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How Prince Philip became the rock of the royal family and its ultimate poster boy

The Duke of Edinburgh marks his birthday on 10 June

philip charmer
9 June 2020
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To his grandsons Prince Philip is "a legend," for the Queen he's her one true love and to the nation he was the force behind the throne until his retirement three years ago. A younger generation now see him as the top-hatted gentleman one pace behind Her Majesty at weddings. But in his heyday Philip, always with a twinkle in his eye and a swagger in his step, had quite a fan club. As the Duke of Edinburgh turns 99 on 10 June, we celebrate the original royal poster boy.

WATCH: The Queen and Prince Philip's love story

If you think Prince William and Prince Harry are all-action heroes flying helicopters and riding motorcyles, then you have to remember that they got it from Grandpa. Philip excelled at polo, a fast, dangerous, exciting game, until he hung up his mallet at 50, only to take up carriage racing, a slightly safer but still technically demanding sport. 

Another of his passions was flying: he racked up 5,986 hours as a pilot in 59 types of aircraft over 44 years in the cockpit. A fun photo from 1953 shows the Duke at the controls of a plane over Windsor Castle. You can imagine him telling "Lilibet" or "darling" as he called her, to look out for him from the castle and wave.

READ: The secret to Prince Philip's good health ahead of royal's 99th birthday

philip 1953© Photo: Getty Images

Philip during a flying lesson in 1953

When the couple married in 1947, the nation's women swooned over the irresistible good looks of their Princess's groom, who could always tease a smile out of her with his quick wit. Six feet tall with magnetic blue eyes, exuding energy and vitality, he seemed like a Prince from central casting. A member of the Greek royal family, whose mother Princess Alice was a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, the golden-haired Adonis had blue-blooded heritage too.

A few days before the ceremony, the King gave a ball at Buckingham Palace, at which he led his guests in a conga around the state rooms. Philip was given the task of presenting his fiancée's bridesmaids with presents, each receiving a silver compact embossed with a gold crown, the bride and groom's initials and cabochon sapphires. In his typically jaunty manner, "he dealt them out like playing cards," recounted one of the bridal party, Lady Elizabeth Longman.

His uniform on their wedding day wasn't just ceremonial. The young Prince had trained at Dartmouth naval college, where in 1939 he was asked by his mentor and uncle Lord Mountbatten to show the King and Queen and their daughters around. Royal governess Marion Crawford noted that her young charge, then a 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth, couldn't take her eyes off him. Philip's wartime service with the British navy took him to the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. He received an honourable mention in dispatches, and became at 21 one of the youngest first lieutenants in the Royal Navy. In this capacity he was second in command of the destroyer HMS Wallace.

MORE: Prince Philip makes an incredibly rare statement about coronavirus

elizabeth philip wedding© Photo: Getty Images

Elizabeth and Philip married in 1947

The death of King George put an end to his promising naval career, which he gave up to support his wife in her new role as sovereign. At her magnificent coronation, the Duke managed to lighten the solemn atmosphere as he has always done, pointing at her crown and joking: "Where did you get that hat from?"

After the ceremony Elizabeth and Philip circled the globe, during their tour of the Commonwealth. In Australia three-quarters of the population are estimated to have seen the Queen and her dashing consort, in jubilant scenes only repeated when the newlywed Prince and Princess of Wales visited and during Prince Harry and Meghan’s own honeymoon tour years later. Everywhere they went, the public was impressed by Philip's charismatic presence and down-to-earth charm. 

The Queen and Duke's marriage has been a uniquely long and happy one in royal history. Among friends they still feel free to act like the besotted lovers they once were and are happy to show their enduring affection for one another. Once when the couple were staying with his cousin Patricia Brabourne, the daughter of Lord Mountbatten, her husband John said to Philip: "I never realised what lovely skin she has." "Yes," replied Philip, "she’s like that all over."

MORE: Prince Charles desperately missing royal family: 'You really want to give people a hug'

queen coronation© Photo: Getty Images

The couple at the Queen's Coronation in 1953

Despite his royal title, life hasn’t always been easy for Philip. We saw that in The Crown, where Matt Smith played the young Prince with just the right mix of bravado and vulnerability. "The Duke was born a Prince of Greece. His grandfather was assassinated. His father put on trial. The family was exiled when he was a toddler," explains royal writer Gyles Brandeth. "His favourite sister and her family were killed in an aeroplane accident. Before he was ten, his parents separated. His mother ended up in an asylum and his father in the South of France. For years, he rarely saw them."

Instead, he was shuttled between relatives and schools in Paris and Germany before ending up at Gordonstoun in Scotland, run by renowned German-Jewish educator Kurt Hahn, who fostered both his sporting and his intellectual passions. He is a great reader and thinker – qualities he has passed on to Prince Charles. His family's itinerant lifestyle also made him extraordinarily tough and adaptable. Philip mingled easily with Kings and Queens, but knew what it was to do without, too. Behind that gruff exterior is a heart of gold, say those who know him well.

"Prince Philip is a more sensitive person than you would appreciate," said his cousin Patricia. "He had a tough childhood and his life constrained him into a hard exterior in order to survive."

MORE: Why June is a special month for the Queen and Prince Philip

queen philip 2017© Photo: Getty Images

The Queen and the Duke celebrated 70 years of marriage in 2017

He is the rock on which the royal family is built. When his grandsons were mourning their mother Princess Diana, it was he who helped console them, while Prince Charles met with her sisters to oversee funeral arrangements. In a show of solidarity, he walked beside William and Harry as they paid their final respects to their beloved mother, just as he had done for the many family members that he had lost. "If I walk, will you walk with me?" he asked them, uniquely placed to understand the grief they were feeling.

On their silver wedding anniversary, the Queen said in a speech: "If I am asked what I think about family life after 25 years of marriage, I can answer with equal simplicity and conviction, I am for it." Twenty-five years later she would describe her husband as "quite simply my strength and stay".

To their family, they are relationship goals. "I'd love to know their secret," William says. "I think it's fantastic and I've regularly asked them both how they've managed it, because they are the most lovely couple." Perhaps, as with all the best marriages, there probably is no secret, except that he still makes her feel like that giddy teenager that was so fascinated by him all those years ago.

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