His Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, relished every challenge in his improbable life. A Royal Navy man to the end, he was a person of depth and strong character who occupied a unique and central place in the history of our modern monarchy — half of the most celebrated and enduring partnership of recent times.
Driven, outspoken and prone to the occasional outburst, Philip may not have been naturally suited to the role of a public subordinate but his solid belief in duty helped transform him into the “liegeman” he swore to be at Elizabeth’s coronation.
His life story, from a penniless foreigner — albeit of royal blood and a great-great-grandson of Queen Victoria — to Queen’s consort, appears the stuff of Hollywood fiction. Effectively abandoned by his troubled parents, he overcame family tragedy and metamorphosed into a war hero who won the heart of a princess and future queen.
Elizabeth once characterised Philip’s importance to her, and to the country, in her golden wedding anniversary speech in 1997 during a lunch at Banqueting House in Whitehall.
“He is someone who doesn’t take easily to compliments,” she said, “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.”
There was a joke, too, about Philip’s tendency to express his views “in a forthright manner”, but as tributes go it is one that he could accept with some ease, for it was a true reflection of the role he had carved out for himself during decades of public service.
Despite his great age, his decision at 96 to step down from public life, with the Queen’s full support, still led to a media storm and tributes from around the world.
Over time the Duke of Edinburgh, the longest-serving royal consort in British history, learned to come to terms with his unusual role as the Queen’s husband.
This was not a dynastic marriage of convenience but a triumph of love, romance and trust. Philip, who presented the Queen with an “E and P” diamond and ruby bracelet to mark their fifth anniversary, continued to romance his wife throughout their life with presents.
He could be infuriating but always managed to entertain her. The couple’s daughter-in-law Sophie, Countess of Wessex, gave a rare insight into the relationship when she said: “For her to have found somebody like him, I don’t think she could have chosen better. And they make each other laugh — which is half the battle, isn’t it?”
Philip was the only person who could treat Elizabeth as a mortal, admonishing her if he felt she was in the wrong. Through thick and thin she relied, in private, on his counsel and common sense. Until the end, they still took afternoon tea when they could and shared their experiences of the day.
Critics may remember the blunders and crotchety remarks, but to reduce Philip to such a caricature would be a misrepresentation of one of life’s great characters. His so-called gaffes were often planted on purpose to liven up proceedings, and at official events he often drew a laugh by saying: “You’re going to see the world’s most experienced plaque-unveiler at work.”
At this time of mourning and reflection, it is right to remember and respect his dedicated service to the Queen, his country and the institution of monarchy. A tireless supporter of charity, industry, the arts and education, he was founder, fellow, patron, president, chairman and member of 837 organisations. He was also the head of his family: by the time of his death he was a father of four, grandfather of eight and great-grandfather of nine.
For decades Philip shared the undoubted burden of the Queen without upstaging her, providing reassurance and advice but never overstepping the boundaries of his junior role. It was an unforgiving position — a challenge for anyone — but one that he met with characteristic gusto.