As I was growing up, our monarchist British household considered Prince Philip a rather louche character. “It’s all very well for him,” my mother would comment tartly after the latest outrage—a caustic riposte, a scandalous gaffe or a “perfectly dreadful” brown hat worn on some royal tour.
Her comments were unfair. After all, Prince Philip had given up an illustrious career in his beloved Royal Navy to spend the next 70-some years of his life walking two steps behind the queen. A driven, restless and highly energetic man, he was not cut out for a secondary role. Yet as my father, born two months after Philip, was given to say: “You just get on with it.” And the prince consort did. In her biography “Prince Philip Revealed,” Ingrid Seward writes that above all he has been loyal.
Royal biographies tend to fall into two categories: reverent, the subject’s imperfections whitewashed; or waspish, a chronicle of backstairs gossip. A clue into which category Ms. Seward’s book falls is provided on the back flap of the book jacket. The editor of a British magazine called Majesty (devoted entirely—surprise—to royals), she appears in a photograph alongside his royal highness, gazing up at him with a worshipful smile.
Do we really need yet another book on Prince Philip? What more is there to say about the man? Not a lot. But you can’t believe everything you see in Netflix’s “The Crown.” Ms. Seward’s biography is more than mere hagiography, although it is indeed reverential. And while she takes us painstakingly over well-trodden ground, she does produce some interesting information about Philip’s later years, in particular his relationships with Diana and Meghan Markle.
Prince Philip is the most intriguing member of the royal family. His childhood was bizarre. He was born on a dining table in a villa on Corfu, Greece, the youngest in a family of four sisters. His mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, was stone deaf (she became a skilled lip reader in four languages). His half-Danish father, Prince Andrew, second in line to the Greek throne, was sentenced to death after the army was defeated in Smyrna by the Turks, saved only by the intervention of George V. In 1930, after eight years of impecunious exile in Paris, the family dispersed. Philip’s sisters married (two of them to high-ranking Nazis); his mother, now mentally ill, was committed to a sanatorium; his father moved to Monte Carlo with his mistress. Philip, at age 9, went away to boarding school. On holidays he was shunted around between relations—a person, he wrote in a guest book, “of no fixed abode.”
He was sent to Gordonstoun School, a spartan institution in Scotland, where he became head boy. A bit of a loner, he had a mischievous sense of humor but was also impulsive, rude and short-tempered. Tragedies befell: He didn’t see his mother from 1932 until 1937, when his sister Cecile was killed in a plane crash along with her husband and three children. In 1944 his father died at the age of 62. Prince Philip hadn’t seen him in five years. Nevertheless, as perhaps only an editor of Majesty magazine could maintain, Ms. Seward dismisses the notion that Philip’s early life was unhappy and unsettled as “a myth” perpetuated by biographers.
Much has been written about Prince Philip’s romance with Princess Elizabeth, their marriage in 1947, and the shock five years later when King George VI died and, at the age of 25, she became queen. “For such a self-contained person who had lived much of his life in privileged obscurity, Philip was about to see all of that change,” writes Ms. Seward. “Suddenly he became an object of unwelcome interest. . . . It was the beginning of his lifelong battle with the media and the end of his private life.”
As for his perpetually rumored affairs, the author maintains that not a shred of evidence has come to light, “but—like his gaffes—the stories will never go away.” Certainly the romance with Bolshoi ballerina Galina Ulanova hinted at in “The Crown” seems unlikely. However, aristocratic women, the sort that have usually appealed to Prince Philip, don’t tell.
Ms. Seward reports that Diana’s separation from Charles, and Sarah Ferguson’s divorce from Andrew, caused Prince Philip to remark, “Everything I have worked for, for forty years has been in vain.” His relationship with Diana went from “affection to disappointment to total antipathy.” She knew exactly the amount of damage she’d caused and he worried what she might do next.
At first Prince Philip welcomed Meghan Markle, an outsider like himself, and, despite a recent hip replacement, attended her 2018 wedding to his grandson Harry. Ms. Seward writes that it must have come as a “heavy blow” two years later when Harry announced he was “giving up his homeland and everything he cared about for a life of self-centered celebrity in North America. . . . For Philip, whose entire existence has been based on a devotion to doing his duty, it appeared that his grandson had abdicated his for the sake of his marriage to an American divorcee in much the same way as Edward VIII gave up his crown to marry Wallace [sic] Simpson in 1936.”
Ms. Seward has done a fine job of research, but her writing is flat and at times repetitious, as though some chapters had been previously serialized. Livelier by far is Philip Eade’s biography, “Prince Philip” (2011), a first-rate, effervescent history of the prince’s first 30 years. The ending of Ms. Seward’s book reads like an obituary. We are taken on a dreary run through all Prince Philip’s interests: UFOs, cooking (he grows black truffles), philosophy, religion, conservation, the World Wildlife Fund, photography, technology, flying, bird watching, sailing, shooting, painting, fishing, cricket, polo and competitive carriage driving, not to mention his good works (22,219 solo engagements before retiring in 2017). Now 99 and deaf, he can be cantankerous, but he still has a droll sense of humor: To discourage trespassers at Balmoral Castle, he put up signs that read “Beware of Adders.”
As for his horrible childhood, Ms. Seward writes that later in life he played down the effect this has had on him, saying:
“The family broke up. My mother was ill, my sisters were married and my father was in the south of France. I just had to get on with it. You do. One does.”