At the luncheon to celebrate their Golden Wedding in 1997, the Queen said of Prince Philip: “He is someone who doesn’t take easily to compliments, but he has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years, and I and his whole family, in this and many other countries, owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim or we shall ever know.”
There is no doubt that this is true. The task of the monarch – any monarch – is a lonely one and it is not unreasonable to say that the Queen’s 60 years on the throne – some of them very difficult years – would have been impossible without him. This makes speculation on the future inevitable. But the Queen’s extraordinary record of service shows that if and when she is left to carry on alone she will grit her teeth and do so. Her sense of duty informs all her life.
They first met in 1939 during a royal family visit to Dartmouth Naval College, where he was training for the navy. In 1943 he spent Christmas with them and apparently behaved with his natural exuberance, writing afterwards to his hostess, the then Queen, that he hoped “my behaviour did not get out of hand”.
After a subsequent visit, in which he was characteristically forthright, he apologised to the Queen for his political views, which were a good deal to the left of hers.
The marriage took place in November 1947 and from their honeymoon, Prince Philip wrote to his mother-in-law, “Lilibet is the only ‘thing’ in the world which is absolutely real to me and 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 also have a positive existence for the good.”
He has achieved that ambition.
After the Queen came to the throne on the death of her father in 1952, the Prince had to give up his naval career. He tried to modernise some of the rituals of the monarchy, which did not please all those courtiers who considered him a bumptious young prince with too many German relations. And so he created abiding new passions for himself – education, health and sport – and he was a champion of the natural world long before “the environment” became a fashionable cause.
No one would say Prince Philip is an easy man – least of all himself. Self-confident, he does not suffer fools or timidity easily. He sets high standards for those around him, perhaps particularly for his children. On the other hand, when Prince Charles and the Princess of Wales were trying to resolve their differences in the 1990s, Prince Philip tried to help, writing kind letters to the Princess that showed a much softer side to his character than he usually wishes to display.
He says what he thinks and that has frequently brought him scorn and criticism from some parts of the press. He does not seem to mind. Perhaps he knows that ordinary men and women enjoy his plain speaking much more than sententious reporters.
He is pragmatic and once said, “If the people of this country want a republic, that’s a perfectly sensible alternative.” He knows that to retain consent in a kingdom that has been racked by social change since the Queen came to the throne, the monarchy must be both constant and flexible. He was and remains a moderniser.
His heart problems over Christmas came as a great shock. And the reaction to it revealed in how much affection he is held and how much he has done for Queen and country.
One of the Queen’s Private Secretaries used to say “May the Queen live for ever”. One would wish the same for her vital and irreplaceable “strength and stay” as well.
William Shawcross wrote and presented the BBC series Monarchy and Queen and Country.
This is an edited version of an article in the issue of Radio Times magazine published 31 January 2012.
The Diamond Queen starts tonight, 9pm, BBC1.