Prince Philip’s mother, Alice, founded an order of nuns and his great aunt Ella (Grand Duchess Serge) was canonised as a Holy Martyr by the Russian Orthodox Church after her horrific murder by the Bolsheviks. Religion ran in his family, and it would play a central part in the prince’s own life, especially as he grew older.
Born in 1921 on the island of Corfu, Philip was baptised there as a baby in the Greek Orthodox rite. Soon after, the family fled a coup aboard a British warship sent by King George V, a first cousin of Philip’s father (Prince Andrew of Greece), who was anxious to atone for reneging on his promise to give sanctuary to their other mutual first cousin, Tsar Nicholas II.
After passing through Rome, where they thanked Pope Pius XI for helping to arrange their escape, Philip’s refugee family eventually settled on the outskirts of Paris at St Cloud, where his mother, still haunted by the deaths of her aunts Ella and Alix (the Tsarina) in Russia, became increasingly interested in spiritual matters. Her aunt Ella had founded a charitable convent in response to her husband’s murder during the October Revolution in 1905. Alice had later seen her aunt living there as an abbess, tending patients herself in the hospital wing, and it inspired her during the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 to set up her own frontline hospitals where she too became very hands-on, nursing soldiers with sometimes terrible wounds.
After the Second World War, during which she risked her life to hide a Jewish family from the Gestapo at home in German-occupied Athens, Alice would go on to found her own order of nuns, and she provided one of the more striking images at the Coronation in 1953 when she led her family out of Westminster Abbey in her full-length grey nun’s habit. After her death in 1969, she was eventually (19 years later) buried in accordance with her wishes alongside the remains of her Aunt Ella at the Garden of Gethsemane, in Jerusalem.
Prince Philip did not go out of his way
to open up about his own religious faith. “If I start talking about religion, the press will say I’m barking,” he told one biographer, Gyles Brandreth. His gradual anglicisation prior to marrying Princess Elizabeth included being received, in October 1947, into the Church of England in a private service at Lambeth Palace before the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, who had written to King George VI explaining that the Greek Church, “though on the closest and most friendly terms with us, is not able to enter into full communion with us”. He became a regular churchgoer with the Queen and described himself as “an ordinary Christian”, albeit giving the appearance of being rather less devout than his wife and certainly more fidgety during services, apt to take preachers to task for the sermons they’d just delivered and once, at Chichester Cathedral, surprising a bishop in the congregation by winking at him as he passed through the nave.
As a young man, Prince Philip came at religion and creation with an open mind. During the 1950s, he subscribed to Flying Saucer Review and told one prominent ufologist that “there are many reasons to believe that they [aliens and UFOs] exist. There is so much evidence from reliable witnesses.” He bade his equerry visit several such witnesses and a number were invited to Buckingham Palace to relate their experiences, as the equerry recalled, “in the presence of royalty, a method as effective as any truth serum”.
The prince’s interest in Christianity deepened under the guidance of Robin Woods – who became Dean of Windsor in 1962 and established a good rapport with all the royal family – the more so after Woods’s establishment of the religious conferences at St George’s House, Windsor, in 1966. The prince began to read widely on all aspects of religion, building up a library of more than 600 books on the subject. Prompted by Sir Fred Hoyle’s argument that the primeval molecules from which life on earth evolved had been transported from elsewhere in the universe, in the 1980s Philip began exchanging letters with a subsequent Dean of Windsor, Michael Mann, which were eventually published in 1984 as a short book, A Windsor Correspondence. The prince argued that the whole point of life was to make it better for future generations rather than to secure a good time in the after life. “I would prefer to follow [Christ’s] teaching because I am convinced that it is right, rather than a means of getting a better deal in Heaven. Furthermore I know about this world while I have to rely on my faith for a very incomplete understanding of the next.”
In Prince Philip’s mind, Christian faith was connected to questions to do with conservation and the environment. In another book (A Question of Balance, 1982) he argued that “religious conviction is the strongest and probably the only factor in sustaining the dignity and integrity of the individual”. He was widely admired for his dedication to interfaith dialogue, encouraging faith leaders to be “humble enough to learn from others”. An interfaith conference he organised at Assisi led to his acting as Pope John Paul II’s effective adviser on environmental matters.
The hymns and readings he chose for his funeral service adhered closely to the traditional Anglican liturgy, while also including two works commissioned by the prince himself – a setting of Psalm 104 by William Lovelady and the “Jubilate Deo” by Benjamin Britten. The “Russian Kontakion of the Departed”, sung at the end, was a reminder of his Orthodox roots.
Philip Eade is the author of Young Prince Philip (Collins, 2011)
This article appears in the May issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.