Prince Philip Was Much More Than the Rigid Royal Enforcer
Prince Philip was the tough-minded patriarch of the royal family. While racist gaffes earned him headlines, he also learned early how to support his wife and find his own purpose.
The dysfunction at the heart of the British royal family has often been ascribed to the outsized role of its domineering patriarch, Prince Philip, who has died at age 99.
At moments he was a tyrannical father and vengeful ex-father-in-law, whose child rearing was condemned by his own son. Philip rarely showed what might be called a soft side, at least in public—but he was absolutely dedicated to his wife in supporting her role as queen.
Although she remained devoted to him throughout their long and sometimes turbulent marriage, finding a role that would fulfill him within the marriage presented Philip with a major challenge.
As viewers of The Crown saw, Philip was in many ways a traditional man of his times; however, he was in a marriage which defined him as number two, an adjunct.
He was conflicted by his official status as the junior partner within the marriage; while he was immensely proud of his wife and the monarchy, and calmly accepted, for example, that he would always be required to literally walk “two steps behind” his wife, he was resentful at other perceived indignities inevitably foisted on him by his wife’s status.
He railed, for example, when it was decreed by the government that his children’s last name would be “Windsor” and that he was “the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his own children.”
The queen compensated these emasculating wounds to Philip’s pride by allowing Philip to be “the dominant force in the family” as the writer and former courtier Graham Turner put it.
This dynamic hardened after the queen ascended unexpectedly early to the throne in 1952 at the age of 26; her official duties meant she was able to find very little time for her children. As Sally Bedell Smith wrote in her biography of Charles, Prince Charles: The Paradoxes and Passions of an Improbable Life: “[The queen] relied increasingly on her husband to make the major family decisions, and she depended on the nannies to supervise daily lives.”
Philip was not only in charge of things like school, activity, and (later) career choices, but also dictated the overall tenor of their hands-off, nanny-reliant parenting style.
Philip, who had been abandoned by his own parents, expected his children to stand on their own feet.
“He took the view,” a veteran lady-in-waiting told Turner, “that it was no good trying to mould them, that the only way they’d learn was by doing it for themselves… the queen and Prince Philip brought up the children extremely toughly. Never cry when hurt, never make a fuss.”
The impression of Philip as a tough, unemotional, and rather cold-hearted parent was devastatingly confirmed when Prince Charles, in 1994, gave a series of interviews to Jonathan Dimbleby for an authorized biography, The Prince of Wales. In a series of candid tirades, he publicly blamed his father for his lonely, unhappy childhood and for forcing him into a loveless marriage with Princess Diana.
Dimbleby’s book, which came hot on the heels of a TV interview with Dimbleby in which he confessed to cheating on Diana, described Charles as a timid and passive young boy who was cowed by his father.
Philip for his part, was upset that his son preferred the arts to sports, and was “a bit of a wimp.” He publicly humiliated him, using “mocking banter” that brought him to tears “particularly at social gatherings.”
Philip’s cousin Patricia Knatchbull said that Philip was tough on Charles because he wanted to help him develop traits that would help him deal with the pressures of being the future king.
Charles told Dimbleby that his dad seemed to prefer his more outgoing and “fearless” sister, Anne.
Philip and Anne were certainly more attuned emotionally than Philip and Charles. A 2002 Channel 4 documentary, The Real Princess Anne, claimed that Philip encouraged her boisterous behavior as a youngster, and respected her opinionated personality.
The royal author Penny Junor told that show: “Anne and the Duke of Edinburgh are actually very similar characters. In many ways I think Anne is the son he wishes he’d had.”
Undoubtedly, Philip was not as tough on Edward and Andrew as he was on the boy who would be king, and neither of them have ever complained publicly about his child-rearing.
Society journalist Sue Arnold told Vanity Fair, “Andrew’s romantic escapades, together with some much-publicized midshipman japes, earned him the reputation of Royal Lout-About-Town, a label that saddened his mother and annoyed his father. Secretly, however, Prince Philip admires Andrew’s macho action-man image—it reminds him of his own youth.”
