“Behind every successful man, there is a strong woman” is the saying. But Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth’s husband of more than 70 years, showed the world what it was like to be a pillar behind one of the world’s most powerful women.
A Greek prince, who took on the title of Duke of Edinburgh after marrying then crown princess Elizabeth in 1947, he stood by — or, rather, two steps behind — the queen throughout her 69-year reign as monarch, never once besmirching her.
And over the course of those seven decades, he earned a reputation for a tough, no-nonsense attitude, and even a propensity for occasional gaffes — like any ordinary man.
Until he breathed his last on April 9th, 2021, just two months short of his 100th birthday, the prince was like an expert carriage driver who helped steer the royal family through multiple crises — perhaps the most crushing being the death of former daughter-in-law Lady Diana Spencer, the Princess of Wales, in 1997.
Prince Philip touched the hearts of the multitudes not just in the United Kingdom and its territories but also across the world, with his genteel-yet-tough-as-steel brand of diplomacy.
Perhaps, it was befitting then that the perfect tribute to him came not from a Briton, but an American — and no one less than a former president: Barack Obama.
“Prince Phillip showed the world what it meant to be a supportive husband to a powerful woman,” Obama wrote on Twitter. “He also found a way to lead without demanding the spotlight.”
While he trailed the Queen with the customary two steps behind, Prince Philip, Obama noted, “found a way to lead without demanding the spotlight — serving in combat in World War II, commanding a frigate in the Royal Navy, and tirelessly touring the world to champion British industry and excellence.”
“Through his extraordinary example, he proved that true partnership has room for both ambition and selflessness — all in service of something greater,” said Obama, referring to Prince Philip who had hosted him and 11 other U.S. presidents, including Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.
A MAN WHO WAS, QUITE SIMPLY, THE QUEEN’S STRENGTH
The Queen herself said of her husband in a rare personal tribute on their 50th wedding anniversary in 1997:
“He has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years. 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.”
Prior to his death, Prince Philip was in hospital where he spent four weeks having treatment for an infection and to have a heart procedure before returning to Windsor Castle in early March.
And despite the towering figure he was, Buckingham Palace decided against a state funeral because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Those who knew Prince Philip well said he wouldn’t have wanted one anyway, because that’s the man he was — simple and never wanting to be fussed over.
His son Charles, the heir to the throne after the Queen, said Prince Philip “probably wanted to be remembered as an individual in his own right”.
Charles added about his father: “He didn’t suffer fools gladly, so if you said anything that was in any way ambiguous, he would say: ‘Make up your mind!’ Perhaps it made one choose one’s words carefully.”
Prince Philip’s disinclination to tolerate sycophants made him stand out in a royal culture where fawning was almost second nature.
LIVING ‘DOUBLE LIVES’
The former naval officer, who served in the Royal Navy during the war and was mentioned in dispatches for bravery, admitted he found it hard to give up the military career he loved and to take on the job as the monarch’s consort, for which there was no clear-cut provision.
In private, Prince Philip was regarded as the head of his family. But protocol obliged the man, dubbed “the second handshake”, to spend his public life in the shadow of his wife.
Often, Prince Philip wrote his own job specs — because there was none written for him.
“There was no precedent. If I asked somebody ‘What do you expect me to do?’, they all looked blank – they had no idea, nobody had much idea,” the prince himself said in an interview to mark his 90th birthday.
Yet, it was a job he did exceedingly well.
Said Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury: “On the occasions when I met him, I was always struck by his obvious joy at life, his enquiring mind and his ability to communicate to people from every background and walk of life.”
After completing more than 22,000 solo appearances, Prince Philip retired from public life in August 2017, although after that he occasionally appeared at official engagements. His last appearance was in July at a military ceremony at Windsor Castle, the palace west of London where he and the monarch have resided during COVID-19 lockdowns.
Born on a dining room table on the island of Corfu on June 10, 1921, Philippos Schleswig-Holstein Sonderburg-Glucksburg — as long as Greek names go — was the fifth child and only son of Prince Andrew of Greece.
Prince Philip married the queen, then Princess Elizabeth, at Westminster Abbey five years before she came to the throne in 1952.
The couple, who were third cousins, had four children, Prince Charles, Princess Anne, and Princes Andrew and Edward.
They celebrated their 72nd anniversary on the same day that Andrew stepped down from public duties over the controversy surrounding his association with the disgraced late U.S. financier Jeffrey Epstein, one of a number of crises the family have faced.
In later years, the queen reduced her official engagements and passed many royal duties and patronages to Prince Charles, his son William and other senior royals, while maintaining most important royal duties, such as the opening of parliament.
Some royal watchers say Prince Philip’s declining health played a role in some of the monarchy’s travails, including the crisis surrounding the decision by Charles’ younger son Harry and his wife Meghan to give up their royal roles.
“The main lesson that we have learned is that tolerance is the one essential ingredient of any happy marriage,” Prince Philip said in a speech in 1997.
