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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

For Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, ‘the only man I could ever love’

Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, father of Prince Charles and patriarch of a turbulent royal family that he sought to ensure would not be Britain’s last, died on Friday at Windsor Castle in England. He was 99.

Written by MARILYN BERGER |
April 10, 2021 4:47:18 am
Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, father of Prince Charles and patriarch of a turbulent royal family that he sought to ensure would not be Britain’s last, died on Friday at Windsor Castle in England. He was 99.

His death was announced by Buckingham Palace, which said he passed away peacefully.

Philip had been hospitalised several times in recent years for various ailments, most recently in February, the palace said. The queen and Prince Philip received their first doses of the coronavirus vaccine in January.

He died just as Buckingham Palace was again in turmoil, this time over Oprah Winfrey’s explosive televised interview with Philip’s grandson Prince Harry and Harry’s biracial wife, Meghan, on March 7, when the couple, in self-imposed exile in California, lodged accusations of racism and cruelty against members of the royal family.

As “the first gentleman in the land”, 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. Now it was to help preserve the crown itself.

And yet preservation — of Britain, of the throne, of centuries of tradition — had always been the mission. When this tall, handsome prince married the young crown princess, Elizabeth, (he at 26, she at 21) on November 20, 1947, a battered Britain was still recovering from World War II, the sun had all but set on its empire, and the abdication of Edward VIII over his love for Wallis Simpson, a divorced American, was still reverberating a decade later.

Philip occupied a peculiar place on the world stage as the husband of a queen whose powers were largely ceremonial. He was essentially a second-fiddle figurehead, accompanying her on royal visits and sometimes standing in for her.

And yet he embraced his royal role as a job to be done. “We have got to make this monarchy thing work,” he was reported to have said.

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.

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.

Many saw Philip as a mostly remote if occasionally loose-lipped personage in public, given to riling constituents with off-the-cuff remarks that were called oblivious, insensitive or worse. To a Black British politician he was quoted as saying, “And what exotic part of the world do you come from?”

As the years went by, word seeped out that Philip, in private, could be irascible and demanding, cold and domineering — and that as parents, he and an emotionally reserved queen brought little warmth into the household.

Even more, as many Britons came to see the royal family as increasingly dysfunctional, they found Philip to be a not-insignificant actor in a state of affairs that had many questioning the very thing that he and Elizabeth had been elevated to ensure: the monarchy’s stability.

Though the glory he knew was largely of the reflected kind, Philip nevertheless enjoyed the privileges and prerogatives of the British crown, living in luxury, sailing yachts, playing polo and piloting planes. And he used his station to promote the common good, lending his name and time to causes like building playing fields for British youths and preserving endangered wildlife.

Another was instituting efficiencies at Buckingham Palace, originally bought by his and Elizabeth’s ancestor George III. Philip had intercoms installed, for example, to obviate the need for messengers.

At home he 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.

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 licence in 2019 at age 97, after his Land Rover had 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 PhD in the family, saying, “She’s much more important than I am,” Philip replied, “We have the same problem in our family.”

Philip was born on the Greek island of Corfu on June 10, 1921, the fifth child and only son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark, who was the brother of King Constantine of Greece. His mother was the former Princess Alice, the oldest daughter of the former Prince Louis of Battenberg, the first Marquess of Milford Haven, who changed the family name to Mountbatten during World War I.

Philip’s family was not Greek but rather descended from a royal Danish house that the European powers had put on the throne of Greece at the end of the 19th century. Philip, who never learned the Greek language, was sixth in line to the Greek throne.

Through his mother, Philip was a great-great-grandson of Queen Victoria, just as Elizabeth is Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter. Both were great-great-great-grandchildren of George III, who presided over Britain’s loss of the American colonies.

Where or when Philip first met Princess Elizabeth remains unclear, but it seems certain that he was invited to dine on the royal yacht when Elizabeth was 13 or 14, and that he was also invited to stay at Windsor Castle around that time while on leave from the Navy. There were reports that he had visited the royal family at Balmoral, its country estate in Scotland, and that by the time the weekend was over, Elizabeth had made up her mind, telling her father that this dashing young naval officer was “the only man I could ever love”.

George VI had doubts. He took her to South Africa on a royal tour, cautioned her to be patient and wrote to his own mother, Queen Mary.

“We both think that she is too young for that now, as she has never met any young men of her own age,” George wrote. But he added: “I like Philip. He is intelligent, has a good sense of humour” and “thinks about things in the right way”.

Elizabeth was said to have written to Philip three times a week while she toured South Africa. By the time she returned to England, Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark had renounced his foreign titles and become Lt Philip Mountbatten, a British subject. The gesture pleased his future father-in-law. The engagement was announced on July 10, 1947.

On November 14, 1948, Elizabeth gave birth to the couple’s first child, Charles Philip Arthur George, at Buckingham Palace. Charles was followed by Princess Anne, in 1950; Prince Andrew, in 1960, after Elizabeth had become queen; and Prince Edward, in 1964. In addition to the queen and his four children, he is survived by eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

There were rumours of trouble in Philip’s marriage with the queen, reports of raised voices in the palace corridors. But the marital difficulties of their children overshadowed any discord between the parents. Princess Anne was divorced from her first husband, Mark Phillips, in 1992, and Prince Andrew’s divorce in 1996 from Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, who was known as Fergie, provided a field day for the tabloids.

But those divorces paled beside the travails of Charles and Diana. And Philip, a vigilant guardian of royal propriety was not a silent bystander in the melodrama. Philip registered his disapproval of Diana by snubbing her at the Royal Ascot horse race. And after Diana, at 36, was killed in 1997, Philip came in for his share of criticism when the royal family remained out of view at Balmoral, seemingly out of touch with the public’s grief, an attitude portrayed as stubborn and cold in the 2006 film The Queen.

Over the years, Philip became a national gadfly and occasional source of embarrassment. In 1961 he criticised British industry as a bastion for “the smug and the stick-in-the-mud,” calling failures in manufacturing and commerce “a national defeat.” He was said to write his own speeches, and his habit of saying what he thought made him good copy.

In 1995 he asked a Scottish driving instructor, “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to pass the test?” On a visit to Australia in 2002, he asked an aboriginal leader, “Do you still throw spears at each other?” And speaking about smoke alarms in 1998 to a woman who had lost two sons in a fire, he said: “They’re a damn nuisance. I’ve got one in my bathroom, and every time I run my bath, the steam sets it off.”

THE NEW YORK TIMES

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