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Royal ruffler Philip turns 80

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 10, 2001

Britain's Prince Philip turns 80 today, but don't expect his mother-in-law to shower him with sweetness.

Although he's been part of the royal family for 54 years, it seems the Queen Mother still harbors such an intense dislike she calls him "the Hun." The two purportedly ignore each other when they pass on the stairs.

And don't be surprised if Philip's oldest son, Prince Charles, is also a bit subdued in his congratulatory comments. Charles is still smarting from recent reports that his father thinks he's too extravagant and flighty to be a good king.

Nor will a certain Nigerian leader be lavishing him with gifts. Philip took one glance at the man's long robes and blurted: "You look like you're ready for bed."

Yes, the Duke of Edinburgh, as he's formally known, has ruffled several thousand feathers during his career as royal consort. Rude, arrogant, stubborn, hot-tempered -- Philip can be all of that.

But in a family that seems to grind up and spit out spouses -- look at Diana, Fergie, the Duchess of Windsor -- Philip has not only survived but managed to play an important role while maintaining his own crotchety independence. That shouldn't be too surprising, given a character-forging background of deprivation and war.

An only son, Philip was born into an even more dysfunctional family than the one he would later join through marriage. His mother, sister of Britain's legendary Earl Mountbatten, was committed to a mental institution. His ne'er-do-well father, an officer in the Greek army, was imprisoned and exiled for his part in a disastrous military defeat by the Turks.

Philip attended boarding school and floated around among various relatives during summers and holidays. At times he was so broke he had to stay inside on rainy days, telling classmates he was saving money for a raincoat. But he shunned pity and instead developed the aggressive personality he still displays.

"He was very pugnacious and the other children were scared to death of him," his sister, Margarita, recalled in London's Daily Mail.

At secondary school in Germany, Philip's Aryan good looks belied his contempt for the Nazis. He compared their salute "to a small boy asking to be excused to go the lavatory," one biographer wrote, and loaned his cap to a Jewish student whose head had been shaved by anti-Semites. When the headmaster, himself a Jew, left for England, Philip followed.

During World War II, he served in the Royal Navy where he was distinguished as much by his active social life as his military adventures. His paramours included socialites and even some of his own glamorous cousins.

But it was the shy Elizabeth he decided to wed, to her mother's dismay. The Queen Mother distrusted Philip's ambitious uncle, Earl Mountbatten, and hated Philip's German relatives. She found Philip abrasive and humorless.

Nonetheless, Philip renounced his Greek citizenship, took the last name Mountbatten and married Elizabeth on Nov. 20, 1947.

To the surprise of many, it's been a durable marriage strengthened by rows and compromises. The queen, bowing to her mother's demands, gave their children the last name of Windsor instead of Mountbatten, as Philip wanted. However, Elizabeth aceded to her husband's insistence that Charles, the first born, break with royal tradition and be educated in a regular school instead of tutored in the palace.

Although Philip has no constitutional role, the queen is said to greatly value his advice.

Aware that many Britons would like to abolish the monarchy, Philip has also tried to rein in some of its excesses. He dislikes royal protocol -- "don't "highness' me," he says -- and reportedly keeps an electric skillet in his quarters to make his own breakfast. His relative frugality puts him at further odds with the Queen Mother, who at age 100 continues to spend so lavishly she, at one, point ran up a $6-million overdraft.

But in other regards Philip is a traditionalist who has tried to maintain the royal dignity. Initially smitten with daughters-in-law Diana Spencer and Sarah Ferguson, he turned on them when he felt they had disgraced the family. (He so dislikes Ferguson that he reportedly has vowed she will never remarry Prince Andrew.)

"Concern about the damage that might be done to the "firm' is always uppermost in his mind," according to London's Sunday Times. "Two years ago he lambasted Charles in front of family and guests for accepting a free Mediterranean holiday" from a Greek shipping tycoon.

Through the years, Philip has made nearly 600 official trips to 140 countries. He is president emeritus of the World Wildlife Fund and started a charity for young people that predated Charles' better-known Prince's Trust. (The dueling charities are said to be one cause of conflict between them.)

Today, Philip will celebrate his birthday at Windsor castle with his family and 450 guests.

"It is unlikely that a memorial will be erected in his honor," the Sunday Times said of Philip. "If it ever is, perhaps it should have inscribed on it what he himself wrote in a visitor's book in Australia in 1946: "Wither the storm carries me, I go -- a willing guest."

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