Inside Prince Philip's Tragic Childhood

Before he took on the role of royal consort, Philip's early life was marked by loss.

A Peripatetic ChildhoodSchool LifeMeeting the Queen

After almost 70 years in the public eye, Prince Philip is the longest-serving royal consort in British history. However, while his adult life has been one of privilege and duty, the Prince's childhood was marked by a tragedy and loneliness.

It's Philip's fascinating past that will be one of the central storylines in the second season of the Crown (opens in new tab). Speaking at "The Crown: Deconstructing the Coronation" (opens in new tab) in London in March, the show's creator Peter Morgan explained: "Its soul is about Prince Philip's complexity. I find him extraordinarily interesting—his childhood, again, you couldn't make it up."

Born on the Greek Island of Corfu on June 10, 1921, to Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and Princess Alice of Battenberg, Philip was sixth in line to the Greek throne. (Prince Andrew was the son of King George I of Greece; when George was assassinated, Andrew's brother Constantine became king. Philip's grandmother, Olga Constantinovna, was a Romanov (opens in new tab). His great grandfather was Christian IX of Denmark.)

So like his future wife Queen Elizabeth, Philip was the child of the younger son of a reigning European monarch, but his start in life couldn't have been more different.

"Whereas the Queen experienced a very close-knit and happy family life—apart from the Abdication in 1936 when she was 10—Philip's childhood was far more turbulent," Philip Eade, author of Young Prince Philip (opens in new tab), told Town & Country.

In 1922, Philip's uncle, the king of Greece, was forced to abdicate after the debacle of the Greco-Turkish War. Philip's father, who was working in the army, was accused of treason and exiled. The family fled to Paris, where they would be based for the next decade, but it was an extremely difficult period for them.

"Though his parents both adored him, Philip saw little of them in his nomadic early years," Eade notes in his book. "His mother's nerves had been badly strained by the family's exile from Greece, and because of this the children were regularly packed off to friends and relations."

In 1931, Princess Alice suffered from a nervous breakdown and she was confined to a sanatorium in Switzerland. "The children had been taken out for the day and they returned that evening to find their mother gone," Eade adds. (She was later reportedly diagnosed with schizophrenia.)

With his four older sisters married to German aristocrats and settled in Germany and his father now in the South of France, Philip was alone at just 10 years old. Years later, when an interviewer for The Independent (opens in new tab) asked him what language he spoke at home, he answered: "What do you mean, 'at home?'"

Philip did not see or receive any word from his mother between the summer of 1932 and the spring of 1937. "It's simply what happened," the Prince later commented. "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."

[pullquote align='center']I just had to get on with it. You do. One does.[/pullquote]

With no parents to care for him, Philip's mother's family—the Milford Havens and the Mountbattens—stepped in. The family had ties to the British royal family and many of the royal houses of Europe. Alice was a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and the oldest daughter of Louis Mountbatten, the first Marquess of Milford Haven.

Under the care of his aunts on uncles, Philip went to school in England and was then briefly educated in Germany at a school owned by one of his sister's husbands. Less than a year later, Philip returned to Britain and was sent to Gordonstoun, a boarding school in Scotland.

While he was there, Philip experienced another series of tragedies. When he was 16, his sister Cecile, her husband, and their two children were killed in a plane crash. Just a few months later, his uncle and guardian, George Mountbatten, the second Marquess of Milford Haven, died suddenly of cancer at the age of 46. Gordonstoun's German headmaster Kurt Hahn was the one to break the news. "His sorrow was that of a man," his headmaster is said to have recalled.

Speaking to the Independent, a former pupil commented: "I suppose he just buried his feelings."

When Philip left school, he joined the Royal Navy and enrolled at the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, England, on the advice of his uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten. This is where the 18-year-old cadet would meet his third cousin, 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth. (They share a great-great grandmother in Queen Victoria.) Seven years later, in 1947, the pair announced their engagement.

What should have been a happy time must no doubt have been marked by all that Philip was missing. His father had passed away in 1944, his mother returned to Greece during the war (where she sheltered Jewish refugees during the Nazi occupation), and his sisters were all married to Germans.

When his wedding day arrived (opens in new tab), his family wasn't there. "Not one of them received an invitation to the wedding at Westminster Abbey," Eade writes.

royal family

(Image credit: getty images)

There were happier times ahead. Though there was some concern over his match with Elizabeth, the young Princess was drawn to Philip's "forthrightness and independence" and during the summer of 1946 at the time of their engagement, Philip wrote to his wife-to-be: "To have been spared in the war and seen victory, to have been given the chance to rest and to re-adjust myself, to have fallen in love completely and unreservedly, makes all one's personal and even the world's troubles seem small and petty."

How did Philip's "turbulent" childhood shape him into the royal consort we know today? According to Eade, it could help to explain a lot about his steadfast approach to his role as the Queen's companion: "Although he bravely overcame his childhood traumas, the breakup of his family and losing the constant loving support of his parents help explain why his emotional reserve became as noticeable as his bluff, controlled, no-nonsense exterior." While the Prince is preparing to retire from public duties at the age of 96, these are the traits he will always be remembered for.

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Katie Frost
Katie Frost