I took aim at Prince Philip in my cartoons – and he loved it

Matt Pritchett
·6-min read
Matt Pritchett and the Duke of Edinburgh had a mutual appreciation for one another
Matt Pritchett and the Duke of Edinburgh had a mutual appreciation for one another

In the days since the Duke of Edinburgh’s death a week ago, plenty has been written about his bone-dry sense of humour – not least all those quips aimed at others. What’s perhaps less appreciated, though, is how much he enjoyed a gentle joke at his own expense.

I discovered this for myself 15 years ago. In my role as the Telegraph’s front page cartoonist for the last 30-odd years, occasionally the subjects of my jokes will get in touch and ask for the original artwork. I’ve sent cartoons to prime ministers, celebrities and all manner of other public figures, but until April 2006, never to Buckingham Palace.

That month, the Queen turned 80, and received some 20,000 birthday cards. I don’t often draw cartoons about the Royal family, but it felt appropriate to mark the occasion. And so I did, with this cartoon depicting two footmen perusing cards displayed on a mantelpiece in the Palace:

Matt-Duke
Matt-Duke

I didn’t think much of it, though a reader got in touch to lightly admonish me for being disgracefully disrespectful in joking about the Queen’s age. Not long afterwards, however, I received a letter from the Palace, stating that they loved the cartoon and someone – I think the subtext was “someone very senior” – had requested I send the original. Enjoyably, I was able to tell the disgruntled reader that I was sorry they’d been offended, but if it was any comfort, the butt of the joke clearly felt otherwise…

That moment was a thrill, but a while later I was invited to lunch at Buckingham Palace. It was me, five or six other people, the Duke and the Queen. I was petrified, as anyone in that position might be, but the nerves only lasted while we waited for their arrival. When they entered the room, the tension seemed to dissipate. I expect that’s the effect they have on a lot of people – in anticipation, they’re terrifying; in reality, their great skill is putting a room instantly at ease.

I was seated next to Prince Philip, who was exactly as you might imagine: funny, charming, relaxed, mildly cantankerous. Everybody else was served wine but, as was often his wont at lunchtime, he had a beer. I was a little jealous – I quite fancied a beer, too, but changing my order probably wouldn’t have been the done thing.

Watch: The most watched royal TV moments ever

Funnily enough, there was a boat stuck on a sandbank outside of Portsmouth that week – not unlike the recent Suez Canal logjam. The Duke, with all his naval expertise, was explaining at length just what the crew had done wrong, putting them straight on this and that, and generally proving that, even in his mid-80s, his maritime knowledge was undimmed.

I also recall a wonderful rant about all the banquets he’s had to attend around the world. In some places, the Duke told me, the staff would even move his cutlery for him, and he found that infuriating. “I’m perfectly capable of moving my own fork when I want it,” he huffed. In a way, it would have been disappointing to lunch with Prince Philip and not hear him bluster.

When lunch came to an end, I was asked if I would have coffee with the Queen. (I say asked; at those sorts of events, who you speak to is largely based on instruction from staff.)

In another room, as I gingerly drank a cup of black coffee, the Queen told me how the geese were ruining her lawn at Sandringham. I suggested she have William and Harry shoot them, which made her laugh. At the time, I hadn’t yet moved to Norfolk, which is a shame, as then I could have said: “We must have you to ours next…”

The Queen later remembered my grandfather, VS Pritchett, to whom she awarded membership to the Order of the Companions of Honour in 1992, and seemed thrilled to have worked out that connection. I have been on a high ever since that day. I think I floated back to the office afterwards, but do remember bumping into a colleague in the street who asked if I’d been out to lunch. Had I ever…

Throughout his life, Prince Philip was an enthusiastic supporter of cartoons. In 1949, he and the young Princess Elizabeth attended the Royal Society of Arts and listened to a speech by HM Bateman, the great Punch cartoonist, as he called for a national museum of cartoons. It must have left an impression since the Duke later opened the Cartoon Museum’s first permanent site in 2006, and was patron for over 20 years.

As the museum noted in its tribute this week: “The monarchy have been a persistent (and easy) target of cartoonists and caricaturists for 300 years […] but the Duke of Edinburgh could always see the funny side in any situation, and took humorous depictions of himself in his stride.”

He really did. He was a Telegraph reader, and while I made several jokes at his expense over the years – one, after he retired from public duties in 2017, was simply a plaque reading, “UNVEIL YOUR OWN DAMN PLAQUE”; another, after his minor car crash the following year, showing a scrap metal dealer selling “Royal souvenirs” – he always seemed to like my cartoons.

Matt's cartoons
Matt's cartoons

In 2018, when I celebrated my 30th anniversary on the paper, he even sent a short tribute.“Successful cartoonists do not only need to be able to draw, they have to think of subjects to illustrate,” he wrote. “Matt has shown that he has a genius for both, as well as the ability to think of wonderfully appropriate swipes at the idiocies of contemporary life.”

It was already an amazing day, and I was already a big fan of the Duke, but the shock and honour of having him suggest he was even slightly a fan of mine left me a little lost for words. He was a man who knew the value of good humour, both to puncture the tension of a room and as a way of diluting the serious business of life, and he was a fine exponent of it.

The country is far poorer for the Duke’s passing, but one way we might carry on his legacy is to keep on having a good laugh. He wouldn’t have wanted us to stay sombre for long.

Watch: Mourners gather in Windsor for Prince Philip's funeral despite coronavirus restrictions

To own your own Matt print, visit telegraph.co.uk/mattprints or call 0191 603 0178

As told to Guy Kelly