In a landmark biography of Prince Philip, a distinguished Royal writer paints a compelling portrait of the Queen’s rock-steady companion as he nears his 100th birthday. Here, in the final part of our serialisation, she explains his complicated relationship with his children.
On the forecourt of Buckingham Palace, the Grenadier Guards played a selection of nursery rhymes, ending with a special rendition of the Teddy Bears’ Picnic. Inside the Palace, Prince Charles was celebrating his fourth birthday in the white and gold music room with 14 friends. Furniture and priceless artefacts had been cleared away so that the heir to the throne and his guests could run up and down.
It was, said one observer, ‘probably the lightest-hearted party given at Buckingham Palace since Queen Victoria had children young enough to romp in the same spirit’.
It was notable for one other significant reason: this was the first time Prince Philip had been present at one of his son’s birthday parties. Although he loves babies, Philip did not attend the birth of Prince Charles on November 14, 1948. He had been playing squash at the time, and on seeing his newborn son declared that he looked ‘like a plum pudding’.
Royal family: Prince Philip points while sat next to Prince Edward and Queen Elizabeth II, with Prince Charles, Princess Anne and Prince Andrew stood behind
Nor did he spend much time with Charles thereafter, attending just two of his first eight birthdays. For the little boy, the love of his mother and father, like food and clothing in those austere post-war years, was severely rationed. Philip was based at the Admiralty when Charles was born, and within a year was back in the Mediterranean as second- in-command of the destroyer HMS Chequers.
So began a series of separations that were to blight Charles’s young life, establishing a pattern that has carried through into his own adulthood, with all its dire consequences.
It was not, of course, unusual for children of aristocratic families to be placed in the care of nannies in that era. But even when judged by the standards of the time, Philip and Elizabeth saw remarkably little of their offspring.
Princess Elizabeth spent her 24th birthday, in April 1950, when Charles was just 18 months old, in Malta watching her husband play polo before returning to England to await the birth of her second child, Anne, in August.
She then spent the late summer at Balmoral before joining Philip in Malta again for a holiday, leaving their four-month-old daughter and two-year-old son to spend Christmas without them at Sandringham.
Charles found these long separations from his mother, according to the official court correspondent of the time, Godfrey Talbot, ‘very upsetting and bewildering’.
Diana (right) reckoned that if Charles (left) had been brought up in the normal fashion, he would have been better able to handle his and her emotions
Despite Philip’s frequent absences at sea, it was he who had the ultimate say in the upbringing of his children. He was only 26 when Charles was born and harboured a young man’s ideal that he would like his first-born to be in his own image.
As Charles grew into a shy, diffident child, Philip was determined to make a man of his son and organised for him to be driven three times a week to a private gym in Chelsea where a small class of boys were instructed in physical training and boxing.
‘Philip tolerated Charles but he wasn’t a loving father,’ said Eileen Parker, the former wife of one of Philip’s closest friends, Mike Parker, when I interviewed her. ‘I think Charles was frightened of him. He became very quiet when Philip was around.’
Like his grandfather, George VI, and his great-grandfather, George V, Charles suffered from knock knees and had to wear orthopaedic shoes to correct his flat feet. He was ‘chesty’ like his mother and suffered unduly from colds.
But his hearty father made no concessions to such infirmity. His method of teaching Charles to swim, for instance, was to drag, or sometimes throw, him into the Buckingham Palace pool. On one occasion Charles’s nanny objected, raising her three-year-old charge’s ‘chestiness’. Philip replied: ‘It’s ridiculous to make such a fuss of him. There’s nothing wrong with him.’ So, in the protesting boy went.
The Parkers’ daughter, Julie, born a month after the young Prince, often went home from playing with Charles and asked her parents: ‘Why is Prince Philip cross with Charles? Why isn’t he nice to him?’
Charles still talks about the humiliating day his parents went to Gordonstoun to see him perform extremely credibly in the role of Macbeth (pictured)
Philip’s relationship with his more robust daughter, Anne, was completely different. He paid more attention to her than he did to his son simply because she was more responsive.
He laughed with Anne in a way he never did with Charles. He made acerbic remarks to tease her but she could deal with them, cheerfully braving his ridicule, saying anything she wanted and laughing back at him.
Anne is as like her father as Charles is unalike. She and Philip are energetic, brisk and efficient and both try to fit as much into a day as they possibly can.
‘A resilient character such as Philip, who sees being tough as a necessity for survival, wants to toughen up his son and his son is very sensitive,’ said Lady Edwina Mountbatten. ‘It hasn’t been easy for either of them.’
‘He just can’t resist coming out with these personal remarks,’ said Lady Kennard, a childhood friend of Princess Elizabeth and Philip. ‘He’s at his worst with Charles but he could be quite sarcastic with Anne, too.’
When it came to Charles’s education, Philip was adamant that his son should follow in his footsteps and attend Gordonstoun in the north of Scotland.
Philip had a dislike bordering on contempt for the British Establishment and many of its elitist institutions, such as England’s old-fashioned public schools.
To him, they smacked of unearned privilege – the breeding ground for an old boys’ network of which, as a foreign prince, he was not a member.
Discussions that included the Queen Mother, the Dean of Windsor and Earl Mountbatten were, Philip considered, a waste of time. He brought them to an end by ruling that what was good enough for him was good enough for his son. Charles loathed Gordonstoun. He found it hard to adapt to its austere environment, to rise to its athletic demands and to make friends. Toughest of all for the young Prince to bear was the attitude of the other boys.
He was immediately picked upon ‘maliciously, cruelly and without respite’, one fellow newcomer recalled. For example, one night a senior boy had the bright idea of making a tape recording of Prince Charles snoring. Waiting until he was asleep, several boys crept up to the open window of Charles’s dormitory and lowered a microphone by an extension cable to just above his head.
It was easy to do because Charles’s bed was next to one of the windows that by Gordonstoun regulations were always kept open.
The plan worked like a charm, and a little later that night the excited plotters listened gleefully to the loud snores of the future King on their tape recorders.
Luckily for Charles, his housemaster heard about the escapade and confiscated the tape. But one boy swears he made a second recording taken from the original on his own machine. So somewhere in Britain, in the privacy of a drawer, lies a historic tape of Prince Charles snoring.
Philip, on hearing of his son’s troubles, wrote to him encouraging him to ‘man up’ rather than sympathising with