A tribute to the last of the “Sailor Princes”

Prince Philip’s dynastic pedigree. When great statesmen or stateswomen die, you often hear the phrase “end of an era”. The death of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, at the incredible age of 99, marks more than that. Seen from the point of view of the history of monarchy and dynasty, he was the last of his kind.

Prince Philip represented the almost extinct race of the modern – as opposed to the postmodern – prince. Though born in 1921 and married to the epitome of post-World-War Britain, he was a relic from the dynastic history of the long nineteenth century, that gilded age between the French Revolution and the First World War when practically all of Europe was governed by one great “family of kings” and when those kings – and queens – enjoyed a popularity that the current Windsors can only dream of.

This does not mean that Prince Philip was a particularly good catch. In fact, when he became engaged to Princess Elizabeth in 1947, he was considered a dubious outsider and dynastic nobody by the British establishment: a prince without a country of belonging, the youngest son of a minor prince from a notoriously unstable Balkan state, banned from home and additionally disadvantaged by his family connections with Nazi-Germany. Yet, his very “statelessness” underlined how much he belonged to what had been the transnational family of kings before 1914. Hailing from two of the most successful upstart dynasties of the long nineteenth century – the Anglo-German Battenbergs/Mountbattens on his mother’s side and the Greco-Danish Glücksborgs on his father’s side – he was practically a cousin to all of royal Europe, a great-great-grandchild of Queen Victoria just as his wife, with a childhood spent between various German courts and his relatives in Britain.

Alienated from his native Greece, he took up the royal educational tradition of joining the armed forces, albeit in Britain, and by joining the Royal Navy, he stepped in footsteps larger than life. His longevity would turn him into the last of the “Sailor Princes” – a mythical figure from the Age of Sail and Steam Power combining the bourgeois values and cultural mystique of the Sailor with the halo of a hereditary leader. His marriage to the future Queen Elizabeth would redeem the Battenberg/Mountbattens, ill-treated by the British public, and the Hellenic Glücksborgs, toppled times and again by their Greek subjects. And the happy ending of his tossed-about fate would demonstrate that you did not have to be a “Prince of Somewhere” to be a Prince and to become a Prince Charming.

Parvenu Pedigree

So let’s take a closer look! If we trace Prince Philip’s dynastic pedigree, it reveals a hybrid identity: he was a parvenu prince intimately woven into the heart of royal Europe. And this was so, because his mother, Alice, was a Battenberg princess. The Battenbergs were a newcomer dynasty of the nineteenth century, resulting from the morganatic marriage of a minor Prince of Hesse and by Rhine and a beautiful Russian lady-in-waiting in 1851. The love affair produced three handsome, talented and ambitious princes who would attract the attention of some leading rulers of the age, most notably the beauty-loving Queen Victoria, and who would eventually marry up into other dynasties, with varying outcomes:

Louis Battenberg and his family
  • The youngest, Prince Henry, would marry Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, Beatrice, feel suffocated as a decorative part of the Queen’s household and die during his first and only outbreak, as an officer in the Ashanti campaign of 1896. His daughter would become Queen Victoria Eugenia of Spain, the wife of child-King Alfonso XIII.
  • The middle son, Prince Alexander, would be elected Prince of Bulgaria in 1879, after this former province of the Ottoman Empire had become an autonomous principality under Ottoman suzerainty. Originally a favoured protegee of Tsar Alexander II, he would come into conflict with Tsar Alexander III due to his attempts to stabilize his throne by catering to the liberal constitutional and national expansionist aspirations of the Bulgarians. Eventually he would be forced to abdicate by a pro-Russian military coup in 1886. His love affair (the “Battenberg affair”) with Queen Victoria’s unfortunate granddaughter, Princess Victoria of Prussia, was a severe point of contention between Crown Princess Victoria of Prussia and Otto von Bismarck. The Bulgarian throne would eventually fall to another upstart dynast, Prince Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg, while Alexander would die early and in exile in 1893.
  • The eldest Battenberg prince, finally, Prince Louis, would leave for Britain at the age of 14, become a British citizen and enter the Royal Navy under the tutelage of Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales. A master of naval strategy and administraton, he would enoy an incredible naval career for a foreigner, even being appointed First Sea Lord in 1912. Although he could be credited with much more talent and skill than any of the originally British “Sailor Princes” of the age, though (Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, or the later King George V), his success was flawed by frequent accusations of preferred treatment. At the start of the First World War, he was forced to resign his posts and in 1917, he had to renounce his German titles and anglicize his name into Mountbatten at the request of King George V.
A Punch cartoon depiciting King George V sweeping out the German titles of the British royal family in 1917

