Book Reviews

Philip: The Final Portrait - Review

Gyles Brandreth's new book into the life of the Duke of Edinburgh pulls back the royal curtain just enough to finally understand the complexity of Britain's longest serving consort.

MAY 31st, 2021


Author: Gyles Brandreth

© Roger Taylor


fter the death of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, there was a renewed interest in the man who, for over 73 years, stood two steps behind his wife, Her Majesty The Queen. It is the unusual ritual we as human beings resort to when someone of public stature dies; we rekindle the need to know as much about their lives as possible - to understand what made them tick and why they were the person they became.

The great irony over this reaction, specifically when it surrounds the Duke of Edinburgh, is that he is one who would most likely be perplexed by the fascination in his life. The tragedies, triumphs, gaffs and wise words were never anything of historical significance to the Prince. “Just get on with it”, was the mantra with which he lived his life, one deemed very normal by the royal consort.

Book cover for Philip: The Final Portrait - © Coronet Publishings

Yet, Gyles Brandreth’s new biography on the Duke of Edinburgh - Philip: The Final Portrait, is a perfect reminder that the Duke’s life was anything but “normal”. From his traumatic childhood, to marrying the future Queen, Prince Philip’s life was one of groundbreaking, interesting and in some areas, hilarious events which history will look back on as defining moments in our great British Monarchy’s life.

Unlike some biographers, Brandreth knew the Duke personally, meeting him over 40 years ago through the National Playing Fields Association. And whilst their interactions were friendly, Gyles makes it adamantly clear that the Duke of Edinburgh consistently offered him “friendliness” but never “friendship”. It is this understanding which makes Gyles’ book all the more addictive to read: illuminating the world the Duke inhabited whilst never perpetuating he knows it all.

It is a fine rope to balance upon, the divide between public and private, and even more so when you are royalty, and although Gyles doesn’t navigate too close to the controversial sun, neither does he shy away from the more complex elements of Prince Philip’s life. Whether it be his family’s links to the Nazis, particularly through his sister’s marriages, the allegations of racism in his frequently reported “comments” made on engagements, or even the neverabating rumours of extramarital affairs - which have never been proven - Gyles probes each allegation fairly removing the urge to dramatise the scandal.

Although the title of the book is Philip: The Final Portrait, the biography spreads its literacy roots wider, stemming into the marriage between the Duke and his ‘Lilibet’, the Queen. The fascinating assessment made by Brandreth unfolds throughout the book, analysing the couple’s first meeting (long before the famed encounter of a 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth and an 18-year-old Prince Philip at Britannia Royal Naval College in 1939), their marriage, Philip’s less than enthusiastic welcome by the royal court, and ultimately their lives together as sovereign and her (unofficial) consort. Though this isn’t a dissection of the couple’s marriage - the longest in royal history - but an attempt to understand its longevity, its success and relevance to both the monarchy and history.

In this image, made available November 18, 2007, HM The Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh re-visit Broadlands, to mark their Diamond Wedding Anniversary on November 20. - © Tim Graham/GETTY

With flair and humour Brandreth pulls back the curtain just enough to see these two historical figures as more than the roles which have come to define them. There is an intimacy in the author’s writing which illuminates the Queen and Prince Philip’s lives together. We discover what makes them tick, their differences and similarities, the challenges they have faced and understanding of the order of all royal things.

For Prince Philip, whether it be his naval career or carriage riding, his royal duties or Duke of Edinburgh Award, it becomes clear that sitting still was not his way, similarly with the Queen. From the book it is evident that their lives together were so perfectly independent, yet poignantly intertwined.

Brandreth’s biography is a worthy analysis of the Prince, and one whereby the first and second draft’s of the book were read by the man himself. There were barely any edits, except for fact-based alterations, though the romantic flare by the author remained unchanged.

There are some wonderful anecdotes, joyous quips by the Duke, and a delicate look to the future after his death - with particular emphasis on the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, of whom Gyles claims has the unique star appeal of Princess Diana, The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh combined. But at its core, Philip: The Final Portrait is a conscious effort to celebrate and understand the legacy of a man whom many still see as far too complex.

However, complexity may be the boundary with which Brandreth attempts to scale, and he does so successfully, but what his book movingly reminds you is of the unique marriage and partnership between a Queen and her steadfast Prince. Always there, always serving, never complaining, never explaining - “just get on with it.”

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