However Philip was disgusted, in later years, by Andrew’s unfailing ability to bring the royals into disrepute. He also loathed his unconventional post-divorce living arrangements, which saw him continue to share a home with ex-wife Sarah Ferguson, who he hated with a passion.
Philip and Edward were never believed to be close. Philip was dismayed at Edward’s decision to pursue a career in the arts, as a theater and TV producer, and ridiculed him for the embarrassing TV show he organized featuring members of the royal family called It’s a Royal Knockout—a bit rich, given that it was Philip who oversaw the BBC documentary Royal Family in 1969 (which the queen hated so much that it was never shown on the BBC again, only recently resurfacing on YouTube).
It wasn’t just Charles’ youth that he claimed his father destroyed; the book also said Prince Charles was rushed into asking Lady Diana Spencer to marry him by Philip.
After they had been courting just a few months, Dimbleby said, Philip wrote to Charles saying he had one of two options: “Either to offer his hand in marriage, thereby pleasing both his family and the country, or to end the relationship immediately” for the sake of her honor.
The prince “interpreted his father’s attitude as an ultimatum,” the book said, and in a “confused and anxious state of mind” he “tried to reconcile himself to the inevitable.”
Robert Lacey described in his book, The Queen, how for years afterward Charles carried the offending letter around in his breast pocket and brandished it for friends to read when complaining of his lot.
“At some stage when the marriage started going wrong,” Lacey writes, “he dug this letter out, folded it up and started carrying it round and showing it to everyone. It was his attempt to say that he was forced into it.”
Philip remained so annoyed by Charles’ attack on him in Dimbleby’s book that seven years after it was published he quietly co-operated with Turner for an extended 10,000-word newspaper article, sometimes described as a biography, which, while not officially authorized, was well sourced and quoted Philip’s judgment of Charles as “precious, extravagant, and lacking in the dedication… to make a good king.” It was originally published in The Telegraph in 2001, but is no longer to be believed available in full online.
Turner claimed Charles never learned how to handle his father’s “hectoring” manner and quoted an aide as saying: “He is quite frightened of his father, who dominates the family by being bullying and loud. Charles deals with it by disengaging. That is why he doesn’t play a bigger role in family affairs. His father often doesn’t let him get a look-in. Charles is far too sensitive.”
Perhaps Charles was weak, but there is little doubt that Philip could be a terrifying and intimidating patriarch.
In 2004, a friend of this reporter, who was at that time a confidant of Sarah Ferguson’s, said that she would describe Prince Philip thus: “He rules that family with a rod of iron.”
Philip and Fergie fell out spectacularly and he vengefully (although ultimately unsuccessfully) sought to exclude Fergie from her family’s life in the wake of her divorce from Andrew.
The narrative of the tyrannical despot was certainly spread by Ferguson to almost anyone who would listen. But Philip’s supporters, and there are many, argue that his stiff-upper-lip brand of emotion-free, no-nonsense, Britishness was exactly what his generation, scarred by the horrors of World War Two, expected of their royals.
It is also only fair to point out that he was also hugely supportive to both Fergie and Diana (another royal woman he was accused of bullying) when they first married into the family.
Clear evidence of his warm relations with Diana was actually made public in a series of letters between Diana and Philip that were presented to an inquest investigating the death of Diana and her lover Dodi Fayed in a Paris car crash in August 1997.
Philip wrote in one typewritten letter, dated 1992, as the Wales’ marriage foundered: “If invited, I will always do my utmost to help you and Charles to the best of my ability, but I am quite ready to concede that I have no talents as a marriage counsellor!!!”
In her handwritten reply, Diana addressed Philip as “Dearest Pa,” and said: “I was particularly touched by your most recent letter which proved to me, if I didn’t already know it, that you really do care. You are very modest about your marriage guidance skills and I disagree with you.”
Philip was also a cheerleader for Ferguson in the early years of her marriage to Andrew, which took place five years after Diana’s wedding.
Fergie’s father, Major Ronald Ferguson, was Prince Philip’s polo manager and, a keen flyer himself, Philip was impressed by Fergie getting her pilot’s license in 1986, and helicopter license in 1987. She also learned horse-drawn carriage driving, with Philip, who continued carriage driving until his 98th year (when COVID, not old age, put a stop to it) as her tutor.
