I first met the Duke of Edinburgh in the late 1970s. He was in his mid-fifties and no longer the dashing polo-playing prince, simply a man in a suit. I was one of a group of girls involved in raising monies for a theater of which Prince Philip was a patron, and we went backstage afterward to meet him. He was charming, polite, and funny, and only now when looking back do I realize how wary he must have been of being photographed with a bunch of young girls.
The next time I met him was in Amman, in March 1984. I had moved on from PR and was working for Majesty magazine. He was with Queen Elizabeth on a state visit to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan as guests of King Hussein and Queen Noor. On the first afternoon there was a reception for the royal press corps, of which I was one, to meet Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip—this was standard in those days.
As we walked into the British Embassy, all of us visiting media journalists and some of the heavy-hitting Middle East foreign correspondents lined up to shake hands as if we were at an old-fashioned wedding reception. I clearly remember the master of ceremonies calling out Ingrid Seward from Hanover Magazines, who then published Majesty. It was my first royal tour and I hadn’t a clue what to do, so I just stuck around Michael Shea, Queen Elizabeth’s press secretary, who told me where to stand and wait to be introduced to the Queen.
Before this happened I was approached by an equerry who said to me, “His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh would like to meet you.” I nodded vaguely, and before I could do anything, Prince Philip walked up to me and asked me in his crisp, dry voice if I was German. I suppose with a name like Ingrid and working for an organization called Hanover Magazines it was a possibility. As soon as I replied in the negative, he turned on his heel and walked away.
I was humiliated—I couldn’t understand what I had done, but I later learned it was standard behavior for the duke. According to behavioral psychologists, people in a position of power such as Prince Philip frequently don’t terminate a meeting properly. They just walk away if they are not interested. They know people only want to talk to them because of who they are, not as a real person, so they have no sensitivity toward the other individual’s feelings.
Years later, when I was introduced to the duke again, this time by his then private secretary and friend Brian McGrath, at a small party in the grounds of Home Park during the Windsor Horse Show, he looked straight at me and walked away without uttering a word. Brian, looking flustered, came over to apologize, saying that the duke had thought I was from the Daily Mirror not Majesty magazine, which was why he had walked away. I met him again a few days later, when perhaps he had been briefed I was not from a tabloid newspaper, and we had what I imagined he would think was a civilized conversation about carriage driving. Realizing I was not the enemy, he was charm personified and put me in touch with his head groom, at that time David Muir. He had allowed David to take me out with his carriage ponies so I could see for myself what it was like.
I still couldn’t quite believe it when I found myself sitting on the Balmoral tartan–covered box seat being driven from the Royal Mews to the showground at Windsor with the Queen’s four Fell ponies pulling us along. With Windsor Castle behind us, we clopped past the carefully trimmed lawns and flowering trees to Home Park and the nine-hole golf course where Prince Andrew used to practice his golf swing. We trotted beside the river Thames and the railway track on to the showground, where it was much rougher, and when a train roared past, the ponies quickened their pace, but they responded immediately when told to stop. I used the moment to ask David Muir about his boss.
“People that don’t know the duke are intimidated by him,” Muir admitted. “It can be like the parting of the Red Sea. As the duke walks up everyone stands back, but if you are honest with him, he is honest with you. He can spot a fake a mile away.”
I have seen him dancing at the Squadron Ball at Cowes, expertly wrapped around Penny Romsey (now Countess Mountbatten of Burma) without a care about who would see them, so I presumed rightly or wrongly it was totally innocent. I have seen him being unpleasant and brusque, but I have also seen him lifting little children out of a crowd and over a barrier so they can give the Queen a posy. I have seen him feeding sugar lumps to his ponies after they have competed in a marathon.
With his intellectual rigor goes a great generosity of spirit. Practically everyone who has worked for him has unqualified affection for him, even though he continually shouts at them. He also has a capacity for intense dislike: of the press, his critics, and fools. His best relationships are those based on mutual respect such as he has for the Queen; his daughter, the Princess Royal; and his youngest son, the Earl of Wessex. He is also surprisingly unstuffy, although he has more blue blood running through his veins than his wife, the Queen.
According to Major General Sir Michael Hobbs, a former director of the Duke of Edinburgh Award who has worked with the duke since 1988: “He is reserved by nature and not a demonstrative man. He meets discomfort absolutely head-on and isn’t worried by it. He is a loner, utterly happy within himself.”
The duke claimed it was his mentor, Kurt Hahn, who persuaded him to become involved with the award: “Kurt Hahn came along one day and he sent for me and I went to see him at Brown’s Hotel, where he always stayed, and he said, ‘Boy, I want you to start an awards scheme.’
“I said, ‘Thanks very much!’ We had a badge scheme at Gordonstoun, and if you qualified throwing and running and jumping, you got a badge for it. I said, ‘I can’t start it, but if you put together a committee of the great and the good, I am perfectly happy to chair it, which is what happened.’?”
