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Prince Philip and Iceland

Prince Philip boarding an aeroplane after bird watching in Northern Iceland on 2 July 1964. Photo: Ljosmyndasafn Reykjavikur.

Prince Philip had an historical and personal connection to Iceland....

Modern rationalists tend to dismiss monarchy as outdated, irrelevant and even immoral, a bastion of unacceptable privilege. In fact, however, in many countries and in some situations it makes good sense. The few remaining European monarchies, in Scandinavia, the Benelux countries, Liechtenstein and the United Kingdom have relatively stable regimes, and it was the monarchy which provided a mostly smooth transition from dictatorship in Spain. It may not be healthy if professional politicians possess not only the power, but also the glory in and of a state with an illustrious history. Monarchy may contribute to the reciprocal control necessary in a free society. Moreover, its symbolic function is important to many. Most people crave continuity and stability, and tend to enjoy the pomp and circumstance associated with monarchy, not least if they can to some extent participate in it, as local dignitaries often do. ‘People still respond more easily to symbolism than to reason,’ the British Prince Consort, Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, argued in 1977. ‘The idea of chieftainship in its representative rather than its governing function is still just as clearly and even instinctively understood. From the point of view of national identity, this function is perhaps more important than ever.’

Prince Philip, who passed away on 9 April 2021, almost one hundred years old, was himself an outstanding exemplar of chieftainship in its representative function. Dashingly handsome as a young man, intelligent and self-confident, the prince not only looked the part and acted the part: he was also a genuine prince, from the royal families of Denmark and Greece. This provided a bit of a connection with my own little country, Iceland. When Philip was born on the Greek island of Corfu in June 1921, the son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and Princess Alice of Battenberg, Iceland had for three years been a sovereign kingdom in a personal union with Denmark. Thus, the Danish king was also King of Iceland. Before Iceland had become a sovereign state in 1918, she had been a Danish dependency for centuries.  

Prince Philip and his wife, Queen Elizabeth the Second, were both descended from King Christian IX of Denmark who reigned between 1863 and 1906. A son of Christian IX had become King of Greece as George I, and he was Philip’s grandfather. A daughter of Christian IX, Alexandra, had become Queen Consort of the United Kingdom, and she was Elizabeth’s great-grandmother. King Christian IX of Denmark has special significance in Icelandic history because he was the first reigning monarch to pay a visit to the remote island, joining in the 1874 celebration of one thousand years of settlement in Iceland. The king used the occasion to grant Iceland a constitution and limited home rule. The Icelanders forgave him when they later found out that in 1864 he had secretly suggested that Iceland should be given to Prussia in exchange for Danish-speaking Northern Schleswig which the Prussians had just seized from Denmark. There is even a statue of Christian IX in front of Government House in Reykjavik, with the constitution in his hand.   

Glancing at a map of the North Atlantic, one is nonetheless bound to ask why it was not Queen Elizabeth’s British ancestors who ruled Iceland instead of the Danish kings. After all, Shetland and Orkney had been seized in 1472 by the Scottish king when his father-in-law King Christian I of Denmark had not paid the negotiated dowry. Indeed, it so happens that King Henry VIII thrice rejected offers from Danish kings of Iceland as a collateral for large loans (which would never have been repaid), first in 1518, then in 1524, and finally in 1535. King Henry had read reports that the unruly islanders were in the habit of killing foreign tax collectors and sheriffs sent there to keep order. Again, in late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century His Majesty’s Government seriously considered proposals to annex Iceland from Denmark, not least because of the fertile fishing grounds surrounding the island and utilised by a large fleet from Great Britain. It decided against annexation: It did not want to alienate the Danes, and the Royal Navy dominated the North Atlantic, anyway. It could swiftly stop any games played in the Icelandic waters by other great powers.

In 1944, Iceland repealed the 1918 Act of Union with Denmark and became a republic. The mostly friendly relations afterwards with her neighbour to the south, the United Kingdom, were only marred by conflicts over the fishing grounds: the Icelanders regarded it as a matter of survival to assume full control over them. In the late 1950s the tiny Icelandic Coast Guard engaged in a ‘cod war’ against British trawlers in the Icelandic waters and against the mighty Royal Navy which was soon dispatched to protect them. The conflict was settled peacefully when the United Kingdom, under pressure from the United States because of Iceland’s strategic position in the Cold War, in 1961 recognised the Icelandic extension of fishing limits to twelve miles. In 1964, Prince Philip was warmly received in Iceland after he had accepted an invitation by the President to visit for a few days and to pursue two of his favourite pastimes, to catch salmon and watch birds. He addressed a crowd from the same balcony of Parliament House as Winston Churchill had done in 1941. But the prince spoke in impeccable Icelandic, to the great joy and satisfaction of his audience. He had spent much time, with the help of the Icelandic Ambassador to London, on learning his remarks by heart. In his speech, Iceland’s President, Asgeir Asgeirsson, recalled that Philip was the great-grandson of King Christian IX, who had granted Iceland a constitution and home rule. This was the prince’s first visit to Iceland, except that he had in 1954 had a brief stop-over at Keflavik Airport on his way to Canada.

It was certainly not however the prince’s last visit to Iceland. In the next three decades he occasionally came for a few days in the summer to fish salmon, and he also frequently, sometimes four times a year, had stop-overs at the airports in Reykjavik or Keflavik on his way to or from North America. During such short stays, as his aeroplane—invariably flown by himself—was refuelled, he was usually served coffee and Icelandic pancakes filled with whipped cream which he liked so much that he brought the recipe home for the palace chefs. In 1990, the Queen and Prince Philip came on an official visit to Iceland. When the couple were shown old Icelandic manuscripts, Philip was intrigued and asked why in the Middle Ages the Icelanders had written their sagas and chronicles in the vernacular, and not in Latin, as most other European nations. Unprepared for the question, the guide vaguely suggested that perhaps it was because the Icelanders until 1262 were independent, and not ruled by a king.

Abroad, Prince Philip spoke fondly of Iceland, but he could in his robust and good-natured way poke fun at the small size of the population. He attended a concert in the early 1990s in Oslo, hosted by the World Wildlife Fund of which he then served as President. The musicians performing included the Icelandic jazz-funk fusion band Mezzoforte. After the concert the Prince went backstage and greeted the performers. When he met the Icelanders, he remarked in his very posh English: ‘Ahh, from Iceland, are you? We were there recently. Fishing, you know. Splendid!’ The musicians murmured something politely, upon which the prince said: ‘Jolly good. Very LOUD, huh, huh, boom, boom.’ As he said this, he beat his breast with a clenched fist, and then he continued: ‘So, where do you normally play when you’re in Iceland? Anywhere you can find two people together, I suppose. Huh, huh.’

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