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Prince Philip, his flings - and the Irish connections

Queen Elizabeth has consistently maintained a stoic silence in the face of claims that her husband has been having affairs. However, a new biography reveals that there may be some substance to the rumours.Myles McWeeney reports

From the Duchess of Abercorn and the Countess of Westmorland to Princess Alexandra and the Countess Bonnie Frescobaldi, this is a list of names that could be a roll-call of the most celebrated aristocratic beauties of the past 50 years. However, the women have another connection - they have all been linked at one time or another to Prince Philip.

As the man married to one of the world's richest women, Queen Elizabeth II, Philip has often taken a role in the background with the popular image of him as a bumbling incompetent whose greatest contribution to public life is putting his foot in his mouth. But a new book by TV presenter Gyles Brandreth investigates the rumours that Philip has been a serial philanderer.

Brandreth shines the spotlight on Sacha Hamilton, the Duchess of Abercorn, in particular. She is the daughter of Lady Kennard, reportedly one of the Queen's closest friends, and she married her husband, James, the Duke of Abercorn, when she was just 20 years of age in 1966. The two families are close, and Abercorn was appointed Lord Steward to the Royal household in 2001.

The slim and very attractive duchess, who lives with her husband on a 5,500-acre estate near Omagh, Co Tyrone, is a descendant of both Alexander Pushkin and the Romanov Grand Duke Michael of Russia and is therefore a distant cousin of the Queen. She told Brandreth, a former Tory MP, that she had an intense friendship with Prince Philip from the late 1960s through to the late 1980s.

"Our friendship was very close," she was quoted as saying. "The heart came into it in a big way. There's a hugely potent chemical reaction in him. It's a highly charged chemistry. We were close because we understood one another," the duchess reportedly said. "It was a passionate friendship, but the passion was in the ideas. It was certainly not a full relationship. I did not go to bed with him. It probably looked like that to the world. I can understand why people might have thought it, but it didn't happen. It wasn't like that. He isn't like that." But not everyone believes her denials of sexual intimacies with Prince Philip, particularly since their names were first linked in 1987 when a newspaper published a sensational picture of Philip, wearing a towel, with his arm around swimsuit-clad Hamilton.

Sarah Bradford, a historian and biographer who 10 years ago published a biography of Queen Elizabeth II, is quite adamant that the relationship was physical. She also asserts that Prince Philip has had numerous other affairs, but not with the famous women he's been associated with in tabloid newspapers over the years, women such as the exotic-looking film star Merle Oberon or British singer Pat Kirkwood.

"He has affairs and the Queen accepts it," she told Brandreth. "I think she thinks that's how men are. He's never been one for chasing actresses. His interest is quite different. The women he goes for are always younger than him, usually beautiful and highly aristocratic."

More than any other royal biographers, Bradford is in a position to be au fait with the gossip and innuendo of the inner circle of Buckingham Palace. In her private life, she is the very well-connected Viscountess Bangor.

Bradford's assertion that there was no hanky panky between the Duke of Edinburgh and Merle Oberon, who was born in Bombay and married wealthy industrialist Bruno Pagliai, is echoed in the words of New York society columnist David Patrick Columbia.

"The Queen's husband was Merle's boy," he has said in one of his columns. "He was her big social ticket. I had dinner with her at her Malibu beach house in California with Luis Estevez, her favourite couturier, and she had framed pictures of really famous people all around. The pride of place was reserved for the personally inscribed eight-by-10 photograph of Philip, which she had in a large silver frame.

"She was always talking about 'when Philip visited us in Mexico', and 'when Philip introduced me to the Queen', and 'Philip this', and 'Philip that'. I don't know whether they had an affair or not; I doubt it, only because Luis never thought so, and he would have known. In fact, Luis, who's homosexual, wondered if Philip wasn't just a little bit gay underneath that macho facade of his. Luis was in Mexico with Merle several times when Philip visited, and contrary to what has been implied by others, Luis said he never saw anything romantic going on between them."

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Katie Boyle, a celebrated beauty from the 1950s, is another good-looking woman regularly mentioned in dispatches as one of Philip's flings, particularly in a book called Queen Elizabeth II: A Woman Who Is Not Amused by Nicholas Davies.

Boyle was a TV personality in the late 1950s and 1960s, and presented the Eurovision Song Contest the first time it was held in Britain in 1960. In those days, broadcasters tended to have cut-glass accents, and Boyle had that in spades. She was born Caterina Irene Elena Maria Imperiali di Francavilla, the daughter of an Italian aristocrat and her first husband was Richard Bentick Boyle, 9th Earl of Shannon; Viscount Boyle, of Bandon and Baron of Castle Martyr, Co Cork.

According to Davies's book, Philip's affair with Boyle was very steamy and they had the most extraordinary times together. "Yes, I've met Prince Philip several times," Boyle has said. "I think he's the most fantastic man. I love his dryness. But an affair? It's ludicrous, pure fabrication. When it appears in print, people believe it. You can't take legal action because it fans the flames, so you just have to accept people telling complete lies about you."

Bradford's suggestion that the Duke of Edinburgh liked beautiful and highly aristocratic younger women as, what Sacha Abercorn calls, "playmates and people to share his intellectual pursuits", is reflected in his continuing friendship with Penny, Lady Romsey.

Penelope Meredith Eastwood is a commoner, the daughter of a butcher, who married Philip's godson and Prince Charles's cousin Lord Romsey, Louis Mountbatten's son, in 1977. Philip had met her when she was a leggy 22-year-old and was much taken by her despite the 35-year age difference. He introduced her to his favourite sport, carriage driving, and after attending two lessons a week at Windsor, she was competent enough to be his co-driver in competitions the length and breadth of Britain.

But she was just the most recent of a string of beautiful women who have been linked with the duke. Just after World War II, immediately after the arrangement for his marriage had been made, he was on tour in Australia and was said to have had a couple of wild flings.

According to Australian author and film producer Robin Dalton, who met Prince Philip back then, he had two special Australian girlfriends, a society girl called Sue Othergee, and then Sandra Jacques. The affair with Jacques was "a terrific love affair. A very full love affair".

Other women with whom he is said to have dallied include his cousin Princess Alexandra, Italian Countess Bonnie Frescobaldi, actress Anna Massey, Canadian Osla Benning, who later married Lord Henniker, and Jane, Countess of Westmorland.

He's even been rumoured to have had a number of children out of wedlock, one of whom, Max Boisot, was sufficiently annoyed some time ago to issue an official denial that Philip was his father from the depths of China where he was living.

His mother was a French singer called Helene Cordet, who had known Prince Philip since childhood. The rumour machine also has it that he had a homosexual relationship with Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

In the face of all these rumours, Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth have consistently maintained a stoic silence. Their close confidants and courtiers are always on hand to issue loyal denials of any affairs.

The notoriously bluff Philip has been heard to snort derisively that even if he had wanted to play offside, it would have been impossible considering he had a detective constantly in his company since 1947. Yes, but it has to be said similar wall-to-wall security didn't stop John F Kennedy, Bill Clinton or, indeed, his own son Prince Charles, from conducting the odd extra-marital affair.

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