ‘avoidant’ child declines to reveal their personal feelings to those close to them in later life, according to this diagnosis, in order to avoid triggering further rejection.
In Philip’s case, this ‘avoidance’ came to manifest itself in a ‘toughness’ that was amplified by his boarding school education. Weeks after the disappearance of his mother, the nine-year-old was packed off for three years to the austere surroundings of Cheam, a religiously-based boarding school near Sutton in Surrey that dated back to the 1640s. He was then sent to Germany to board for two terms at Schule Schloss Salem followed by Gordonstoun. In all these formative years, Philip had minimal contact with either his father or his mother.
Philip left Gordonstoun in 1939 to train as an officer at Dartmouth Naval College, another exclusively masculine environment, so after all his years of high-pressure training it was hardly surprising that Philip should confess in an early interview that he would be ashamed of admitting to crying.
Philip’s aggressive ‘survival’ mechanisms were defiantly on display over Easter 1964 in the Chapel Royal at Windsor during Prince Charles’s service of confirmation into the Church of England. Philip had been strongly opposed to his son receiving confirmation at such an early age. Charles was only 16—too young, in his father’s opinion, to make such a serious personal commitment. But his objections had been overruled by the Queen, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, and by Prince Charles himself, and Philip showed his feelings by ostentatiously reading a book throughout the service, holding the volume noticeably high during the Archbishop’s sermon.
Philip had not only been rude to the Archbishop and to the Anglican Church as a whole—but most of all to his own son, whose special day it was, and who had approached the occasion with genuine religious feeling. The dynamic Robin Woods—a major character in this episode—had been brought in to shake up the royal parish, or ‘Deanery’ of Windsor, two years earlier. The new Dean soon discovered that his spiritual services were less urgently required by Her Majesty than by her spouse, and it was fortunate that Woods had arrived in Windsor with an idea that appealed to Prince Philip’s practical turn of mind.
‘St George’s House’ was a long-nurtured dream of Woods that the Church needed some sort of refuge and revival centre where priests who were burned out could renew their sense of mission.
Philip liked the idea. It sounded to him like the clerical equivalent of the staff colleges that pepped up serving officers in the armed forces, and he immediately identified a physical home for Woods’ proposed study centre. Less than 20 years after the Second World War, there were still dilapidated corners of the Windsor compound with rundown houses dating back to the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—the long disused residences of royal retainers and minor canons. Few causes could be better calculated to inspire the hands-on Duke of Edinburgh than repair and renovation, and he soon put together a restoration plan to create 15 modernised bedrooms in these old buildings, with new bathrooms and an adequate kitchen, along with study and meeting rooms—a modern conference centre behind Windsor’s Georgian façades, with space for further extension into the nearby Canons’ Cloister.
It was an expensive project—£350,000 in 1960s prices, the equivalent of some £6,000,000 today—and Philip responded to that challenge as well. He shamelessly exploited his status to raise the money via Knights of the Garter drawn to the idea of rebuilding Windsor in the name of their own—and England’s—patron saint.
Fully funded, St George’s House opened on time on Sunday 23 October 1966—two days, by sad happenstance, after the tragedy of Aberfan. Regular updates from the Welsh mining village disaster were fed into the gathering over the weekend, injecting sadness into the deliberations of the 35 ‘diverse and distinguished’ guests invited to the centre’s first residential consultation. But Prince Philip matched the gravity of the moment with the speech with which he opened the Saturday evening discussion, ‘What does the Nation expect of the Churches?’
Robin Woods later said that the Duke spoke ‘quite brilliantly’ on his theme for 40 minutes, stimulating a provocative debate which the Prince himself moderated. St George’s House clearly provided the long-needed dimension for which Philip had been searching in his spiritual life. Philip found guidance via a practically based strand of the Anglican faith.
The Prince had found the challenge he had been seeking, coaxing him out from behind his hard-built psychological defences. In the months that followed, he gave further talks and led St George’s House discussions on topics that ranged from human conflict to ‘Truth’, moving onwards over the years into his ecological interests and his campaigning for the conservation of nature. In 1982 the Prince published a collection of his lectures in a book, A Question of Balance, and two more volumes would follow. In 1986 he invited religious representatives of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism to come to Assisi, northern Italy, to discuss faith and the environment—in the footsteps of St Francis.
It was Peter Morgan’s inspiration to set Prince Philip’s relatively late-life religious awakening—sometime in his mid-to-late forties—into the context of men landing on the Moon. In Episode 307, ‘Moondust’, we watch the Prince eagerly tracing every detail of the US Apollo 11 mission.
Peter Morgan depicts Prince Philip making heroes of the US astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins—until he meets the trio and discovers that they are, in reality, quite ordinary, stolidly Earth-bound human beings. There was nothing wrong with them, but they had no particularly profound or dazzling vision to offer on life’s mysteries. So, in Morgan’s dramatic ‘Moondust’ narrative, this inspires the Duke to move on to the spiritual insights available on his doorstep through Robin Woods and St George’s House.
This scenario actually reverses the true chronology of events—St George’s House opened three years before man landed on the Moon. But the invented truth remains—that Prince Philip spent many years searching for fulfillment in secular and especially scientific directions, only to locate his spirit in the old-fashioned Church that he had spurned. And when it comes to the history of the astronauts—Neil Armstrong (commander), Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin Jr (lunar module pilot), and Michael Collins (command module pilot)—it turns out that they did, in fact, inject a religious dimension into the great lunar achievement that some people considered to have heralded the death of religion.
Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the Moon, who stepped down from the lunar module in the wake of Neil Armstrong, was a fervently practising Christian. He served as an elder at the Webster Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas, which packed him up a ‘Holy Communion kit’ to take on his adventure—miniature plastic containers of bread and wine.
His companion Neil Armstrong, meanwhile, was a believer of another stripe—in the late 1950s Armstrong had inscribed ‘Deist’ as his personal ‘Belief ’ definition on an application form when seeking to lead a local Boy Scout troop in Southern California. Founding his personal credo on the precepts of reason rather than revelation, Armstrong was in the great American tradition of ‘Deist’ Founding Fathers and Mothers like Thomas Paine, Abigail Adams and Benjamin Franklin, who believed that God had created the world, but had since declined to get involved with humankind—and was certainly not to be discovered inside the sectarian belief systems of any of the Earth-bound Christian churches.
In 1994 the celebrated astronaut, by then 64, was on a visit to Israel touring the Old City of Jerusalem, when he asked Meir Ben-Dov, his host and noted archaeologist, if these particular old stone steps were the original steps dating back through all the centuries to the very time of Christ, and his guide informed him that they were.
‘So Jesus stepped right here?’ asked Armstrong. ‘That’s right,’ answered Ben-Dov.
‘I have to tell you,’ Armstrong then replied to the Israeli archaeologist, ‘I am more excited stepping on these stones than I was stepping on the Moon.’
So, like Prince Philip, the great astronaut put all his science, deism and rationality aside when he came face to face with the appeal of old-time religion and the basic Christian message.
From the book THE CROWN: The Official Companion, Volume 2: Political Scandal, Personal Struggle, and the Years that Defined Elizabeth II (1956-1977) by Robert Lacey. Copyright © 2019 by Robert Lacey. Used by permission of Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.