Prince Philip Has a Mouthful Of a Title. And, Often, His Foot.

By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 6, 2007

As the Queen of England visits, strolling about in her lovely hats, perhaps you've noticed a slender gentleman walking just behind her, elegantly tailored in Savile Row suits. Has a military bearing still, a handsome older chap somewhat taller than Her Majesty.

Has that air of nobility, too. Thoroughly patrician.

By the looks of him, a rather reserved fellow, you'd expect -- and you'd be wrong.

That's His Royal Highness the Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, soon to be 86. We don't hear much about him in the States. He's Greek royalty by birth, was exiled as a boy after a coup in Athens. A Royal Navy man. Been married to "Lilibet" since 1947, before she was crowned Elizabeth II.

"He was the first man she ever fell in love with, and the last," said biographer Robert Lacey, author of two books about the queen.

Done visiting Virginia and Kentucky, Her Majesty and the duke are to arrive in Washington tonight and make a series of public appearances tomorrow and Tuesday, their first visit to the nation's capital in 16 years.

You know Lilibet by now.

Meet Philip, her prince consort.

Rarely during her reign, since 1952, has the queen traveled abroad without him -- the duke usually walking a step behind her when the world is watching, a custom of his own invention. He's just the second man married to a British monarch in 300 years, the first since Prince Albert died in 1861, so he has had to wing it at times, figuring out ways to show deference to his wife in public.

Yes, he's quite proper in regard to the protocols.

But reserved?

Not this duke.

Here's something not widely known about him on our side of the pond: He's talkative and impolitic, the alter ego of his famously demure wife, who just turned 81. Where she is cautiously reticent, even remote, the duke is an extrovert with a royal habit of putting his foot in his mouth.

In short, the duke's a hoot.

Or at least some Britons think he is. Given that he's a fountain of political incorrectness -- and unapologetic to boot -- many in the queen's realm find him rude and offensive, like a ghastly old uncle, hopelessly out of touch with modern sensibilities.

Anyway, he says what he thinks.

"There's a story in my book about them driving together," said Gyles Brandreth, an acquaintance of Philip's and author of an admiring biography of the royal couple. "Him driving very, very fast, and her saying again to him, 'Well, do slow down.' And him finally saying, 'If you speak again, woman, I shall put you out of the car.' And she didn't speak again.

"And the friend who told me this story said to her afterwards, 'Why do you let him speak to you like that?' And the queen replied, 'Well, you heard what he said -- he'd put me out of the car.'

"And he would!" said Brandreth.

There's no predicting what joke or gibe the notoriously imprudent duke might come up with in public -- although apparently, since arriving with the queen in Virginia on Thursday, he has kept his comments staid and proper.

After touring the State Capitol, Colonial Williamsburg and the historic Jamestown settlement, and attending yesterday's Kentucky Derby, the royal couple are scheduled to land at Andrews Air Force Base tonight for the final leg of their six-day U.S. visit.

They'll attend a state dinner in their honor at the White House tomorrow. On Tuesday, before departing for London, they'll visit Children's Hospital, the National World War II Memorial and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

And the whole time, the British reporters who cover the royals, the hypercompetitive Fleet Street scribes, will be "on gaffe alert," as they say, knowing the duke tends to shoot from the lip.

Portrayed as elitist and disdainful of public anger toward the monarchy in last year's Oscar-nominated film "The Queen," the duke likes to tease in a haughty way, likes to kid the commoners -- likes "to take the mickey out of them," as it were.

As reported in the British media:

Visiting a university in Manchester where a rocket was being built in 2001, the duke met 13-year-old schoolboy Andrew Adams, who said he wished he could ride the rocket into space. Replied Philip, "You'll have to lose weight if you want to go in that."

Chatting with aborigine leaders at a cultural park in Australia the next year, the duke was told the names of their tribes. "Djabugay, Yirrganydji -- what's it all about?" he asked. "Do you still throw spears at each other?"

Two months later, greeting a throng of well-wishers outside Exeter Cathedral, Philip paused to talk with a blind woman, Susan Edwards, 55, who had been waiting with her guide dog. Joked the duke, "Do you know they now do eating dogs for the anorexic?"

On and on goes the list.

"I genuinely don't think he intends to upset people," said veteran royals reporter Phil Dampier, co-author of "Duke of Hazard: The Wit and Wisdom of Prince Philip." It's a catalog of his public quips through the years, some outrageously inappropriate, even racist, others dryly clever.

"But there are times when he is over the top," Dampier said. "I mean, we've got a whole series in there, about four or five occasions, where he's taking the mickey out of people in wheelchairs."

You'd think he'd get a scolding from the royal missus -- but no, say observers of their marriage. What good would it do? He's a month shy of 86, a product of his time, and of privilege. No one's going to change him.

Besides, given their unending public schedule, the queen, tight-lipped by nature, is grateful for his chattiness, Brandreth said. "He keeps the show running . . . whereas Her Majesty is quite happy for silence to reign."

Lacey said the duke "does not go around to these toothachingly boring occasions, these official visits, saying, 'Oh, how interesting.' He never says that. He is always looking for trouble, always arguing: 'What does that mean? That doesn't make sense, does it?' . . . His solution to the tedium of royal routine is to throw himself into it, to stir things up."

As Brandreth put it, "The two words which come most readily to his lips are, 'Yes, but. . . .'" And in continually trying to enliven conversations, "he inevitably ends up saying the odd thing that's undiplomatic."

The queen is well used to it, her biographers said. Come November, she and Philip will have been married for 60 years.

They've known each other since childhood. Back then, her family in England and his in Greece -- and monarchs all over Europe, generations of kings, kaisers and czars -- were one big clan in a sense, related through intermarriage. So it's not unusual that Her Majesty and the duke are distant cousins, sharing a great-great-grandmother in Britain's Queen Victoria.

In July 1939, Prince Philip, nephew of a deposed Greek king, was an 18-year-old cadet at Britain's Royal Navy College, having lived in exile in Italy, France, England, Germany and Scotland. A distant uncle, Britain's King George VI, made an inspection visit to the college, arriving on the royal yacht with his 13-year-old daughter, nicknamed Lilibet. In the garden of the Captain's House, the young cousins played croquet.

The two had run into each other before, the way cousins do, at the usual family things: at her father's coronation, at the wedding of a duke and princess in Westminster Abbey. But not until they met at the college, on the eve of World War II, was the future queen smitten. "Lilibet later claimed it was love at first sight" for her that day, Brandreth said in his book.

She wrote to him during the war -- he was in the thick of naval fighting in the Mediterranean -- and they courted when he returned to England. The king gave him some titles before the wedding, made him Duke of Edinburgh, Baron Greenwich and Earl of Merioneth. When Lilibet ascended to the throne, Philip reluctantly retired from active naval service and assumed the role of full-time royal.

He is involved in dozens of charitable, cultural, sporting and civic endeavors. And of course you know about the kids and grandkids.

"They have a very interesting relationship," Brandreth said of the royal couple. "He's the only person in the world who can treat her like a normal woman. And he does. I mean, no one else is normal with her. There is an invisible moat around the queen at all times. That in mind, even her children will bow and curtsy to her."

What a life.

People always watching, always listening. Always gasping.

You can't joke to a driving instructor in Scotland, "How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to get them past the test?"

Can't ask the curator of the Cayman Islands National Museum, "Aren't most of you descended from pirates?"

Or maybe you can.

"When you think of what he's had to do for 60 years, it's quite amazing," Dampier said. "He's got to have some sense of humor to get through it all, hasn't he?"

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company