Barbara Kay: The man behind the monarch is a remarkable soul in his own right
Queen Elizabeth waves from a train carriage window at Waverley Station, Edinburgh, Wednesday Sept. 9, 2015.
Last week, Queen Elizabeth II became Britain’s longest-reigning monarch. The media gushed with commentary on her extraordinary life trajectory, but Prince Philip also set a record: he’s the longest serving consort in British history. Yet coverage of his milestone has been scant. Not that he would care. As Elizabeth said on their Golden Wedding anniversary, “(Philip) is someone who doesn’t take easily to compliments.” But, she added, “he has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years.”
The simplicity of her words belies the enormity of the sacrifice Philip made for her out of love, and love alone. The Duke of Edinburgh is no Prince Albert, who appropriated a consequential role in Victoria’s palace. When Philip pledged at her coronation to be Elizabeth’s “liege man of life and limb,” it meant, essentially, becoming something like a traditional wife. It meant giving up a naval career he loved, where his talents and leadership had him slated to rise to the top, yet gave him no compensating role in palace affairs. Indeed, even though he was of royal descent, and not marrying “up” socially, he was treated rather shabbily at first by the palace guard and had to invent roles for himself.
In his book, Our Queen, which marked the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, royal reporter Robert Hardman devotes an illuminating chapter to Philip’s astonishing range of interests and contributions to society, all taken up on his own initiative, and most undertaken in depth.
Having decided to learn to fly a helicopter, for example, Philip mastered nine different types and logged 5,986 flying hours over 44 years. In his sporting life, he wasn’t content merely to play polo and drive carriages; he founded the Guards Polo Club and wrote the international rulebook for carriage driving. For 24 years he was president of the International Equestrian Federation, a full time job for previous officeholders. He sailed competitively into his 70s. At 90, he was still shooting, fishing and driving carriages for pleasure.
That’s just the physical Philip. On the aesthetic side, he is both a keen painter and collector of art, with a particular liking for Australian aboriginal works. No intellectual lightweight, he has written 14 books and delivered lectures to both lay and academic audiences, while his personal library at Buckingham Palace numbers some 13,000 books, 900 entirely devoted to birds and 1,200 more to animals and fish.
But his reading tastes are catholic. Hardman cites the book deliveries in a random week in 2010: A History of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, England’s Last War Against France, The Woman Who Shot Mussolini, The Mastery of Money, Winston Churchill’s Toy Shop, The Shakespeare Handbook: The Bard in Brief and The Alpine Journal.
Elizabeth knows she could not have been what she is without Philip.
Philip designs royal coins, oversaw the restoration of fire-damaged Windsor Castle, organized Princess Diana’s funeral and installed some of Britain’s first solar panels on the Sandringham Estate. He also bought the first royal barbecue after an outdoor lunch at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics (he likes cook books and has some specifically for grilling).(--image--)
This is all apart from what one might call his good works, to which he still devotes prodigious amounts of time and attention. His Duke of Edinburgh Awards have helped more than six million young people in 120 countries. He also created the Prince’s Trust, a pillar of the charitable sector, which helps disadvantaged young people turn their lives around. He was into conservation and the environment and wildlife habitat preservation long before the causes were popular — in fact their popularity is in good part due to his encouragement. His famous lunches and dinners have proved incalculably profitable as networking opportunities for British entrepreneurs.
He has founded so many new organizations and prizes, all going strong, that at one point a group of international admirers mounted a backstage campaign to propose Philip for a Nobel Peace Prize. Had he got wind of it, he would naturally have instantly nipped it in the bud. “I’d rather other people decided what legacy I left. I’m not trying to create one,” he told Hardman. In my opinion, he is certainly more deserving of the honour than many other lesser recipients we could all name.
Elizabeth knows she could not have been what she is without Philip. Concluding her Golden Wedding anniversary speech, Queen Elizabeth said of Philip, “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.” Much longer may they both reign. Together, at a time when we urgently need such increasingly rare cultural models, they continue to inspire us as avatars of the strong character and high personal aspirations bestowed by British civilization at its honorable, rational and humane summit.