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9 April 2021

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, dies aged 99

The husband of Queen Elizabeth II, and the longest-serving consort in the history of the British monarchy, has died.

By New Statesman

Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and consort of Queen Elizabeth II, has died aged 99. 

In a statement the Palace said: “It is with deep sorrow that Her Majesty the Queen announces the death of her beloved husband, His Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. 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.”

[See also: Tributes to Prince Philip – latest updates]

Speaking outside No 10 shortly after the news broke, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Philip “helped to steer the Royal Family and the monarchy so that it remains an institution indisputably vital to the balance and happiness of our national life”.

Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition, said that the Duke of Edinburgh would be best remembered for his “extraordinary commitment and devotion to the Queen”, describing their marriage as a “symbol of strength, stability and hope, even as the world around them changed – most recently during the pandemic”.

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Philip returned to Windsor Castle on 16 March after spending a month in King Edward VII’s hospital in London. He had been admitted with an infection and later received surgery for a pre-existing heart condition at St Bartholomew’s.

The former naval officer married Princess Elizabeth in 1947, abandoning his Danish and Greek royal titles, and after she ascended to the British throne he became her prince consort. 

Born in Corfu in 1921, he was the youngest of five children and the only boy. His four sisters married German princes: Margarita married Gottfried, Prince of Hohenlohe-Langenburg; Theodora married Berthold, Margrave of Baden; Cecilie married Georg Donatus, Hereditary Grand Duke of Hesse; and his sister Sophie married Prince Christoph of Hesse and later, Prince George William of Hanover.

Cecilie, her husband, and their two children were killed in an air crash when Philip was 16. During his adolescence, his mother  – who suffered from schizophrenia – was committed to an asylum. He served in the Navy during the Second World War, “passed out” at the top of his class in 1940 and eventually reached the rank of Commander. Some of those who served alongside him later said that had the duke not been forced to cut his naval career short, he could have reached the position of first sea lord – the most senior position in the navy.

 

Philip first met Princess Elizabeth when she was 13 and he was 18; they exchanged letters, and he asked to marry her in 1946. The wedding was delayed until 1947, and none of his three sisters were invited due to their German connections.

Before their marriage, he was styled Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark. He was educated in France and Germany, as well as Cheam and Gordonstoun, after his family left Greece when he was still a child. His uncle, King Constantin, was forced to abdicate, and Philip’s own father Andrew was exiled by a court. 

Philip, who would have turned 100 on 10 June, was the longest-serving consort in the history of the British monarchy. At first, he found the role hard to adapt to, complaining that his family did not take his adopted surname of Mountbatten – an anglicised version of his mother’s name – and that he sometimes felt like “a bloody amoeba” as a result.

In 1956, he founded the Duke of Edinburgh award, designed to help young people develop life skills and independence. The award had been inspired by Kurt Hahn, the founder of Gordonstoun, the Scottish boarding school attended by Philip and Prince Charles that was known for its spartan ethos. Philip had previously studied at Schule Schloss Salem, which Hahn, who was Jewish, had led before being forced to flee Nazi Germany. 

More than six million people have since earned the Duke of Edinburgh award. However, Philip had said that he “couldn’t care less” if people considered it part of his legacy. “Legacy? […] It’s got nothing to do with me. It’s there for people to use,” he said. “It’s relevant too because it’s part of the process of growing up.”

Philip also served as the patron of hundreds of charities, although he gave up some of his duties on turning 90. He was given the title Lord High Admiral.

In his tribute, Boris Johnson described the duke as “an environmentalist, and a champion of the natural world long before it was fashionable”. Philip became the first president of the UK’s World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-UK) when it was founded in 1961 – the same year in which he sparked controversy by shooting a tiger in India. He went on to be appointed the president of the WWF-International in 1981, a position he held until 1996, when he became president emeritus.

“I think also that if we humans have the power of life or death – or extinction or survival – we ought to exercise it with some sort of moral sense,” he told the BBC. “Why make something extinct if you don’t have to?”

Details of Philip’s sometimes difficult relationship with Charles were revealed in Jonathan Dimbleby’s 1994 biography of the heir apparent. Dimbleby reported that as a boy Charles was brought to tears by his father’s remarks. Tensions between the two men were portrayed in the latest series of Netflix’s drama The Crown, although the fabrication of certain scenes sparked a row over creative licence, which culture secretary Oliver Dowden waded into. 

The television series has brought unwelcome scrutiny of the family’s private life. Philip told a reporter in 1994 that he would not comment on personal matters, and he has described the level of adulation he attracted during the early years of the Queen’s reign as “corroding”. “It would have been very easy to play to the gallery, but I took a conscious decision not to do that. Safer not to be too popular; you can’t fall too far.”

Philip, who retired from royal duties in 2017, was known for his gaffes, or as he termed it, his “dontopedalogy” (the art of putting your foot in your mouth). On a visit to China, he joked that British students should not stay too long in case they went “slit-eyed”. In a handful of towns in the island of Vanuatu, he was worshipped as a god.

In the late 1960s, he said: “It is a complete misconception to imagine that the monarchy exists in the interests of the monarch. It doesn’t. It exists in the interests of the people. If at any time any nation decides that the system is unacceptable, then it is up to them to change it.”