Philip’s relationship with Kurt Hahn was forged in the crucible of Gordonstoun School, where, under Hahn’s tutorship, Philip developed his adult self. Because of his respect for Hahn, anything the elder man needed, Philip would consider very carefully. “His dream was that one day the award that bears his name wouldn’t be necessary. It was a genuinely altruistic dream, and he believed and hoped it would become part of the development process of young people,” said Michael Hobbs.
Philip likes a lot of people for specific parts of what they are, but he does not have many complete friends. Not surprisingly many of those he did have are dead, but Philip is pragmatic and doesn’t dwell on the past or what might have been. As a high achiever himself, he expects the same from his friends when they are helping him, and yet when they disappoint him he is always fair. It was the same with his children.
In his youth his eldest son, the Prince of Wales, was frightened of him, and although they now have great respect for each other, it took years of misunderstanding. The late Diana Princess of Wales said he was an amusing dinner companion but she would never look to him for sympathy or go to him for help as opposed to advice or guidance, which he gave her. But at the end of her life she declared she hated him. In a conversation I had with her on the subject, she informed me she had warned her sons, William and Harry, never to shout at anyone who couldn’t answer back the way their grandfather did.
As is often the case between younger and older generations, the duke’s grandchildren find him easier than his children, in particular the Princess Royal’s son, Peter Phillips, who has always been a particular favorite. According to a member of staff, as the duke became more cantankerous in his old age, the only one who could cheer him up was Peter, who used to love to go duck flighting with his grandfather, and they still play games together and tease each other.
His numerous physical impairments and auditory problems may have made him increasingly bad tempered, and according to research lowered testosterone also plays a part in making older men more irritable and moodier. Regardless, even in his late stage of life, Prince Philip still takes huge pleasure in defying convention. When the Queen was hosting a tea for President Donald Trump of the United States in July 2018, Prince Philip got himself into a helicopter to make the two-hundred-mile journey from Wood Farm in Sandringham to Romsey in Hampshire to stand at the font at Romsey Abbey as a godfather to six-month-old Inigo Hooper, his first cousin three times removed. Inigo, son of Lady Alexandra Hooper and her husband Tom, will one day inherit Broadlands, and ninety-seven-year-old Philip wanted to be there among the Mountbatten family, not at Windsor Castle with the US president.
Prince Philip continues to enjoy his life. He spends most of his time at the refurbished Wood Farm on the Sandringham estate, where if he has to do the occasional family get-together, he does it with good heart and a huge amount of the willpower he has always possessed. His determination to be at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding in May 2018, despite having a hip operation only six weeks beforehand, was an example of his fortitude. As always, he walked ramrod straight into the chapel and sat through the long service without displaying a flicker of discomfort. Although he didn’t attend the reception afterward, he did turn up at Lady Gabriella Windsor’s wedding to Tom Kingston when they married in May 2019, and he attended their reception at Frogmore House. At Christmastime he always hosts his staff party at Frogmore and refuses to change anything because of his age. The staff at Windsor has noted that since his car accident in January 2019, he has a renewed zest for life and has been far more cheerful, possibly because he feels he has been given a reprieve to get on with whatever remains of his life. He enjoys watching cooking programs on television, can still read, and enjoys the company of attractive women and intelligent conservation. He is surprisingly sensitive and has always been appalled by the stream of negative stories in the media about the royal family—his family—but he has always cautioned against suing the press except in a few instances. He knows it gives more coverage to a libel, plus it is an unpleasant and expensive process to go through.
Watching Fergie and Diana tearing apart what he considered sacrosanct—the institution of the monarchy—for their own ends made him very angry and hurt him considerably. It was only in 2019 that he would finally be reconciled with Fergie and be present at a lunch at Windsor Castle with the Queen, Fergie, and Andrew. They never touch on the past, as Philip sees no point in that, but he is able to be in Fergie’s company without making her feel awkward. She is a good conversationalist and enjoys his continuing fascination with new things and ideas, which are sometimes a bit off-the-wall—but she can relate to them well. He once decided, for instance, it would be a good idea to introduce hawks into New York City to kill the vermin population that was a problem at the time.
Above all Prince Philip is loyal. He is loyal to his wife, the Queen, and the institution of the monarchy—which they have both given up so much to support—and it grieves him that the younger generation do not all appear to have the devotion to duty that has always been his byline. For him duty is at the center of everything. It is not a choice. It is one of life’s givens and it is the framework from which all other things follow. Prince Philip has always operated within the framework that if you obey the rules, life will be so much easier. There will be no embarrassment and no one will step over the line and say things they later on regret. Although Philip finds comfort and security in structure, there is also a rebellious streak at the core of his character. He has always held the opinion that his way is the right way, and he does not enjoy being corrected if someone contradicts him.
