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A life of public service: William Shawcross pays tribute to HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh

Apr 9, 2021


HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, has been a hugely important part of the modern history of our Kingdom and the success of the monarchy.

Princess Elizabeth fell in love with him as a child at Dartmouth College in 1939 never doubted that this handsome, brave, young man with strong views was the only one for her. 

He had a superb naval war record and was Mentioned in Despatches after the Battle of Matapan. 

They married in 1947 when he was embarked on an excellent naval career. It was very hard for him to give that up after the sadly early death of King George VI in 1952, and difficult to sacrifice his Commands for the formal intricacies of Palace life. But adjust he did, and he became an increasingly vital part of British society.

Whatever impatience he may have felt and whatever regret he had for the loss of what would almost certainly have been a glittering naval career, he understood the importance of the monarchy as perhaps the most vital part of the woof and warp of Britain. And he did everything he could to enable his wife and the Family to change as the monarchy always must, to retain the consent of the British people.  (He also said that the monarchy should only exist so long as the British people wanted it.) 

His bluff manner concealed a remarkably thoughtful man as shown in his many books, lectures and exchanges about religious issues with the Right Reverend Michael Mann, published as A Windsor Correspondence.

Far from being a reactionary as sometimes caricatured, he was always compassionate and open minded as well as brave. Prince Charles recorded very movingly that as a school boy at a German boarding school in the 1930s, he stood up for an older Jewish boy being persecuted in the increasingly Nazified atmosphere – at a time when it was really difficult to be anti-racist.

He never followed fashion but always led it – he championed the environment and wildlife long before those became widely followed causes.  

His Duke of Edinburgh Awards Scheme has been perhaps the most practical example of his unique combination of humanity and effectiveness. It has been an inspiration to millions of young people all over the world for many decades. 

In the UK alone, 6.7 million young people have taken on the personal challenge of a D of E Award so far. In Scott Morrison’s statement today, the Australian Prime Minister notes a further 775,000 have done so in Australia.

 He had many other interests, all of which he studied and developed to points of expertise. Having first come to appreciate the importance of engineering as a naval cadet, he went on to found, decades later, the Fellowship of Engineering, which became the Royal Academy of Engineering. “It seemed to me the only way we were going to recover a sort of viability [after the war] was through engineering,” he said in a BBC interview, adding that “Everything not invented by God is invented by engineers.”

In his nineties he said it was time for him to step back. “I think I’ve done my bit. and I think I’ve done what seemed to me my best.” But he never retired. He was present at the Queen’s side through almost all his nineties.

He was never conceited, as the Queen noted when she said in 1997 on the occasion of their Golden Wedding anniversary: “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, and this and many other countries, owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim, or we shall ever know.”

She was absolutely right. The success of the Queen – probably our best as well as longest reigning monarch ever – is in good part based upon the success of that relationship – all 73 years of it. It was a magical marriage and, as she said, the country owes him a vast debt. He gave us, as well as his wife and Queen, his all.

The Queen herself has pointed out, “Grief is the price we must pay for love.” 

It is hard to imagine the grief she must feel now.

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