HRH The Duke of Edinburgh

A life of service

Duty and discipline were key words for Prince Philip – they provided him with the strength to cope with an extraordinary life, if not always with grace and tact, certainly with humour – he was a man who liked to laugh.

The death of HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh two months short of his 100th birthday has, in a sense, provided him with a last laugh. He detested pomp and ceremony, fuss and fanfare, when it was aimed at him in any personal sense.

He endured it with a good grace as part of the realities of being the consort of a constitutional monarch, because it was part of the duty associated with the role. And he was disciplined enough to do it efficiently and effectively.

He has now managed to avoid a public celebration – which he did not want – of that birthday.

And, in addition, it could be said that he has timed his passing so that there can be no pressure for his wishes not to have a state funeral (or for one with much ‘fuss’) to be evaded by any popular or political pressure. Even the ceremonial funeral that had originally been envisioned for him will now need to be pared back in line with current restrictions under the lockdown rules.

Born in Corfu on 10 June 1921, and evacuated by a British naval ship when a baby, Prince Philip of Greece was, in his youth, a rootless young royal. I have a picture of him in my mind as a child, aged around six, when he was staying in Blakeney and my mother (a year older) and my aunt (three years older) were told to play with him. They remembered that they had proper buckets and spades to make sandcastles – undeterred, he had a basin and a spoon borrowed from the kitchen where he was staying.

That determined little chap, with his early turn for practicality, grew up to be a man of considerable strength and one with real strategic abilities.

These were tested during World War Two when he was a young naval lieutenant, and tested again when he entered a different battleground – that of negotiating being the spouse of the reigning monarch while not having (or desiring) a formal constitutional role.

He had to navigate tricky waters of expectation in carving out a role for himself that enabled him to make a contribution in areas he cared deeply about – helping young people to develop their potential, promoting a range of conservation issues while always, and tirelessly, doing his duty as The Queen’s liege man, her most loyal subject, as well as her dearly loved husband.

Donald McKague, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Credit: Donald McKague, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Like George V, The Queen’s beloved grandfather, Prince Philip was a man who, in his formative years, had experienced the realities of being royal from both sides – of serving a monarch in the Royal Navy, and then becoming himself a senior royal. He recognised, as George V had before him, that monarchy had to modernise not only its customs and traditions but also how it was perceived and understood by the nation it served.

His vision of how to achieve this was not always successfully imparted or implemented – but without the breath of fresh air that his perspective provided, alongside the support he unfailingly gave to The Queen in her own endeavours to keep the institution of monarchy relevant in a rapidly changing world, the present Royal Family is unlikely to have enjoyed the popular support that currently manifests itself in opinion polls and other comments.

Appreciating, from experience and in theory as well, the importance of the links between the armed forces and monarchy meant that involvement with military duties was something he was particularly interested successful in sustaining. His down-to-earth approach to the individuals he met at various events, formal and informal, was substantially appreciated – at least by rank-and-file and junior ranks if not always by top brass.

While famous for his gaffes, it needs to be said that though they might have been at times tactless they were never intended to be unkind. And it can be speculated that some, at least, were intended to draw attention away from The Queen and possible criticism of her on, for example, sensitive state visits. Prince Philip could, in reality, afford to be – as he himself said – an expert practitioner in dontopedalogy, the science of putting one’s foot in a wide open mouth, because he had no formal constitutional role.

The Queen

He was there as accompanying spouse, without an official position to uphold, and so his gaffes might provoke irritation or some embarrassment but never a constitutional crisis.

Prince Philip and his wife exchanged words, but also, they visibly and substantially enjoyed each other’s company, and laughed a lot together.

Above all, Prince Philip encapsulated for many the human side of the monarchy – indomitable, determined, flawed but dedicated.

What better legacy to leave his family, the nation and the wider Commonwealth, as well as the various institutions and charities he supported than that.