Prince Philip once said that his job – first, second and last – was ‘to never let the Queen down’.
The Duke of Edinburgh died peacefully this morning at Windsor Castle.
Born on 10 June 1921, in Corfu, Greece, it was likely that a life of perennial devotion to the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith – wasn’t the ‘job description’ a young Philip had aspired to.
Evacuated from Greece, literally, in a fruit box, Philip was educated in France, England and Scotland, before taking on a range of active roles in the British Royal Navy.
Things changed, however, for the vigorous and active young man when the then-Elizabeth – who Philip met in 1934 – ascended the throne.
Fate, changed circumstances, a changing of the guard. Whatever you might call it, the moment of Elizabeth’s 1953 coronation clearly symbolised a ‘life adjustment’ not all of us can entirely fathom.
Yet Philip grew into this role – he didn’t expect the role, nor the institution, to grow into him.
This, of course, is entirely unlike the royal example we have seen more recently, where private grievance has been amplified by global media, and rocked the steady private-public institution that Philip and Elizabeth had helped craft over six decades of humble service.
This is not to say Philip possessed all polished moments throughout his life. There is a roster of gaffes, and other ‘non-PC’ jokes, cracked over seven decades, that one can find online of Philip supposedly performing over his many years. But I sense this is more of a reflection of the humorless zealotry of modern life versus an expose of moral shortcomings.
In Ingrid Seward’s recent Prince Philip Revealed: A Man of His Century, Seward recounts an amusing but revealing instance of Philip’s life from his more recent years. When going out for an early morning drive Philip’s on-duty Personal Protection Officer, or ‘PPO’, emerged to accompany him, to which Philip unhappily replied ‘bugger off’ – or something close to the effect.
Quick manoeuvring from another PPO saw a sleight of hand to take the keys out of the ignition, while another officer slipped into the front passenger seat. This maddened a bamboozled Philip who shouted, ‘Who’s nicked the f-ing keys!’.
The Queen, no doubt hearing the commotion, leaned out of the first story courtyard window and called out, ‘What’s the matter, Philip?’.
As Seward recounts, through the supervising PPO at the time:
In a slightly calmer voice, he looked up at her and said, “Someone nicked the f…ing key.” Eventually he cooled down and had to accept the police presence however much he disliked it and they drove off’.
Indeed, there is a great deal in this short but humorous account – the calming influence of her majesty, the perils of constant supervision and the stubborn quest for independence, even after decades knowing you are never really out of the public eye.
One noticeable trait about Philip throughout his life, and that Seward observed in-person many times, was his impeccable presentation at public events, and his unflappable capacity to be entirely engaged at readings, services and other engagements – sitting for hours at a time with a disciplined focus that many of us would find hard to muster, especially at ninety-plus years.
Steely discipline, however, matched self-deprecation – as it did many men of that era. And as it should for all good men. Philip, after all, and most accurately, referred to himself as the ‘world’s most experienced plaque-unveiler’.
We must recognise the humour in this but also say farewell to a man much more. The world that Philip has left changed a great deal in his time. He certainly kept pace. But the values he displayed – devotion, discipline, loyalty – will certainly be valued beyond his time.
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