The Duke of Edinburgh, who married the future queen in 1947, brought the monarchy into the 20th century, but his occasional tactless comments hurt his image.
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 hospitalized several times in recent years for various ailments, most recently in February, the palace said.
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He died just as Buckingham Palace was again in turmoil, this time over Oprah Winfrey’s explosive televised interview last month with Philip’s grandson Prince Harry and Harry’s wife, Meghan. The couple, in self-imposed exile in California, lodged accusations of racism and cruelty against members of the royal family.
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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, on Nov. 20, 1947 — he at 26, she at 21 — 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.
The wedding held out the promise that the monarchy, like the nation, would survive, and it offered that reassurance in almost fairy-tale fashion, complete with magnificent horse-drawn coaches resplendent in gold and a throng of adoring subjects lining the route between Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey.
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More, it was a heartfelt match. Elizabeth told her father, King George VI, that Philip was the only man she could ever love.
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.
But he did not entirely fade from public view. He surfaced in May 2018, when he joined the sun-splashed pomp of the wedding of Harry and Meghan, waving to crowds lining the streets from the back seat of a limousine, the queen beside him, and striding up the steps of St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle in a crisp morning suit.
By then he had re-emerged as a kind of pop-culture figure, introduced to a whole new generation through the hit Netflix series “The Crown,” a costume drama that has traced the events of postwar Britain through the prism of his buffeted royal marriage. (Matt Smith played the prince as a young man, and Tobias Menzies in middle age.)
Public and Private Faces
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.
Philip had apparently not expected the type of public scrutiny that came with the times, when the washing of dirty linen, even the queen’s, had become a staple of the tabloid press, which he grew to despise.
No headlines were more boisterous than those during the tumultuous marriage and divorce of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. But Philip himself felt the spotlight’s unwelcome glare when the royal family was castigated for a seemingly grudging response to Britain’s outpouring of grief over Diana’s death in a car crash in Paris in 1997.
Painful, too, for Philip was the revelation that Prince Charles, his oldest son, had let it be known that as a child he had been deeply wounded by a father who belittled him time and again, often in front of friends and family.
A 1994 biography, “The Prince of Wales,” by Jonathan Dimbleby with the cooperation of Prince Charles, noted that while Philip indulged “the often brash and obstreperous behavior” of his daughter, Princess Anne, he was openly contemptuous of his son, whom he thought of as “a bit of a wimp.”
Charles, for his part, “was cowed by his father,” who he believed had forced him into a “terrible mismatch” with Diana, Mr. Dimbleby wrote.
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 protecting 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.
Prince Philip carried British passport No. 1 (the queen did not require one) and fulfilled as many as 300 engagements a year, including greeting President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama, at Buckingham Palace in April 2009 and again in May 2011. (He was not in attendance when the queen met with President Donald J. Trump in December 2019 in London.) And he was front and center at royal events, like the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton in April 2011, watched around the world, and Elizabeth’s visit to the Irish Republic, the first by a British monarch, the next month.
Philip was the first member of the royal family to go to the Soviet Union, representing the queen on a trip with the British equestrian team in 1973.
To escape the court 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 license in 2019 at age 97, after his Land Rover 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 Ph.D. in the family, saying, “She’s much more important than I am,” Philip replied, “We have the same problem in our family.”
Deep Roots in Royalty
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 in 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.
A year after Philip was born, the army of King Constantine was overwhelmed by the Turks in Asia Minor, now part of Turkey. Prince Andrew, Philip’s father, who had commanded an army corps in the routed Greek forces, was banished by a revolutionary Greek junta.
In “Prince Philip: The Turbulent Early Life of the Man Who Married Queen Elizabeth II” (2011), the British writer Philip Eade reported that as an infant Philip was smuggled out of Greece in a fruit crate as his father, eluding execution, found refuge for his family in Paris, where they lived in straitened circumstances.
Philip’s father was said to have been an Anglophile. The boy’s first language was English, taught to him by a British nanny. He grew to 6 feet 1 inch, his blue eyes and blond hair reflecting his Nordic ancestry.
When his parents separated, Philip was sent to live with his mother’s mother, the Dowager Marchioness of Milford Haven, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. He spent four years at the Cheam School in England, an institution bent on toughening privileged children, and then went to Gordonstoun School in Scotland, which was even more austere, promoting a regimen of hard work, cold showers and hard beds. In five years, he said, no one from his family came to visit him.
Even so, Philip sent Charles to both schools, to have him follow in his footsteps.
