Kings of Greece
Although he has been married for more than sixty years to the most enduringly famous woman in the world, Prince Philip's own origins have remained strangely shrouded in obscurity. 'I don't think anybody thinks I had a father,' he remarked ruefully in the 1970s. 'Most people think that Dickie [Mountbatten] is my father anyway.'1
The easiest way of understanding Prince Philip's paternal ancestry is to start with his grandfather, King George I of Greece. A dashing figure, seen in photographs sporting a range of spectacular moustaches, King George was born Prince William of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg in 1845 in Copenhagen, the younger son of an army officer whose meagre pay meant that his children grew up in comparative poverty. Their home, the Yellow Palace, was not especially palatial, with a front door that led straight on to the pavement,2 their lifestyle scarcely regal, with William's mother doing much of the housework and his sisters sharing a room and making their own clothes. As a family, the Glücksburgs were loud and frivolous, informal and uncultured, apt to 'make funny noises and yell if they saw anyone trying to write a letter'.3 They were also distinctly unspoilt and unpretentious, yet within a very short space of time they had 'colonised royal Europe', as one chronicler put it.4
In 1852, William's father was unexpectedly named as heir to the Danish throne, by virtue of being a godson and distant kinsman of the childless king, although for the time being this made no difference to his income and the family still struggled to make ends meet.5 However, their status changed dramatically in 1863, when, within a year, the father succeeded as King Christian IX of Denmark, William's sister Alexandra married the Prince of Wales, destined to become King Edward VII, and a delegation from Greece came and asked seventeen-year-old William to be their king. Another sister, Dagmar, would shortly marry the future Tsar Alexander III of Russia, while yet another, Thyra, married the heir to the throne of Hanover - although that was soon dissolved by Prussia after the 1866 Anglo-Prussian war. Within the next half-century, the descendants of Christian IX would occupy no fewer than nine European thrones.6 Only the descendants of Queen Victoria were more widely spread.
King George I, as William became on his accession, later maintained that he had accepted the Greek throne with great reluctance, since it meant abandoning his chosen naval career to go and rule a far-off country with a turbulent people and a language he did not speak.7 Greece had only recently broken free from the Ottoman Empire as a result of the long and bloody war of independence that had claimed the life of Lord Byron among countless others. The new country - unstable, poor and less than half the size of what it was to become during George's reign - was formally recognized by the London Protocol of 1830, in which the protecting powers, France, Great Britain and Russia, stipulated that a hereditary sovereign should be chosen from outside the country to lessen the chances of internal disputes. In 1833 a young Bavarian prince called Otto had arrived in a British frigate to fill this vacancy, but his tactless and despotic rule caused countless insurrections. In 1862 he was deposed in a bloodless revolution and left Greece just as he had arrived, in a British warship.
Many Greek people had wanted to have as his successor Queen Victoria's second son, Prince Alfred, whose portrait was carried through the streets of Athens by a cheering mob. But Alfred was ineligible as a prince of one of the protecting powers; and besides, his mother did not like the idea. Several alternatives were suggested before eventually they settled on the young Danish prince as the least contentious candidate.
When he first arrived in Greece, he was still not yet eighteen and as he took the oath to the new constitution at the national assembly, the British ambassador was moved by 'the sight of this slight, delicate stripling, standing alone amidst a crowd of callous, unscrupulous politicians, many of whom had been steeped to the lips in treason, and swearing to observe, as he has so faithfully done, the most unworkable of charters, from which nearly every safeguard had been studiously eliminated'.8
Athens then was no more than a collection of villages, with a combined population of about 45,000, and the young king developed an endearing habit of walking alone through the streets, stopping every now and then to talk to passers-by. So determined was he to master the Greek language and customs that over the next four years he never left the country, travelling instead to all corners of his realm by ship, carriage, mule and on foot.
While he never entirely lost his slight Danish accent, King George's enthusiasm and lack of affectation were greatly appreciated by the Greek people. On Monday mornings, he was available to any of his subjects who wanted to come and air their grievances. He also gave an audience to any foreigner who requested one, provided they put on dress-clothes and white tie. The king tended to stand throughout these interviews and one of those who paid a visit, E. F. Benson, was disconcerted by his habit of continuously rising on his toes and rocking back on his heels. Benson found this 'as infectious as yawning' and it was only with the greatest effort that he could prevent himself from following the royal example. Aspirational American ladies began flocking to Athens because, as one of them remarked, 'The royal family of Greece is the easiest royal family to become acquainted with'.9
Affable and approachable the young King George may have been, but he still had to learn to stand up for himself against his wily ministers. Shortly after his arrival, a story was told of one cabinet meeting at which the boy king stood up and went over to a map to illustrate a point he was making. When he returned to his seat he noticed that his watch was missing. He looked around the table: 'Will whoever has my watch please return it?' he demanded. His ministers stared blankly back at him. 'Well, gentlemen,' the king continued, 'I'm not accustomed to this type of joke. I'd like to have my watch back.' Still nobody spoke. Adopting a sterner tone, the king announced that he was going to put out the light and count to sixty. 'If I find the watch again on the table, the incident will be closed,' he said. In the darkness he called the seconds out loud. When he turned the lights back on his silver inkstand had vanished as well.10
Apart from dealing with his ministers and frequent changes of government (forty-two in the first twenty-five years of his reign), he also had to re-establish the rather ramshackle court, train his own aides-de-camp, butlers, footmen and so forth, and set the appropriate tone, although to begin with his youthful demeanour made it 'sometimes difficult for his daily companions to maintain the respectful reserve and gravity due to a royal station'.11 The young king was also regularly reminded by his counsellors of his dynastic responsibilities, to marry and produce a son born on Greek soil, and so in 1867, aged twenty-one, he visited his sister in Russia, where he hoped to find a wife.
