Who WAS Prince Philip’s favourite?
For a boy on his first birthday, colourful toys can usually be relied on to produce gurgles of delight. For Prince Charles, who could barely walk, there was only puzzlement over a wooden object he could hardly pick up.
It was a cricket bat, and Prince Philip had got it for him — an early indication of a paternal approach summed up by his oft-repeated mantra: ‘I want Charles to be a man’s man.’
Well-meaning it may have been, but most parents would see it as woefully misguided. And when Philip’s dogged attempts to ‘man-up’ Charles inevitably failed, a rift emerged between father and eldest son which was never fully to heal.
Philip wanted his three sons to be as swashbuckling and decisive as himself. As part of the toughening-up process he sent them all to the highly physical, ice-cold-showers regime of Gordonstoun school, which his old German-Jewish headmaster, Kurt Hahn, had established in Scotland after fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s.
Only Andrew seems to have been truly happy there. The sensitive Charles and delicate Edward — who later endured a miserable time trying to please his father by joining the Marines — both hated it.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the sporty, rugby-playing Peter Phillips, Princess Anne’s burly son, who loved it there, was Philip’s favourite grandson.
One is entitled to ask just what role the Queen played in choosing Gordonstoun for their sons. The answer is very little.
Philip may have spent his married life walking one step behind the Sovereign, but he was head of the family. As one of his more impudent biographers put it: ‘the Queen wears the Crown, but her husband wears the trousers’.
Proud parent: The Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles ride around the Palace
And yet, because of all the demands made on the Queen when the children were growing up, he probably spent more ‘quality time’ with them than she did.
Even so, when he taught all four children to swim in the pool at Buckingham Palace, he couldn’t resist making a manly point by being naked. (As a young husband he also declined to wear pyjamas.)
Unless he was away, he would always see them before bedtime, and when the Queen’s ten red government boxes arrived at 6pm sharp — even at weekends — and she disappeared to read them, he would delight in keeping the children amused, often playing hide-and-seek with them in the corridors at Windsor Castle.
Aboard the much-lamented Royal Yacht Britannia, Philip initiated a novel way to enable the young Charles and Anne to ‘catch’ fish. He had frozen trout taken from the galley freezer and when the children dangled their lines overboard, a crew member, unseen below, attached the fish to their hooks through a porthole.
Years later, Princess Anne admitted she never realised you don’t catch frozen fish with a rod and line.
But it is the cricket bat that says so much about the pressures he put on his son. One theory among friends is that he was over-assertive to compensate for giving up his own career in the Navy to support his wife.
As for Anne — always said to be so like her father — her prowess on a horse, which took her to the Olympic Games and made her a European equestrian champion, always gave her an instant bond with him. She was what he always wanted his sons, especially Charles, to be: an achiever.
Intriguingly, some observers say the adult Charles’s awkward relationship with his father even gave rise to the ‘Camilla crisis’ which, at one stage, threatened the very stability of the monarchy.
All his life, Charles knew that his father found his retiring mannerisms exasperating. When he scolded him for failing to measure up in this way or that as a boy, tears would well up in his eyes.
For the Prince of Wales growing up under such pressure, it was Camilla Parker Bowles who provided the one significant issue on which he could decisively defy his father.
‘This was always going to make Charles dig his heels in,’ says a former courtier. ‘The one thing Charles does have in common with his father is how stubborn he is.’
The Duke of Edinburgh with the Queen and their children
It was Philip, not the Queen, who wrote to Charles after he and Diana were divorced in 1996, strongly urging him to give up Mrs Parker Bowles. This, Philip told his son, was the price he had to pay for the good of the monarchy.
Only once before had Charles received a letter from his father about the woman he was seeing.
That woman was Diana — or to be more specific, Lady Diana Spencer. Philip spelled out in his usual brusque manner that she was a girl of 19, vulnerable and with a reputation to lose, and that if Charles wanted to go on seeing her he had to consider getting engaged to her.
Rightly or wrongly, Charles interpreted this as his father pressuring him — indeed bullying him — into getting married.
For years afterwards, especially when the marriage went wrong, he would carry the letter in his breast pocket, brandishing it angrily and declaring: ‘Look what they did to me, I was forced into it.’
But when it came to Philip’s letter about Mrs Parker Bowles, Charles’s response was entirely different. Instead of doing as his father asked and abandoning her, he flatly refused.
He was fed up with his father being insensitive, domineering and hostile — particularly towards Camilla. And friends insist that Charles’s intense possessiveness of his mistress may even have been fuelled by his father’s opposition to her.
