Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who has died aged 99, was the longest-serving royal consort in Britain’s history and the figure on whom Queen Elizabeth II has depended throughout her nearly 70 years on the throne.
Thanks to a famously testy relationship with the media, the public sometimes saw a caricature — a cantankerous man, living in his wife’s shadow with no constitutional role, whose frustration was vented in outbursts of candour that showed him ill at ease with the times.
In later years, that image softened as the family “firm”, of which he was the patriarch, rose above its troubles and many grew to admire his dedication over decades of service. What were once seen as gaffes came to be viewed as jokes. There was also a greater appreciation of his role as patron of more than 800 organisations.
His influence on the Queen and on the monarchy’s development over 70 years was considerable. No one played a more important role in grappling with how to respond to obsessive media interest that, at some points, threatened to bring down the institution.
Philip was a moderniser who became more traditional. It was he who invented the royal walkabout, the informality of which made the family accessible to the media, and brought cameras into Buckingham Palace. Yet he came to regret opening the floodgates to what he later saw as an intrusion.
To the Queen he was “my strength and stay all these years”, but in spite of his background as an outsider, and the difficulties that caused him early on, some viewed him as unsympathetic when the arrival of another, Lady Diana Spencer, threatened the established order. Her popular touch contrasted with his stiff correctness in duty and behaviour. When her marriage to Prince Charles hit the rocks, he tried and failed to reconcile the couple.
As a young man, Philip was boisterous and self-confident, with striking blond good looks and the seeds of the brusqueness that would mark his later life. His family history set him apart as a loner.
Born in Corfu on June 10 1921, into the chaos that surrounded the Greek royal family, he was carried away at the age of 18 months in an orange box aboard a Royal Navy vessel as his family fled the military junta that had overthrown the monarchy. He was eighth in line to the throne.
They were hardly Greek at all: a branch of the Danish royal family that had been invited to take the Greek throne. His relatives were largely German or English; his name was Philip Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg.
He had a rootless early existence, drifting among Europe’s minor royal households. His mother, Princess Alice, sister of Lord Louis Mountbatten and one of Queen Victoria’s many great-granddaughters, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and separated from his father, Prince Andrew.
Philip was educated at Cheam School and the German school Salem. When its Jewish headmaster, Kurt Hahn, fled Nazi persecution and set up Gordonstoun school in Scotland, Philip was one of the first pupils. He thrived in its atmosphere of spartan self-discipline. Mountbatten, who was also his godfather, was a huge influence and support — the uncle’s ambition to link the Mountbatten name with the ruling house of Windsor helped to smooth the path to Philip’s marriage to Elizabeth.
At Mountbatten’s urging, Philip joined the Royal Navy in 1939 and, on a royal visit to the naval college in Dartmouth, he showed the 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth around. Marion Crawford, Elizabeth’s governess, remembered “a fair-haired boy, rather like a Viking . . . he was good-looking, though rather offhand in his manner. Lillibet never took her eyes off him the whole time.”
While Mountbatten sought to remove the many obstacles to a royal romance, Philip served in the second world war in the Mediterranean, where he took part in the battle of Cape Matapan, and the Pacific.
Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, sought to slow the pace of courtship, but Elizabeth was determined. When she married Philip in 1947, memories of the war were so fresh that he felt it necessary to distance himself from his three surviving elder sisters — all wedded to Germans, one to a prominent Nazi — and he also renounced his Greek Orthodox religion and nationality. He changed his name to Philip Mountbatten and was made Duke of Edinburgh on his wedding day.
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, advised Elizabeth to proclaim that the royal house was to remain known as Windsor. The Duke privately complained: “I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his own children.” In 1960, Elizabeth, by then the Queen, issued an order in council declaring that the surname of male-line descendants of the Duke and the Queen who are not styled as Royal Highness or titled as prince or princess, was to be Mountbatten-Windsor.
The marriage seemed happy, with Charles born within a year and Anne two years after; Andrew and Edward came later. But Philip’s battles with the old guard at Buckingham Palace began immediately. Alan “Tommy” Lascelles, King George’s private secretary, wrote in his diary that Philip was “rough, ill-mannered, uneducated and will probably not be faithful”.
Philip, with a short fuse, did little to appease the courtiers and appointed Mike Parker, a young Australian, to be his own private secretary. The old guard disapproved of the company Philip kept.
King George VI’s death in 1952 was a shock. For the rest of his life Philip would be two steps behind the new queen. Unlike Victoria’s husband Albert, he had no formal position as prince consort: at the coronation he swore to be her “liegeman of life and limb”. In 1957, she granted him the title Prince of the UK by Letters Patent, restoring the princely status that he had formally renounced 10 years earlier.
The mid-1950s were restless years, with speculation about problems in the marriage, which enraged the Duke and dismayed the Queen. But he kept busy and, in 1956, founded the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme for achievement by young people. Over the years he became a formidable charity fundraiser.
He took charge of the children’s upbringing and did so with devotion. There was much happiness, though he got on better with the tomboy Anne than with sensitive Charles, the heir. Philip’s attempt to toughen him up by sending him to Gordonstoun only made the firstborn miserable.
By the 1960s, Philip was the monarchy’s chief image-maker. He persuaded Elizabeth that the family should be more accessible and in 1969 opened its doors to the documentary Royal Family. But he rapidly came to resent the media’s intrusiveness and developed a hostility to the royal press corps that became mutual.
A series of arguments took things from bad to worse — over remarks on US television in 1969 that the royal family was underfunded by the taxpayer; over becoming president of the World Wildlife Fund in 1981, when attention was drawn to his penchant for shooting wildlife; and on a royal visit to China in 1986 when he told British students they would “go back with slitty eyes” if they stayed there too long. By the time the monarchy’s image problems exploded in the 1980s and 1990s, he was seen as a conservative figure rather than the iconoclast of 40 years before.
Although he and Charles admired each other, some felt the disasters could have been averted if Philip had a more understanding relationship with his son. It was pressure from Philip for Charles to end his hesitation over marriage that led to the troubled union with Diana Spencer.
Whether anyone could have avoided the ructions is questionable. By 1992, when Charles and Diana’s marriage had broken down, the Queen and Philip hosted a meeting between the couple, trying to reconcile them. Philip wrote to Diana, expressing disappointment at both Charles’s and her extramarital affairs and asking her to examine his and her behaviour alike from the other’s point of view. She found the letters hard to take but appreciated he was acting with good intent.
After Diana’s death in a car accident in 1997, Philip concentrated on protecting his grandsons, William and Harry. Mohamed al-Fayed, the Egyptian-born Harrods tycoon whose son Dodi was also killed in the Paris crash, subsequently claimed that Philip had ordered Diana’s death. But an inquest in 2008 concluded there was no evidence of any conspiracy.
As the new millennium unfolded, the royal family’s reputation improved. The Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012, marking her 60 years atop the throne, brought public celebrations across Britain. The popularity of her grandsons suggested the monarchy was on firm footing for at least another generation.
More recently, the decision by Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, to step back as senior members of the royal family and live in California underlines how uncomfortable the media spotlight continues to be. Prince Andrew’s travails over his connections to sex offender Jeffrey Epstein have been another woe.
Prince Philip retired from royal duties in 2017. In January 2019, he was involved in a car crash near the Sandringham estate, in which two people in the other car were injured; he apologised and surrendered his driving licence.
Philip, whom the historian David Starkey nicknamed “HRH Victor Meldrew”, after the elderly and famously grumpy UK television character, came to be seen as a national treasure. Six decades’ service at those two paces behind had earned him that.