On the morning of Friday, April 9th 2021, Buckingham Palace announced the death of His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. The Queen’s husband of 73 years passed away peacefully at Windsor Castle, only two months and one day from his 100th birthday. In what has been a challenging year for the Royal Family, and a turbulent time for the United Kingdom as a whole, the news brought forth a heartfelt moment of shared sadness. Although Prince Philip’s personal contributions throughout a lifetime of service are significant, his crowning achievement was undoubtedly his devotion and unwavering support to his wife and Queen.
Born June 10th, 1921 in Corfu as Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark, he was of German and Russian royal blood and a great-great-grandchild of Queen Victoria. It was in 1939, as an 18-year-old cadet at Dartmouth Naval College, that he first spent time with the 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth during a royal tour of the academy. Following the outbreak of WWII, Prince Philip served in the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet aboard the HMS Valiant, all the while maintaining an epistolary correspondence with the princess. Mentioned in the despatches of the Battle of Cape Matapan and saving his ship from a night-time bomber raid during the invasion of Sicily, he rose to the rank of first lieutenant at the age of just 21. He was one of the last surviving British servicemen to have seen combat in WWII.
Upon Philip’s return to England after the war, the romance with Elizabeth flourished and he asked King George VI for her hand in marriage. Viewed as an outsider of insufficiently noble stock by many, he adopted the anglicised version of his family surname – the German ‘Battenberg’ – and became Philip Mountbatten. Announcing their engagement in July, the couple were married on November 20th, 1947. Having been bestowed the title of Royal Highness the day before the wedding, the morning-of he became Duke of Edinburgh.
Less than five years later, King George VI succumbed to lung cancer whilst the couple were abroad on their first tour of the Commonwealth. Upon receiving the news, a source close to the couple noted that Philip looked “as if half the world had been dropped on him.” As Elizabeth sacrificed her life to the Crown, Philip was deprived of his family name (the Queen Mother and prime minister Winston Churchill insisting upon the continuance of the House of Windsor, fearful of any German-sounding lineage in post-war Britain), prompting the infamous response: “I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his own children.” Although she had officially acceded to the throne over a year earlier, Queen Elizabeth II was coronated on June 2nd, 1953. In the role of moderniser he would come to inhabit, it was at Philip’s behest that television cameras were introduced for the ceremony, drawing in almost 300 million spectators worldwide.
As the title of “Queen’s consort” came without explicit constitutional definition, the duke shaped his position through self-confessed “trial and error.” Despite growing accustomed to his supporting role over time, the buoyant and candid personality for which he is famed was certainly not muffled. As could be expected from a man born a century ago, many of his private comments proved off-colour and caused minor controversy. For any other, these may well have been the defining aspect of a lifetime.
From the 1960’s onwards, Prince Philip became deeply involved with charitable organisations, environmentalism and conservation work. He would serve as president of the World Wildlife Fund for over thirty years. At home, he launched the Duke of Edinburgh Award in 1956, with the stated goal of putting young people on the right path and empowering them to tackle the challenges of adulthood.
Whilst his wife presided as head of state, he assumed the role of head of the Royal Family. Taking the lead in raising the children, his guidance was called upon throughout their lives. As his eldest son’s relationship with Princess Diana broke down, the duke allegedly led the campaign to save their marriage. Upon her tragic death in 1997, as the country turned to the Queen to stay the shaken monarchy, she and the younger royals turned towards Philip. He reportedly persuaded a particularly reluctant Prince William to join him in walking behind his mother’s coffin during her funeral procession.
After celebrating his 90th birthday in 2011, Prince Philip proclaimed himself to be “winding down”. His health certainly appeared to be catching up to him: a blocked coronary artery over Christmas that year was thought to have sealed his fate. Nonetheless, it was another five years before he officially stepped down, his last solo outing being a parade for the Royal Marines in 2017. The records reflect he undertook a total of 22,219 engagements throughout his career in public service. Testament to his indomitable spirit, it took rolling his Range Rover on a country road for the man to surrender his driving license at the age of 97.
