Prince Philip: in youth and age, the right man for the times

·10-min read
<span>Photograph: WPA/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: WPA/Getty Images

The first mention of Prince Philip in this newspaper came with the announcement of his engagement to the future queen on 13 July, 1947. It is a measure of the privacy that the royals then enjoyed that no gossip or rumour of their years of courtship had previously been reported (they had in fact secretly agreed their union when Philip visited Balmoral at the end of the previous summer).

The Observer editorial gave spontaneous approval to the match, suggesting it required “no cheering to order”. There was something in it for everybody. “For the friends of tradition it offers a bridegroom of royal blood,” it was suggested; for “the friends of innovation, a British citizen without title”. Here was a leading man whom all audiences might enjoy. “To the popular fancy he may be the gallant mariner of romance; to his companions Lt Philip Mountbatten is known as the most active and able naval officer.”

That piece was pointedly set alongside another leading article which appraised the desperate state of the country as it struggled to emerge from the war: “A widespread impression has prevailed that a ‘return to normality’ is under way,” that piece noted. “But what is ‘normality’ now for Britain? Were prewar conditions really ‘normal’ or is that merely a comfortable assumption?”

The conjunction of these two articles emphasised a sense that, in the subsequent 74 years of his life, Philip never lost: he had been the right man at the right time. Broken by war, and realising the loss of empire, Britain in 1947, the Observer noted, needed to rediscover its “spirit of resourcefulness” and here in the next column was a youthful figure who appeared to embody just that spirit. Unlike the predictable Etonian suitors that the Queen’s mother had lined up for her elder daughter (they became known as “the cricket team”), this former head boy of “a remote Scottish school that provided for the local coastguard and fire service” had jumped to the front of the queue by force of character. He was a war hero mentioned in dispatches for his service on HMS Valiant and, as the Observer had implied, both a prince and a pauper. Philip Mountbatten could trace a lineage to several royal households, but he needed a whip-round from his schoolmates to buy a set of cufflinks for his first visit to the palace. Since the age of nine (when his mother, suffering from schizophrenia, had been confined to a sanatorium) he had been stateless and homeless, shuttling between schools and relatives across the continent. As his biographer Ian Lloyd noted, he was fond of writing in visitors’ books: “Whither the storm carried me, I go – a willing guest,” and “no fixed abode!”)

Better still, and surely the only real prerequisite for 73 years of marriage, there was undeniable passion at the outset. The smitten princess told her father, King George VI, that this was the only man she could ever love. Soon after their wedding Philip wrote to his mother-in-law that “Lilibet is the only ‘thing’ in this world which is absolutely real to me. My ambition,” he declared, “is to weld the two of us into a new combined existence that will not only be able to withstand the shocks directed at us but will also have a positive existence for the good.”

There is no doubt that Philip knew what he might be in for, and that a welders’ force might well be required. But if the measure of monarchy is not progress but survival, you’d have to say the duke fulfilled that vow. You imagine that he would have been quietly gratified that three-quarters of a century on from that declaration, the fact of his death would still be marked by the BBC clearing its schedules for tributes (with both the MasterChef final and Gardeners’ World deemed inappropriate to the nation’s mood) as well as gruffly amused that the national broadcaster simultaneously set up a page on its website asking viewers to complain if the sheer volume of its coverage might be a bit much.

In the course of those looped tributes it has been a surprise to hear Philip talking in sentences and paragraphs, in the few interviews that he gave. His preferred mode of public discourse has always seemed the clipped one-liner (blunt or appalling, according to taste), a one-man rearguard action against the numbing niceties of small talk. In this, as in everything else, you might generously have detected a sense of duty; he said the wrong thing so the monarch never had to (there is, anyway, no “loo book” of the Queen’s gaffes). In an interview for Scottish TV he once argued that “the idea that you don’t do anything on the off-chance you might be criticised means you’d end up living like a cabbage and it’s pointless. You’ve got to stick up for something you believe in.”

The things that he believed in were a set of values that survived with him from his days at Gordonstoun. As well as some of the archaic attitudes of empire, they had to do with gallows humour and brave faces and the dying arts of duty and stickability. It has been calculated that in the course of her reign the Queen has travelled 1,032,513 miles – or 42 times around the world. For each those miles, up until his retreat from public duties in 2017, the duke was at her side or, where appropriate, a couple of steps behind. His adamantine headmaster at Gordonstoun, Kurt Hahn, foretold that “Philip will make his mark in any profession in which he has to prove himself in a trial of strength”; in his allotted field – a steady presence beside the steadiest of all presences – he duly proved able to defeat all-comers.

