We cannot be surprised that Prince Philip has died at the age of 99, yet somehow we are. For the news, when it came, was a shock. A jolting moment on a cold, spring morning. Followed by an unexpected wash of sorrow and then an even more surprising feeling of loss.
Why should we feel this way, bereaved over a man most of us have never met and whose life was lived at a far remove from ours, behind castle ramparts and palace gates?
Perhaps it is because Prince Philip has been a constant not just in the Queen’s life, but in our lives, too. For over 70 years he has served this country first and foremost as a royal consort, but also as a kind of unofficial national father figure; his very presence a steel thread of paternalism running through the tapestry of British life. Sometimes avuncular, sometimes not – but always there for us, even when we didn’t realise we needed him.
We cannot be surprised that Prince Philip has died at the age of 99, yet somehow we are. For the news, when it came, was a shock
A woman reacts after laying a floral tribute at the gates of Buckingham Palace in central London today
And part of the sadness at his passing must also be because it had irrationally seemed that Philip would slip the bonds of mortality and somehow go on forever; a glorified soul in his camel overcoat or naval uniforms, a gilded omnipresence at the heart of this country and by the side of its Queen, for ever and ever, amen. But death must come to us all, of course. And perhaps the keenness of our bereavement lies in the bleak knowledge that we will never see his like again.
For Prince Philip was the last major public figure from the age of courtesy and duty first, from the time when a stiff upper lip and good manners were as highly prized as the shine on your brogues and the cut of your jib.
He was a man who lived through brutish times, who suffered childhood bereavements and then – like the vanishing generation he belongs to – had his life truncated by war. Philip saw action, he sailed ships, he grew into a man of energy and accomplishment.
Yet somehow he had to compress his buccaneering lust for life into the cloistered role of royal second fiddle; he became the Queen’s supporter, comforter and metaphorical handbag holder. We noted this sacrifice, and we appreciated it.
Prince Philip has been a constant not just in the Queen’s life, but in our lives, too (pictured together in 2015)
A boy leaves a pot of flowers outside Buckingham Palace today after the death of Prince Philip was announced
Many men would have buckled or rebelled under such a loss of status but rather than be diminished, Prince Philip found it in himself to flourish instead. In the seven decades that he and the Queen spent as husband and wife, they achieved so much more together than they would have done apart, all credit to him for that.
For this alone, in addition to his chivalry and sense of obligation, he earned our abiding respect. There was also his strength of character. For behind his smiling royal public persona, as he trotted along at his wife’s heels, there was always a sense of something granite and unassailable; something that belonged to him alone.
Prince Philip had a bevelled vigour, an iron will, he was always his own man. Within the orbit of the Royal Family, the gravitational pull of his discipline and presence was once a force to be reckoned with. In public, his unspoken imperium was always obvious.
A tribute to the Duke of Edinburgh, which will be shown for 24 hours, on display at the Piccadilly Lights in central London
After him, the deluge. Perhaps we loved him most of all because of his devotion to the Queen, who described her husband as her ‘strength and stay’ in a rare pubic utterance of affection.
Certainly, we could always see that he was the iron clasp on her diamond, the comforting hand on her elbow, the rousing grind of pepper on her daily omelette of duty and service.
Prince Philip could be exasperating, of course. A curious mix of the courtly and the profane, he had a habit of making gaffes at public events that poured fuel on any passing anti-monarchy bonfires. Some of the things he said!
On a Diamond Jubilee Tour walkabout with the Queen in south London, he spotted a female council worker in a frock with a zip up the front.
For over 70 years he has served this country first and foremost as a royal consort, but also as a kind of unofficial national father figure
A woman wearing a Union flag face masks cries as she sits on The Long Walk outside Windsor Castle in Berkshire
‘I’d get arrested if I unzipped that dress,’ he joked to a policeman. In the pantheon of Philip gaffes, it wasn’t too bad – not exactly up there with ‘slitty eyes’, telling the president of Kenya he looked ‘ready for bed’ in his national dress or asking the dance troupe Diversity if they were ‘all from the same family’.
In a London community centre in 2015, he asked a group of women: ‘Who do you sponge off?’ He also wondered if they ‘meet to have a gossip’ and reprimanded another worker for using the word ‘community’ too much.
This kind of stuff used to make me furious, my feminist hackles rising like porcupine spines with every fresh clanger. Now I feel rather differently.
Now I think that in devotedly supporting his wife’s career and dedicating himself to her cause, he was perhaps one of the greatest feminists of all time!
And also that being a royal personage demands a genius and knack for chummy small talk that borders on the superhuman. In the interminable process of talking to dumbstruck strangers who don’t know what to say to a visiting prince, the instinct to reach out, forge a connection, make someone laugh, put people at their ease must be huge.
Prince Philip was the last major public figure from the age of courtesy and duty first, from the time when a stiff upper lip and good manners were as highly prized as the shine on your brogues and the cut of your jib (pictured with Prince Charles in 2018)
Perhaps it should be no surprise that Philip – a man from a generation with a different set of social values – sometimes put his big royal boot in it.
But there was so much more to him than gaffes, we all knew that. Yesterday, the author Tiffany Jenkins wrote movingly of how she once sat next to Prince Philip at a lunch, and he asked what brought her to the top table. She explained that her husband was the rector of Edinburgh University and that was why she had been invited.
‘I am sure that he’s the least interesting thing about you, tell me all about yourself,’ replied the prince and the pair went on to chat happily about boats and old buildings, ageism and what he described as his son Prince Charles’s ‘fanciful ideas about plants’.
Philip was wearing, she noted, a blue wool jacket which was moth-eaten at the wrists and he drank a half pint of lager with his lunch, instead of the fine wines on offer.
Well, this is how I want to remember Prince Philip. Someone who was, despite it all, charming, unpretentious and kindly; sitting there resplendent in his frayed cuffs and simple tastes.
The same man who would write long and thoughtful letters to the troubled Princess Diana, and who has done so much to steer a monarchy, which he was not born into, through some of its most difficult times in history.
I think he would be surprised by the depth of public feeling that has greeted his passing; the huge affection in which he is held, even the fact that his image is being broadcast around the clock on the neon signs of Piccadilly Circus.
Hero, consort, father figure, most admirable admiral and confidante. Prince Philip is a man who led many lives, but in the dying of the light, they have all ended now. To be born, as he was, the younger son of a troubled throne with threadbare prospects and to pass away peacefully in a grand castle nearly 100 years later? Any sailor worth his salt would count that as a pretty decent voyage.