World

Family dysfunction: Prince Philip's early life

When Philip Mountbatten married Princess Elizabeth in 1947, the family he was joining was in marked contrast to the fractured one he had known as a child and teenager.

His father left with a mistress and he didn’t see his mother for 5 years

Lt. Philip Mountbatten salutes as he resumes his attendance at the Royal Naval Officers School at Kingsmoor, Hawthorn, England, on July 31, 1947. Before the man who would go on to marry Princess Elizabeth joined the Royal Navy, his life was unsettled, as he moved among boarding schools and various relatives. (PNA Rota/Keystone/Getty Images)

His father ran off with his mistress to Monaco. He didn't see his mother, who spent time in a sanitarium, for five years. His sisters married men who had associations with the Nazi party in Germany.

When Philip Mountbatten married Princess Elizabeth in 1947, the family he was joining was in marked contrast to the fractured one he had known in his youth.

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The early years for Philip, who died on April 9, 2021, at age 99, were profoundly unsettled. His parents' marriage broke down and offered him nothing like the nuclear family arrangement (mom, dad and two kids) that Elizabeth had known throughout her childhood.

"In marrying the Queen, [Philip] gained that sort of stable home life that he didn't have when he was younger," royal author and historian Carolyn Harris has said in an interview.

Philip's parents were Prince Andrew of Greece and Princess Alice of Battenberg, a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria.

Philip was born a prince of both Greece and Denmark on June 10, 1921, on the dining room table at Mon Repos, a villa that was the summer home for the Greek royals on the island of Corfu. 

Philip's mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, front row second from left, attended the wedding of her son and Princess Elizabeth on Nov. 20, 1947. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

He was the last of five children — his four older siblings were all girls. At the time, he was sixth in line to the Greek throne.

But life in Greece didn't last long. His father, a professional soldier, was exiled from Greece in 1922 as his uncle, King Constantine I, was forced to abdicate. Philip's family fled, with the story being that Philip was nestled into an orange box as the family was evacuated from Greece on a Royal Navy ship. They eventually made their way to Paris. 

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Philip's childhood took a "dysfunctional turn," author Sally Bedell Smith wrote in her book, Elizabeth The Queen, when he was sent by his parents at the age of eight to England for boarding school.

The family eventually broke down. Philip's mother, who was born deaf, was ill periodically, diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent time in a sanitarium in Switzerland. 

His father went off with his mistress to Monte Carlo, where he died in 1944. 

Philip was left to be brought up in the U.K. by his mother's family, shuffled among various relatives and boarding schools throughout his youth.

'The family broke up'

He didn't see or have any word from his mother between the summer of 1932 and the spring of 1937. 

"It's simply what happened," Philip said matter-of-factly in an excerpt from a book by Philip Eade, Young Prince Philip, Turbulent Early Years, published in the Telegraph. "The family broke up. My mother was ill, my sisters were married, my father was in the south of France. I just had to get on with it. You do. One does." 

As life went on, there really was no father to guide, consult or do anything else a father can do for his child.

"When he needed a father, there just wasn't anybody there," Michael Parker, an Australian war-time navy pal who was Prince Philip's first private secretary, told the Independent.

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Several other close relatives died in his early years, including his favourite sister, Cecile, and her family in a plane crash in 1937.

The following year, the 2nd Marquess of Milford Haven, his uncle and guardian, died of bone cancer. That left the marquess's younger brother, Louis Mountbatten, to bring up Philip.

His family ties also extended into Germany. Three of his sisters were married to German princes involved in the Nazi party. Cecile and her husband, Don, had just joined the Nazi party before they died.

Those family alliances had a visible repercussion when Philip and Elizabeth were married in 1947.

Elizabeth and Philip walk on the grounds of Broadlands, the home of his uncle, Earl Mountbatten, in southern England during their honeymoon in 1947. (The Royal Collection/Reuters)

"His sisters were not invited to the wedding as they were married to German princes who had been involved in the Nazi party during World War Two," Harris said.

Philip's mother, Princess Alice, however, was at the wedding, and in her later years, came to live at Buckingham Palace.

Alice had her own moment in the cultural conscience in 2019, as an episode during the third season of the Netflix drama, The Crown, focused on her. 

"She's just the most extraordinary character," Crown creator Peter Morgan told Vanity Fair.

She also set up charities for Greek refugees and later established a nursing order of Greek Orthodox nuns.

During the Second World War, while her son was serving with the Royal Navy and her German sons-in-law fought for the Nazis, she was hiding Jews in Athens.

As much as there was the distance between Philip and his mother in his younger years, there was a closeness later. Alice came to live at Buckingham Palace in 1967.

Philip "had been trying to persuade her to come for some time," Hugo Vickers, author of a biography of Alice, wrote in the Telegraph. "It was vital to get her out of Athens. Her health was declining — she was then 82 — and the political situation in Greece was bad."

A church official holds a picture of Princess Alice of Battenberg next to her tomb, inside the Russian Orthodox church of St. Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives on June 25, 2018, in Jerusalem. (Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)

Alice died at the palace in 1969 and was interred in the royal crypt at Windsor Castle. In 1988, her remains were transferred, as she had wished, to the church of St. Mary Magdalene in east Jerusalem.

In a 1994 visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Philip planted a tree in his mother's honour and visited her gravesite. 

"I suspect that it never occurred to her that her action was in any way special," Philip said during his visit. "She was a person with deep religious faith and she would have considered it to be a totally human action to fellow human beings in distress."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.

With files from The Associated Press

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