Prince Philip, the monarchy, and the precariousness of crowns

10th April 2021

One of the more wonderful rabbit-holes on the internet is to start with one Wikipedia page and to then click and click and to see where it takes you.

And so yesterday, as an exercise, I started with the page of Prince Philip, whose death has been announced, and clicked to find out more about his royal and noble ancestors.

Going down the direct father-to-father line by itself takes you back to Elimar I, Count of Oldenburg (1040-1112), via such splendid fellows as these:




According to Wikipedia, at least, these are the direct forefathers of Philip and thereby of princes Charles, William, and George.

Of course, few will be certain that all this is the case as a matter of historical and biological fact – we are going on secondary historical sources at best.

And, of course, you can back click through the mothers instead, or a combination of fathers and mothers, and so on.

But two things become obvious, whichever way you click.

First, some of the noble and royal families of Europe have been around as noble and royal families for a very long time.

And second, those noble and royal families have often adapted and evolved, as has the nature of lordship and kingship – but sometimes those families do not adapt and do not survive, which is also in the nature of lordship and kingship.


When we get to Philip’s paternal grandfather we have a seventeen-year old second son of a king of Denmark who was somehow elected king of Greece in 1863.

Then Philip’s father – the fourth son of this almost-accidental king of Greece – was, in turn, exiled, court-martialled and then banished from Greece, and was to live in Vichy France and to die in Monaco.

Previous posts on this blog (here and here) have emphasised that for Queen Elizabeth the crown is precarious.

Her grandfather – who was king when she was born – had been crowned king of Great Britain and Ireland, as well as emperor of India and the other dominions.

But as a child and teenager she saw her uncle forced to abdicate, the United Kingdom forced re-invent itself with Irish independence, and the forced conversion of the empire into a commonwealth.

One suspects that the Queen does not take the crown for granted.

The same, one suspects, was also true of Philip.

Within the previous two generations of his own family, crowns had almost-literally come and gone, and he spent his childhood being quickly moved from one place to another.

Elsewhere in Europe, royal reigns and noble privileges and monarchical systems were abruptly coming to an end, and overseas empires were collapsing.

When Elizabeth became Queen in 1952, there was no particular reason to think that the United Kingdom or the crown itself was especially stable or sustainable.

And it is perhaps only with hindsight that it now looks ‘inevitable’ that both the United Kingdom and crown have continued to the current day.

But against the history of the seventy years before 1952, such stability and continuity is unusual in European terms rather than the norm.

And a good part of that is because the slow and quiet reinvention of the crown under Elizabeth and Philip – which was not perfect, but it did mean that the crown and the royal family continued generally to have high public support and largely avoided partisan political controversy.


The next generation of the royal family, as with the politicians currently with the charge of governing the United Kingdom, do not – and cannot – have this same sense of anxious fragility as the generation of the Queen and her late husband.

And as such, things will be taken for – and as – granted.

For them, turmoil and reversals are the exception – rather than the norm.

But history is often not like that for more than one or two generations in succession.


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12 thoughts on “Prince Philip, the monarchy, and the precariousness of crowns”

  1. If the Prince of Wales suggested intention to be James III and not Charles III is some indication of a fundamental crisis of a faith, perhaps even of a desire not to be in communion with the Church of England; to not swear to preserve the established Church of England and the established Church of Scotland as well as to not promise to uphold the Protestant succession then constitutional law might cease to be boring, again, quite soon.

    Our 99p Shop Winston Churchill tribute act might well get to dis-inter one of the more discreditable and thus less memorable items from his hero’s back catalogue, being potentially on the wrong side of a Succession Crisis.

    If there was a Prime Minister to whom a prospective monarch, undergoing a crisis of conscience might not wish to turn then Boris Johnson must be such a one.

    Intriguingly, the Palace confirmed the death of the Duke of Edinburgh to the Evening Standard (who tipped the newspaper off?) before then issuing their own announcement of his demise.

    One is reminded of the news management that is supposed to have accompanied the passing of George V.

    1. The “James III” point doesn’t seem quite right on all sorts of levels:
      – it has unfortunate associations with James II
      – the lowest available number for any future “King James” might appear to be VIII –
      – there has already been a James III/VIII in the Jacobite succession
      More seriously, not swearing the accession oath [concerning the Church of Scotland] would mean no Accession:
      [e.g. 1: could one be said to have undergone “Coronation” without having sworn the coronation oath? The requirements are for each oath to be sworn “at” (rather then eg “upon”) the stated point-in-time. 2: “The Sovereign takes an Oath to observe the establishment of the Church in Scotland before he is declared King. He takes this Oath before the Privy Council”- Arthur Steel-Maitland, M.P. (inaugural chairman of the Conservative Party in 1911) – .
      The present Queen wasn’t proclaimed as such anywhere in the UK until after she had returned from Kenya and taken the accession oath on 8 February 1952.

