Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh - the true personality of a forward-thinking moderniser who loved to collect caricatures of himself

Philip was characterised and satirised as irritable and brusque, but his true nature was far more complex than his public image suggested.

His long-time friend and aide, Michael Parker, summed Philip up with the words: “No one has a kinder heart, or takes more trouble to conceal it.”

It was an accurate assessment. Philip did have a crusty exterior, and could be irritable, not least with his own family. Those who disagreed with his forthright views also found him daunting.

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The trouble he took to conceal his kind heart was apparent from television interviews to which he agreed to mark his 90th and 95th birthdays. In both, he tended to the irascible and hectoring.

Prince Philip with the Queen

But he was also capable of great charm, and countless members of the public who met him were pleasantly surprised to discover a genial man who expressed genuine interest in their lives and did his best to put them at ease.

He did that by trying to make them laugh, and the gaffes for which he was renowned mostly sprang from jokes that misfired. Usually, though, his humour worked.

Philip told one of his close friends, former MP and author Gyles Brandreth: “I don’t think I have ever got up to make a speech of any kind, anywhere, ever, and not made the audience laugh at least once. You arrive somewhere and you go down that receiving line. I get two or three of them to laugh. Always.”

He was acutely self-aware and knew that his reputation for grumpiness went before him, telling Brandreth: “I have become a caricature. There we are. I’ve just got to live with it.”

There was to be further confirmation of Philip’s compassionate side from an unlikely source - Princess Diana. She showed letters that Philip had sent her to a close friend, Rosa Monckton, who described them as “thoughtful and wise” and said their tone was “kind and compassionate and understanding”. They were written as the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales was disintegrating and about to plunge the House of Windsor into crisis.

Yet there were pointers that Philip privately relished the ructions that his public outbursts sometimes caused. He was an avid collector of cartoons and caricatures of himself, and by the time of his death had well over 200, which were displayed in the various royal residences.

He enjoyed their irreverence, because there was a side to Philip that harboured a lifelong irritation with the often stuffy trappings of royalty. In the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, he antagonised senior courtiers by demanding changes to Palace routines and protocols that had hardly changed since Victoria’s time.

His vigorous, restless nature continued into old age. In his 90s, he was still carriage-driving and chauffeuring himself.

That came to a dramatic end in January 2019, when Philip, then 97, overturned the Range Rover he was driving in a crash with another car as he pulled out of the Sandringham estate.

Amazingly, given the vehicle rolled onto its side, he escaped unhurt, but the two women in the car he hit suffered minor injuries. He apologised to them and voluntarily surrendered his driving licence. But even though Philip effectively banned himself from public roads, he was still seen driving on the royal estates.

Two years earlier, in the summer of 2017, there was the clearest possible indication that time was catching up with Philip, when it was announced that he would retire from royal duties at the age of 96.

Even given his advanced years, the news still came as a shock, since he had been such a constant presence in public life. Typically, he didn’t disappear completely and would still accompany the Queen on occasion.

Philip let it be known that this would happen on a “wake up and see how I feel” basis, and he was by her side at occasional engagements including Prince Harry’s wedding to Meghan Markle the following May.

Philip was impatient of sycophancy and there were formal occasions when his boredom with royal routine could be glimpsed. He would get away from it all from time to time, and in late middle age was delighted to receive a black London taxi as a birthday present. It enabled him to get out of the palace and take a spin around the capital in anonymity.

That element of his character grew directly from his background and upbringing, which though royal, was lacking in the deference that surrounded Elizabeth.

Philip’s rootless childhood and enthusiasm for the spartan regime at Gordonstoun fostered in him both self-reliance and self-confidence. He was not used to being waited on hand-and-foot like Elizabeth, and his wartime experience in the Royal Navy left him with few airs.

His self-reliance was also the key to his success as the Queen’s consort. The role Philip carved out was unprecedented in modern times. He neither sought nor had constitutional or political influence, but found innumerable ways to contribute to the life of Britain and the Commonwealth through energetic charity work and as an ambassador for industry, whilst remaining Elizabeth’s staunchest supporter.

But Gordonstoun and naval command also left Philip with an aggressive, even bullying, streak. He was guilty of barking at people who could not answer back, and did not suffer those he considered fools gladly.

His intolerance also made for uneasy relationships with his children, especially Charles, whose sensitive character irritated Philip.

Philip was not above discomfiting Charles well into his middle age, just to show him the old man was still boss. Charles recalled preparing to deliver a speech and Philip asking to see the text. Charles handed it over, and Philip promptly walked off with it, leaving his son floundering.

Such behaviour, part put-down and part practical joke, came naturally to Philip, who enjoyed the broad humour of chaps joshing each other, which he encountered in the navy. He indulged his penchant for all-male gatherings in the early years of his marriage at the Thursday Club, a regular lunch at a restaurant in Soho’s Old Compton Street.

Guests included actors Peter Ustinov and James Robertson Justice, harmonica player Larry Adler, and osteopath Stephen Ward, later to be a central figure in the Profumo affair. The traitor Kim Philby attended once, but was not invited back after the rest of the diners voted him a bore. The lunches were eventually discontinued because they were a considered a security risk for Philip.

That must have been a disappointment, and there was always the suspicion that he was also disappointed that his naval career was curtailed by George VI’s early death.

But it was not in Philip’s nature to dwell on what might have been. His unshakeable sense of duty came to the fore when Elizabeth succeeded to the throne, and he set about life as the Queen’s consort with vigour.

Philip was determined to make himself useful to the nation and Commonwealth, and hurled his restless energy into charitable work. He was the chairman or patron of innumerable good causes, but the two closest to his heart were the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, and the National Playing Fields Association, which both aimed to get young people involved in the sort of outdoors activity and sport that Philip believed was character-building.

He was for decades the royal who undertook the most engagements, and the majority of them were in support of charities, who adored him for the unstinting support he gave.

Philip’s energy was matched by his curiosity. He would gather panels of experts to brief him on topics ranging from conservation to industry, form forthright opinions that chimed with his vision of the world, and be unafraid to express them. One of his most famous speeches was in 1961 when he told industrialists: “Gentlemen, I think it is time we pulled our fingers out.”

For all his public image as a curmudgeon who naturally belonged to an old-order hunting, shooting and fishing set, Philip was a forward thinker. He was a passionate advocate of sensible diet and exercise as key elements of a healthy lifestyle long before they became modern obsessions, and was fascinated by technology.

Also ahead of its time was his championing of conservation over the course of a long association with the World Wildlife Fund.

Philip’s energy and enthusiasm lasted into old age, when ailments began to trouble him. He underwent an operation for a heart problem, and had to miss most of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations after being hospitalised with a bladder infection.

Even though the frustration of advancing years curtailing his physical activities led to occasional outbursts of temper, he always bounced back and in his 90s, the drive and vigour that had characterised him as a young man were still plain to see.