Prince Philip, who has died at the age of 99, once described himself as “a discredited Balkan prince of no particular merit or distinction”. This was, in some regards, true.
Yet, along with his wife, Queen Elizabeth, the Duke of Edinburgh also deserves enormous credit for having come into the British monarchy as an outsider and for having attempted to reform it in ways both obvious and subtle.
The modern Royal Family owes an enormous amount to his energy and vision, just as it has been defined, less favourably, by his often blinkered and rulebound approach that seemed to prize conservatism over change, and emotional concerns be damned. Pilloried by those who disliked his often brusque and heavy-handed manner as “Phil the Greek”, he established himself as by far the most significant royal consort since Prince Albert, and in most regards outstripped him for both influence and uxoriousness.
Certainly, with a marriage to Elizabeth II that lasted 74 years, their union was one that encompassed both impressive longevity and enormous social change. When the two of them married in 1947, the country was emerging from a long and painful war, and was governed by a reforming Labour administration under Clement Attlee. Now, three quarters of a century later, Philip has died under a Conservative government that has attracted both vast amounts of opprobrium and praise for its actions in dealing with a pandemic that has itself brought about similarly seismic alterations to the fabric of society.
It was perhaps telling that Keir Starmer, the man who would be a twenty-first century Attlee, was faster in paying tribute to the Duke than was Boris Johnson. He described Philip as “an extraordinary public servant” and praised him for a life dedicated to Britain — “from a distinguished career in the Royal Navy during the Second World War to his decades of service as the Duke of Edinburgh”. Yet Starmer was also intelligent enough to emphasise that Prince Philip spent his life in the shadow of his wife. He wrote: “Their marriage has been a symbol of strength, stability and hope, even as the world around them changed — most recently during the pandemic. It was a partnership that inspired millions in Britain and beyond.”
Anyone who has watched the first four series of The Crown, in which the Duke was played firstly as a young man by Matt Smith and as a middle-aged one by Tobias Menzies, has been given a fictional insight into the royal relationship, which, especially in the first two series, comes to be the emotional and structural heart of the show.
Even allowing for a considerable degree of poetic licence on the part of its creator, Peter Morgan — and the scandalous implication in one early episode that HRH is about to perform oral sex on her husband — it depicted a close, loving relationship that has not been without its trials and difficulties, but which also had a degree of sympathy and shared interest between the two that has contributed to one of the most significant partnerships between a ruler and consort in history.
It is hard to think of any figure in the public eye who has served his country longer, with more vigour, than Prince Philip
Unlike some of the programme’s more fanciful flourishes, this seems to be broadly accurate, judging by above-stairs biography and below-stairs gossip alike. Whatever the truth behind rumours of adultery and disquiet at his children not taking the Mountbatten family name, it was telling that one of the final news stories about Philip, before his last illness, was that he and his wife were pleased to be spending more time together at Windsor Castle during their enforced isolation there during the pandemic. Even allowing for a certain degree of sentimental spin, there can be little doubt that the Duke, often caricatured as a splenetic and tactless figure, has remained a key partner in both the marriage and in the public affection in which the “First Family” have been held.
His wife paid perhaps the pithiest tribute to him in 1997, at the Golden Wedding celebrations, when she said: “He is someone who doesn’t take easily to compliments. But he has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years, and I, and his whole family, and this and many other countries, owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim, or we shall ever know.”
It is not exaggerating the case to suggest that his retirement from public life in 2017 at the age of 96, after performing over 20,000 solo engagements, was both well-earned and somewhat overdue. But it would be impossible to disassociate the ornery, cantankerous public persona with which the Duke was associated and his single-minded dedication to service and duty, and an expectation that others would follow in his well-trodden path. One of the Royal Family’s mottos has always been “Ich Dien” — “I serve” — and it is hard to think of any figure in the public eye who has served his country longer, with more vigour or commitment, than Prince Philip.
He remained a controversial figure throughout his life. His straight-talking persona was seen as refreshing by his admirers, and lamentably anachronistic by his (usually republican) detractors. It is not for nothing that one of the many books about him was titled The Wicked Wit of Prince Philip, featuring a selection of the plus bon of his mots over the years. Many of these have made it into the annals of royal gaffes, whether it was his warning to a gang of English students in Eighties China that, “if you stay here much longer, you’ll all be slitty-eyed” or his enquiry, of a Scottish driving instructor, “how do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to pass the test?” Yet some also showed a surprising degree of wit, whether it was his remark that the Duke and Duchess of York’s house, with all its Eighties trappings, resembled “a tart’s bedroom”, or his question to Tom Jones, after a 1969 Royal Variety Performance, “what do you gargle with? Pebbles?”
He will, of course, remain notorious with large sections of the public for his treatment of members of his family, whether it was ensuring that Princes William and Harry walked behind their mothers’ coffin at her funeral service in 1997, insisting that his eldest son Charles attend his much-loathed school Gordonstoun rather than the expected choice of Eton, or the persistent, baseless rumour that he was somehow involved in Diana’s death. Yet most stories about him have two sides, reflecting his multi-faceted personality and standing.
He did not order William and Harry to march behind their mothers’ cortege out of harshness, but out of (arguably misplaced) duty, reportedly saying to William: “If you don’t walk, I think you’ll regret it later. If I walk, will you walk with me?” And while Charles’s comments about his alma mater (“Colditz in kilts”) have led many to pillory his father as an uncaring and callous brute for sending him there, his actions were no different to that of many other aristocratic patriarchs who took the attitude that their sons could do with a little toughening up.
The facts of his early years — the birth in Corfu, the distinguished wartime service in the navy, and his marriage to the then-Princess Elizabeth at the age of 26 — are all well known, and have been repeated in countless biographies and stories about him. Yet what will be interesting for commentators and historians to explore now are the later ones, the seventy-odd years in which this ambitious, reform-minded man took on the apparently subservient role of consort, and the extent to which he attempted to change the system from within, or simply tried to keep it extant. Most of the private details of this are not yet known, but perhaps, now, they can be.
There will be endless attempts now at hagiography, and revisionism, and the airwaves and papers will be full for weeks of “friends” of the Duke and royal biographers and former servants all offering their fulsome appreciations of his life and legacy, perhaps leavened with some more caustic observations. Yet perhaps the best way of remembering the Duke is to cite Hamlet’s remarks about his father. “He was a man; take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again.”
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