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Despite his own somewhat lonely childhood, the Duke of Edinburgh was a loyal and loving patriarch. While the Queen has devoted her life to her role as head of state, Prince Philip was very much head of the Windsor household, with his four children, eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren following his lead.
Over the years, he was often pictured at family gatherings and official events sharing a joke or two with his grandson Prince William, or deep in conversation with his beloved daughter Princess Anne.
It was his desire to show the world that the royals were a “normal” family that led to the fascinating 1969 fly-on-the-wall BBC documentary The Royal Family. The enduring image of Prince Philip wielding a spatula as he barbecues sausages is just one of the memorable insights from the film, which was watched by an estimated 350 million people around the world.
More recently, Netflix series The Crown portrayed him as a doting father, played in the first series by Matt Smith, fretting in one scene over his “darling” children missing their parents who were embarking on a royal overseas tour.
The Queen (then Princess Elizabeth) and Prince Philip didn’t wait long to start a family following their marriage. Their first son, Prince Charles Philip Arthur George, was born at Buckingham Palace on 14 November 1948, just six days before their first anniversary. News of the birth was announced with a traditional notice pinned to the palace railings, and the water in the Trafalgar Square fountains was dyed blue in celebration.
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The following October, after the family had moved into Clarence House, Philip was appointed first lieutenant and second-in-command of HMS Chequers, the lead ship of the British Mediterranean Fleet, based in Malta. Princess Elizabeth joined him on the Mediterranean island in late November that year, while Charles stayed in London with his nannies and grandparents. It was an arrangement that was commonplace throughout their firstborn’s early childhood, with his parents dividing their time between Malta and London.
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Philip’s second child, Anne Elizabeth Alice Louise, arrived on 15 August 1950 at Clarence House, but a month later he was back in Malta, with his wife joining him later that year.
Despite the royal couple’s long-distance parenting, the Queen’s cousin Margaret Rhodes described how Philip and his wife would dote on their children during family holidays in their Scottish residence, Balmoral Castle. “These were magical times, full of fun and love,” she said.
A film released to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday in April 2016 provided evidence of this, with a hilarious clip from the royal archives showing a gangly Philip racing his young son Prince Charles while perched precariously on Anne’s red and white tricycle.
More previously unseen historic footage was unearthed for a one-hour ITV special to mark the 60th anniversary of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme. It featured the hands-on father bowling dried cowpats for Prince Charles to bat away!
The couple’s second son, Andrew Albert Christian Edward, was born on 19 February 1960 at Buckingham Palace. The Queen revealed to her assistant private secretary Martin Charteris that she and Philip had been trying for a baby “for some time”. Four years later, on 10 March 1964, their fourth and final child, Edward Antony Richard Louis, was born at the palace.
Years later, there were reports that Charles was embroiled in a feud with his father stemming from Philip’s insistence on sending him away to board at his old school Gordonstoun. The Prince of Wales even told one biographer how he felt “emotionally estranged” from his parents and yearned for the sort of affection they were “unable or unwilling to offer”.
Family friend Sir Gyles Brandreth recalled the Duke of Edinburgh himself admitting that he and the heir to the throne had their differences, saying of Charles, “He’s a romantic and I’m a pragmatist. That means we do see things differently.” However, a senior former member of the royal household explained, “Yes, the Duke and the Prince of Wales do have forthright discussions on areas where they disagree but that doesn’t impact upon their love and respect for one another.”
Charles’s sister Anne has warm memories of her loving father reading bedtime stories and playing “chasing games” with her. Speaking in the ITV documentary Prince Philip At 90 in 2011, she remembered the busy duke making efforts to be there on a “regular basis at bedtime”. She added, “Bedtime stories are things that children probably don’t get so much nowadays but they were very important in my day.”
Actress Joanna Lumley, who grew to know the Duke of Edinburgh quite well over the years, said that despite his rather stern image he was “extremely affectionate” and a “go-to dad”.
As a grandfather, able to step back from the responsibilities of a parent, Philip was evidently adored. When he turned 94, his six eldest grandchildren treated him to a night out, hiring an exclusive private dining room at Berry Brothers & Rudd in London’s Kensington.
It was the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s first night out together since the birth of their daughter Princess Charlotte. They were joined by the Queen, Prince Harry, Princess Anne’s children Peter and Zara, and Prince Andrew’s daughters Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie. Speaking about the Duke on ITV’s Our Queen At 90, Eugenie commented, “I think Grandpa is incredible. He’s strong and consistent. He’s been there all these years. He’s the rock – for all of us.”
Indeed, it was Prince Philip who offered to walk with William and Harry behind their late mother’s coffin at her funeral on 6 September 1997. “I’ll walk if you walk,” he told the distraught young princes who were aged just 15 and 12 at the time. Despite later describing the ordeal as “torture”, Prince Harry said in a 2017 BBC interview he was “very glad” he was persuaded to join the funeral cortege.
Philip was also close to his two youngest grandchildren, Prince Edward’s daughter Lady Louise Windsor and his son James, Viscount Severn. In 2017 the Duke looked on with pride as keen equestrian Lady Louise competed in the British Driving Society Young Carriage Drivers Championship, a sport that Philip himself took up at the age of 50 after retiring from polo. The outing followed a two-day stay in hospital for Prince Philip, who had been recovering from an infection.
His fondness for children extended beyond his family. During a walkabout at celebrations for the Queen’s 90th in Windsor in April 2016, he noticed a small boy in the crowd holding a bunch of flowers. Understanding four-year-old Ethan’s intentions, he lifted the lad over the barrier, allowing him to present his birthday bouquet to Her Majesty. “He was so chatty and obviously loves children,” said Ethan’s grandmother of the then 94-year-old Duke. “For his age – to lift a boy that size is impressive!”
Prince Philip’s decision to set up the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme in 1956 was prompted by his respect for young people and his desire to help them face the challenges of growing up. “He has a brilliant mind,” said a proud Prince Edward, referring to Philip’s role in the organisation. “People would come to him with ideas and he would always turn them into something 10 times better.”
No doubt deeply troubled by the marriage break-ups experienced by three of his four offspring, the Duke nonetheless spoke of his family with pride.
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In November 1997, marking his golden wedding anniversary at London’s Guildhall, he told those assembled, “Like all families, we went through the full range of the pleasures and tribulations of bringing up children. I am naturally somewhat biased but I think our children have done rather well under very difficult and demanding circumstances, and I hope we can be forgiven for feeling proud of them.” And in a nod to his beloved grandchildren, he added,”I am also encouraged to see what a good start the next generation is making.”
There’s no doubting the next generation will ensure Philip’s memory lives on as they tell their own children tales of their wonderful great-grandfather.
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