FOUL tempered and foul mouthed, he is not exactly the country's favourite royal. He's as infamous for his gaffes as he is famous for being the Queen's other half.

And, in the public mind, the only thing he is any good at is driving horse-drawn carriages. He has his own particular brand of humour which isn't really appreciated by anyone with any pretensions to political correctness and there is a feeling he kind of rides around on the coat-tails of his missus, who does all the real work.

But like him or loath him, the Duke of Edinburgh is 80 tomorrow and his contribution to the royal family cannot be overlooked. For most of his long life, he has been the support, if not the power, behind the throne, tackling the role of consort, a position many men would have been uncomfortable with.

But Prince Philip understands the monarchy and the royal firm very well and, given his difficult upbringing, has more than made the most of being part of the regal set.

Born a prince of Greece, Philip has always felt at home in the court of Buckingham Palace and Windsor. But, in the early days of wooing his princess, he came up against strong opposition, not least from King George VI for whom no man was good enough for his daughter.

In the atmosphere of xenophobia that followed the Second World War, Philip was seen as a foreign prince and was held in suspicion by old-school courtiers as an outsider - even though he had fought for Britain in the Royal Navy.

Philip was born at the Greek Royal residence on Corfu, Mon Repos, on June 10, 1921. He was the youngest child and only son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Princess Alice of Battenberg. His father was originally a Prince of Denmark and was descended from kings of Greece, Denmark and Prussia, as well as emperors of Russia.

The family was forced to leave Corfu on December 3, 1922, after his father, a lieutenant-general in the Greek army, was banished for an alleged part in the heavy defeat of the Greeks by Turks earlier that year.

Philip, aged 18 months, was evacuated in a British warship - and carried into exile in a makeshift cot made from an old orange box.

His childhood was fairly bleak. He grew up largely without a permanent home as his family relied on the generosity of well-placed friends and relatives. His parents gradually grew apart and his father moved to Monte Carlo while his mother, who was deaf, became an Orthodox nun.

His uncle, Dickie Mountbatten, became his champion and saw, in Philip, a bright future - for the handsome young prince and for the House of Mountbatten.

Ambitious Uncle Dickie was successful in promoting Philip as a future husband for a future Queen, but his plan to elevate the Mountbatten family name to the status of a royal dynasty failed.

The first publicised meeting between the Queen and Prince Philip was at the naval college in Dartmouth in 1939, which the 14-year-old princess visited with her parents.

He maintained a regular correspondence and they met on several occasions. Philip was invited to spend Christmas 1943 with the royal family and, by the end of the war, newspapers were speculating on a romance.

Their engagement was announced on July 10, 1947, when the princess was 21. Philip had become a naturalised British subject, renouncing his Greek royal title. On November 20, 1947, they married at Westminster Abbey when Philip was created Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth and Baron Greenwich, and made a Knight of the Garter.

Friends say the Duke changed when, in 1952, the Queen acceded to the throne. The full weight of the state came down on him as he assumed the role - but not the title - of Consort to the Sovereign.

Behind closed doors, Philip may assert his authority as head of the family but in public, at least, he is resigned to his constant task of supporting the Queen and defending the dignity of the royal family.

How well he has done this may only be appreciated when historians assess his contribution to the new Elizabethan era.

A measure will be when the role of consort is taken up by his successor in the reign of Charles III, or George VII, if the Prince of Wales prefers a regal alias. If Charles keeps to his intention not to remarry and his relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles is maintained, his divorced lover is unlikely to assume any official role.

The position of consort could then be filled by his sister, the Princess Royal. In a way, it would seem right for Anne to take over her father's role, sharing, as she does, his no-nonsense style and forthright opinions.

It is, after all, Philip's outspoken remarks which have attracted most publicity over the years. Some of the faux pas have been jokes which have either backfired or should have been cracked by a comedian rather than by the Queen's husband. Philip, it seems, cannot resist playing to an audience and, invariably, his banter causes more than a light-hearted chuckle.

One of the most famous clangers was made during the 1986 state visit to China when he told British students: "If you stay here much longer, you'll all be slitty-eyed."

In Hungary, in 1993, he told a Briton he met: "You can't have been here that long - you haven't got a pot belly."

In the Cayman Islands, in 1994, he asked a wealthy islander: "Aren't most of you descended from pirates?"

In Australia, in 1998, he suggested that tribes in Papua New Guinea, were still cannibals. "You managed not to get eaten, then?" he asked a student who trekked the Kokoda jungle trail.

But to judge Philip simply on his headline-making blunders would be unfair. As he approaches his 80th birthday, he is fit and active with a sharp mind and still works tirelessly for a wide range of charities and causes. In particular, he has created a worldwide network of character-building pursuits for youngsters in the Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme. He has also championed the National Playing Fields Association and the World Wide Fund For Nature. Over the years, Philip has been associated with hundreds of organisations which, with other official commitments, keep him busy.

So, happy birthday, you old curmudgeon.