  2. “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
    And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
    How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
    Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
    Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
    All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
    That rounds the mortal temples of a king
    Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
    Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
    Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
    To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
    Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
    As if this flesh which walls about our life,
    Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
    Comes at the last and with a little pin
    Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!”

    Act 3, Scene 2, Shakespeare, Richard II

  3. “The next generation of the royal family, as with the politicians currently with the charge of governing the United Kingdom, do not – and cannot – have this same sense of anxious fragility as the generation of the Queen and her late husband.”

    I’m not so sure. You have referred to the reinvention by Elizabeth and Philip of the Crown, yet that has not protected it from social progress, divorce, and scandal. There is a widespread tolerance of the current monarch because she (wisely) kept her own counsel, while setting a model of behaviour that is hard to fault. Philip benefitted from this, and his foibles and bloopers were laughed off by a public as much out of respect for his wife as anything else.

    The children, though, have been less discreet than the mother (generally), and as gaffe-prone as their father. Things that would, in the past, have led to lives in opulent seclusion have been tolerated in this generation (as much out of respect for their mother as for any other reason, I suspect) – but they have also been noted.

    Elizabeth has been a model monarch, and for most of us she has been there throughout our lives. It has quite rightly been referred to as a golden era. I am, however, not sure that her successors can entirely rely on her reputation for their own survival*. We’ll see.

    [*As monarchs, I mean – I’m not anticipating a revolution à la Cromwell.]

  4. “And a good part of that is because the slow and quiet reinvention of the crown under Elizabeth and Philip – which was not perfect, but it did mean that the crown and the royal family continued generally to have high public support and largely avoided partisan political controversy….”

    A very good point indeed.

    The thing about HM Queen and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh is the sheer longevity of the roles that each have played and HM Queen continues to play.

    Let’s not forget the Queen has accepted under the ‘oath of office’ some 14 Prime Minister’s – that is ,in anybody’s terms, is very good going, and, maybe one we are not likely to see going forward in the future.

    From a historical viewpoint, one could quite easily say that the Queen and Prince Philip have given the Monarchy a stable base upon which Charles and, more so, William have the potential to build. I do wonder if the public are aligned with the same vision?

  5. Prince Phillip of course was a Mountbatten or more correctly a Battenberg. He was not an only child, in fact he had four sisters, one whom died relatively young in an aircrash. They had all married Germans, but as far as the world was concerned, judging from what generally hears of the Royal family, Prince Phillip could have been an orphan.

    The Royal families of Europe almost without exception are all related and many of them were of German origin. Queen Victoria royal offsprings in particular were spread far and wide over the Continent.

    In the case of England, the Elector of Hanover, was invited to became the King George I, while in more recent time Mary of Teck, if I am not mistaken, was also German speaking and she became the wife of King George V.

    Is it not time, some 76 years after the conclusion of the Second World War, to give greater acknowledgement to the German side of the family? Yes, some of Phillip’s sister’s husbands were involved with the Nazis, but them probably the vast majority of Germans were to a lesser or greater degree. No less than King Edward VIII, seemly was also infatuated with the Nazis at the time. (Ironically Edward was to be banished to France for daring to marry a divorced woman, while today divorce is almost the norm amongst the Royals).

    In short their are strong blood ties with Germany. Perhaps time to put the past behind and better acknowledge the Battenberg line of descendants on the other side of the Channel.

    1. He was only a Mountbatten after a change of name – he had been Phillip Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, a splendid name that emphasises your point that much of British royalty has German origins. Schleswig-Holstein gives us, of course, a question notoriously ill-understood, and Sonderburg is now Sønderborg, a charming town in the south of Denmark.

  6. The UK does not have the power to make changes in the monarchy without the agreement of the other realms (for an obscure reason maybe not Papua New Guinea). Abolition would pose difficult constitutional problems in Canada (the monarchy is constitutionally super duper entrenched). You might call this situation – the empire strikes back.

  7. I suspect there is rather a lot to be said about Prince Philip and his influence on the development of the monarchy behind the scenes (and perhaps differences of views between Philip and his wife) but it might have to wait a decent period for the historians to get to work.

    I must admit, on Thursday, I didn’t know much about Philip’s early life – becoming a refugee as a babe in arms, carried away from his home in a fruit box; growing up as an exile in France in the 1920s and 1930s, although admittedly not in poverty due to their family connections, in a household speaking English, French and German (later riposting, when Jean Chrétien noted Philip spoke good French for an Englishman, that he was speaking French before Chrétien was born); schools in France, Germany and then Scotland (Kurt Hahn was Jewish, spoke publicly against Hitler, and fled from Nazi Germany in 1933: Philip moved from Hahn’s school in Germany to Gordonstoun). His early experiences must have had a lasting influence on his outlook.

