Last week, Buckingham Palace announced that Prince Philip, husband to Queen Elizabeth II for nearly 75 years, had passed away aged 99. Although the royal family has had no formal role in governing these shores since early-July of 1776, it maintains an intriguing and even fascinating grip on a part of the American psyche. While many of us are happy to ignore the front-page antics of his descendants, Philip’s passing represents the end of an era we ought to mourn. The paragon of the “greatest generation, Philip was hardly a typical royal – even by more traditional standards and expectations. He endured extraordinary hardship, from political instability that nearly cost him his family, to a schizophrenic mother and a father who essentially abandoned him, to active, in-theater service under fire in World War II. Philip witnessed Britain’s transition from a global empire to a relatively middling world power. Almost without exception, Philip faithfully served as an example of fortitude, duty, and personal (if not necessarily material) sacrifice in an era in which tradition was gradually washed away. Everyone, but particularly the younger members of the royal family, could benefit from embracing his example.
He endured extraordinary hardship, from political instability that nearly cost him his family, to a schizophrenic mother and a father who essentially abandoned him, to active, in-theater service under fire in World War II.
Prince Philip was born in 1921, in a time when Europe’s monarchies faced unprecedented threats. Just four years earlier, Philip’s Romanov relatives in Russia – including his great aunt Alexandra, the wife of the last czar– were violently murdered. Philip’s own grandfather, the King of Greece, was assassinated by a socialist dissident in 1913. Fearing for their lives, Philip’s family fled to Britain. The Prince himself, then 18 months old, was stowed away in an orange crate. Growing up as a stateless person – without a country, much less a kingdom – Philip found his first home in the British Royal Navy. He rose quickly up the ranks and graduated as the top cadet in his class. A grateful Philip embraced his new nation wholeheartedly and repaid his debt with a lifetime of loyal service.
The Prince married then-Princess Elizabeth in 1947, and he understood his crucial role from the start. For almost 70 years, he dutifully walked just behind the Queen. It has been said that Prince Philip got on particularly well with Denis Thatcher because “neither man was put on earth to walk three paces behind his wife.” But both did. He carried out over 20,000 solo engagements on behalf of the Crown and did more than most to secure the monarchy’s place in the vastly transformative twentieth century. His efforts to modernize the Crown included convincing his wife and her advisers to televise her 1953 coronation and undertake other media projects that introduced and humanized the seemingly austere royal family. While he made more than his fair share of gaffes over the years, Philip nevertheless understood that restraint and deference were absolutely vital in his position. In decades of public service, Philip put loyalty to the institution he served before any desire to publicly express his personal opinions on issues of the day.
In decades of public service, Philip put loyalty to the institution he served before any desire to publicly express his personal opinions on issues of the day.
Philip’s exceptional legacy contrasts starkly with that of some younger members of the royal family. In their recent, provocative interview with Oprah, for instance, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle – the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, whose efforts to trademark the “Sussex Royal” brand the Queen demonetized as quickly and effectively as a Big Tech robber baron – defied years of royal protocol. It is hard to imagine the “penniless pauper Prince” bemoaning the lack of financial support from the Crown, while signing contracts with Netflix and Spotify. Prince Philip was present in Tokyo Bay for the signing of the Japanese instrument of surrender in 1945. Markle, meanwhile, felt aggrieved because she was expected to Google the national anthem of the country she had just sworn fealty to. Despite both being outsiders to marry into the upper echelons of the royal family, their service is not the same.
Although he was a gifted naval officer with a boundless future, and an energetic and dynamic figure in his own right, Philip set aside his pride and personal ambition to serve the higher, noble purpose of institutional loyalty. In doing so, he made a greater mark than he could have done by pursuing his own interests. Whatever his alleged faults, Philip was a man of honor, virtue, and tradition in a world that increasingly lacks all three. We may never see another like him, and for that we are all the poorer.
Goodbye Prince Philip. Thank you for the memories – and the laughs.