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Sunday 1 January 2012

When he's in good form, Philip really is Prince Charming

Like his ancestor Prince Albert, the Duke of Edinburgh has given up much for his wife, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

WITH Prince Philip in hospital, there were grim moments over Christmas for those involved in planning Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee.

The Golden Jubilee was a success even though the Queen had lost her sister and her mother within the previous four months, but she had her husband for support. It would be cruel if the man who has sustained her throughout her reign dies before this huge celebration. As it was, fitted with a stent and looking rather gaunt, Philip was let out of hospital after four nights and headed straight to a shooting lunch. The newspapers will be kind to him for a while, and then it'll be back to normal with the tabloids and left-wing press depicting this hard-working, intelligent, gifted and humourous man as a grumpy, gaffe-prone, out-of-touch animal-slaughterer.

The truth is that Philip has made a remarkable success of a very difficult job. As the 20-year-old Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha discovered humiliatingly when he married his cousin Queen Victoria in 1840, in Britain a male consort has no rights, his status being dependent on the whim of politicians and on his popularity with a fickle public.

Visionary, inspirational, cultivated, progressive and selfless, and mostly operating behind the scenes, for 22 years, Albert was the de facto monarch. Victoria would outlive him by almost 40 years, but it was he who detached her from party politics and taught her how to do her job.

Albert's wisdom and dedication brought dignity to a discredited monarchy and achieved great things for his adopted country, including the Great Exhibition and the glorious museum complex of South Kensington.

Yet successive governments refused him the legal status of Prince Consort, and it was left to his angry wife -- who wanted him made King Consort -- to give him a title through the use of her prerogative.

A century later, after 10 years of marriage, the great-great-grandson of Albert and Victoria, the Duke of Edinburgh formerly known as Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark, was given 'the style and dignity of a Prince of the United Kingdom' only because Prime Minister Harold Macmillan realised he deserved recognition for giving up the successful career and dedicating himself to supporting his wife.

Philip Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg of Greece was a baby when his family were exiled from Greece and reduced to living on the charity of relatives.

A rootless cosmopolitan of German and Danish blood (he speaks fluent French and German), he was educated in France and Scotland, joined the Royal Navy in 1939, was mentioned in dispatches during the war and by 1950 was a lieutenant commander with his own ship.

Marrying the heir to the throne had required him to change his name to Mountbatten, renounce his titles and convert from Greek Orthodoxy to the Church of England. In 1953, Coronation Year, the queen announced that he would have "place, pre-eminence and precedence" next to her, but there was trouble when his egregious uncle, Lord Mountbatten, bragged that the House of Windsor had been replaced by the House of Mountbatten, causing the cabinet to force the Queen to announce that she and her descendants would continue to carry the surname Windsor. Philip, who had hoped for a compromise which would have them called Edinburgh, was deeply hurt: this made him nothing but "an amoeba -- a bloody amoeba", he said; "the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his children".

But such are the humiliations of male consorts, and, like Albert on so many occasions, Philip swallowed his pride for the sake of the Queen, who rewarded him by changing the family name to Mountbatten-Windsor as soon as she could get away with it.

An intrepid sportsman (he continued competitive carriage-driving until he was 85) and an internationally respected conservationist (he served as president of the World Wildlife Fund for 21 years), he has taken a keen interest in the 800 or so organisations of which he has been a patron and even last year carried out more than 300 engagements. The Duke of Edinburgh's Award, which sets challenges for the young, has been a roaring success around the world.

Like Albert, Philip had to invent a role, subsume his dominant personality into a supportive function and persuade a Queen of a conservative disposition to embrace change. And like Albert, he has had to endure the sneering xenophobia of sections of the British Establishment (he is contemptuously nick-named 'Phil the Greek'), as well as capricious media assaults -- often based on invented stories -- that fuelled outbursts of public hostility: "inevitable; vide Albert", has been Philip's philosophical way of shrugging off such episodes.

Like Albert, Philip's immense contribution to his new country won't be recognised until he's dead, but however bad he's feeling, he'll be doing his damnedest to stay alive until the jubilee's safely over.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards