Renaissance prince

The Duke of Edinburgh strove throughout his life towards being the ideal of a Royal renaissance man


This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Physicist, physician, linguist, engineer, and — besides much else — life insurance actuary, Thomas Young (1773-1829) has been called “the last man who knew everything”. At the bicentenary of his birth, the Science Museum suggested Young “probably had a wider range of creative learning than any other Englishman in history”. Posterity, however, has better remembered the specialists. Two centuries on, combining Young’s breadth and depth has become impossible. Even polymaths have not the hours in the day to know it all. The ideal of the Universal Man is beyond us, but the Duke of Edinburgh strove throughout his life towards being the ideal of a Royal renaissance man.

Democracy these days tends to endorse less holistic thinkers — wide-ranging interest and enquiry no longer seems to be compatible with the people who put themselves forward to bear the pressures of public life. Three-quarters of a century have passed since we had a prime minister whose university of life encompassed ducal drawing rooms and Boer prison camps, Flanders mud and actors, artists, scientists and cads. 

Whilst his impact on world events bears no comparison, there was nevertheless something Churchillian in the range of interests that Philip, Duke of Edinburgh developed and deployed in the service of his adopted country. In the tributes and assessments that have followed his death, attention has naturally focused on Philip’s role — particularly in the 1960s — in modernising the institution of monarchy and about which Simon Heffer writes in this edition. Philip displayed enduring dexterity in being by the Queen’s side in private and a couple of paces behind her in public. Her description of him as her “strength and stay” cannot be bettered. 

Wide-ranging interest and inquiry no longer seems compatible with those who bear the pressures of public life

But he combined a supporting role with a leading one. He was a sailor and Royal Navy officer — he was mentioned in dispatches for his actions in the battle of Cape Matapan — whose quick thinking diverted German bombers from the vulnerable HMS Wallace during the invasion of Sicily. He was an aviator, logging almost 6,000 hours as a pilot of sixty different types of aircraft. He was also a decent cricketer, a committed polo player and, in later years, a codifier of the rules of competitive carriage driving, Philip was to an unusual degree an action man on air, land and sea. 

What is more, he created a pathway for others to broaden their vision and purpose. In Britain alone, six million have tested themselves through The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme which he founded with the help of the mountaineer John Hunt in 1956. The scheme has now spread to 144 countries. No Briton other than Robert Baden-Powell has done more to give generations of young people the opportunity to peacefully and constructively experience adventure, develop skills and serve their community.

An official schedule that involved over 22,000 solo events and 637 visits to foreign countries since 1952 would sap most people’s energy, time, and appetite to think broadly and deeply beyond the next handshake. However, Philip embodied the adage that if you want something done, give it to someone busy. An environmentalist before it became fashionable, he was an active president of the World Wildlife Fund. Yet one whose prowess in the field showed an awareness of man’s true relationship with nature.

His religious faith lacked the profound simplicity of his wife’s and the blazing intensity of his mother’s, a princess who ended up a penniless nun. But with Robin Wood, the Dean of Windsor, he created St George’s House as a forum to bring together theologians and scientists. Of the fourteen books that Philip authored, perhaps none are more insightful than the three he wrote in the 1980s on theological and philosophical questions with a subsequent Dean of Windsor, Michael Mann.

If, in different circumstances, Prince Philip had stood for election, he might well have been returned with a landslide. But doing so would have restricted him and changed the nature and quality of his public service. The Universal Man may be unobtainable, but in the passing of the Duke of Edinburgh, the Queen, country and Commonwealth have lost a man who was interested in his own times and strove to improve them. 

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