‘Charles is a romantic. I’m a pragmatist. And THAT’s the difference between us’: GYLES BRANDRETH reveals what Prince Philip said as he tried to explain his impatience with his sensitive son
One summer, Prince Philip was presented with a birthday present of three pairs of carriage-driving gloves. He unwrapped the parcel and inspected the gift.
The first pair of gloves were a light tan colour. The duke sniffed approvingly. The second pair were dark tan. ‘Thank you very much,’ he said.
The third pair were a pale lilac colour. He held them up disdainfully between his thumb and forefinger and said: ‘I think we’ll give these to the Prince of Wales.’
I was there when he said this — and his biting sarcasm came as no surprise. By the late Eighties, he often gave the impression that he wished his first-born were more robust and less fey.
More seriously, there were periods when he regarded Charles as self-indulgent, self-regarding and naïve. Indeed, the Duke of Edinburgh’s disdain for his eldest son was all the more shocking because he made little or no attempt to hide it.
Once, boldly, I challenged him. I told Prince Philip that, having met them both, I was struck, not by the differences between him and Charles, but by their similarities.
I mentioned their gait, their body language, the joshing humour, their moments of pigheadedness, their shared enthusiasms (nature conservancy, painting, poetry, comparative religion).
And I said: ‘You’re clearly peas from the same pod, you’re so similar.’
The duke interrupted me: ‘With one great difference. He’s a romantic — and I’m a pragmatist. That means we do see things differently.’
He paused and shrugged, adding — with a slightly despairing laugh — ‘and because I don’t see things as a romantic would, I’m unfeeling’.
He was being sarcastic, of course.
Prince Charles chats with his father Prince Philip in the drawing room at Sandringham
Lady Kennard, who knew him well, said to me: ‘He just can’t resist coming out with these personal remarks. He can’t stop himself. He’s at his worst with Charles, but he could be quite sarcastic with Anne too, you know.’
Was this all Philip’s fault? Did he, in some senses, fail as a father to Charles?
In the early 1990s, Charles co-operated with the broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby on a television film and biography. These revealed that Charles had been a profoundly unhappy child. As he was growing up, he said, he’d felt ’emotionally estranged’ from both parents, craving ‘the affection and appreciation’ that they were either ‘unable or unwilling’ to offer.
The Queen and the duke were appalled by the Dimbleby book. For a start, they couldn’t see how their son’s indiscretions or special pleading could possibly serve his cause, or that of the Royal Family.
Like father, like daughter… ‘a tomboy who presented no problems at all’
Princess Anne is like her father. From her, you’ll never hear a complaint of any kind about her upbringing.
As Philip’s cousin Patricia Mountbatten said, with a dry laugh: ‘Anne, of course, as a natural tomboy, presented no problems.’
The Princess’s first husband, Mark Phillips, was from solidly middle-class stock, and an outstanding horseman, if a little unexciting. He sired two fine bipeds, but the marriage foundered. Prince Philip said to me at the time: ‘What can you do? It isn’t easy. She tried to make it work. She really did.’
In December 1992, the Princess Royal married Commander Timothy Laurence, RN, the naval son of a naval father. He, too, is from solidly middle-class stock, and a little unexciting, but brighter and more determined than he looks.
But I got the impression from Prince Philip that his daughter’s second marriage has not been a bed of roses. Once, at a charity lunch, the duke told me that Anne and her husband were having a ‘rocky patch’. He paused. ‘You’re married — you know how it is?’
‘I do,’ I said. We’d only just taken our places, and now food was being served.
He turned to the middle- aged woman who was seated between us.
‘As a rule, I try to keep out of these things,’ Prince Philip explained.
‘But you want to help,’ said the woman, who had married children of her own.
‘Yes,’ said the duke, contemplating his starter, ‘but I don’t know what to say — except: ‘Keep going, it will work out. With good will on both sides, it usually does.’
He sighed. ‘Children.’
But they were also deeply hurt by their son’s public complaints about the quality of their parenting. ‘I tried to be a good father. We did our best,’ was all that Prince Philip would say to me about this.
Personally, I was on the duke’s side on this one — though he certainly hadn’t been above reproach. Charles may have whinged about his childhood, but Philip could rarely resist firing cheap shots at his son’s expense.
Indeed, he did it all the time. It became a habit.
So when did their relationship start to go wrong? Certainly, the Queen and Philip’s recollection of Charles’s childhood was rather different from his own: they had memories of fun and games, bath-times, story-telling, picnics and bonfires, laughter not tears.