Tsar Alexander II had persuaded George that his was the only country where he would find a girl with the requisite combination of royal breeding and Orthodox faith. The two-month trip would also enable him to see how the vast empire was run. He lost no time as regards his primary purpose and on a visit to the tsar's younger brother Constantine at Pavlovsk he promptly proposed to the Grand Duke's fifteen-year-old daughter Olga, a shy and pretty girl with beautiful dark eyes, whom Queen Victoria had thought might do rather well for her son Alfred.12 Engaged within a week of meeting, they were married shortly after her sixteenth birthday in an elaborate five-day ceremony at the Winter Palace.
For her arrival in Athens, Queen Olga thoughtfully wore a dress in the Greek national colours of blue and white which delighted the huge crowd and her 'fresh young beauty' soon won the hearts of her subjects.13 With her came a Russian lady-in-waiting, a governess and a trunk full of dolls and teddy bears to complete the entourage. At times overwhelmed and frightened by the reception she received, the young queen was once found hiding beneath the palace staircase 'hugging her favourite Russian stuffed bear, and weeping bitterly'.14 She never did entirely overcome her homesickness - whenever a Russian ship docked at Piraeus, she could scarcely keep away from it - but the marriage was extremely successful and as queen she won the enduring love of the Greek people.
Olga's first child, a son, was born barely nine months after the wedding and named Constantine after the last emperor of Byzantine Greece, an augury which prompted much rejoicing. She went on to have a further seven children, three girls (one of whom survived only three months) and four more boys. Philip's father, Andrew, known as Andrea, was the last but one, born in 1882 at Tatoï, the royal family's country estate, some thirty miles north of Athens. He was premature and so tiny that he spent his first few days in a cigar box being fed with a toothpick,15 however after being wet-nursed by a 'pleasant-looking peasant from the island of Andros, called Athena',16 he eventually grew into a tall and athletic figure, 'like a thoroughbred horse' according to Philip's aunt Marie Bonaparte.17 By common consent he was the most handsome of the king's sons. It was from him that Philip inherited his high-domed forehead, his 'fine nose and lips and the narrow Mountbatten eyes' coming from his mother.18
Andrea grew up with his brothers and sisters at the gaunt royal palace which had been built by King Otto on a hill overlooking old Athens and was extensively ransacked after his departure. Nowadays used as the Greek parliament, during Andrea's childhood it was an 'excessively uncomfortable' family home, so his younger brother Christopher recalled, with only one bathroom where the taps emitted a dismal trickle of water and the odd defunct cockroach.19 As a boy, Andrea suffered at least one bout of typhoid, presumed to have been caught from the palace drains.
Winters were especially spartan, with cold winds whistling through the long, dim galleries and countless unused rooms. King George seems to have grown sterner with fatherhood and whatever the weather bade his sons get up at six each morning for a cold bath and then lessons at 6.30 sharp. His sister Alexandra, who came to visit in 1893, when Andrea was eleven, noted that the king was 'rather tyrannical in the family' and failed to take his children into his confidence even when they grew up, which embittered them towards him.20 However, he would occasionally unbend to lead bicycling or rollerskating processions around the palace with the whole family following in order of age.
