The Duke of Edinburgh took the choice which, he knew, would confine him more than any other
That alternative history of the Prince might have ended as soon as it began CREDIT: Ben Pruchnie /WireImage
What might have been? No one knew fate’s twists better than the Duke of Edinburgh, whose great-grandfather was catapulted from army officer on meagre pay to sire of Europe’s second most prolific royal family when, out of the blue, he was named heir to a throne he never expected to occupy by his godfather, the Danish king. Like that distant forebear, Prince Philip experienced an almost unparalleled range of opportunity, a destiny that might have encompassed obscurity or fame; soldiering or sybaritism; wealth or poverty. His dynastic connections, far from rooting him, left him a young man with no name to call his own. Schoolmates in Germany simply called him “Greece”. But in truth, he had no nation than either. From such extraordinary liberty of options, he took the choice which, he knew, would confine him more than any other. There was of course real heroism in that, from an officer who knew much about valour. But the lives unled say much about the man, the paths untaken revealing, by their absence, the enduring strength of his commitment to life, a union, and a country that did not have to be his.
The peril of his birth That alternative history of the Prince might have ended as soon as it began, of course, when the rage of Greek revolutionaries burned brightest against Andrew, his royal father, in the wake of military catastrophe at Smyrna. British ambassador Francis Lindley worried that the worst would happen, pressed the family to escape while they could, warning that delay would be “most dangerous to their lives”. When Andrew refused he was summoned to give evidence against former comrades; soon it was he who was on trial for his life.
A one-year-old Prince Philip of Greece – his name a tactful gesture to the Greek people: Philippos, a name borne by legendary rulers of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon CREDIT: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Some 132 years after the guillotine went up in Paris, it seemed the Greeks were preparing the tumbrils for their own royal family. Would the children have been spared? The ruthless officer leading the witch hunt, Theodore Pangalos, promised they would, if in a typically heartless manner. While Andrew was in his cell, Pangalos asked how many children he had. “What a pity they will soon be orphans,” came his reply on hearing the answer. But Philip’s mother, clearly, could not be so sure and feared for her four daughters and newborn son. Only three years before, after all, her aunt, the Tsarina of Russia, had been murdered in Yekaterinburg with her young children. The twin traps of youth Having escaped, there were two great perils for a young man of Philip’s standing and family connections. The first was that, like all four of his sisters, he would find himself tied to a Germany rapidly falling under the sway of Nazism. It was only just avoided. Philip arrived at Lake Constance to attend Salem school in the autumn of 1933 just as Hitler took Germany out of the League of Nations, and with his older sister Theodora, recently married to Berthold, Margrave of Baden, keen to provide him with settled existence. Four years later, when his sister Cecile died in an air crash, Philip attended the funeral in Darmstadt flanked by surviving brothers-in-law wearing the uniforms of the SA and the SS. It was Philip’s father, Andrew, who intervened to ensure that Philip had by then long-since left Germany, decreeing he should return to Britain to rejoin Salem’s former headmaster, Kurt Hahn, a Jew drove into exile by the Nazis, at Gordonstoun.
Lady Louise Mountbatte