During the summer holidays, the duke recalled, he often took Charles and Anne cruising in his yacht Bloodhound — ‘good times, happy days,’ he said.
True, he and the Queen didn’t spend as much time with their children as they may have liked — but that was because Elizabeth was heir to the throne and Philip was a serving officer in the Royal Navy. Servicemen and their families often have to be apart.
He shrugged. ‘It’s the way it was. It’s the way it is,’ he told me.
In any case, Elizabeth saw her young children as much as any aristocratic mother of her generation — and more, perhaps, than many busy working mothers today. To this day, she believes that she did her best to balance her responsibilities — as a princess and monarch, a mother and wife — though, as Philip told me: ‘It hasn’t always been easy.’
In November 1953, for instance, the royal couple embarked on a five-and-a-half month Commonwealth tour. Charles and Anne, aged five and three, were left behind.
Even so, Prince Philip reminded me, his son was far from being neglected or unloved: whenever he wasn’t with his parents, he was with doting nurses and his adoring granny, the Queen Mother.
According to Gina Kennard, who saw a lot of the Royal Family in the Fifties, the duke ‘played with his children . . . he was very involved.’ By all accounts, he was good with babies and small children. ‘They like him and he likes them,’ is what Countess Mountbatten, the duke’s first cousin, told me. ‘No question about it, Philip was a very good father to his children when they were young.’
Even non-curtseying Cherie Blair, whose son Leo was two when the Blairs went to stay at Balmoral, was impressed. ‘I have to say that both the Queen and Prince Philip are really, really good with little children,’ she said to me. ‘You couldn’t fault them.’
During the Blairs’ visit, it was evident that the duke had taken a real shine to Leo. Once, the little boy proudly sang him the first verse of the national anthem — and Philip sang him the second.
For Charles, however, the jolly sing-songs and boating trips seemed to come to an end when he was sent to his first boarding school, Cheam. It was the loneliest period of his life, he said later.
He loathed his next school, Gordonstoun in Scotland — chosen by Philip — even more. ‘It’s absolute hell,’ he wrote home.
Prince Charles in the arms of her mother, the then Princess Elizabeth and his father, Prince Philip
‘It’s near Balmoral,’ his father told him. ‘There’s always the Factor [estate manager] there. You can go and stay with him. And your grandmother goes up there to fish. You can go and see her.’
Charles did indeed seek comfort from family retainers. He was close to his nannies and to his governess, Catherine Peebles, known as ‘Mipsy’. She recalled how sensitive and tentative he was as a small boy: ‘If you raised your voice to him, he’d draw back into his shell, and for a time you’d be able to do nothing with him.’
But, as his father knew, Charles’s chief comforter was the Queen Mother. She was a doting grandmother who always gave her favourite grandson an understanding shoulder to cry on and a warm bosom to embrace. She made him feel that she understood him in a way that his parents didn’t.
‘He is a very gentle boy,’ she said, ‘with a very kind heart, which I think is the essence of everything.’
Why he forgave Sophie’s tabloid blunder
In the spring of 2001, a Sunday newspaper ran an embarrassing story about Sophie, Countess of Wessex. She’d been the victim of a sting set up by the News of the World, and her reported remarks to an undercover reporter were unfortunate, to say the least.
She referred to the Queen as ‘the old dear’ and described the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles as ‘No 1 on the unpopular people list’, only likely to be married after the death of ‘the old lady’ (the Queen Mother).
Most damagingly, she let slip that, while her PR company’s prestige and royal connections were not officially for hire, ‘that is an unspoken benefit’. Despite all this, Prince Philip — and the Queen — immediately forgave her. Why?
‘She was ‘set up’,’ said the duke. ‘It was entrapment.’
It also helped that Sophie’s husband, Prince Edward, seemingly a bit wet and a tad irritating to the rest of us, had always been his parents’ favourite. That became apparent in 1987 when Edward, aged 22, opted out of the Royal Marines when he was just a third of the way through his basic training.
To the surprise of some, Prince Philip (Captain-General of the Royal Marines) didn’t come down on his son like a ton of bricks. He accepted that the Marines ‘wasn’t right for Edward’ — and, to this day, Edward is grateful for that.
Edward was always close to his father.
And now that Prince Philip has died, it is Prince Edward who will eventually become the Duke of Edinburgh.
By his teens, Charles seemed to regard his father as a bully, and his mother as distant.
He still talks about the mortifying day when his father came to Gordonstoun to watch him play the title role in the school production of Macbeth — and laughed.
