Malcolm Barker: Happy 90th birthday to honorary son of the Ridings

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THOSE of us who trail a decade behind Prince Philip tend to regard him as something of a hero, an English gentleman of the old school.

He is nothing of the kind, of course, although he has the characteristics associated with such an archetype, among them courage, savoir-faire, steadfastness, immaculate dress sense, and always a twinkling hint of humour.

On Friday, it will be 90 years since he was born on the island of Corfu. He was a great great grandson of Queen Victoria, but as a member of the house of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg, his antecedents were very much Almanac de Gotha.

His conversion to an Englishman (or, to put it formally, his acquisition of naturalised British citizenship) and his move from the Greek Orthodox to the Anglican Church, both came in 1947 as a prelude to his marriage to Princes Elizabeth, the heir to the throne.

Thus it was as Lt Philip Mountbatten RN that he took his vows amid great pomp and ceremony at Westminster Abbey on November 20, 1947, and pledged himself to his third cousin.

That promise has held good over the years. Prince Philip has been a reliable support for the Queen throughout her long reign, during times of joy and pain, and unfailingly throughout the torment of her annus horribilis. For that alone, he merits all the salutes he will receive to mark his birthday.

But there is far more to him than the role of Royal Consort, the man in a Savile Row suit always a pace or two behind the Queen.

He is imbued with energy and purpose, exemplified by his foundation of the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme in 1956 to encourage young people to take up outdoor pursuits.

Ever since, he has been a force in its progress, always ready with ideas and encouragement.

The scheme echoes the sort of adventures that were part of the curriculum at his boarding school, Gordonstoun, and by his own account he launched it at the behest of his old headmaster, Kurt Hahn.

Prince Philip went from that school to the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, and it was there that he first met Princess Elizabeth, then in her early teens.

Whether she made any impression on him is unknown, but she certainly noticed him, and remembered him sufficiently well for Philip to become the love of her life.

An exhibition at Windsor Castle, Prince Philip Celebrating Ninety Years, that opened in February, illustrates his successful Naval career, and includes his handwritten Midshipman’s Log from HMS Valiant, which took part in the Battle of Matapan off the Greek coast in 1941.

He was First Lieutenant aboard HMS Whelp, a destroyer, by the end of the war, and, as he recalled in a televised interview with Alan Titchmarsh on Channel 4, had just been promoted to Commander when his wife acceded to the throne in 1952.

That put paid to his Naval career, and he sacrificed the anonymity of the warship’s wardroom for the endless scrutiny that is the lot of a British Royal.

Was he disappointed?

Perhaps a little, he conceded to Titchmarsh, but “it seemed to me that my duty was to serve the Queen in the best way I could”.

The exhibition also features Prince Philip’s design for a window in the new private chapel at Windsor Castle, a re-building undertaken after it had been destroyed in the memorable fire of 1992.

The symbolism has been thought out carefully. A phoenix rising from ashes represents the saving of the castle and the rebuilding project, and there is also a fireman, shown aiming his hose as he battled with the flames.

One thing lacking at the exhibition is a printed guide. According to a report, the Prince did not like the idea of a book or catalogue “or any such nonsense” because he simply “did not want the fuss”.

In the Channel 4 programme, Alan Titchmarsh referred to Prince Philip’s “so-called gaffes”.

To a generation unattuned to political correctness, the examples frequently quoted are not gaffes.

They are sallies, and recall the days when the young Philip lived in public school dormitories and naval messes when such thrusts would have produced roars of laughter.

In those times, we did think foreigners were rather funny. Hitler did not frighten us because we saw him as an irresistible figure of fun.

Reflecting on Prince Philip and his life, we might be able to offer him a greater accolade even than being dubbed the perfect English gentleman.

He would make an absolutely splendid Yorkshireman. He even turns out occasionally in a flat cap.

His brevity of speech, his salty wit, his somewhat wry attitude to the world at large, his dislike of fuss and his sportsmanship are all excellent qualifications.

Happy birthday, Sir, an honorary son of the Ridings.

Malcolm Barker is a former editor of the Yorkshire Evening Post.