He told his children: 'You must never forget that you are foreigners in this country, but you must make them [the Greek people] forget it.'21 The eldest children spoke Greek to each other at home and English to their parents, who in turn conversed in German. Andrea was always more Greek than any of his siblings and as a boy flatly refused to speak any other language.22
Although George liked discipline and uniforms, he was in other respects a relatively down-to-earth monarch, and the atmosphere at his court was generally far more relaxed than elsewhere in Europe. The princes and princesses were known by their Christian names alone and often hailed as such in the street. They all grew up with a love of practical jokes. 'Anything could happen when you got a few of them together,' according to Philip. 'It was like the Marx brothers.'23
Court balls were notably democratic. A foreign guest once hired a carriage to drive him to the palace for one of these parties, only for his coachman to stipulate: 'Do you mind going rather early, because I'm going there myself and shall have to go home and change?' The foreign gentleman laughed at what he thought was a rather good joke; but later in the evening, there was his driver, resplendent in evening clothes, dancing with the wife of a minister.24
There was a fairy-tale quality to the whole set-up. When E. F. Benson visited in 1893 he recorded that on Sunday afternoons a small compartment was often reserved on the steam tram that ran between Athens and the coast at Phaleron; when it stopped opposite the palace, the king and his family would emerge to the sound of a bugler. If they failed to come at once, the driver would impatiently touch the whistle. Benson found Greece to be an
astonishing little kingdom, the like of which, outside pure fiction, will never again exist in Europe ... its army dressed in Albanian costume (embroidered jacket, fustinella, like a ballet skirt, fez, white gaiters, red shoes with tassels on the toes like the seeds of dandelions), its fleet of three small cruisers, its national assembly of bawling Levantines and its boot-blacks called Agamemnon and Thucydides, was precisely like the fabulous kingdom of Paflagonia in The Rose and the Ring, or some Gilbertian realm of light opera.25
Every other summer the family would travel to Denmark, where King Christian IX and his wife Queen Louise had their descendants to stay en masse at the vast Fredensborg Palace. With all the court attendants and personal servants, the house parties numbered up to three hundred, and apart from the Greek royal family, included the Prince and Princess of Wales and Tsar Alexander III and Tsarina Marie Feodorovna (as King George's sister Dagmar had now become). Court etiquette was dispensed with during the day, when the tsar would take the children off to catch tadpoles or steal apples, but for dinner they all entered the big hall in a long procession arm in arm, preceded by the tsar, who offered his arm to Queen Louise, and the rest following according to rank.
There were also regular trips to Russia - across the Black Sea to Sebastopol where the luxurious imperial train awaited - and to Corfu, one of the Ionian islands given to Greece by Britain on George's accession to the throne, and where the municipality had presented the new king with a villa, Mon Repos, on a promontory just to the south of Corfu Town. But most of their time away from Athens was spent at Tatoï, Andrea's birthplace, the royal estate of 40,000 acres in the pine-scented foothills of Mount Parnés, high enough to be much cooler than the capital. After buying Tatoï in 1871, King George had established a vineyard to produce an alternative to the pine-infused retsina, which he detested, and a butter-making dairy farm with a range of Danish-style stone buildings. For those who were not well disposed towards their imported monarch there was evidence at Tatoï that he had not embraced his adopted country quite as wholeheartedly as he liked to make out.
By 1886, the king had replaced the original small villa with a replica of a hideous Victorian-style house that stood in the grounds of his wife's family home, Pavlovsk, and so Tatoï became the one place where Queen Olga never felt homesick; she celebrated her birthday there each year with a big party for all the estate workers. The family all grew to love Tatoï and most of them, including Andrea, are buried in the wooded cemetery there. But their white marble graves are seldom visited nowadays. Since 1967, when the last Greek king, Constantine II, went into exile in Surrey, the estate has become overgrown and the buildings are now mostly ruins. A few picnic tables scattered about the park hint at the symbolic gesture of giving Tatoï to the republican Greek people of today, but few visitors come here now and if you ask for directions from Athens, you are almost guaranteed to get a blank look.
Andrea's childhood was on the whole steady, but there were also events of great sadness. The first of these occurred when he was nine, when his sister Alexandra died while giving birth to her son, Dimitri, three years after her marriage to Grand Duke Paul of Russia. The whole family, including Andrea, travelled to Moscow, where the young Grand Duchess lay in state in a special room at the station, and then on to St Petersburg for the funeral. One of Andrea's elder brothers later recalled that it was 'all so unexpected and awful that the shock and sorrow overpowered us all'.26 King George, who doted on his daughter, never got over it.
For all the king's personal popularity, Greece remained a turbulent and violent country, and he survived several assassination attempts. In 1898, while out driving with his daughter Marie - later Grand Duchess George of Russia - his carriage was attacked by two men who opened fire with rifles at close range. Marie had a red bow in her hat which her father thought would make her an easy target for them 'so he quickly stood up,' she recalled, 'put his hand on my neck and forced me down. With his other hand he menaced them with his walking stick.' Both horses were hit and slightly wounded and a footman was injured in the leg; however the king and his daughter were miraculously unscathed.27
When he was fourteen, Andrea began attending classes twice a week at the military college at Athens, where he was drilled by German officers and became quite friendly with the future dictator Theodore Pangalos,28 an association that may later have saved his life. From the age of seventeen, he was privately tutored by another future revolutionary, Major Panayotis Danglis, who privately noted that his new charge was tall, quick and intelligent - and short-sighted.29 The king was forever urging Danglis to increase Andrea's hours of tuition, and when the family went on holiday to Corfu in the spring of 1900 Andrea was made to stay in and attend to his military studies rather than go on many of the picnics and excursions.30
In 1902, aged twenty, Andrea was examined by a panel that included his father, his elder brothers, the prime minister, the archbishop, the war minister and half the teaching staff of the military academy. The king had been keen to ensure that the test was as rigorous as it could be, but they were unanimous in passing Andrea and he was duly commissioned as a subaltern in the cavalry. Shortly after this he met the beautiful seventeen-year-old Princess Alice of Battenberg, the girl who was to become his wife.
Copyright © 2011 by Philip Eade. Preface to the U.S. edition copyright © 2011 by Philip Eade. All rights reserved.