In his active years, Philip helped set a new course for the monarchy under a young queen, championing Britain itself.
LONDON, April 9, 2021
Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth II’s husband and the longest-serving consort of any British monarch, has died at age 99.
Philip spent 65 years supporting the queen, retiring from his public role in 2017 and staying largely out of the view since. In his active years, he helped set a new course for the monarchy under a young queen, championing Britain itself, as well as environmental causes, science and technology.
Philip’s relationship with the young Princess Elizabeth began as a story of young love.
“We behave as though we had belonged to each other for years,” Elizabeth wrote in a letter to her parents shortly after they married.
Over the years, the queen acknowledged Philip’s deep influence on her, calling him her “strength and stay” in a speech on their 50th wedding anniversary in 1997.
“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,” she said at the time.
The intensely private prince will likely be remembered for his early efforts to help modernize the royal family’s image during a time of great change for Britain and the world, especially at the outset of Elizabeth’s reign in 1952. He also developed a reputation for the occasional brusque comment and crass, if not racist jokes.
“The queen inherited from her father a model of monarchy that was very hands off, old-fashioned and slightly invisible,” said Sarah Gristwood, a historian and the author of “Elizabeth: The Queen and the Crown.”
“It wasn’t equipped to deal with a new media age, and Prince Philip played a huge role in moving it forward then.
Philip helped bring the royals to life on television rather than through radio reports. He was the first member of the royal family to do a televised interview and he presented a show on a royal tour of the Commonwealth. He is also said to have had a hand in televising the queen’s coronation in 1953 and in organizing a groundbreaking 1969 television documentary about the family.
“He helped create the model of the British royal family that has enabled it to continue forward into the 21st century,” Gristwood said. “We may have lost sight of that now, but I hope we’ll remember him for it.”
Despite being born into a royal family, Philip’s early childhood was not typically royal.
Born on June 10, 1921, on the Greek island of Corfu, he was the only son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark, and Princess Alice of Battenberg. Greece’s king, Philip’s uncle, was forced to abdicate when Philip was a baby, and the family fled to Paris, with Philip famously carried to safety in a crib made from an orange box.
At age 7, he moved to England, where he lived at Kensington Palace, now home to Prince William. Philip lived there with his paternal grandmother, Victoria Mountbatten, and later attended Gordonstoun, a boarding school in Scotland.
At 18, Philip joined the Royal Navy and graduated from the Britannia Royal Naval College as a top cadet. He saw active duty from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean, and in 1945 at the end of World War II, he was in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered.
Philip’s military career was truly central to his character, unlike perhaps other royals, according to Ashley Jackson, a professor of imperial and military history at King’s College London.
“It’s easy to look at the military career of a royal male and see it as a rite of passage, but with Philip one needs to look beyond that,” he said. “He joined when he wasn’t anywhere near marrying the future queen. This was a career path for a Greek prince,” he added. “This wasn’t a brief dalliance in the military. It’s important to note that he’s clearly an exceptional officer.”
Then known as Philip Mountbatten, he first met his cousin Elizabeth in 1934 at a family wedding. The two are both great-great-grandchildren of Queen Victoria.
The couple exchanged letters while Philip was overseas during the war, only occasionally seeing each other. They would go out driving in Philip’s «tiny MG» sports car, as well as dancing at London nightclubs.
The pair married in Westminster Abbey on Nov. 20, 1947, with around 2,000 guests in attendance and another 200 million listening to the ceremony on the radio.
Before the wedding, Philip wrote to Elizabeth: «To have been spared in the war and seen victory, to have been given the chance to rest and to re-adjust myself, to have fallen in love completely and unreservedly, makes all one’s personal and even the world’s troubles seem small and petty.»
Philip renounced his Greek royal title and became a British citizen. Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, also gave him a new title: the Duke of Edinburgh.
Two years later, the couple moved to Malta, where Philip assumed command of a battleship, the last active command in his military career. Far from Britain, the couple were able to live the life of a naval officer and his wife.
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But any freedom Elizabeth and Philip had was cut short by the declining health of her father. King George VI died in 1952, while Elizabeth, just 25, was in Kenya on a royal tour with Philip. They were relaxing at a wildlife-viewing lodge in the African wilderness when they were informed of the king’s death. Philip broke the news to Elizabeth during a walk on a farm.
From that moment on, he became the queen’s «consort,» the title given to the official companion of the monarch. In that role, Philip, who met every post-war U.S. president apart from Donald Trump, sought to portray himself as working tirelessly in support of his wife.
In a 2011 interview with the British broadcaster ITV, Philip explained why he gave up an active naval career: »Being married to the queen, it seemed to me, my first duty was to serve her in the best way I could.»
He championed causes that caught his imagination, and helped found the Royal Academy of Engineering, which promotes engineering excellence and education, and served as the first president of the World Wildlife Fund.
He created the Duke of Edinburgh Awards, a series of challenges to encourage young people to take up adventures in the outdoors, and had a hand in restoring both Windsor Castle after a devastating fire, and Westminster Abbey. He also promoted the use of the English language outside Britain in the years after the breakup of the British empire.
What’s more, he made the operations of the royal estates more efficient, according to royal biographer Ingrid Seward, who wrote “Prince Philip Revealed.”
“Philip modernized everything but slowly as he had opposition from the old guard who wanted to keep it as it was,” she said. “For instance the Buckingham Palace kitchens, which were almost half a mile from the dining room, took him years to change.”
Even after the couple’s children took on official duties in support of the queen, Philip remained one of the most active royals until his retirement.
He did, however, occasionally make comments deemed racist or insensitive, garnering much unwanted attention to the royal family.
A remark about British students getting «slitty eyes» during a visit to China in the 1980s became symbolic of his often unguarded manner.
One of his grandsons, Prince William, has spoken fondly of his grandfather’s characteristic bluntness, saying in 2004 that he “will tell me something I don’t want to hear and doesn’t care if I get upset about it. He knows it is the right thing to say.»
After retiring from public life in August 2017, Philip continued to draw attention, most notably by crashing his car close to the Sandringham Estate in January 2019. He sent a letter of apology to a woman in the other car who was injured in the wreck, and he gave up his driving license. He also drew criticism when he was photographed soon after driving without a seatbelt.
Unlike many men of his generation, Philip took an active role in raising his children. Prince Charles was born in 1948, and his sister, Princess Anne, two years later. There was a nearly 10-year gap before Prince Andrew was born in 1960, and Prince Edward arrived in 1964.
“For a masculine man, who is proactive, who had probably a stellar naval career ahead of him, to take on what is traditionally a wife’s role for someone of his generation, well, it’s an amazing achievement that he managed to do it so graciously,” said Gristwood.
Eight grandchildren also survive Philip: Peter and Zara Phillips; Prince William and Prince Harry; Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie; and Lady Louise Windsor and James, Viscount Severn. He had 10 great-grandchildren.