Prince Philip, the irascible and tough-minded husband of Queen Elizabeth II who spent more than seven decades supporting his wife in a role that both defined and constricted his life, has died, Buckingham Palace said yesterday. He was 99.
His life spanned nearly a century of European history, starting with his birth into the Greek royal family and ending as Britain’s longest-serving consort during a turbulent reign, in which the thousand-year-old monarchy was forced to reinvent itself for the 21st century.
He was known for his occasionally deeply offensive remarks—and for gamely fulfilling more than 20,000 royal engagements to boost British interests at home and abroad. He headed hundreds of charities, founded programmes that helped British schoolchildren participate in outdoor adventures, and played a prominent part in raising his four children.
“It is with deep sorrow that Her Majesty The Queen has announced the death of her beloved husband, His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh,” the palace said.
Philip saw his sole role as providing support for his wife as she confronted the changing demands placed on a constitutional monarch who began her reign as Britain retreated from empire and steered the monarchy through decades of declining social deference and UK power into a modern world where people demand intimacy from their icons.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson noted Philip “helped to steer the royal family and the monarchy so that it remains an institution indisputably vital to the balance and happiness of our national life.”
Challenges over public,
The queen, a very private person not given to extravagant displays of affection, once called him “her rock” in public.
In private, Philip called his wife Lilibet, but he referred to her in conversation with others as “The Queen”.
Philip’s position was a challenging one—there is no official role for the husband of a sovereign queen—and his life was marked by extraordinary contradictions between his public and private duties. He always walked three paces behind his wife in public, but he was the head of the family in private.
Philip often took a wry approach to his unusual position.
“Constitutionally, I don’t exist,” he once said.
Over the course of the decades, Philip’s image changed from that of handsome, dashing athlete to arrogant and insensitive curmudgeon. The popular Netflix series The Crown portrayed a slightly racy, swashbuckling Philip. In his later years, the image finally settled into that of droll and philosophical observer of the times.
Many Britons appreciated what they saw as his propensity to speak his mind while others criticised behaviour they labelled as racist, sexist or out of touch.
In 1995, for example, he asked a Scottish driving instructor, “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to pass the test?” On one visit to a military barracks, he asked a sea cadet instructor if she worked in a strip club.
Still, many believe he was one of the few figures in the queen’s life who was able to speak plainly to her and provide unvarnished advice.
“All her life, she was surrounded by men who said, ‘yes, ma’am’, and he was one man who always told her how it really was, or at least how he saw it,” said royal historian Robert Lacey.
Lacey said at the time of the royal family’s difficult relations with Princess Diana after her marriage to Prince Charles broke down, Philip spoke for the family with authority.
From family exile to
controversial final years
Philip was descended from Danish and German royalty and, like Elizabeth, was a great-great-grandchild of Queen Victoria.
Born June 10, 1921, on the dining room table at his parents’ home on the Greek island of Corfu, Philip was the fifth child and only son of Prince Andrew, younger brother of the king of Greece.
When Philip was 18 months old, his parents were forced into exile and fled to France.
Philip went to school in Britain, attended Britannia Royal Naval College Dartmouth and eventually served in World War II.
Having given up a promising naval career when Elizabeth became queen at age 25, Philip was not content to stay on the sidelines. He promoted British industry and science, espoused environmental preservation long before it became fashionable, and travelled widely and frequently in support of his many charities.
In May 2017, Philip announced he was stepping back from royal duties.
His final years were clouded by controversy and fissures within the royal family.
His third child, Prince Andrew, was embroiled in scandal over his friendship with American financier Jeffrey Epstein, who died in a New York prison in 2019 while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges.
Andrew faced accusations from a woman who said she had several sexual encounters with the prince at Epstein’s behest. He denied the claim but withdrew from public royal duties.
At the start of 2020, Philip’s grandson Prince Harry and his wife, the American former actress Meghan Markle, announced they were quitting royal duties. Last month, they gave an explosive interview to Oprah Winfrey, saying Meghan had suffered neglect and racist attitudes while a working member of the family.
The palace called the issues raised by the couple “concerning” and said they would be “addressed by the family privately”.
Philip is survived by the queen and their four children—Prince Charles, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward—as well as eight grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren.