In a nation with many centenarians, he missed the milestone by a couple of months. He would have been 100 by June and both the admirers of the monarchy as well as its carping critics in Britain (and there are many) were looking forward to that day.
Prince Philip, formally known as the Duke of Edinburgh, who died on Friday at Windsor Castle near London at the age of 99, has a left a colourful trail in his eventful life as a patriarch of the House of Windsor.
Seen as a constant presence behind the Queen Elizabeth II throughout their 73-year married life, Philip was someone the Queen said she turns to and trusts. In her address during the Golden jubilee celebrations of their wedding in 1997, Elizabeth said her husband “is someone who doesn’t take easily to compliments but he has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years…”
Their marriage is an interesting contrast of endurance and stability in a society where marriage as an institution has weakened over the last many decades.
How a minor European royal came to successfully court and marry the British Princess is now part of the history of House of Windsor.
Born into a Greek-Danish royal family in 1921, Philip’s royal life was thrown topsy turvy when his uncle, King Constantine of Greece, was dethroned in a war with Turkey and his father, Prince Andrew, had to flee Greece in the events that followed. Philip himself, as a one-year-old child, had to be smuggled out of Greece in a British warship to Italy, in a fruit basket. After a somewhat troubled childhood in France, when his parents split up, Philip was taken to Britain.
His royal connections ensured a private school education for him in England and Scotland. After his education, he joined the Royal Navy and took part in the Second World War.
Philip first met Elizabeth in 1939 while King George VI (father of Elizabeth) visited the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth with his daughters, Elizabeth and her sister. Philip, who was a young naval officer, was told to take care of Elizabeth, which marked the start of a relationship. Though Elizabeth was at that time barely 13, she had fallen in love with Philip. King George VI was not sure but Elizabeth was determined. The wedding took place in 1947.
Being the husband of a Queen did not make Philip a King, in the convention-ridden world of British monarchy. The royal tradition dictates that while female consort of a King could be called Queen, the male partner of a Queen cannot be called King. Being a foreign-born Prince brought with it its own difficulties. He had to forego the foreign titles as Prince of Greece and Denmark, become a naturalised British citizen and a member of the Church of England.
A title had to be devised for him before the wedding. He was given the title Royal Highness and made the Duke of Edinburgh just in time for the marriage in November 1947. There were further troubles after the couple had their first child, Charles, who as Prince of Wales and first in line to the throne, outranked his father, forcing the Queen to designate her husband as the “first gentleman of the land” with a title “Prince” later.
The couple had four children – Prince Charles, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew, and Prince Edward. They have eight grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren. A long and fruitful family life no doubt, despite the marital difficulties in the royal family that led to three divorces (Princess Anne, Prince Andrew and Prince Charles from their spouses) .
Prince Philip may have been a trusted confidante of Queen Elizabeth but the Duke was also someone who made the royal family squirm in their seats often with his blunt speech and politically incorrect comments. His off-colour remarks on many occasions made headlines, casting a shadow over royal visits.
Indian readers would particularly remember the diplomatic row triggered by a comment he made during the 1997 visit with the Queen to Jallianwala Bagh, the site of the 1919 massacre in British India; as the royal couple were coming out of the site after laying a wreath at the site, Prince Philip reportedly was overheard disputing the number of Indians killed in the incident. “Two thousand? It wasn’t, was it? That is wrong. I was in the navy with Dyer’s son. That is a bit exaggerated… It must include the wounded.”
Elsewhere, his loose-tongued one-liners continued to make news. On a visit to Scottish factory, he commented on a fuse box that “looked like put in by an Indian.” He later clarified he meant cowboys but got it mixed up with Indians. The clarification was of no help.
During a visit to Australia in 2002, he was reported to have asked an aboriginal leader, “Do you still throw spears at each other?”
Gaffe-prone he might have been, Philip was also seen as a moderniser – keen on ensuring the monarchy stayed relevant in a changing British society. While the Queen is the Head of State, Prince Philip was the natural head of (often a dysfunctional) the royal family.
Royal observers note his passion for doing away with many 19th century practices of the royals in an effort to make the Windsors look and be in tune with the mores of the 20th century. Early education for royal children was usually given at home by tradition. Prince Philip was influential in getting his children to formal schools, so as to enable them to have as normal a childhood as possible. He would attend the phone by himself; mix his drinks himself etc.
When he married Elizabeth in 1947, Philip was a dashing naval officer, with a good career prospect, marrying only a Princess, though it was plausible she would be Queen one day. That came rather too soon, in 1952 following the untimely death of George VI. Her coronation as Queen in 1952 ended his career in the Royal Navy and he had to adjust to the largely ceremonial role of a royal consort.
Philip was also seriously annoyed that his children would not be taking his family name, Mountbatten, (he was a Mountbatten through his mother and was a nephew of Lord Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy of India) but would have to take the title of Windsor, in keeping with the royal rules. “I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his children,” he complained, adding, “I am but a bloody amoeba” – but nothing could be done about it.
But Prince Philip took his role as a royal consort seriously and discharged it in an admirable way. For man who was brought up in a man’s world – his private school education, his training in the Royal Navy, his career as a naval lieutenant and all that made him a rugged masculine character trained to lead. His role as a royal consort was anything but that. He became just the husband of the Queen, had to walk beside or most of the times, behind her.
As a spouse of the Queen, he attended thousands of public engagements (some 20,000 plus), delivered hundreds of speeches, until his retirement from public duties in 2017.
His interest in conservation was also well known. He was the president of the World Wildlife Fund, UK, (WWF-UK) in 1961 but came under criticism for killing a tiger in a tiger hunt in Jaipur in the same year, accompanied by the Queen and the Jaipur royal family.
When the Windsor castle, the suburban home of the Queen, was ravaged by a big fire accident in 1992, the Queen entrusted to Prince Philip oversight of the restoration of the castle, a project that was completed ahead of time and under budget.
He was also a keen sportsman, a passionate polo player. When he was unable to play polo due to age, he took to carriage driving (horse carriage). He held on to his driving licence until a few years back, when he was involved in a car accident in Norfolk in 2019 .
Pandemic curtails plans for big funeral
The death of the longest-serving royal consort in British royal history would have been an occasion for a solemn state mourning, during normal times. But the coronavirus induced lockdown has meant that many aspects of the long-planned funeral arrangements would have to be curtailed.
No date has been announced yet for the funeral but there are indications that it would be a low-key funeral, with no public attendance. Reports say the funeral would take place in St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, in mostly a restricted event. Whether Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the estranged grandson and his wife, now living in the US, would be attending the funeral is also not yet known.
(The writer is a senior journalist based in London)