‘It was the ‘Scottish play’,’ remembered Charles. ‘I had to lie on a huge, fur rug and have a nightmare. My parents came and watched, along with other parents. I lay there and thrashed about and all I could hear was my father and ‘ha, ha, ha.’ I went up to him afterwards and said, ‘Why did you laugh?’ and he said, ‘It sounds like The Goons.’
The adolescent Charles bruised easily. As Gina Kennard reflected, ‘When he was a little boy, there didn’t seem to be a problem at all. But, as he was growing up, I think probably the Queen was too tolerant, and Prince Philip too tough.’
Countess Mountbatten, godmother to Charles, told me: ‘You can see it from both sides, can’t you? A resilient character such as Prince Philip, toughened by the slings and arrows of life, who sees being tough as a necessity for survival, wants to toughen up his son — and his son is very sensitive. It hasn’t been easy for them.’
By his 20s, Charles had grown very close to her own father — his great-uncle Dickie Mountbatten— who counselled him to have as many affairs as he could before marrying a virgin. Mountbatten even lent him his home — Broadlands, in Hampshire — for romantic trysts with Camilla Shand (later Mrs Parker Bowles).
After the earl was assassinated by the IRA in 1979, Charles pointedly referred to him as ‘infinitely special’ and the one man in his life who combined the roles of ‘grandfather, great-uncle, father, brother and friend’.
Prince Philip admired Mountbatten, too. But I got the distinct impression that he regarded the relationship between his uncle and his son as somewhat self-indulgent on both their parts.
As time passed, Philip readily acknowledged many of the Prince of Wales’s achievements — but he left it to the Queen to sing their son’s praises publicly.
P rivately, though, she grumbled about her eldest son’s extravagance. Even now, Charles has a lifestyle — and a way of spending money — that is more akin to his maternal grandmother’s than to his parents’.
The Queen is reported to have said: ‘The amount of kit and staff he takes about — it’s obscene.’
Naturally, both she and Philip were deeply dismayed when Charles’s marriage fell apart, not to mention those of Princess Anne and Prince Andrew.
Three failed marriages out of four was an unfortunate statistic for any family.
Had the Queen and Philip simply been unlucky?
An exclusive picture of the Prince of Wales acting in the dagger scene as ‘Macbeth’ in the Gordonstoun School production of the Shakespeare play
I talked about all this with Margaret Rhodes, a cousin of the Queen. She has a countrywoman’s values and a beady eye.
‘I’ve seen Philip being absolutely sweet with his children’s babies,’ she told me, ‘absolutely sweet.’ She paused and sighed. ‘But with their own children, it hasn’t been easy. There’s no use denying it. Things have gone slightly awry with Prince Charles, although he’s very conscientious, very committed. He works so hard.’
Mrs Rhodes lit a cigarette and looked at me. ‘It’s incredibly sad,’ she said. ‘It’s a fractured family. Philip can’t bring himself to be close with Charles. Perhaps you don’t learn to give love if you haven’t had love.’
We talked for a while about Prince Philip’s childhood in Britain, and the years when he barely saw — or heard from — either of his parents.
But what about the Queen, I asked. Her own childhood was very loving, wasn’t it? Mrs Rhodes pondered for a moment. ‘The Queen was always reserved, even as a child. And when she became Queen, that did add to her reserve, very definitely.
‘But you’re right. The King adored both his daughters. And Queen Elizabeth was brimming with love.’
The relationship between Charles and his father did finally change for the better. In 2012, 20 years on from the Dimbleby documentary, the Prince of Wales made a film broadcast at the start of the Jubilee weekend. It was a tribute to his mother, illustrated with ‘home movies’ from the early years.
These revealed them to be loving, affectionate parents. Charles spoke of them both with unfeigned affection.
A couple of days later, the duke was admitted to hospital. So he wasn’t at the Jubilee concert at Buckingham Palace that night when the Prince of Wales began to speak.
His speech, in which he saluted his mother, was warm, witty and well-judged. The crowd cheered almost every phrase — but they positively roared when Prince Charles asked them to cheer for his father.
In the Mall on that wet and windy Monday night, a quarter of million people started chanting, ‘Philip, Philip, Philip!’ A mile away, in his hospital bed, the old duke watched the scene unfold on television. And, as he told me later, he was deeply touched.
- Philip: The Final Portrait by Gyles Brandreth will be published by Coronet at £25 on April 27. © 2021 Gyles Brandreth. To order a copy for £22 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Delivery charges may apply. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. Promotional price valid until April 24, 2021.
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