It was, as has been widely argued, also true that the duke was responsible, for better and worse, for the media’s obsession with the royals. It was he who insisted that the BBC should be allowed to observe life behind the gated world of the palace for its 1969 documentary Royal Family. The film “humanised” the royals, but it also allowed the press – particularly the tabloids that were finding their raucous voice – to subsequently occupy that lucrative space between myth and reality, spinning royal fairy tales and gleefully trashing them. No doubt the duke came to regret that intrusion, but it gave the monarchy a new fascination, albeit often as the reality show spin-off of The Crown.

Having initiated that game with the mass media, Philip stubbornly refused to play it. He never signed autographs, allergic to any sense of the c-word the Windsors most fear: celebrity. By instinct and temperament he understood that a royal family that seemed to enjoy the trappings of fame and privilege could never survive in the modern world. In its tribute the New York Times notes approvingly that “when the telephone rang, he answered it himself,” and that “he once presented the Queen with the gift of a washing machine”. Other appreciations have noted that he mixed his own gin and tonics and sometimes fried his own eggs; and more than one porter has been brushed aside with the phrase “I have arms. I’m not bloody helpless.” In all of this insistence on normality he successfully sold the notion that a life of palaces and yachts and golden carriages and banquets was one of grinding duty and endurance that he could happily do without.

Part of that duty was a commitment as patron or spokesperson for 800 charities. The Duke of Edinburgh award scheme – what he called “his DIY kit in becoming an adult” – helped to associate the royal family in the minds of generations of teenagers with a degree of hardship: wandering about on Exmoor or the Brecon Beacons in the rain arguing about compass bearings. It has also cemented in the public mind the vision of the duke as the spartan outdoorsman.

The stubbornness of this deer-stalking caricature has provided the other “who knew?” element of the tributes, the duke’s apparent fondness for more abstract cultural pleasures. For some reason almost every time I have turned on the radio in the past 24 hours I have heard someone say that Philip owned a copy of the collected verse of TS Eliot (“Don’t tell anyone,” he would apparently say). Jonathan Yeo, who painted Philip’s portrait, found himself comparing the duke’s own oils with those of the peerless colourist Pierre Bonnard; elsewhere it was noted that when Philip stayed with the royal family at Windsor Castle before his marriage he would often get up in the night and wander around the state apartments with a torch admiring the Gainsboroughs (to which you couldn’t help thinking “that was his story and he was sticking to it”). No fan of pop culture, he was a keen jazz man, a fan and friend of that other duke, Ellington; he fondly remembered the night that Louis Armstrong, knowing of his presence in the audience, rewrote the words of Hello Dolly for his benefit: “Hello Philip, well hello Philip, we’ve looked forward to this night and here you are; you’re looking droll, Princey, you’re tophole, Princey” and so on.

Stalwart supporter: with the Queen in 2007.
Stalwart supporter: with the Queen in 2007. Photograph: Fiona Hanson/PA

Though he would never have been mistaken for a member of the Me Generation, he also made efforts to understand those who were. It was another surprise to be reminded of his efforts as a confidant and marriage guidance counsellor, first with Diana and then Sarah Ferguson, though in both cases his advice fell on deaf ears (I’d forgotten that Ferguson was actually staying at Balmoral when her “toe-job” front page was printed). If his relationship with his eldest child has always felt like the archetype of that between fathers who had grown up in the war, and sons who had not, his one-line response to criticism of that parenting, “We did our best,” is a motto which might be an epitaph.

Looking back at that Observer announcement of the engagement of Elizabeth and Philip all those years ago, it is striking that it came as part of an editorial which wondered if the monarchy was fit for purpose as an institution, whether it would last another generation. A creditable rejoinder to that question over the course of most of our lifetimes has been the extraordinary marriage that has held together at the heart of it. If the Queen has offered unblinking steadfastness in that enduring double act, her duke has provided the edge of spark and character. In that time he became an institution within an institution. Speaking to Matt Smith, the actor who had been cast to play the role of the young Philip in The Crown, Prince William summed up his grandfather as any grandfather would wish to be summed up: “Legend.”

In the coming days, the gift for propitious timing that seemed to mark Philip’s arrival in Britain’s national life will, you imagine, also mark his departure. Coming at the end of another year in which we have been urgently asking “what is normality now for Britain?” the royal funeral, on a necessarily modest scale, will no doubt provide a tone that politicians have failed to summon. It will be a focus for collective sorrow after a pandemic in which many tens of thousands of families have also suffered the heartbreaking loss of husbands and wives, parents and grandparents. After 75 years of service, it will feel an appropriate farewell.

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