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Elizabeth wears the crown, but Philip still wears the trousers


Mark McGinness

The 90-year-old prince is the longest-serving royal consort in British history.

Prince Philip with his wife Queen Elizabeth and Pippa Middleton on the balcony at Buckingham Palace after the recent royal wedding.

Prince Philip with his wife Queen Elizabeth and Pippa Middleton on the balcony at Buckingham Palace after the recent royal wedding. Photo: Getty Images

'I'm so old I won't be here," was Prince Philip's reaction to the announcement that London had won the 2012 Olympic Games And yet, six years on, as he turns 90 today, the Duke of Edinburgh is still very much here - the longest-serving royal consort in British history and as much of an energetic enigmatic force and a consistently quotable source as he was when he joined the family in 1947.

The last child and only son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Princess Alice of Battenberg, he was born on a Corfu dining table at Mon Repos, an ironic birthplace for the restless life that has followed. He is descended from Charlemagne, Tsar Nicholas I, Queen Victoria, King Frederick IX of Denmark and hails from the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg; so grand that he had no surname. But before he was two, the Greek royal family were in exile and by the time he was eight his parents had separated - his father ensconced in Monte Carlo with his mistress and his mother confined to a series of sanatoriums for eight years.

Homeless, throneless and nameless, he was sent to school in Britain. As one courtier put it: "He's descended from everybody he should be descended from, but there is a great big hole where there should be mummy picking him up after a party and giving him a kiss." And so, according to a royal chaplain, "he built a picket line around himself with machineguns on it".

Prince Philip in May 1948.

Prince Philip in May 1948.

After school he joined the navy and had a distinguished war. In 1946, as commander of the frigate Magpie, he wrote in a visitors' book in Australia: "Whither the storm carries me, I go - a willing guest." It was less a storm than the ebb and flow of royal kinship that swept him into the heart of Elizabeth. He looked like a viking god and her friends would chant: "Oh come to my arms, thou bundle of charms, Philip Mountbatten R.N."

While her mother had her own list of well-born British candidates for a son-in-law and the stuffy court of George VI was aghast at this rough diamond, the princess had eyes for no one else; and so it has endured.

Within five years she was Queen - he lost his life and, in a way, his wife; but he has remained consistently supportive and fiercely protective of her. The relationship settled into a state of ''He rules at home; she reigns at large. She wears the crown; he wears the trousers.''

His role as the trouser-wearer and head of the family is perhaps the most surprising - and also the most challenging. In fact, the family has proved more troublesome than any of HM's subjects. As Diana's marriage to Charles disintegrated, Philip's letters to Diana were full of sympathy, insight and affection, always signed ''Pa''. There was no sign here of the insensitive brute. His letters to the unmanageable Sarah York were similarly loving and helpful until he despaired of her.

When Diana died and Downing Street proffered suggestions for the funeral, Philip told them to "f--- off - we are talking about two boys who have lost their mother''. And - concerned that they might regret not doing so later - it was his offer to walk with William and Harry that prompted them to follow their mother's coffin.

But what of the public prince? Infamous for his irascibility and tactlessness, his gaffes are legion. Last week, London's Independent marked the milestone with the headline ''Ninety Gaffes in Ninety Years''. In Cairns in 2002, he asked a Djabugay elder, "Do you still throw spears at each other?" In New Guinea, where he was long regarded as a god, he asked a student who had walked the Kokoda Track:"You managed not to get eaten, then?" To a 13-year-old aspiring astronaut: "You could do with losing a little bit of weight."

During the Irish troubles, he shocked an Ulster woman at a charity event in Chelsea by observing: "So, you managed to get here without having your knickers blown off." And there was, of course, the never-to-be-forgotten warning to British students in China: "If you stay her much longer, you'll all be slitty-eyed.''

His defenders say that the only way Philip can stay alive and interested in the endless audiences, line-ups and crowd encounters is to stir and challenge those he meets with that Second World War quarter-deck banter. There is some acknowledgement on the prince's part. Addressing a meeting of dentists in 1960, he admitted: "Dontopedalogy is the science of opening your mouth and putting your foot in it, a science which I have practised for a good many years.'' But there is no contrition and no sense that it could be reciprocated.

Once when in Rio, he asked a gong-adorned admiral: "On which lake did you win those medals?" The Brazilian shot back: "Not in the marriage bed." And yet, surely he has earned his keep, enduring almost 20,000 functions and delivering an average of seven speeches a month over six decades.

He will notch up more when he returns to our shores in October for another meeting of HM's beloved Commonwealth. He refuses to slow down and there is no reason to believe he will be gentle with the locals.

Mark McGinness is an Australian lawyer and writer who lives and works in Dubai.

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