11 April 2010

The Moonstruck Princess and Her Greek God: Part 1 of 2

A 13-year-old girl has a way of falling in love every other week. Introduce her to a dashing young prince and you will certainly set her heart fluttering. Make him tall, blonde, athletic and funny, and you will have created the perfect formula for a serious schoolgirl crush.

At least that was what Lord Louis Mountbatten was hoping when he helped make arrangements for King George VI and his family to visit Dartmouth Naval College in 1939. Mountbatten had a deep plan in mind when he chose which cadet would escort the 13-year-old heiress to the throne, Princess Elizabeth, and her younger sister, Margaret. So, it was Mountbatten’s nephew, 18-year-old Prince Philip of Greece, who spent the morning entertaining the princesses by playing with trains and jumping over tennis nets. Later that day, as the royal yacht departed, many of the cadets rowed out after it. Although most turned back, the boisterous Philip kept recklessly chasing until the irritated king made an officer order “the young fool” back to land. All the while, Elizabeth was watching her new hero through a pair of binoculars.

Philip, by his own admission, enjoyed the novelty of the day—he also dined with the royal family on the yacht—but he wasn’t moonstruck over his new admirer. At 13, Elizabeth was just too young to strike his fancy, but he may have been aware of his family’s dynastic ambitions for him.

Philip may have been born a prince, but he had hardly been raised in the kind of opulence one might expect for the grandson of the King of Greece. At that time—and frequently throughout its history—the Greek royal family was in political disgrace and financial ruin. It was also huge: Philip was the fifth child of the King’s seventh child. Greece had plenty of princes, maybe too many considering the political instability of the nation. Philip’s grandfather had been assassinated in 1913 and his uncle King Constantine I had been forced to abdicate because of his neutrality policy during World War I. The entire family was exiled but restored a few years later. Philip’s father, Prince Andrew, then saw service in the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922, during which he refused to lead his troops in an attack he thought was too reckless. When Greece suffered another coup d’etat in 1922, Andrew was arrested and found guilty of treason but was spared execution. He and his family fled aboard a British cruiser with few possessions. During the voyage, by some accounts, the infant Prince Philip was cradled in an orange crate.

Things were slightly less controversial on his mother’s side of the family. His mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, was the eldest daughter of minor German-born princeling whose parents had been married morganatically because of his mother’s status as a mere countess. Once his mother was finally promoted to Princess, Prince Louis of Battenberg became a serene highness (not a royal highness). He grew up in Germany but, encouraged by English cousins, he joined the British Royal Navy and became a naturalized British subject at age 14. For more than 40 years, he rose through navy ranks and, based on his own merits, eventually became First Sea Lord in 1912. Then, World War I broke out and the British government became embarrassed about the number of German royal relatives living in England, many of whom had been resident there all of their lives. The German-born First Seat Lord was forced to resign. Adding insult to injury, his family was forced to change its name to something more English sounding. Even King George himself had to change his family name, opting for Windsor. In the Battenbergs’ case, the change also signaled a demotion in status. No longer a prince or a serene highness, Louis became the Marquess of Milford Haven and his sons became the Earl of Medina and Lord Louis Mountbatten. (His daughters were not affected as they were each married to foreign princes and living abroad.)

After Prince Andrew’s banishment, his family moved about Europe, mostly living on the hospitality of their extended relations, but they were rarely together. By the time Philip was 10, his parents were permanently (though not legally) separated and all four of his older sisters were married to German princes. Philip bounced from sister to cousin to uncle and back, with jaunts at severe boarding schools and sun-filled holidays with numerous young cousins.

His mother’s younger brother, Lord Louis Mountbatten, took a particular interest in Philip and guided him toward Gordonstoun School in Scotland and then the British Royal Navy with an eye toward making him as English as possible and marrying him to Princess Elizabeth.

At first, Louis and his sister were at odds with this plan. Alice hoped that Philip might eventually gain the Greek throne. The continuing turbulence there inspired her to think her son might supersede the half dozen uncles and male cousins in front of him. Although she finally subscribed to Louis’ ambitions, there were more obstacles standing in Philip’s way.

Shortly after that fateful day at Dartmouth, World War II started and Greece became of puppet state of the Axis Powers. Plus, all of Philip’s German brothers-in-law were serving Hitler.

But, there was one power even more ominous than Hitler opposing the match: Elizabeth’s daddy.