One of the more unexpected contributions I made to Cambridge University while I was in its employ was as the indirect progenitor of the regius professorship of engineering. When I was introduced to Prince Philip, attending a reception in 2010 for benefactors to the university in his capacity as the university’s chancellor, he looked me in the eye and barked: “So what do you do then?” “I’m regius professor of history, sir,” I replied, upon which he turned to the vice-chancellor, who was standing next to me, and said: “Why don’t we have a regius professorship of engineering?” Never one to miss an opportunity, the vice-chancellor, Alison Richard, was on the phone to the Palace first thing the next morning, reporting that the Duke of Edinburgh had suggested the creation of a regius chair of engineering (the prestigious title “regius professor” is in the gift of the monarch, though nowadays the universities where these posts are located have to meet all the costs). It seemed a good opportunity to mark Prince Philip’s retirement after 35 years as chancellor, so the chair was duly created the following year, to go alongside other venerable regius professorships in subjects such as hebrew, greek and divinity.
The incident said a lot about the Duke of Edinburgh, not just his spontaneity and impulsiveness, but also his identification with the modern and the practical, with technology and innovation, for which he was particularly famous in his early years as the Queen’s consort. It found expression, among other things, in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards, established in 1956 and designed to teach self-confidence to adolescents through fostering practical skills, sending them on independent expeditions, developing fitness and sporting prowess, and engaging in community service. By now the scheme has extended to 144 countries across the world.
He was patron of the Industrial Society (now the Work Foundation), devoted to improving the quality of working life, and president of the National Playing Fields Association. Having been on active service in the Royal Navy during the Second World War, he was the first member of the royal family to fly out of Buckingham Palace in a helicopter. He pursued a wide variety of sporting activities, including polo, sailing and carriage driving, for which he helped draw up the rules for competitive events. A less well-known hobby was painting in oils, producing artworks that the architect Hugh Casson described as “exactly what you’d expect… totally direct, no hanging about. Strong colours, vigorous brushstrokes.” A lifetime of physical activity may well help explain his extraordinary longevity and his continued devotion to his often-demanding royal duties well into the second half of his tenth decade.
Prince Philip took his duties as Cambridge’s chancellor very seriously, was conscientious in attending formal events, most notably perhaps Cambridge’s 800th anniversary celebrations in 2009, and behind the scenes his office would on occasion intervene tactfully to smooth over the donnish disputes that sometimes caused major ructions in one or other of the colleges. With him as its formal head, Cambridge University was able to offer major benefactors visits to otherwise inaccessible royal palaces. On one such occasion, at Windsor, one of the guests of honour was held up in a traffic jam on the way. To pass the time, the Duke of Edinburgh opened up the Private Chapel, next to St George’s Hall and showed half a dozen of us around, recounting the course of the disastrous fire that gutted it in 1992 and explaining his role in its reconstruction, including the design of the new stained-glass windows. He struck me then as an open, affable, natural person, good company no matter who you were.
Of course, his openness was what often got him into trouble. Whole books (mostly Christmas stocking-fillers) were put together by compiling examples of his notorious gaffes, though many of them resulted from a habit of joking with people in order to put them at their ease. When he told British students in China in 1986 “if you stay here much longer you’ll go slit-eyed”, he was pounced on by the British press for the alleged racism of the statement, though a Chinese official later explained that it was common enough to tell Chinese students who spent a lot of time in the West that if they didn’t return soon, they’d go round-eyed. He suggested that his gaffes gave him the image of a “cantankerous old sod”, but that’s not how he struck me on the occasions when I met him.
As chancellor of Cambridge University, Philip followed in the footsteps of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, although he served in the position for far longer. There are obvious similarities between the two men and the influence they exercised, not least in their shared enthusiasm for science and technology. Prince Albert’s influence helped put natural science on the curriculum at Cambridge, and he was the moving spirit behind the establishment of the Royal College of Chemistry, later part of Imperial College London. It was Prince Albert who conceived the Great Exhibition of 1851, designed to display the latest scientific, cultural and technological advances.
Both men, too, belonged to an age, now long gone, in which reigning or prospective monarchs customarily only wed spouses of royal blood. Before the French Revolution, dynastic marriages were instruments of diplomacy and often carried with them territorial implications. This could often lead to disaster, as in the case of George I, who kept his wife imprisoned in a castle for more than 30 years, or George IV, Victoria’s uncle, who had his wife turned away from his coronation by troops wielding bayonets. Although Albert, like Philip, was of royal lineage, his marriage to Victoria carried with it no larger political or international implications. Both were marriages of personal choice, and both succeeded as a result. In a male-dominated world, being a consort to a reigning queen cannot have been easy, but both men showed how it could be done, and turned the position into one of real importance.