RIP Prince Philip. To describe the Duke of Edinburgh as a remarkable man who has served our country in an extraordinary way is something of an understatement.
As the Queen put it herself in her golden wedding anniversary speech: “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.”
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Yes, he could be colourful and controversial at times — “I am rude,” he once said of himself, “but it’s fun” — but that was one of his charms.
He was certainly not as stuffy as you would expect the Queen’s husband to be. It’s not that he did not care what he said.
He most certainly did, but his upper lip simply wasn’t quite as stiff as some others in the Royal Family. So he spoke his mind — sometimes rather frankly.
I know this from first-hand experience.
My first encounter with him was when he invited me to the annual Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards ceremony at St James’s Palace.
There were hundreds of young people there, all eagerly awaiting collection of their certificates, which we were distributing.
Standing by his side at the front of the large chapel room as we waited for the ceremony to start, I decided to embark on some small talk. This was a mistake.
Why? Because my small talk has always consisted of football on the basis that most people have got a view or at least something to say on the matter.
However, I quickly gathered he was not a fan by the face he pulled when I was just half-way into my first sentence.
Undeterred, I tried to break the tension by asking him if it was true The Queen was a West Ham supporter.
He looked utterly baffled and said — shouted, actually — “Why on earth would you think that?”
Full of regret at the way the conversation was going, I explained that it was one of the few football grounds to go to in London, and meekly justified it by saying she had once unveiled a plaque at the stadium.
At this point, he laughed so loudly that his security guard came over, just as Prince Philip was telling me that if the Queen supported every club, team and stadium where she unveiled a plaque she would be a fan of thousands of teams. He had a point.
Although he clearly did not suffer fools gladly, I also witnessed the care and attention he gave to each of the young people he engaged with as they collected their award. He clearly cared about them and took his role seriously.
In fact, it is hard to think of another person who has had such a positive impact on young people in the way he has done for the past 70 years, with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award now in 140 countries, engaging with millions of young people.
I have been fortunate to have been invited to Buckingham Palace on a number of occasions for black tie and white tie balls, as well as a private lunch with the Queen (which remains one of the highlights of my life) and other events including picking up my CBE.
Every time I have seen Prince Philip talking with the Queen, their connection and rapport were abundantly clear.
They clearly got on so well, despite being such opposites. He was outgoing and an alpha male with a flippant sense of humour. She is shy, with a quiet diplomacy.
He gave her confidence. And they always had so much to talk about — not always easy after 70 years of marriage.
As Prince Philip once said: “Tolerance is the one essential ingredient in a marriage — not so important when things are going well, but vital when things get difficult.”
He explained that the Queen had endless tolerance — and clearly he did too.
It cannot be easy living in the shadow of your wife. Especially not since Prince Philip sacrificed his career in order to marry her.
He accepted that, in marriage, he would always have to walk a few steps behind her, and that their children would take her name and not his.
Yet he was the first to kneel in front of her when she was crowned Queen, and to pledge his service to her, a promise he honoured until his death.
CHARM & HUMOUR
He was extraordinary for what he did do, but also for what he didn’t do. He could have played his role in a far less gracious way, as other Royal Family spouses have done, by trying to take the limelight and steer the person in the direction they don’t always seem to want to go.
Philip was simply present, stable, solid and supportive throughout. They say that behind every successful man there is a strong woman. But the same is true that behind every strong woman is a great man.
Without his support, Her Majesty could not have been the remarkable Queen we all love.
He told her the truth. He was her rock, offering guidance and support in the background.
I know this from first-hand experience too. As I built my career, working extremely long hours, I was coping with various and numerous pressures.
Without the support of a loving husband who gave me unwavering support, spoke his mind and surrounded me with love it would quite simply have been impossible.
They say that leadership done well is a lonely job. I know this is true. But the Queen knows this more than almost any human alive. She is our symbolic head of state and has the responsibility of history that goes back thousands of years.
Her life could be lonelier than most but with Prince Philip at her side she was always part of a team. She could rely on his directness, his charm and his humour to help her deal with the many challenges she and her family have had to face.
Those challenges are many and varied, from the Second World War through to the 1980s and 1990s, when they endured several divorces of their children, the death of Princess Diana and a fire at Windsor Castle.
This past year has perhaps been more challenging than most, with the pandemic and the devastating effects that has had on our country.
Through it all, Prince Philip has been by her side. During the Diamond Jubilee pageant, 670 boats sailed down the River Thames in London. I was on the boat sailing right next to theirs as a guest of the organiser.
For four long hours, in miserable wet weather and extremely strong winds, I watched Prince Philip and the Queen standing together.
Not once did they sit down. Not once did they complain. They smiled and waved in what must be a bit of a metaphor for the lives they lived in public.
His life was dedicated to duty and to the Queen, and his death is a huge loss for the Royal Family. And the fact that there will be no state funeral, or indeed any public funeral during this public health crisis, will mean that they will have to mourn their loss privately.
Perhaps, though, that will count as a blessing in disguise, giving them time to mourn the man who, as well as being the Duke of Edinburgh, was also a loving husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather.
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