In 1884, Louis had married his cousin, Queen Victoria’s favourite granddaughter, clever Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine. She was the older sister of, among others, Tsarina Alexandra of Russia, the wife of ill-fated Tsar Nicholas II. Together, the couple had four children, among them:

  • Their second daughter, Louise, would marry King Gustav Adolf VI of Sweden.
  • Their youngest son, Lord Louis Mountbatten, would follow in the footsteps of his father by joining the Royal British Navy. He would make it his mission to redeem the name of the Mountbattens by pursuing a career that would surpass that of his father, making him Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia during World War II, the last Viceroy of India (1947) and First Sea Lord (1955-59), among others. Until his death in 1979 (at the hands of the IRA), he would be a decisive influence on Prince Philip, being involved in his education, naval training and, as the crowning of all his efforts, in the coming-about of his engagement.
  • Louis’ and Victoria’s eldest daughter, finally, beautiful, but deaf-born Alice would marry Prince Andrea of Greece and Denmark in 1903. Her romantic love-match with the youngest son of King George I of the Hellenes introduced another scion of the Battenbergs to the exotic world and unstable fate of a Balkan monarchy. The couple’s youngest child, born in the Greek royal family’s summer residence Mon Repos on the idyllic island of Corfu in 1921, far from the turmoils of Greek political life, was Prince Philip. Although his family was banned from Greece only one year after his birth, the prince would stay somewhat tainted by his Greek beginnings.
Princess Alice of Battenberg and Prince Andrea of Greece as a beautiful wedding couple

A Royal Stain

While technically, Prince Philip was his wife’s equal in terms of titles, his dynastic connections were frowned upon by the post-war British establishment. As a member of the Greco-Danish Glücksborgs, he belonged to another upstart dynasty which, during the long nineteenth century, had managed to occupy the thrones or marry into the royal houses of half of Europe:

  • King Christian IX of Denmark, originally a middle son of a minor German Prince of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksborg, had been elected successor to the childless King Frederik VII of Denmark because he was a distant relative.
  • His eldest daughter, Princess Alexandra of Denmark had married the British Prince of Wales in 1863;
  • His second daughter, Princess Dagmar, had married the Russian Tsesarevich in 1866;
  • His second son, Prince Vilhelm had been elected King George I of the Hellenes in 1864;
  • His grandson, Prince Carl, had been elected King Haakon VII of Norway in 1901. etc. etc.

Prince Philip’s branch of the family, the Greek Glücksborgs, though, had bargained for one of the most unstable thrones of the age. Acceeding the throne after the deposition of an ill-fated predecessor, King Otto I, Philip’s grandfather King George I of the Hellenes had made it his rule to reign with his suitcases packed. By becoming a truly constitutional monarch to the taste of the liberty-loving Greeks, and by representing his people’s irredentist dreams of expanding the small nation-state into a “Greater Greece” of Byzantine dimensions, King George managed to stay on the throne until his death by assassination in 1913. His less fortunate successors, though, would experience more tumultous reigns with periods of rule and periods of exile quickly following each other.

