What was Prince Philip really like as a young man? Fact checking The Crown

How close does Matt Smith/Tobias Menzies' swaggering, angry, funny Duke of Edinburgh come to the real thing?

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Matt Smith and Tobias Menzies play Prince Philip as the truculent, charming husband of Claire Foy’s young Elizabeth II throughout The Crown. Complete with off-colour jokes, a slight stoop and a rebellious attitude, Philip cuts a dashing figure at his royal wife’s side.

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The real Duke of Edinburgh is now in his mid-90s – but what was he really like in his younger years? Will he recognise himself in Matt Smith and Tobias Menzies when he and Lizzy settle down on the sofa with a cuppa and fire up the Windsor family Netflix account?

Let’s take a look…

How did Philip meet Elizabeth?

Prince-Philip at Gordonstoun, around 1938
Prince-Philip at Gordonstoun, around 1938 (Getty)

Philip was born in Greece in 1921, but his family was exiled from the country when he was just a baby following a war with Turkey and the rise of a new military government. It was a tricky escape: Philip was carried to safety in a cot made from a fruit box.

It was a turbulent existence for the young prince, who was sent from country to country. By the time he was 10, his parents had separated, his mother was in psychiatric care and he was essentially homeless. He joined the Royal Navy in 1939 at the age of 18 and distinguished himself at sea. It was during the war years that he got to know the teenage Elizabeth (five years his junior) while staying at Windsor.

After the war, Philip of Greece became a British subject and adopted the surname Mountbatten from his mother’s parents. The newly-titled Duke of Edinburgh married the future Queen in 1947. It was, by all accounts, a love match – helped along by Philip’s ambitious uncle, Louis Mountbatten.

Did Philip really try to make the royal surname Mountbatten?

Elizabeth and Philip on their honeymoon
Elizabeth and Philip on their honeymoon (Getty)

In The Crown, a petulant Philip makes two requests when his wife comes to the throne: he wants to stay at Clarence House instead of Buckingham Palace, and he wants the royal house to be Mountbatten – with the kids keeping his surname.

Elizabeth is initially receptive and tries to negotiate these concessions with Churchill and his Cabinet, but things do not go according to plan. She is persuaded by her grandma and her Prime Minister to issue a royal proclamation declaring that the royal house will remain known as the House of Windsor.

This is true to life. In Philip and Elizabeth: Portrait of a Royal Marriage, biographer Gyles Brandreth reports the Duke’s private remark: “I am nothing but a bloody amoeba. I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his own children.”

It was an issue that remained a sore point, and after the death of the Queen’s grandmother Queen Mary and Winston Churchill – the two figures most strongly opposed to the idea – the Queen issued an Order in Council in 1960 declaring that her descendants not bearing royal styles and titles (i.e. Prince or Royal Highness) may use the surname Mountbatten-Windsor.

Were Philip’s family Nazis?

Princess Cecilie of Greece and Denmark, the third eldest sister of Prince Philip
Princess Cecilie of Greece and Denmark, the third eldest sister of Prince Philip (Getty)

John Lithgow makes quite an entrance as Winston Churchill in episode one, loudly protesting at Philip and Elizabeth’s wedding: “You know why his three sisters aren’t here? They’re all married to Nazis. Prominent Nazis.”

While it is doubtful that Churchill really had such a public outburst, what he says has its basis in truth.

In fact, three of Philip’s four sisters really had married Nazis. His sister Cecilie wasn’t at the wedding for the more basic reason that she had died in 1937 (during her funeral a 16-year-old Philip had been photographed in Germany alongside ranks of Nazi soldiers), but his sisters Sophie and Margarita also married German aristocrats who later became leading figures in the Nazi Party.

Some courtiers were concerned about Philip’s “Teutonic strain” – but they could not deny that he was a war hero who had fought the Nazis and declared his allegiance to Britain. Philip himself was unfairly tarnished by his own family.

Did he really feel emasculated by being a consort?

Philip and Elizabeth in The Crown
Philip and Elizabeth in The Crown (Netflix)

Philip was already upset about having to give up his naval career because of his wife’s new job, and his tantrum about losing his surname – only acquired when he was already in his 20s – indicates his concerns about being the Queen’s consort and forever in her shadow.

In The Crown, Philip has a furious outburst at his wife, shouting: “You have taken my career from me, you have taken my home, you have taken my name. What kind of marriage is this? What kind of family?” Unhappy with his place, he keeps going off on jollies with his mates and taking flying lessons, so Elizabeth asks him to chair the Coronation Commission ahead of her crowning in 1953.

One of the most tense moments in the series comes when the royal couple get into a right royal row about whether he should kneel before her during the ceremony, as is traditional. “I will not kneel before my wife,” he declares, while Elizabeth fires back: “A strong man would be able to kneel.”

But while royal biographer Philip Ziegler admits that Philip’s frustration may not be total speculation, he also thinks it highly unlikely that the Duke was so opposed to royal ritual and his place at the Queen’s side. The kneeling argument seems to be a fictionalisation.

Did Prince Philip have affairs?

Biographer Philip Eade has suggested that in his single years, Philip’s romantic connections included actress Cobina Wright and debutante Osla Benning.

But while rumours have swirled of illicit liaisons after his marriage to Elizabeth, there has never been anything definitive, and no evidence has ever emerged.

Explaining his approach to Philip’s love life in the drama, writer Peter Morgan told Radio Times: “I’m trying to make them human beings but, at the same time, I’m aware that nobody has come forward and identified people with whom Prince Philip did or did not have affairs. I’m not going to be the one to do that.”

In another article, we’ve dived deeper into the question: was Prince Philip unfaithful?

Did Philip really make such inappropriate jokes?

If anything, The Crown underplays how un-PC Philip can be. We do get a few jokes: on a visit to Kenya, the Prince compliments a tribal leader on his hat (It’s a crown – awkward). He also jokes about not wanting to be made into a “sissy” by his “queen”.

But over the years Philip has gained a reputation for much worse gaffes, including reportedly telling a British student during a visit to China, “If you stay here much longer, you will go home with slitty eyes,” and joking with another who had visited Papua New Guinea: “You managed not to get eaten, then?”

Was he obsessed with learning to fly?

Prince Philip in The Crown

In The Crown, Philip develops a one-track mind about learning to fly, persuading Princess Margaret’s secret lover RAF Group Captain Peter Townsend to teach him.

Philip’s hobby is no invention: his first airborne flying lesson took place in 1952, he was presented with his Royal Air Force wings in 1953 and by his 70th birthday he had accrued over 5,000 pilot hours.

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