For his part, Philip saw it as integral to his role as head of the family to intervene. After Charles’s divorce, it was Philip who proposed that Diana, in addition to losing her ‘HRH’ royal status, should also be downgraded from Princess of Wales to Duchess of Cornwall — the very title that, nine years later in 2005, would be bestowed on Mrs Parker Bowles.
However, Philip eventually accepted the view of courtiers that as the mother of the future King William, Diana should retain the rank of Princess.
Despite this firm approach, it was Philip’s initiative which allowed Diana to continue to be invited to family events such as the Christmas gathering at Sandringham — though she never stayed more than a single night.
No such invitations were ever extended to that other troublesome daughter-in-law, the Duchess of York. She’d arrived in the Royal Family as a ‘breath of fresh air’, but in Philip’s eyes proceeded to make a fool of his son Andrew — a son who fulfilled his own dreams of pursuing a long career in the Royal Navy, something that he himself sacrificed in order to give his full support to the Queen.
The Duke of Edinburgh with Prince Andrew and Princess Anne at Balmoral
In particular, Philip was said to be ‘apoplectic’ at lurid reports of Sarah having her toes sucked (while still married to Andrew) in the south of France by her American lover John Bryan, as Beatrice and Eugenie played nearby.
Andrew was also the one who — as Philip himself did in World War II — put his life on the line, as a naval helicopter pilot in the Falklands War.
The Queen would have tolerated Fergie at Sandringham at Christmas, but Philip rejected the very notion.
Hence her series of Christmases in one of the estate cottages while her daughters joined their father around the royal Christmas tree.
Philip was unapologetic and unrepentant, but always denied being cruel to her.
‘I’m not vindictive,’ he told his friend, the broadcaster Gyles Brandreth. ‘I don’t see her because I don’t see much point. Her behaviour was a bit odd. But the children come and stay. Our children come and stay. The atmosphere is very happy. We are a happy family.’
Such patriarchal confidence never quite matched the reality of situations, such as Fergie continuing to live in Andrew’s home years after their divorce.
Here, at least, Prince Philip was prepared to bow to the wishes of his wife, who saw no benefit to anyone in Beatrice and Eugenie’s mother being homeless.
Most of all, it was what Andrew wanted, and Philip, just like his wife, always presented a softer side to his second son — and indeed, to Edward — than to Charles.
The perceived reason for this more natural relationship with the two youngest is that they were born when the Queen and Philip had been married for 13 years and were able to give more time to them.
No one can doubt his dismay, two years after withdrawing from public life, at the tidal wave of unsavoury allegations that have recently broken over Andrew involving his friendship with sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
For youngest son Edward, Philip felt a swell of paternal pride when he enlisted in the elite Royal Marines. This was despite having just emerged from Cambridge with a history degree. But then, his father was the Royal Marines’ Captain General.
The young prince’s training began late in 1986 and was meant to last 35 weeks. But by the following January his career in the Marines was over. He had completed just ten weeks’ training before resigning.
To Philip, a man who roughed it at sea and was mentioned in dispatches during World War II, it was a devastating personal blow.
And yet, far from being disappointed with his son, he was hugely impressed that Edward had the courage to make such a difficult decision, one that he knew would be the object of public derision.
And what about Philip’s relationship with his only daughter, Anne?
He was always amused at how like him she was, the same determination, the same iron will, the same impatience with her bumbling brothers that he had with them. She never tired of telling people how ‘analytical’ her father was.
He talked a lot to his only daughter, and admired her children, Peter and Zara — a world champion equestrian rider in the family, now that was something.
For some grandfathers, England rugby hard man Mike Tindall — who married Zara — might have been a trifle gamey, but Philip enjoyed welcoming the rough Yorkshireman into the family. Fatherhood has anyway mellowed Tindall and he has fitted well into the royal family.
Anne, of all Philip’s children, was the least trouble — even though, like Charles and Andrew’s, her first marriage (to Captain Mark Phillips) also ended in divorce.
Philip scoffed at the idea that the royal family was dysfunctional. ‘We are a family,’ he declared. ‘What do you expect? We have our ups and downs like any other family.’
But despite these words, he knew they were not really just any other family. Indeed, Philip’s family, with its own imperial mix of European royal blood, were decidedly haughty towards his future bride’s mother, a mere earl’s daughter, one of them describing the future Queen Mother as ‘a common little Scottish girl’.
Heaven knows what they would have made of Kate Middleton — whose mother is descended from Durham mining stock — or American actress Meghan Markle, whose great-great-great-grandfather was a slave.
Philip gave a clue to his own view of this new blood in the royal family when, before their marriage, William and Kate briefly split up, telling his grandson: ‘If you love her, don’t lose her.’
As ever, a man with very forthright views on the younger members of his dynasty.