But Philip absolutely believed, with every fiber of his being, that being a royal meant sublimating one’s own desires and wishes to the sacred task of doing one’s duty to the institution. And when he decided that Fergie and Diana had abandoned that duty, he went to war on them as ferociously and brutally as he had once protected them.
He maintained a mean-spirited boycott of Fergie to the end of his days, refusing to even be in the same room with her, a vow that was only broken once, when they both attended Prince Harry’s wedding.
His critics say that Philip exhibited gross double standards and was accused of having several affairs himself, most notably with showgirl Pat Kirkwood. It could be argued he exploited his wife’s predictable silence in the service of upholding the monarchy’s reputation.
Other women rumored to be lovers of Philip included the actress Merle Oberon; the Duchess of York’s mother, Susan Barrantes; and Philip’s glamorous carriage-driving companion, Lady Romsey.
The Duchess of Abercorn, while admitting to “a highly charged chemistry” with Philip, denied any physical relationship, adding that “the passion was in the ideas.” Philip himself explicitly denied infidelity, reportedly once telling an unidentifed female journalist: “Good God, woman, have you ever stopped to think that for years, I have never moved anywhere without a policeman accompanying me? So how the hell could I get away with anything like that?”
Hypocritical or not, Philip became utterly furious with his daughters-in-law when they publicly admitted affairs (Diana) or were caught in the act like Fergie. After she was photographed sucking the toes of a Texan billionaire in 1992, he was said to have told a friend: “Everything I have worked for 40 years has been in vain.”
It was, if true, a rare moment of the self-pity he despised in others, especially Charles, whose extravagance and self-indulgence drove him to distraction.
All too frequently, however, Philip’s public appearances made headlines because of his outrageous and unguarded comments, which were often deeply sexist and racist in tone.
In 1984, after accepting a small gift from a local woman in Kenya, he asked: “You are a woman, aren’t you?”
In 1986, he told a group of British students during a royal visit to China: “If you stay here much longer, you’ll all be slitty-eyed.”
In 1999, spotting an old-fashioned fuse box in a factory near Edinburgh he said: “It looks as if it was put in by an Indian.”
In 2009, after looking at the name badge of businessman Atul Patel at a palace reception for British Indians, he said, “There’s a lot of your family in tonight.”
In 2010, he asked female Scottish Conservative leader Annabel Goldie, “Do you have a pair of knickers made out of this?” while pointing to some tartan in Edinburgh.
In 2012, he said, “I would get arrested if I unzipped that dress,” to 25-year-old council worker Hannah Jackson, who was wearing a dress with a zip running the length of its front, on a Jubilee visit to Bromley, Kent.
In 2013, on meeting a Filipino nurse he said: “The Philippines must be half empty as you’re all here running the NHS.”
He told Malala Yousafzai, who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban, “Children go to school because their parents don’t want them in the house.”
That his racist and sexist jokes are sadly part of his legacy in the popular imagination only serves to remind us that while Philip may have believed everyone else was too sensitive, it was his own lack of sensitivity that may be construed as his greatest weakness. Ultimately, unlike the queen, he was simply not able to change with the times, or—like other royals—telegraph a relatable empathy. (For others, his ramrod bearing was a great strength, and something to be admired.)
Instead, Philip took great pride in fulfilling the drudgery of royalty; whether he was meeting celebrities or opening a supermarket, he would go. His commitment to showing up meant he became a much-in-demand charitable patron: When he finally stood down from public life in 2017, he was patron, president, or a member of over 780 organizations.
He was regularly cited as the hardest working royal, and the Telegraph calculated that, over his life, he carried out over 22,000 public engagements, made 637 solo overseas visits, and gave 5,493 speeches.
They are amazing numbers, and there is no disputing that, for all his faults, Prince Philip made an extraordinary contribution to British public life.
He had planned to live out the rest of his days at a farmhouse on the Sandringham estate, but the coronavirus meant he actually spent most of the last year of his life in lockdown with the queen at Windsor Castle.
It was an extraordinary twist of fate for this most unsentimental, family-minded of men, that the last year of his life was the longest, by far, that he ever spent with his wife.