The assassination of King George I of the Hellenes in 1913
  • Prince Philip’s uncle, King Constantine I, started out as a successful military commander of the Second Balkan War, but was forced to abdicate in 1917 after he refused to join the Allied Forces in the First World War. Following the death of his son, King Alexander, he would be reinstated in 1920, only to resign once again and for good in 1922, after the doomed Asia Minor Expedition of 1919-1922.
  • Prince Philip’s first cousin, King George II, was deposed after a failed royalist coup in October 1923 and stayed in exile until the restoration of the Greek monarchy in 1935. In 1936, he supported the establishment of Ioannis Metaxas’ nationalist, authoritarian 4th of August regime, which lasted until the German invasion of Greece in 1941. Spending the period of occupation in exile, George returned in 1946 only to die one year later in the midst of a civil war pitting royalist against communist factions.
  • His brother Paul, reigning from Prince Philip’s wedding year 1947 to 1964, managed to stabilze the Greek throne, despite growing republican sentiment.
  • Paul’s son, King Constantine II, however, was forced to go into exile after the installation of a military junta in the wake of the Colonels’ Coup in 1967, which eventually led to the overthrow of the Greek monarchy in 1973. His family would put up residence in London.

Prince Philip’s parents were not first in line. Yet, King George I’s five tall and imposing sons had all been forming one phalanx of leading military figures, soldiers and sailors, whose positions in the forces made them stragetically crucial to the achievement of the “Megali Idea”, the driving force of Greek foreign politics from the establishment of the modern Greek state through to the 1920s. When the Asia Minor campaign, another attempt to enlarge the Greek nation state, failed in 1922, Prince Andrea, who had been commander of the Second Army Corps, was therefore also arrested and sentenced to banishment in a show trial. The family fled Greece never to return as one. Andrea’s and Alice’s marriage would fail; Alice would suffer from severe mental problems in the 1930s, although she would eventually return to Athens in 1938 devoting her life to welfare work; Andrea would settle in Monaco; their children, meanwhile, particularly their latecomer son Philip, would be taken care of by relatives in Germany and Britain.

Princess Alice, Prince Andrew and their five children

Although he never really lived in Greece, Philip’s marriage to Princess Elizabeth would nevertheless be considered a hazard for the British monarchy due to, on the one hand, the fearful associations of a monarchy toppled times and again by republican forces, and, on the other hand, by the antiliberal associations of the Greek monarchy with authoritarian regimes. A Greco-British marriage might leave the impression that Britain was taking sides in the Greek civil war. Moreover, Prince Philip’s beautiful sisters were all married to minor German princes, some of them with (strong) Nazi connections:

  • Princess Margarita had married Gottfried von Hohenlohe-Langenburg, a commander in the German army who eventually, though, joined the conspirators of the 20th July plot in 1944.
  • Princess Sophie was married to Prince Christoph of Hesse, who, together with his brother Prince Philip, was one of the most prominent German royals involved with the Nazi regime – which was eager to showcase its noble supporters. Christoph was a director in the Third Reich’s Ministry of Air Forces, a Commander of the Air Reserves, and held the rank of Oberführer in the SS. He died in an airplane crash in Italy in 1943.
  • Princess Cecilie, finally, Philip’s favourite sister, was married to Prince Georg Donatus of Hesse and by Rhine. Both joined the Nazi-party in 1937, but were tragically killed that very same year in an airplane crash on their way to the wedding of Georg Donatus’ brother, together with Cecilie’s mother-in-law, their three sons as well as their youngest baby which was born during the flight.
George, Duke of Kent, and Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark

Always anxious to avoid any stains on their image, the Windsors banned Prince Philip’s sisters from his wedding, athough they were allowed to attend the 1951 coronation. [Interestingly, there were also three German princes present among the Corona-related small number of 30 participants at Prince Philip’s funeral: Prince Bernhard of Baden, the grandson of Philip’s second sister Theodora; Prince Georg Donatus of Hesse, the current head of the house of Hesse into which Cecilie and Sophie married; and Prince Philipp of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, the grandson of Philip’s eldest sister Margarita. A clear tribute to the Duke of Edinburgh’s German family relations!] Philip himself was time and again haunted by popular re-discoveries of his troubled past. In 1947, though, the British public decided to fall in love with the good-looking prince in naval uniform who had been educated in Britain, gone through the exacting training of a naval officer, served the British Navy in the Second World War and won the heart of their future Queen.

