Royals say the darndest things: Prince Philip at 93

Behind his curmudgeonly persona hides an incisive mind and inquisitive nature — so says royal watcher Patricia Treble

Fred Thornhill/Reuters

Fred Thornhill/Reuters

On Prince Philip’s 93rd birthday, the first in three years that he can celebrate outside a hospital (2012) or not recovering from major surgery (2013),  there has been a warm, even affectionate outpouring of appreciation for a man who can be a curmudgeon on even his best day. He’s so famous for his quips that can often turn into gaffes that even Hello magazine compiled a list. Here are some of the best.

  • To a Scottish driving instructor: “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to pass the test?”
  • On meeting an Australian man who introduced himself and said, “My wife is a doctor of philosophy and much more important than I am,” he replied: “Ah yes, we have that trouble in our family too!”
  • To Tom Jones after his Royal Variety Performance in 1969: “What do you gargle with, pebbles?”
  • To Elton John himself, his neighbour in Windsor, on learning he had sold his gold Aston Martin: “Oh, it’s you that owns that ghastly car – we often see it when driving to Windsor Castle.”
  • On the recession of the Eighties: “Everyone was saying we must have more leisure. Now they are complaining they are unemployed. “
  • On meeting a 13 year-old-boy who dreamed of travelling to space: “You could do with losing a little bit of weight.”
  • To a group of female Labour MPs: “Ah, so this is the feminist corner then!”
  • His opinion of the president of Nigeria’s traditional attire: “You look like you’re ready for bed.”
  • Concluding a tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1968: “As so often happens, I discover that it would have been better to keep my mouth shut.”

While today, most are fixated on his longevity—he’s the longest-serving consort in British history and the oldest-ever male member of the royal family—it’s easy to forget what he’s accomplished, or prodded others to do, while still walking two feet behind his wife, Queen Elizabeth II for nearly 67 years.

For his 90th birthday, the monarchy’s website compiled 90 facts about Prince Philip. Here are some of the more unexpected, including using an early version of a mobile phone in 1953, designing jewellery for his wife, and establishing the Duke of Edinburgh Award. His list of achievements and duties is so long, it’s perhaps no wonder that a tribe on the Pacific Ocean island of Tanna worships him as a god.

1. The Duke of Edinburgh was born as Prince Philip of Greece at his parents’ house ‘Mon Repos’ on the island of Corfu, on 10 June 1921. The family was forced to leave Corfu when the Greek Royal Family was exiled on December 3, 1922, when he was just 18 months old.

2. The Duke is the youngest child and only son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Princess Alice of Battenberg. His paternal grandfather had been Prince William of Denmark until he was elected to be King George I of Greece. King George’s sister, Alexandra, married Edward, Prince of Wales, later to become King Edward VII, and his sister, Marie, married Emperor Alexander III Russia. The Duke renounced his Greek royal title in 1947 and became a naturalised British subject following his service in the Royal Navy.

6. The Duke left Gordonstoun school in 1939, after the Civil Service Examination, to join the Royal Navy as a ‘Special Entry’ Cadet at Britannia Royal Naval College. After a year at Dartmouth he was awarded the King’s Dirk as best all-round Cadet of his Term, and the Eardley-Howard-Crockett Prize (a £2 book token) for the Best Cadet.

11. As soon as Italy invaded Greece in 1941, The Duke was appointed to the battleship HMS VALIANT in the Mediterranean Fleet based in Alexandria. He saw action off the Libyan coast and in Malta, and in March took part in the night Battle of Matapan against the Italian Navy. The Duke was Mentioned in Despatches by the Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, for his operation of the searchlights during the action.

23. The Duke learned to fly with the RAF at White Waltham and gained his RAF Wings in 1953, his helicopter wings with the Royal Navy in 1956, and his Private Pilots Licence in 1959. He gave up flying in August 1997 after accumulating 5,986 hours as a pilot in 59 types of aircraft in 44 years.

27. In the early 1950s The Duke was persuaded by his old Headmaster, Kurt Hahn, to initiate an award scheme for young people. He chaired the committee which developed the idea for what became the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme. It now operates all over the world and it is estimated that, since 1956, around 7 million young people in 132 countries have gained Awards

40. The Duke has taken a particular interest in the conservation of nature and the natural environment. In 1960, together with Lord Buxton, he initiated the first of three ‘Countryside in 1970’ conferences. This led to his being invited to become the first President of the World Wildlife Fund in 1961. He accepted to be President of the British National Appeal but he declined the international position because he was already fully committed to the FEI. When he retired from the FEI in 1981, he was invited to become International President of WWF and served in that capacity until 1996, and is now President Emeritus.

41. The Duke enjoys painting landscapes in oils. A friend persuaded him to take it up but it was not until he met Edward Seago, when he was staying at Sandringham as a friend of the late King and Queen, that he began to appreciate its complexities. He invited Seago to join him in HMY Britannia for the return journey from the Olympic Games in Melbourne, when he managed to pick up a lot of good advice. As he withdraws from ‘executive responsibilities’ he is finding more time for this hobby.

46. The Duke was the first member of the Royal family to be involved in television programmes. In May 1957, he presented a programme for the BBC about his four and a half month tour of the Commonwealth. In 1957, he made a BBC programme during the International Geophysical Year under the title ‘The Restless Sphere.’

57. Buckingham Palace was spared serious bomb damage during the Second World War, the only significant damage being suffered by the Private Chapel. Inevitably the repair of the chapel had a low priority. As a good reason for getting the building repaired, The Duke proposed that it should be fitted-out as a picture gallery. The object would be to put on seasonal exhibitions of items from the Royal Collection. The new gallery proved to be a success. It was considerably enlarged in the 1990s and opened by The Queen in May 2002.

62. The Duke has always been interested in design. He designed a bracelet as his wedding present to The Queen. The stones came from a tiara owned by his mother.

72. The Duke has taken a close interest in the management of The Queen’s private estates of Sandringham and Balmoral, as well as Windsor Great and Home Parks. Over the years he has re-designed the layout of the gardens on the East Terrace of Windsor and designed the fountain. He created the private garden under the south wall of the Castle.

77. Of the 75 prizes, cups and medals associated with The Duke, the most unusual is probably the Silver Wink Trophy. In 1958 some students at Cambridge challenged The Duke to a tiddlywinks match. The Duke nominated the Goons – a radio comedy team including Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers – as his Champions. The Duke designed and had made a ‘Silver Wink’ trophy which, since 1961, has been presented to the winning team of the inter-University Tiddlywinks Championship.

83. The Duke had an early version of a mobile telephone, made by Pye Telecommunications of Cambridge, fitted to his car in 1953.

84. The Duke acquired an Apricot computer in the early 1980s to make it easier to edit the Statutes and General Regulations of the FEI. He nearly got rid of it when that task was completed, but decided to keep it for his own correspondence, speeches and messages. He now has a lap-top.

85. The Duke, like many others, became concerned about the quality of the air in London in the 1960s and acquired an electric vehicle produced by Bedford, with a Lucas electric motor, and Chloride batteries for use in London. When these vehicles ceased to be produced, he acquired a London Metrocab Taxi, painted green, with an engine fuelled by liquid petroleum gas.

88. The Duke was instrumental in creating the Windsor Farm Shop, which was opened in 2001. It sells produce, such as beef, lamb, pork, poultry and eggs from the Windsor Estate, and game, apples and Apple Juice from the Sandringham Estate.


Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.