Prince Philip was the most interesting royal

Millions of Americans are drawn to the English royals. But perhaps the wrong ones.

The Meghan and Harry split with Buckingham Palace is like many other rifts between individuals and institutions. The Charles and Diana saga a generation before was a standard celebrity divorce, one involving people with titles rather than credits. 

There is one royal, however, whose story is better than tabloid fare, better even than fiction. His name is Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and husband of the Queen, who died Friday. 

Though he was born in 1921, Philip seems of a time centuries before, when Danish kings ruled Greece and when someone could have relatives in royal families across Europe. He comes off as English, but is more Danish and German. He did not in fact come to England until he was nine, to live with his uncle George Mountbatten, an avid collector of pornography in an open marriage with his Russian countess wife. Later, he would fall under the sway of another uncle, the brilliant and scheming Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was also in an open marriage — one he described as he and his wife Edwina constantly “getting in and out of other people’s beds.”

Philip’s Danish family

But this gets ahead of the story. Let’s start with how Philip’s Danish family came to rule, of all places, Greece. In 1822 the Greeks declared their independence from the Ottoman Turks and, after a decade of war,  won recognition. The big three powers of the day — Britain, France, Russia — thought that Greece needed a king and that a good choice would be Leopold, widower of Charlotte, the heir to the British thrown who’d died in childbirth.  Then a very funny thing happened. As Leopold was conserving the job, another opening for king came along when Belgium broke free of Holland. He took that job instead. 

After a disastrous interlude, Greece would hold a referendum to chose a king in 1862. The one catch was that the big three couldn’t abide anyone from a major royal family. So the national assembly would go far down the list of vote-getters to find the new sovereign. He was Prince William of Denmark. Out of nearly nearly a quarter million votes cast, he had received — six. That’s not many. But, to be fair, it’s six more than most monarchs receive.

The Greek prince became Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, on his wedding day, created so by Elizabeth's father, King George VI. (Photo: AP)

We skip forward six decades and Philip is born on in Greece, on the island of Corfu, on a kitchen table. The last fact is pertinent only in emphasizing just how long ago all of this was. On his father’s side, Philip is from Glücksburg, a minor duchy in Denmark. Thanks to the umlaut, it sounds like a confectionary treat.  And thanks to Otto von Bismarck,  it had been seized by Germany before Philip’s time.

Philip’s mother, Alice von Battenberg, is a princess from Hesse in central Germany, and also a great granddaughter of Queen Victoria. She has siblings across Europe, including George and Louis, whose fathers had wisely changed their names from Battenberg to Mountbatten during World War I as George V was changing his from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor. 

Philip would simply be called  “Philip of Greece,” a name that reflected the unfortunate demise of Danish Glücksburg. But even that unadorned title would soon prove inaccurate when the Greeks, in 1922, rose up and forced his family to flee. 

Prince Philip has been hospitalized since Feb. 16, when he was treated for an infection. (Photo: Getty)

Now no longer of two countries, the family fetched up in Paris, where, briefly, they lead a normal life. Soon, however, Philip’s mother would be forcibly institutionalized and his father would retreat to Monaco to pursue a career as a gambler and philanderer. It was then that Philip went to be with his uncles, then to Scottish boarding school and ultimately to naval college. 

Philip’s German sisters

His sisters would live with German relatives and ultimately marry German aristocrats friendly to the Nazi’s. One would be an honored guest at Hermann Goering’s wedding and, at the reception, be seated directly across the table from Adolph Hitler.

Notwithstanding this wee bit of a family rift, World War II would be great for Philip as it showed him to be an outstanding naval officer. This helped his cause with a young Princess Elizabeth he’d met prior to the war. He would also be helped by events after the war, as England began to take the measure of this nationless, penniless, free-loading prince. At the urging of his Uncle Louis he renounced his Greek nobility, took British citizenship and adopted the name Mountbatten. That proved enough. And that is how this man with a stranger-than-fiction real life reinvented himself as a stodgy and insufferable English aristocrat. More interesting than anything of today.

Dan Carney is a former USA TODAY editorial writer.

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