It is a little more than three weeks since we last saw images of Prince Philip, sitting in the rear seat of a large SUV as he left a private hospital in London. My initial thought then, as us Irish would say, was that he had not long left for this world. He hadn’t. He died on Friday, Buckingham Palace announced in a statement so nuanced as it alone can carefully assemble from its royal wordsmiths.
“It is with deep sorrow that Her Majesty The Queen announces the death of her beloved husband, His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. His Royal Highness passed away peacefully this morning at Windsor Castle. Further announcements will be made in due course. The Royal Family joins with people around the world in mourning his loss.”
Those last images showed a frame almost gaunt, eyes sunken. They were far from the lasting images that we should hold of a prince who so loyally and lovingly stood by Queen Elizabeth’s side for more than seven decades. Yes, he was her prince charming, capable of times of being both beauty and beast – but now is not the time to speak ill of the dead.
Standing by the Queen
Forever it seemed – for more than 90 per cent of Britons know no other monarch than Elizabeth – he stood by her side, attending to the duties of state, her ever-present partner. At times of death, we always wonder what it will be like for the surviving spouse, and to that now turn the thoughts of millions in Britain and a billion more around the world who live in nations now part of the commonwealth and united by a shared history of empire.
But he was a father too, to the Prince of Wales, the Princess Royal, the Duke of York and the Earl of Wessex and just two months away from his 100th birthday in June. As they say in cricket, 99 is a good innings.
He was born on June 10, 1921 in a continent just recovering from a war that was indeed supposed to end all wars. If only. It did not. Born in Corfu, an island itself that has changed so many times over the course of centuries. His lineage boasted connections to the Greek and Danish Royal families, his family exiled from Greece following the events of the Greco-Turkish war between 1919 and 1922.
His uncle King Constantine I was forced to abdicate and his father Prince Andrew was arrested. Perhaps there he learnt that European monarchies were not guaranteed to survive, that resilience and perseverance were qualities that spoke louder than impaction or rash actions.
A Royal, sailor, adventurer
The family settled in Paris, where Philip was educated firstly at an American school before continuing his education in England and Germany and eventually at Gordonstoun in Moray in the wilds of the Scottish Highlands. The weather was no doubt as austere as the educational experience with its emphasis on physical and mental endurance as well as learning and the young Prince loved the place, cemented by a love of sailing around the Scottish coast.
If the aftermath of the First World War led to a nomadic existence, the Second would anchor him in the British military and pave the way for the relationship which would define his life. He joined the Royal Navy in 1939 after leaving school but his military service was not at all cosseted by his privileged upbringing and he saw action at the Battle of Crete and the Battle of Capa Manata in 1941.
During the allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, as second-in-command of HMS Wallace, he saved his ship from a night bomber attack by distracting the airplanes with a raft of smoke flares.
Around this time he dated Princess Elizabeth, who would later become Queen. Philip relinquished his Greek and Danish titles and became a naturalised British citizen. Taking the name Philip Mountbatten he became engaged to the future monarch in July of 1947. They were married on November 20 that year.
But Queen Elizabeth was the Head of State of a country still living with the economic consequences of war, harsh times for the British people as the royals occupied a position marked by near universal deference in a socially conservative society where class distinction underpinned many of the social mores.
And it was a time too where across that British empire, movements sought to cast off the fetters of occupation and domination. And would the monarchy itself survive such a febrile transition.
Anchors of monarchy
He did however carve a role for himself against the initial instincts of a palace old guard who perhaps regarded tradition and protocol as immovable and unchangeable anchors of monarchy.
The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award was launched in 1956 and has helped several million young people across 144 nations. He became patron of the industrial society in 1952 and was the first president of the World Wide Fund for Nature in 1961. He paradoxically had a lifelong passion both for hunting and for the preservation of endangered species.
By the late 1950s however the old certainties were under attack and the age of knowing one’s place came to an end. It marked a period when the hitherto unthinkable happened: the behaviour of the Royal’s was not above scrutiny or criticism.
This change led to occasional castigation for Philip after repeated cases of foot in mouth. At Kenya’s independence ceremony in 1963 he was moved to ask Jomo Kenyata “Are you sure you want to go through with this?” In Canada in 1969, cutting a ribbon, he memorably said, “I declare this thing open, whatever it is”. In Scotland in 1995 he asked a driving instructor “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to get them through the test?”
To celebrate his 90th birthday the Queen appointed him Lord High Admiral of the Royal Navy, the highest title in the organisation. And on their 70th wedding anniversary on November 20 2017, the British monarch also named him Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order for ‘services to the sovereign’.
That is an order today that seems now so understated. Queen Elizabeth has just lost her life’s love.
Mick O’Reilly is a Foreign Correspondent at Gulf News