At the conclusion of his sonnet “On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic”, Wordsworth writes, “Men are we, and must grieve when even the Shade / Of that which once was great is passed away.” Only poetry finds the right words for historic events and the death of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh last Friday, 9th April, aged 99, is one such occasion.
There has been enormous public and media response to his death, almost as if the Prince had to die before the collective comprehension of the British public could begin to appreciate his legacy. For years typecast by the press as a bluff, gaffe-prone, ex-naval officer who enjoyed the sport of rich men such as polo, or caricatured in films such as The Queen, we are slowly discovering the extraordinary range of his interests and charitable work and – no doubt a surprise to many – his thoughtful, highly intelligent, enquiring mind.
There is genuine public sympathy for the Queen, who has lost the one person who made it possible for her to carry the burden of the monarchy in the exemplary way she has done. King George VI once commented about his daughter: “Poor girl; she will always be lonely” – but she wasn’t, and this is owing largely to the man she chose to marry.
People write of a “love match”, as indeed it was, but not of the modern Hollywood kind. During his courtship of his future wife, Prince Philip wrote to her mother, the Queen: “My ambition is to weld the two of us into a new combined existence that will not only be able to withstand the shocks directed at us but will have a positive existence for the good.” The wording might sound slightly wooden for a young man in love (Philip was 26 when he married the then-Princess Elizabeth in November 1947), but it is remarkably prescient of the way their marriage – the rock on which all Prince Philip’s future achievements were built – was such an enduring success.
The Prince understood that, given Elizabeth’s destiny, they had to be a strong team, not merely a comfortable married couple; that the slings and arrows of a life lived relentlessly under public scrutiny would be theirs in full measure; and that their marriage could and should be used to enhance and enrich the lives of her subjects. For this deeply serious young man (perhaps a talent for humorous one-liners always conceals latent seriousness), human existence had a purpose beyond itself; the choice to do good to others with the chances you are offered.
If what I have written here makes Prince Philip sound highly unusual for a royal spouse, even given the historical example before him of the creative and gifted Albert, Prince Consort, husband of Queen Victoria, well, everything I have read about him in these last few days only consolidates my impression of him formed over the years, despite the invariably trivial, headline-seeking press.
What formed his character – one of active, unwavering devotion to his Coronation oath to serve the Queen and her people for the whole of his long life? Here the intervention in Philip’s life of the German-Jewish educationalist Kurt Hahn, founder of Gordonstoun School, when he was aged 13 and most in need of a father-figure and mentor to guide his natural abilities, is crucial.
Hahn was no cranky eccentric. In the mould of Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby School in the Victorian age, he was a genuine innovator and visionary teacher. Surveying society between the two world wars, he believed young people were “surrounded by a sick civilisation … in danger of being affected by a fivefold decay: the decay of fitness, the decay of initiative and enterprise, the decay of care and skill, the decay of self-discipline, the decay of compassion.”
Philip, who had become essentially homeless after his parents’ marriage broke up when he was aged nine, his mother having a mental breakdown and his father abandoning the family, took to the spartan, character-forming life at Gordonstoun as if it had been tailormade for his personality. When he left the school for Dartmouth Naval College in 1939, aged 18, Hahn, the headmaster, wrote: “He has the greatest sense of service of all the boys in the school. [He is] a born leader but will need the exacting demands of a great service to do justice to himself.”
After a distinguished war career in which he was mentioned in despatches for his energy, bravery, quick-thinking and leadership, the young naval officer was ready and prepared for that “great service” to which marriage to the heir to the British throne called him. Even by the standards of youthful maturity at the time, when young men were being called up to fight and often die for their country, he was mature beyond his years.
Hahn had already noticed Prince Philip’s qualities when he was at school: “unusual courage”, an “exemplary sense of justice”, a “natural power of command” which ensured he was “universally liked, trusted and respected”; he became head boy and later, first in his class at Dartmouth.
But what has also been notable in surveying Prince Phillip’s life has been his modesty; given his status and abilities he might easily have been tempted by vanity, egoism (the vice of his uncle, Lord Mountbatten). But when talking to his biographers and to interviewers he always deflected attention from himself to others and downplayed his own contributions. Indeed, when once asked if he wanted to be remembered for his Duke of Edinburgh Awards Scheme for young people on completion of a series of tough mental and physical challenges, awards which have been given to thousands of young people throughout the world since they were established in the 1950s, he was quick to point to his old mentor, Kurt Hahn, as the originator of the scheme.
