An Era Closes for the British Crown: Prince Philip Has Died

In Depth
An Era Closes for the British Crown: Prince Philip Has Died

Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, has died at Windsor Castle. He was just shy of 100 years old, and he had been married to Queen Elizabeth II for more than seventy years.

“It is with deep sorrow that Her Majesty The Queen announces the death of her beloved husband, His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh,” the palace announced. “His Royal Highness passed away peacefully this morning at Windsor Castle. Further announcements will made in due course. The Royal Family join with people around the world in mourning his loss.” Philip had recently spent four weeks in the hospital and undergone a heart procedure.

Philip was born Prince Philipos of Greece and Denmark of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, at a summer palace on Corfu; as I wrote in a recent Royal Tea about his long life, Philip’s family was part of the deeply intertwined world of 19th-century European monarchy. But it was all falling apart by the time he was born; his great-aunt, for instance, Empress Alexandra of Russia, had been shot to death in a Siberian basement a few years before he was born.

After being exiled from Greece during a period of political turmoil, his immediate family broke up: his mother had a nervous breakdown then became a nun, while his father shacked up with a mistress in Monte Carlo. Philip was bounced around the continent and the United Kingdom, where he ultimately went into the British Navy. That is, of course, how he met the young Princess Elizabeth: a charming, self-assured, and rather stunning young cadet in a beautiful uniform.

Image:AFP via Getty Images (Getty Images)

Despite doubts from her mother and various courtiers, Elizabeth got her man. Philip’s was a tricky role, as an old-fashioned, macho, domineering man who was nevertheless the sidekick to his wife—in an era where traditional gender roles were a cultural obsession. They settled into a double act: She wore the crown as perhaps the single most famous woman on the planet, while he attempted to “modernize” the monarchy by advocating things like television at the coronation (savvy) and made the decisions about family matters like the rearing of Prince Charles (somewhat disastrous). Sometimes this boiled over, like the long-running conflict over their children’s last names, written about by biographer Sally Bedell Smith; that fight is why Archie’s last name is Mountbatten-Windsor, rather than simply Windsor.

The tension of their dynamic would turn them into late-in-life pop-culture sensations

On public occasions, Elizabeth played the straight man with her polite comments and her eye-catching hats and sensible black handbag, while Philip followed a few steps behind, making blunt remarks and jokes that ranged from cheeky to downright offensive and wildly racist. Until The Crown, anyway, that was perhaps his primary reputation in the United Kingdom: the man who’d stroll along and casually say something jaw-droppingly appalling. But the tension of their dynamic would turn them into late-in-life pop-culture sensations via the blockbuster Netflix show, particularly Philip. Thanks to the work of Matt Smith and Tobias Menzies, many people now have intense feelings about a man they never contemplated before.

Philip also played an important behind-the-scenes role as royal paterfamilias, one of the few people who could tell all his various children and relations what to do. His judgment wasn’t always great on that front, to be clear. He seems to have told Charles that he needed to make up his mind and either marry Diana or dump her, constituting the final push for Charles into a marriage that would be absolutely disastrous. But he retired in 2017, and his retreat from the management of the family firm has been visible in some of the more chaotic recent developments, like Andrew’s disastrous TV interview.

While Philip qualified for a full state funeral in all the immense pomp the British monarchy can muster, the Sun says that he reportedly requested something simpler—“what will fundamentally be a military funeral, with a private service held at St George’s Chapel in Windsor and burial in Frogmore Gardens.” When they lower the casket into the ground, the royal family will enter a new phase; the generational transition has begun.

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