Tuppenceworth on Prince Philip

The Royal Family isn’t something I think about much, to be honest, and I don’t have strongly royalist or republican views. The only thing that gives me pause is, in the event of the UK becoming a republic, who would we get as President? Tony Blair? David Beckham? Shami Chakrabarti? And if it was just Scotland? The old men from ‘Still Game’? I think, on balance, I’d rather have the Queen as Head of State, though….thinking about it….Prince Charles…..really?

Prince Philip is the only member of the Royal Family I have so far met, and unless I bump into one of them in Dobbies, that will be that. I met him three times, but on the first of these occasions I had a fairly long talk with him and I have remembered it for 42 years because he said something very surprising.

In 1979 I was the President of Debates at the University of Edinburgh. These were simpler times, and there was less to do, and people – even students – were more patient, so large crowds assembled in the Debating Chamber (also used for discos) when someone famous came. Among those I met were Edward Heath (cold) Lord Home (charming) Lord Longford (clearly insane) Sir Keith Joseph (yet more insane) Jeremy Thorpe (witty and I think the word I want is ‘rum’) Roy Hattersley (absolutely great – now, you see, I’d have voted for him as President) and there were, no doubt, others.

Basically they came because someone on my committee wrote them a letter. About 2% of the people we wrote to came and spoke so it was with no particular confidence that I wrote to the Duke of Edinburgh. However, about four months later I did get a reply from his equerry, which came from Kenya, suggesting that, if we liked, HRH would come and deliver a lunchtime talk on a particular date. Of course, I said yes.

Then the University heard about it. I was summoned to a meeting with the Secretary of the University, also a rum fellow, who went ballistic. How dare I? Well, I stood up for myself pretty well, pointing out that I was an elected official of the University (who got to wear such a pretty red robe) and the Duke of Edinburgh was the Chancellor of the University and it seemed reasonable that he should get a chance to speak to the students. The Secretary made a radical U turn. Of course, of course, I was right. He was sorry. Had I…..made any plans? 

With, I suspect, a smirk, I handed over a much altered, much pawed over single typewritten sheet of the preliminary arrangements for the visit worked out in the Sportsman’s Bar (yes, I know, what was I doing there?) with my debating cronies. The Secretary asked if his office might work on these admirable arrangements, and in the spirit of rapprochement I complied. The next day a motor cycle courier delivered a bound 32 page document to my flat – ‘The Visit of His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh to the Debating Society of the University of Edinburgh’. It was very fancy.

And so it was that some months later, he came, brought up the steps of the Teviot Row Union to meet me by my former debating partner Dame Maggie Lennon (nee Young) – well, if she’s not a Dame it’ll only be because she said no. 

‘Did you have a good journey, sir?’ I started.

‘Well, it was a journey,’ he responded.

A select group of debating acolytes and student politicians had been assembled in the Committee Room. Mrs Grieve, who ruled over the dining room, and who, in time, would retire to Bannockburn and bizarrely, become a friend of my grandmother’s, approached HRH with three glasses of sherry on a silver tray. He took the dry one and I reached for the Amontillado (debaters back then drank a lot of sherry) and she – literally – slapped my wrist.

‘You’ll get yours in a minute,’ she remarked. Prince Philip thought this was very funny.

But my goodness, he could work a room. He went round and chatted with everyone there in little groups with me in tow, to introduce. He said nothing that was offensive and nothing that was bland. He seemed interested in people, and asked them about their studies. It was impressive. Then we went upstairs and he gave a speech about ‘Dreams’ (you know, live your dream, pretty standard stuff, and, I suppose, rather ironic since we can be sure that his life did not, exactly, consist of living his dream.) It was nicely delivered and well received. The very far left guys kept quiet. It was fine.

And then we had lunch. I was his host so he sat next to me, and we talked for about an hour; he had to leave before the pudding.

He asked me about what I studied, which was U.S Literature. He clearly thought that was an odd thing to study, but he was perfectly polite. He asked me if I was interested in US politics and I said that I was, because my father was. We talked about my father and about Scottish nationalism and then he asked me about the forthcoming US election which was at its primary stage. And then he said the most extraordinary thing, about one of the candidates. 

You might, with the benefit of hindsight and Google, be able to guess what it was because I certainly can’t tell you. When he had left, there was about a minute where I thought about phoning the New York Times and saying ‘I’ve just had lunch with the Duke of Edinburgh and he said something about the US election. Please fund my life for x years….’ And then I thought, no, this would be neither fair nor wise. Maybe I would be expelled from the university, or my life would be ruined, or I would be killed. Anyway, he was just having a pleasant chat with a stranger.

So I suppose what I think is that he said what he thought and no matter what foolishness or inappropriateness that might have meant at some times, his lack of varnish impressed me then. I wish he’d got to 100. 



  1. I love this story, so interesting. I had a fierce debate with a friend the other day who insisted that Prince Phillip was a rabid racist. I really don’t believe he was. Many of the so called gaffes he made can after minimal investigation be set in a context that doesn’t show them in the light they were described by the media at the time.

    Of course after reading your piece I really want to know afar was said about the US candidate in 1979 though!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a super story. I knew so little of the man behind the role and the last week has made me think about how often we wait till someone passes to really learn about them. For me, I’m most inspired by his willingness to be real rather than look good – even tougher in his position. I’ll remind you that the very spirit, passion energy and edge reflected in your story here inspired me to want to learn, read, discover and create, all of which were pretty scarce in my education before you came along not long after you met HRH🙂


  3. An interesting article, Cameron, but what a tease! I’ll guess Ted Kennedy (or maybe Jimmy Carter); it would be even more interesting to know what he said.


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