Peregrinating as his youth might have been, he had become a true British “Sailor Prince” – and everybody loves a sailor! There had even been a precedent of the Greco-Danish popular love match, when, in 1932, the wedding of Elizabeth’s uncle, the popular “Sailor Prince” George, Duke of Kent, and of Philip’s first cousin, the beautiful and fashionable Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark, had been celebrated as one of the first modern royal love affairs of the 20th century. Now, the roles were reversed and a minor Glücksborg-Mountbatten was deemed worthy of the Queen. For the next 73/69 years, Philip would be Elizabeth’s faithful Prince Consort, always walking three steps behind. Over time, more and more postmodern princes and princesses would appear on the stage, who did not have to carry their titles through the vicissitudes of life, but were treating them as mere brands selling other brands. Prince Philip had only been a minor member from an upstart dynasty – the Battenbergs, whose successes culminated in him – and a minor member of a young and unfortunate royal house – the Greek Glücksborgs, for whom he would become a solid rock – but he was every inch a modern prince…

Further reading and popular culture

The Netflix series “The Crown” has made the broader public more familiar with Prince Philip’s lesser-known youth and family background.

Season 2 Episode 6 (“Vergangenheit”) brings us back to Philip’s own school years, to the tragic death of his favourite sister and to her Nazi-connections.

Season 3 Episode 4 (“Bubbikins”) introduces Prince Philip’s idiosyncratic mother, Princess Alice, with a sympathetic view of her mental illness, her Greek Orthodox faith and later devotion to welfare work in Athens.

Throughout Seasons 1-4, Lord Louis Mountbatten has a prominent role as an advisor of the Royal family, particularly in S2E6 (“Vergangenheit”) and E9 (“Paterfamilias”), in S3E5 (“Coup”) and in S4E1 (“Gold Stick”).

If you want to read more about the people and events behind these stories, these books come warmly recommended:

Hugo Vickers, Alice Princess Andrew of Greece is a fascinating biography of Prince Philip’s remarkable mother, who started out as a happy and beautiful princess, moved from Britain to Greece, was a hands-on nurse during the Balkan Wars, lost everything she had, was interned in a Swiss asylum for several years, but eventually found happiness again in her faith and devotion to welfare work.

To learn more about the Battenberg dynasty, you can read the edited volume Die Battenbergs: Eine europäische Familie, ed. by Joachim Horm et al. (in German), which was the result of a historical conference.

For a well-researched study of Lord Louis Mountbatten’s naval career, see Adrian Smith, Mountbatten, Apprentice War Lord. Mountbatten’s role as last Viceroy of India – and the contribution of his wife Edwina – have recently been put on screen in the movie Viceroy’s House with Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson.

A good overview of the fates and fortunes of the Greek Glücksborgs is provided by John Van der Kiste, Kings of the Hellenes. For a fascinating comparative analysis of the three newly-established Balkan monarchies of Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania in the nineeteenth century see: Edda Binder-Iijima and Ekkehard Kraft, Making of States: Constitutional Monarchies in the Balkans In: Meurs, Wim P. van; Mungiu-Pippidi, Alina (ed.), Ottomans into Europeans. State and Institution-Building in South-Eastern Europe, London 2010, pp. 1-29.

Jonathan Petropoulos, Royals and the Reich studies the enthusiastic involvement of the Hesse princes with the Nazi regime. It includes an interview with Prince Philip about his experiences of the Third Reich and his German relatives. Karina Urbach, Go-betweens for Hitler researches the secret diplomacy contacts with their relations across Europe, particularly Britain, that German nobles put in the service of the Third Reich.

For an insightful study of the popular reception of the weddings of the Duke of Kent and Princess Marina in 1934 and of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1947 see Ed Owens, The Family Firm: monarchy, mass media and the British public, 1932-53. Read ad’s intriguing behind-the-scenes on the press coverage of Prince Philip’s pedigree and engagement here.

If you want to find out more about the concept of the “Sailor Prince”, feel free to roam the pages of the Armchair Sailor.

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