Queen Elizabeth’s beloved husband of 74 years has died. One knows the inevitability of death, but it is difficult to imagine Queen Elizabeth a widow, when the royal couple have been a constant of most of our lives. Prince Philip served uniquely well in a role that couldn’t have been easy. His was a remarkable public life that began far different than it finished. A glamorous and handsome figure, the media loved to portray his “gaffes,” but I found him engaging, charming and brilliantly funny when I had the honor to meet him.
On their golden anniversary in 1997, Queen Elizabeth paid tribute to her husband, saying, “He has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years.” Seventy-four years of matrimony is the longest of any British sovereign (George III and Queen Charlotte follow with 57 years). A queen who reigns in her own right (queen regnant) cannot have a spouse who outranks her. Hence, Prince Philip was “prince consort.” Serving in a suppoting role, always a step or two behind his wife could not have been for Philip, a sports-loving man’s man, the epitome of masculine charm. One wonders if anyone else could have risen to the occasion so well.
While he grew up mostly in Britain, Philip was born in Greece in 1920, the son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark, and Princess Alice of Battenberg. After completing his studies at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, Prince Philip served in the Royal Navy during World War II in both the Mediterranean and the Pacific. In 1947 he became a British subject, married his distant cousin, Princess Elizabeth, heir to the British throne and was given the title “Duke of Edinburgh. The couple had four children, and Philip continued naval service until Elizabeth succeeded to the throne in 1952 when he began to share in public life as the queen’s consort.
The prince took to life as a senior royal very well. Not only was he an outstanding partner for his wife on her dizzying schedule of royal duties including overseas tours, but he also was the patron of many important and worthwhile philanthropies, in his own right, casting an unparalleled light on such important issues as national community service, physical fitness and wildlife preservation.
Never hesitant to speak his mind, Prince Philip was famous for his uncensored quips which the politically correct media loved to portray as “gaffes,” but in reality were brilliant social observations, often delivered with the timing of a great actor. There are so many examples, but in my humble opinion, some of his best include:
“When a man opens a car door for his wife, it’s either a new car or a new wife.” (on marriage).
“Oh no, I might catch some ghastly disease.” (in Australia, in 1992, when asked to stroke a Koala bear).
“You look like a suicide bomber.” (to a young female officer wearing a bullet-proof vest on Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, in 2002).
“I wish he’d turn the microphone off.” (muttered at the Royal Variety Performance as he watched Sir Elton John perform, 2001.
For my part, I got off easy. I was privileged to meet Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip at a garden party at the British Embassy during their 2007 state visit. Queen Elizabeth acknowledged me extending a hand, but Prince Philip was positively chatty. He asked, “What is your affiliation here today, young man.” Inclining my head, I shared, “Your Royal Highness, I am the founder of the Congressional United Kingdom Caucus.” Without losing a breath, he shot back, “Oh, I DO hope there are more than two members.” “Not to worry, sir,” I replied. “It is one of the most popular groups in the Congress.” He nodded and moved on. I shall never forget that moment.
If you consider the Duke of Edinburgh side by side with younger members of the royal family, particularly some very recent ones who chose to withdraw from royal life, he put them to shame. It was estimated that, until his retirement in 2017, he had carried out over 22,000 solo appearances.
Moreover the duke inspired thousands of young people, including in the U.S., with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards Scheme a leading global youth achievement award, equipping young people for life.
It would be difficult to imagine a better life partner for the British monarch. His passing is a huge loss not only for his family, and the U.K., but for the world. He was one of the last of his kind: a dashing, brilliant, charismatic figure that understood that while important, star quality is of lesser importance than duty.
• Lee Cohen, a senior fellow of the Bow Group and the Danube Institute, was adviser on Great Britain to the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee and founded the Congressional United Kingdom Caucus.
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