During the debacles of the last few years, from Prince Andrew’s revealed associations with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and the Sussexes’ decision to leave the Royal Family, the duke remained guarded. In February this year, he was admitted to a London hospital to receive treatment for an infection. After what would become a month-long stay, on March 16th he returned to Windsor Castle. Although deemed a positive development at the time, Prince Philip passed away less than a month later.
At a time when the cohesion of the country is being regularly stress-tested, politicians across the United Kingdom joined in expressing their sorrow. Prime minister Boris Johnson said Prince Philip had “earned the affection of generations here in the United Kingdom, across the Commonwealth and around the world.” The leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, said the country had lost an “extraordinary public servant”, whilst Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the duke’s “long contribution to public life in Scotland will leave a profound mark on its people.” First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford said he “served the crown with selfless devotion and generosity of spirit” and Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster offered her “deepest sympathies” to the Royal Family. Similarly kind words were offered by all living former prime ministers.
Leaders throughout the Commonwealth and the world also shared words of remembrance. Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, commended the duke for his “distinguished career in the military” and work “at the forefront of many community service initiatives”. Australian prime minister Scott Morrison reflected that Prince Philip “embodied a generation that we will never see again”, and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau spoke of a “man of great purpose and conviction”. US President Joe Biden commented “He was a heck of a guy”, as the official statement from the White House read: “On behalf of all the people of the United States, we send our deepest condolences to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the entire Royal Family, and all the people of the United Kingdom.”
Royalty from across the European continent, many of whom share distant blood ties with the late prince, sent affectionate messages of condolence. In a personal letter, King Felipe and Queen Letizia of Spain wrote that they were “deeply saddened to hear of the passing of our dear Uncle Philip” and sent their love to “Aunt Lilibet”. The Dutch royal family extended their “deepest and most heartfelt sympathy” to the Queen, and noted of her husband that “His lively personality never ceased to leave an unforgettable impression.” Within the duke’s immediate family, Prince Charles said his “dear papa” was a “very special person who, above all else would have been amazed by the reaction and the touching things that have been said about him”. The website of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s non-profit organisation Archewell was adorned with a tribute “in loving memory” of the Duke of Edinburgh, ending: “Thank you for your service… you will be greatly missed.”
The day after his death, the military paid tribute by firing 41-round gun salutes (a 21-gun salute is customary for royalty, 20 are added for those of high military station) across the UK, in Gibraltar and in the Australian capital of Canberra. In honour of his service in the Royal Navy, salutes were also fired at sea from the HMS Diamond and HMS Montrose.
A national period of mourning has begun that shall conclude the day after the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral. All government buildings will fly official flags at half-mast during this time. Prince Philip will not lie in state (whereby members of the public could pay their respects, as was arranged for Winston Churchill), but instead his coffin will rest in the private chapel at Windsor Castle “covered with His Royal Highness’s Personal Standard and dressed with a wreath of flowers”. The funeral itself will take place at St George’s Chapel, Windsor on Saturday, April 17th, whereupon a national minute’s silence will mark the start at 3 pm. Pursuant to government guidelines and the duke’s own wishes, the service will be a ceremonial gathering of close family only, with the prime minister himself not in attendance. Although Prince Harry will be present, Buckingham Palace has said his wife, pregnant with the couple’s second child, has been advised not to fly in from their home of California.
The monarchy has occupied an increasingly uneasy place over the past few years. Inherently at odds with modern, democratic and egalitarian sensibilities, the Crown is not to what one turns for the last word on progressivism. Yet it is precisely because the institution serves as an anchor to the past that it remains tolerated at worst and revered at best. In an uncertain world escaping into the future, the monarchy endures steadfast and true. Few embodied this notion quite as well as Prince Philip. Forged in a bygone era of British imperial might, occasionally betrayed by his outdated cheek, he guided the monarchy forward into a new age. At the Queen’s side through thick and thin as the longest-serving consort in history, his support underpinned the stability of her reign. By all accounts he executed the roles of prince, husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather with distinction and will be dearly missed.