At Gordonstoun, Philip developed a love of the sea, learning seamanship and boatbuilding as a volunteer coast guardsman at the school. He seemed destined to follow his Mountbatten uncles into the British Navy.
While he was at Gordonstoun, in 1937, he learned that his pregnant sister Cecilie had died in a plane crash along with her two children and her husband, a German aristocrat and prominent Nazi Party member. Philip, at 16, traveled to Germany for the funeral and was photographed having to march alongside men in Nazi uniforms with whom he would soon be at war. (Three of his four older sisters had married into the German aristocracy, and another of their husbands became an SS officer. His surviving sisters were later not invited to his wedding to Elizabeth.)
Philip entered the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth in 1939 and was honored as the best all-around cadet of his term. The next year, with Britain at war, the 19-year-old Philip went to sea as a sublieutenant aboard the battleship Ramillies in the Mediterranean fleet. He was later transferred to the Valiant, another battleship.
On March 28, 1941, the British fleet caught an Italian squadron off Cape Matapan in Greece and, with the Royal Air Force’s help, sank three cruisers and two destroyers. Philip participated in the clash, operating a searchlight. “Thanks to his alertness and appreciation of the situation,” his captain wrote, “we were able to sink two eight-inch-gun Italian cruisers.”
Philip was promoted to lieutenant in June 1942 and took part in the Allied landings in Sicily in July 1943 before sailing for the Pacific campaign. There he served as aide-de-camp to his uncle Louis, Lord Mountbatten, who was then the supreme allied commander in Southeast Asia; Philip was on the United States battleship Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945, when the Japanese formally surrendered. (Lord Mountbatten was killed in a bombing by the Irish Republican Army in 1979.)
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 humor” 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.
Articles about the coming marriage pushed reports of food and coal shortages off the front pages. Sales assistants sent ration coupons to the princess (even the royal family was living within limits) so she could have new dresses. The House of Commons approved 100 extra clothing coupons for her. On the eve of the wedding, in 1947, Lieutenant Mountbatten was made the Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth and Baron of Greenwich, and given the title His Royal Highness.
The ‘First Gentleman’
A year later, on Nov. 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, Prince Philip is survived by eight grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
After his marriage, Prince Philip took command of the frigate Magpie in Malta. But King George VI had lung cancer, and when his condition worsened, it was announced that Philip would take no more naval appointments. In 1952, the young couple had reached Kenya, their first stop on a commonwealth tour, when word arrived on Feb. 6 that the king was dead.
It fell to Philip to break the news to his wife.
Philip presided over the Coronation Commission, and in 1952 the new queen ordained that he should be “first gentleman in the land,” giving him “a place of pre-eminence and precedence next to Her Majesty.” Without this distinction, Prince Charles, who was named Duke of Cornwall and later Prince of Wales — the title traditionally given to the heir to the throne — would have ranked above his father.
Philip was appointed to the highest ranks in the armed services: admiral of the fleet, field marshal and marshal of the Royal Air Force. He held the posts without pay.
Four years later, in 1956, Philip, then 35, took a four-month, 36,000-mile sea tour. Ostensibly he was on his way to Melbourne, Australia, for the opening of the Olympic Games, but the trip followed reports of his carousing with friends at bachelor parties in London.
On his return, the queen gave Philip the title Prince of the United Kingdom. By royal warrant, Elizabeth brought her husband’s name into the royal line, ordering that their children, except for Prince Charles, be known as Mountbatten-Windsor.
There were rumors of trouble in the marriage, 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 (he once complained that Henry VIII, whom he called a “wonderful military strategist,” was remembered solely for his six wives), was not a silent bystander in the melodrama. According to Andrew Morton, in his book “Diana: Her True Story,” written with Diana’s cooperation, Charles told her that his father “had agreed that if, after five years, his marriage was not working, he could go back to his bachelor habits.”
Once their differences had become public, however, 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,” in which James Cromwell played Philip to Helen Mirren’s Elizabeth.
Over the years, Philip became a national gadfly and occasional source of embarrassment. In 1961 he criticized 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 comments invited scorn. “I know all about freedom of speech,” he told some students, “because I get kicked in the teeth often enough for saying things.”
Philip was a sportsman. He was captain and mainstay of the Windsor Park polo team. When he turned 50, troubled by arthritis and liver problems, he curtailed his playing and turned to carriage racing. He also started painting.
In an interview on BBC Radio in 1965, Philip recognized that he was missing out on things like “just being able to walk into a cinema or go out to a nightclub or go to a pub.” But he quickly acknowledged the bright side.
“I’ve got a lot of advantages which compensate for it,” he said.