The Queen is on record as describing her husband memorably as her “strength and stay” during her long reign, adding – poignantly, in view of his death – that “the country owes him a debt greater than it will ever know.” But she knew; as a naturally shy and modest person herself, conservative in temperament and conscientious in duty, she had experienced at first hand his loving encouragement of her confidence, as well as his devotion to the many causes dear to his heart: conservation, wildlife, design and technology, sports and playing fields for young people, ex-servicemen – the list goes on.
My older brother had the honour and privilege of being Prince Philip’s equerry – a kind of aide-de-camp – as a young army officer in the late 1970s. He saw the Prince daily for over two and a half years and once described him to me as “a consummate professional”. He did not mean this in the usual sense of a paid career, in contrast to that of an amateur. He used the word in a deeper sense: that of a man who undertook whatever he did wholeheartedly, giving it all his attention and energy, combined with a fundamental seriousness of purpose.
Looking back at his long life – almost a century, though it is certain he would have heartily disliked the attention that such a milestone would have brought him – I would characterise Prince Philip and his wartime generation as exemplifying an “Age of Stoicism”, but one of fortitude rather than resignation. He was impatient with those who wanted him to feel sorry for himself at the vicissitudes of his upbringing. “I just got on with it,” he would reply.
This Age is in marked contrast with today’s generation, who live in what I would describe as the “Age of Therapy”. This generation endlessly fixates on its problems, its grievances, its sense of victimhood. Nowhere has such a self-centred approach been so in evidence as in the February television interview of Prince Harry (Philip’s grandson) and his wife with Oprah Winfrey. The Duke of Edinburgh was in hospital when it was broadcast, which made its timing particularly heartless. I would like to think that in view of his frailty, age and ill health, his family conspired to protect him from knowing anything about it.
If he had known, he would have borne it with the fortitude that he faced everything in his life but he would, nonetheless, have been deeply upset at the hurt he knew it would cause the woman he had pledged to protect all his days, the Queen. For Prince Harry’s generation, addicted to therapeutic solutions to the natural misfortunes of life, Prince Philip will appear an unfeeling dinosaur. But the values and virtues that were instilled in him from a young age, such as selflessness, loyalty, perseverance and self-control, are vital ones that every generation and society require to flourish.
He once described himself to Gyles Brandreth, his biographer and friend for over 40 years, as “pragmatic” — in contrast to Prince Charles, whom he described as a “romantic”. Actually, these adjectives don’t do justice to either man: Prince Charles is no idle dreamer; he is as passionate as his father about helping disadvantaged young people and about conservation. And Prince Philip is much more than a pragmatist, someone who simply gets on with the job in hand without reflecting on it.
It is interesting to note that when he finally stepped back from public duties – aged 97 – Prince Philip elected to withdraw for long periods, with his wife’s blessing, to Wood Farm, a modest house on the Sandringham estate, with only a cook and valet for company. He spent his days painting (another passion he shared with his oldest son) and reading. In his personal library of 11,000 books, all carefully catalogued, volumes on birdwatching and religion take up the most space.
Religion? A letter to the Daily Telegraph by Zaki Cooper, trustee of the Council of Christians and Jews, refers to the Prince’s strong Christian faith and the way he brought together different faiths by founding St George’s House in Windsor in 1966 “as a forum for civil society, faith groups and others to debate significant issues.” The letter adds that Philip organised an interfaith dialogue between Jews, Christians and Muslims in 1984. And on the radio this morning the Archbishop of York recalled the Prince once questioning him on the meaning of a homily he had just preached to the Royal Family.
As with other aspects of his life, Prince Philip did not talk about his own faith; he believed it, read about it – he even collaborated on a book about the relationship between Christianity and evolution – and practised it unostentatiously. His mother, who had harboured Jews in her house in Athens during the war, was given the title of “Righteous Gentile” by Israel and is buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Whatever his parents’ dereliction of parental duty, their son was unfailingly generous to them: he never criticised them; he wore his father’s signet ring all his life and called his second son “Andrew” after him; he vigorously rebutted suggestions that his mother was eccentric in her choice of dress and way of life.
Prince Philip once admitted he did not like to attend concerts. This was not because he disliked music, but because he knew its power to evoke strong emotions, emotions that he had learnt not so much to suppress as to control for the sake of a greater good. Prince Harry’s generation is about the display of emotion, whether appropriate or not; it suggests the semblance of compassion – virtue-signalling – rather than the substance.
His grandfather, about whom moving testimonies from countless ordinary men and women he had met, laughed with, helped and corresponded with over the years – he always replied to letters the day he received them – have been flooding in since the news of his death, understood the difference between words and deeds.
With his death the Age he exemplified has passed; it is sad to say, but I do not think we will see his like again.