“It may not be quite so important when things are going well, but it is absolutely vital when things get difficult. You can take it from me that the queen has the quality of tolerance in abundance.”
As “the first gentleman in the land,” Prince Philip tried to shepherd into the 20th century a monarchy encrusted with the trappings of the 19th. But as pageantry was upstaged by scandal, as regal weddings were followed by sensational divorces, his mission, as he saw it, changed. From making the institution grander, he suddenly had to work to just keep the crown alive.
And he kept at it until May 2017, when, at age 95, he announced his retirement from public life. His final solo appearance came three months later.
ATTAINING POP-CULT WITH NETFLIX
Even then, Prince Philip did not entirely fade from public view. He surfaced in May 2018, when he joined the sun-splashed pomp of the wedding of Harry and Meghan, waving to crowds lining the streets from the back seat of a limousine, the queen beside him, and striding up the steps of St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle in a crisp morning suit.
By then, he had re-emerged as a kind of pop-culture figure, introduced to a whole new generation through the hit Netflix series “The Crown,” a costume drama that has traced the events of postwar Britain through the prism of his buffeted royal marriage. (Matt Smith played the prince as a young man, and Tobias Menzies in middle age.)
Prince Philip’s public image often came dressed in full military regalia, an emblem of his high-ranking titles in the armed forces and a reminder of both his combat experience in World War II and his martial lineage: He was a nephew of the war leader Lord Mountbatten.
Some saw Prince Philip as a mostly remote, if occasionally loose-lipped, person in public, given to riling constituents with off-the-cuff remarks that could be deemed insensitive. To a Black British politician he was quoted as saying, “And what exotic part of the world do you come from?”
Prince Philip had apparently not expected the type of public scrutiny that came with the times, when the washing of dirty linen, even the queen’s, had become a staple of the tabloid press, which he grew to despise.
No headlines were more boisterous than those during the tumultuous marriage and divorce of his son, Prince Charles from Lady Diana. But the Duke of Edinburgh himself felt the spotlight’s unwelcome glare when the royal family was castigated for a seemingly grudging response to Britain’s outpouring of grief over Diana’s death in a car crash in Paris in 1997.
At home, Prince Philip showed — by palace standards, at any rate — a common touch. When the telephone rang, he answered it himself, setting a royal precedent. He even announced to the queen one day that he had bought her a washing machine. He reportedly mixed his own drinks, opened doors for himself and carried his own suitcase, telling the footmen: “I have arms. I’m not bloody helpless.”
He sent his children to school instead of having them tutored at home, as had been the royal custom. He set up a kitchen in the family suite, where he fried eggs for breakfast while the queen brewed tea — an attempt, it was said, to provide their children with some semblance of a normal domestic life.
Prince Philip carried British passport No. 1 (the queen did not require one) and fulfilled as many as 300 engagements a year, including greeting President Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama, at Buckingham Palace in April 2009 and again in May 2011. (He was not in attendance when the queen met with President Donald J. Trump in December 2019 in London.) And he was front and center at royal events, like the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton in April 2011, watched around the world, and Elizabeth’s visit to the Irish Republic, the first by a British monarch, the next month.
LOVED FAST CARS, AND EVEN FASTER PLANES
To escape the court life, Philip liked to drive fast, often relegating his chauffeur to the back seat. Once, when the queen was his passenger, a minor accident led to major headlines. He ultimately surrendered his driver’s license in 2019 at age 97, after his Land Rover collided with another vehicle, injuring its two occupants, and overturned near the royal family’s Sandringham estate in Norfolk.
He liked to pilot his own planes and once had a near miss with a passenger jet. He enjoyed sailing, but was said to have so little patience with horse racing that he had his top hat fitted with a radio so that he could listen to cricket matches when he escorted the queen to her favorite spectator sport.
When he first came to public attention, his every colorful remark was noted. When a man introduced his wife as the Ph.D. in the family, saying, “She’s much more important than I am,” Prince Philip replied, “We have the same problem in our family.”
There were rumors of trouble in the marriage, reports of raised voices in the palace corridors. But the marital difficulties of their children overshadowed any discord between the parents. Before the Charles-Diana split, Princess Anne divorced from her first husband, Mark Phillips, in 1992, and Prince Andrew legally separated in 1996 from Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, who was known as Fergie. Those broken royal marriages provided a field day for the tabloids.
Prince Philip was also an avid sportsman. He was captain and mainstay of the Windsor Park polo team. When he turned 50, troubled by arthritis and liver problems, he curtailed his playing and turned to carriage racing. He also started painting.
In a BBC Radio interview in 1965, Prince Philip recognized that he was missing out on things like “just being able to walk into a cinema or go out to a nightclub or go to a pub.” But he quickly acknowledged the bright side.
“I’ve got a lot of advantages which compensate for it,” he said.
* Banner picture: Tim Graham/Tim Graham Photo Library/Getty Images/Guardian