23 November 2008

Mountbatten's Best Matchmaking

From Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Emperor, by Alex von Tunzelmann (Picador, 2008), pp. 156-158, 162:
Since he had returned from Southeast Asia Mountbatten had engaged himself almost full time in a project worthy of the Order of the Red Rose. In one of the most daring bloodless coups ever attempted, he would install the House of Mountbatten on the British throne—the same throne which, only thirty years before, had ordered his father's ruin. Mountbatten's involvement in the marriage between his nephew, Philippos Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Gl├╝cksburg, and the king's daughter, Princess Elizabeth, can hardly be overstated. He introduced the couple, engineered meetings between them and went to great lengths in grooming Philip to become a consort.

Philip's credentials for marrying the world's most eligible woman were tenuous. His father was a playboy who had disappeared into the champagne bars of the Cote d'Azur; his mother, abandoned, had gone mad and become a nun; his sisters had all married Nazis; he himself was only a naval lieutenant, and a penniless one at that. He had been a prince of Greece before a coup ousted his family, but the revolution had left him poor and nameless. He met Princess Elizabeth for the first time on 22 July 1939, when the royal family visited the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth under the proud supervision of Dickie Mountbatten. Philip was eighteen years old; Elizabeth was thirteen and playing with a clockwork train. Their eyes met over lemonade and ginger biscuits, and Philip was among the cadets invited to lunch on the royal yacht. There he impressed the princesses by being able to jump high and eat an abnormal quantity of shrimp, though not simultaneously. When the time came for the yacht to sail, the cadets followed in rowboats and motorboats for a while; Elizabeth watched the tall, blond, strikingly handsome Philip row his little boat farther than anyone else.

Less than eighteen months after the smitten Princess Elizabeth had watched her handsome quasi prince rowing after the royal yacht, the Conservative MP Chips Channon spent a few days in Athens. He met Philip at a cocktail party and, during the course of extensive gossiping, established that "he is to be our Prince Consort, and that is why he is serving in our Navy." At this stage the prospect seemed improbable. The Greek royals were impoverished, shabby and foreign. It was Dickie who organized a campaign to fashion young Philip into an eligible naval hero. The most important factor in this transformation would be to secure for him British nationality. For some reason, no one—not even the genealogically preoccupied Mountbatten—remembered the 1705 Act of Naturalization of the Most Excellent Princess Sophia, Electress and Duchess Dowager of Hanover, and the Issue of Her Body. As a descendant of Sophia, Philip had been British since birth. Unaware of this, Mountbatten embarked upon a frenetic two-and-a-half-year campaign. On 23 August 1944, he flew from Southeast Asia Command to Cairo, near Philip's station at Alexandria, to "sound out" Philip and the king of Greece about whether the former could assume British nationality. He told the British high commissioner, incredibly, that the British king had ordered his secret mission, on the grounds that Philip could "be an additional asset to the British Royal Family and a great help to them in carrying out their royal functions." In fact, the king had already warned Mountbatten off: "I have been thinking the matter over since our talk and I have come to the conclusion that we are going too fast," he had written to him two weeks before. Soundings were taken; they were, apparently, satisfactory; Mountbatten was on the plane back to Karachi that same afternoon.

In October 1945, the matter of Philip's naturalization came before the cabinet. Attlee postponed any further discussion owing to the undesirability of aligning the British government with the Greek royalist cause. But by then the teenage Princess Elizabeth was playing "People Will Say We're in Love" from the musical Oklahoma! nonstop on her gramophone; and Philip had been seen helping her with a fur wrap at the wedding of Mountbatten's daughter Patricia. Mountbatten moved quickly, making personal appointments with the king, the prime minister and the foreign secretary, while expending considerable effort in enlightening his media contacts about Philip's gallantry. "Please, I beg of you, not too much advice in an affair of the heart," Philip wrote to his uncle, "or I shall be forced to do the wooing by proxy."...

On the evening of 18 March 1947, Dickie and Edwina [Mountbatten] held a farewell reception at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall. It was a double celebration for them. That very morning, Mountbatten had secured a great victory, signaled by an announcement of the superfluous naturalization of Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, RN, in the London Gazette. He had planned to call his nephew "HRH Prince Philip." Philip preferred to start again as a commoner, but it is hard to imagine that Dickie had nothing to do with his choice of surname. "Most people think that Dickie's my father anyway," Philip later acknowledged. With Philip's engagement to the heiress presumptive soon to be announced, the House of Mountbatten was now right at the front of the line for the British throne.

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