Prince Philip Was No Saint, But He Was the Queen's Rock

(Bloomberg Opinion) — “I doubt whether I’ve achieved anything likely to be remembered,” the Duke of Edinburgh once observed to a BBC interviewer. But the British monarchy has survived exactly because Queen Elizabeth II and her deceased consort steered clear of flashy commitments and grand ambitions.

The Ronald Reagan dictum, “Don’t just do something, stand there,” was always a more appropriate strategy for an ornamental royal family that must remain above politics than for an executive head of state. Like his wife, Prince Philip stuck to this course.

In reality, as the Queen’s rock of support for 73 years, Philip didn’t just stand there. He helped the U.K. monarchy survive the turbulence and changing fashions of the modern world and served as a confidant and trusted adviser when others couldn’t get a hearing. Had he been a king, I doubt his bristling manner and erratic — sometimes offensive — humor would have been particularly popular, but as stalwart companion to the world’s most admired monarch he was perfect for a role that came without a job description.

Like most interesting people he could divide opinion. He learned to rein in his more objectionable jokes late in life (just about), although unlike the Queen he had a fiery temper and didn’t often curb it. I was once on the receiving end of his ill humor when I failed to disgorge a raft of statistics about a journalistic charity I was promoting. As far as the Duke was concerned, his job was to lend presence to the event — and my job was to know my stuff. A fair cop.

As a Royal Navy officer Philip had a reputation for being a martinet with officers but was popular with the other ranks who appreciated that he shared the legendary ability of sailors to curse freely. One amateur sailor who crossed courses with him when they were sailing along one of the U.K.’s coastal islands remonstrated and got the reply, “It’s my wife’s ******* water.”

If he was free with his words, he always understood that baring his soul to the cameras and the world would, in the words of the great constitutional historian Walter Bagehot, let “daylight in on magic.” So although people felt they knew the Duke well from thousands of photographs or from his salty comments and often diplomatically alarming attempts at wit on royal tours, his strength was really as the nation’s best-known stay-at-home husband, who accepted — after some early frustration when he married into “The Firm” — that he’d always be the royal plus-one. That isn’t an easy role, even in a gilded setting.

The House of Windsor has come under fire, first after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, now in a full-on assault from the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, who alleges cold-heartedness and a lack of emotional bandwidth. But reticence makes perfect sense for royalty even if it isn’t prized in the modern world. When his sons, Prince Charles and Prince Andrew, and his daughter-in-law Diana gave personal interviews airing their troubles and marital frustrations, it was excellent for television ratings but not for the monarchy’s standing. This sort of performance is best delivered by real actors. Markle, versed in Hollywood celebrity, masters the medium superbly.

Philip, by contrast of age and outlook, understood that royal life was a mixture of solemnity and absurdity, and behaved accordingly. The entertaining Netflix biopic, The Crown, invents a story that he resented kneeling to the Queen at her coronation and went off in a huff to take dangerous flying lessons. It appears the real Duke had a greater sense of proportion about walking three paces behind his wife in perpetuity. After the ceremony at Westminster Abbey, he turned to his young spouse, weighed down by a Crown studded with gold and several pounds of precious gems, and asked, “Where did you get that hat?” 

Later in life he opened the new stand at Lord’s cricket ground, joking, “You are about to see the world’s most experienced plaque unveiler.” Someone has to cut the ribbon at ceremonies and break a bottle on the sides of newly launched ships and the British prefer it to be a royal. He understood that was all part of the game.

The British prize neither intellect nor culture in their kings and queens — they prefer them to like horse racing — and sneer at the cleverer ones. So Philip, an instinctive, intelligent man, read voraciously but cultivated the role of outspoken simple soul. His son Prince Charles, heir to the throne, has allowed his private passions to become public and these often chime more with modern preoccupations: the environment and man’s relationship with nature. While that might seem like a route to popularity, it hasn’t endeared Charles more to his future subjects.

No one could accuse Philip of being endearing, either, as shown by his tendency to indulge in cultural stereotyping. He regularly caused controversy on royal tours with questions and remarks that would definitely fail the test of political correctness, and even common courtesy, today. In part, this was a trait of his generation: a curiosity about the world but a reluctance to codify the way he dealt with people. One can’t defend foolish language which suggests unacceptable attitudes, even from a different time. But when he managed to avoid offending people — which was usually the case in later life — Philip could enliven the more dreary bits of royal activity, a welcome thing in a world where language is formal and insights cloaked in protocol.

And it’s worth remembering that he was more cosmopolitan than most in the British aristocracy. “Phil the Greek,” as he was dubbed by the English tabloids, bridged generations and had a good grasp of international politics. He came to the fore in the difficult era of postwar Europe — a time in which he met the woman who was to become a Queen — but he survived happily enough to the 21st century.

He was no saint, though that wasn’t in the job description. When Her Majesty announced her “deep sorrow” at his death, it wasn’t just a form of words. He was the rock, the consort and the closest friend to the woman with the heavy “hat” and the lonely job that goes with it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.

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