    This is not the time for it, but at some point there may be interesting things to say about the influence of his uncle Louis (who it seems introduced Philip to Elizabeth by asking him to escort her and her young sister when they visited Devonport), and about Philip’s sisters and the men they married (for good reason, they did not attend the wedding).

  8. Among the various places on YouTube which are garnering sympathetic comments at this time is the upload of a suitable hymn at (under title “English Patriotic Song – I Vow to Thee, My Country”, by YouTube user “AgtfCZ”, from 2017-04-30). Those of us, from whatever country, who value public service and the positive aspects of European tradition might enjoy listening to it.

    I would additionally like to place on record my admiration for the late Duke’s naval record. In the various biographical notes appearing on the Web this week is the assertion, seemingly from some informed source, that he was so good as to have been potentially capable of rising, on his own unaided merits, to the level of First Sea Lord. The assertion arguably has plausibility, since he ranked first in his cohort at Dartmouth, achieved First Lieutenant (in the war) when still notably young, and was mentioned in despatches from Matapan.


    Toomas Karmo
    (in Nõo Rural Municipality, Estonia)

    1. I don’t doubt that Philip was a talented military leader, with intelligence and courage and charisma, but the prospect that he might have risen to First Sea Lord simply “on his own merits” should be viewed in a context where his grandfather had served as First Sea Lord just before the First World War, as did his uncle in the 1950s.

      Compare the career trajectories his near-contemporaries Terence Lewin and Henry Leach: both naval cadets shortly before the outbreak of war, who served with distinction, and each became First Sea Lord in the late 1970s (the latter in office during the Falklands War, which invites a counterfactual “what if”).

  9. In the 1590s, a book, The Conference on the Next Succession, caused a massive scandal. Although the name of the author is given as Doleman, the leading figure in its composition was Jesuit Robert Parsons or Persons – a former fellow of Balliol College Oxford. The title was sufficient to cause Queen Elizabeth I to summon her rack master.

    This is a rather important book in the development of English political philosophy. It argues (citing numerous precedents including the deposition of Richard II in 1399) that the bond between monarch and subjects was the coronation oath and (contrary to Suarez) breach of the oath by the sovereign absolved subjects from their obligations. This position was attacked by Sir Robert Filmer in Patriarchia which in turn stimulated Locke. Parsons’ arguments for the Papal potestas and his general approach also stimulated Hobbes – most of the Leviathan is a sustained attack on the Jesuit’s political theory. (Some of Parsons’ works were in the Cavendish library at Hardwick, where Hobbes was tutor; copies of the Conference were also in the main Paris libraries – Hobbes was the first to flee the civil war to Paris and it is there he wrote Leviathan)

    Directly relevant to this article is Parsons’ demonstration that neither Henry VII nor Henry VIII nor Elizabeth (and therefore not James VI of Scotland whose claim to the English throne rested on descent from the house of Tudor) had a good claim to be heirs of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. The heir of Lancaster according to Parsons was Philip II of Spain.

    Parsons did not challenge the claim of Henry VIII to be heir of York. Henry VII had been very efficient in suppressing all copies of Titulus Regulus, the Act of 1483 proclaiming Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville void thus making Henry VIII’s mother Elizabeth illegitimate. Nor it seems had Parsons heard the Blaybourne story. When Louis XI of France (“the Universal Spider”) wanted to taunt Edward, he called him Blaybourne. Blaybourne was an English archer who was part of the army led to France in 1441 by Richard Duke of York who took Duchess Cecily with him . While Richard was laying siege to Pontoise he left his wife at Rouen where the eminently fit Blaybourne also remained. There were later suggestions that a party had rather got out of hand and the result was the future Edward IV.

    If these stories were true, then Prince Philip may have provided something rather valuable to Prince Charles and his heirs. To see this, we need to go back to the emergence of the English kingdom as a single entity in 927. From that year Aethelstan was recognised as King of the English – his grandfather Alfred the Great had only been King of the West Saxons, a title Aethesltan had held from 924. Lesser kings in the isles acknowledged his supremacy as ruler of all Britain – see for instance the Anglo Saxon chronicle.

    Although Aelthstan had no children, numerous female members of his family married into European royal houses. No comparable dynasty building happened before the reign of Queen Victoria. An ingenious genealogist might therefore be able to demonstrate that Prince Philip and therefore his descendants have an unshakeable claim to be descendants of King Alfred the Great and heirs of Aethelstan who centuries before James VI of Scotland became James I of England or Queen Anne gave the Royal Assent to the Act of Union was acknowledged ruler of Britain, not just England

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