“He is an alpha male playing a beta role, but he accepts that as it’s his duty,” said behavioral psychologist Dr. Peter Collett. “He buys into paying homage as it’s playing the role, but outside of that he appears to find it difficult.”
In 2016, the year of the Queen’s ninetieth birthday, she was asked to present the trophies to the winner on Derby Day at Epsom for the first time in her reign. After the race the Queen took her place as the connections to the winning horse, Hazard, mounted the dais one by one to collect their trophies. First up was the winning owner, the Aga Khan, with whom the Queen could be seen discussing the race—she has extensive knowledge of the breeding of all the fancied runners. Next in line were the trainer Dermot Weld and the jockey Pat Smullen along with the stable lad who looked after the winning horse. Each man in turn received his trophy after a few words of congratulation from the Queen. Meanwhile ninety-four-year-old Prince Philip was standing erect as always and off to one side of the Queen and the winning group. He was impeccably dressed in a morning suit with a gray top hat and a colorful green-and-maroon tie with a pearl-and-diamond anchor tiepin. He shook hands with each man as he mounted the dais, but took no part in the presentation ceremony. Despite the Queen’s passion for horse racing, the duke has little interest in it himself and tried not to look bored by the proceedings. But the Derby is not a state occasion, so why did Philip make the trek down from the royal box to the presentation, only a week after his doctors ordered him to cancel his official engagements because of fears about his health? It was not an obligation.
It was his sense of duty. In all the years since the Queen’s accession, Prince Philip’s sense of duty has never wavered. He is always there. Two steps behind. His complex character is part of what makes him fascinating. “I often describe Prince Philip as a whirling comet with bits shooting off in different directions,” recounted one of his female friends. “He is not a gentleman, because he doesn’t put people at their ease when he can’t be bothered, but he plays by the rules with his wife and family.”
The Queen, who has been married to him for more than seventy years, has told us he doesn’t take easily to compliments. He doesn’t; he mistrusts their motives. He also objects to any details about his private life becoming public property. When Michael Fagan broke into the Queen’s bedroom in 1982, the thing that worried Prince Philip the most was that the public would know their sleeping arrangements—they have separate interconnecting bedrooms like many aristocratic couples with different life schedules. The Queen switches off when the duke becomes difficult and walks away both physically and mentally. But although their marriage has been challenging at times, it has never been dull.
When he was still actively involved, the worst thing about royal life for Prince Philip was the official engagements that could be so personally restricting and stultifyingly boring. Philip is as well known for his gaffes as anything else, but most of them are couched not to be rude but to relieve the boredom. Occasionally a mishap relieves the tedium, and one of Philip’s favorites occurred during a state banquet in May 1966, probably the only time anything has ever gone wrong on such an occasion.
The Queen was at the head of the table with Prince Philip next to her and the guest of honor, President Franz Jonas of Austria, on her right. The Archbishop of Canterbury was seated nearby, and opposite him sat a dame commander of the Order of the British Empire, who was also a brigadier in the army.
The brigadier, a well-proportioned lady, was wearing a black evening dress held in place by two thin shoulder straps. On the left side of the dress she wore medal ribbons. As a footman bent over to serve her vegetables, one of the buttons on his livery became entangled with the row of ribbons above her ample bosom. He tried to extricate himself while holding the salver of vegetables, which proved impossible. With difficulty he found a spot on the table to set down the dish, and with the help of the brigadier managed to untangle the button and strap.
Relieved but embarrassed and flustered, the footman bent to retrieve his vegetable dish and then another button became caught in the lady’s other shoulder strap. Dismayed, she pulled away from the footman just as he pulled away from her. The strap snapped, closely followed by the other. In a panic she pushed herself back from the table and with the same movement pushed herself out of her dress. The archbishop stared at his plate while the Queen determinedly carried on her conversation with the president of Austria so he did not dare look toward the commotion. For once the rule that no one leaves the table before the Queen was broken and the lady hurriedly left in search of a couple of safety pins.
Prince Philip still repeats the story that tickled his well-developed sense of the ridiculous, although it might have been altered a little down the years of retelling.
The multifaceted, complex, humorous character that is Prince Philip has been fortunate enough to dedicate his spare time to the pursuit of knowledge, and to enjoy his life while doing so. During his last years he has refused to give in to illness or infirmity, realizing that to do so would deny him his final opportunity to understand what he had not understood before. He has used this time to read the books he always wanted to read but never had the time to do so and to go through the archives of his life so carefully filed by his loyal archivist. I don’t think he has been afraid of death or afraid of life. His fear has been to leave things undone.
To the last he has remained a man of immense personal discipline and dedication to duty. Within the pages of this book I have attempted to explain who this man is and how he has managed to survive within his extraordinary life and make it actually worth living.