Inside the Unusual Life of Prince Philip, a Man Dedicated To His Queen and Country

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and Queen Elizabeth II's husband of 73 years, died April 9; the oldest-ever male member of Britain's royal family retired from public life in 2017.

By Natalie Finn Apr 09, 2021 12:30 PMTags
Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, 2005, WidgetChris Jackson/Getty Images

Prince Philip was a rare breed: a dashing military man with a promising career who gave it all up to become the ultimate of house husbands. Or as he put it, "the world's most experienced plaque unveiler."

Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and husband of Queen Elizabeth II for 73 years, died April 9. He was 99.

His death was confirmed by Buckingham Palace. "It is with deep sorrow that Her Majesty The Queen has announced the death of her beloved husband, His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh," the statement read. "His Royal Highness passed away peacefully this morning at Windsor Castle. The Royal Family join with people around the world in mourning his loss."

He was hospitalized for a month earlier this year, first admitted to King Edward VII Hospital in London on the evening of Feb. 16 and then undergoing surgery for a preexisting heart condition at St. Bartholomew's Hospital. In recent years he had been in and out of the hospital with various ailments, but until this he had managed to avoid having to leave the house for medical care since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic last March.

Philip and the queen primarily sheltered in place at Windsor Castle, but they were able to go to Balmoral Castle in August for their annual summer stay in the Scottish Highlands. They remained in Windsor for Christmas, their first time in 33 years not spending the holiday at their Sandringham estate.

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The often tireless-seeming royal retired from public life in the summer of 2017, prior to which he maintained a full schedule of official engagements for going on seven decades, ever since his wife became queen in 1952. In 2016, at the age of 96 he became the oldest-ever male member of the British royal family.

Quite memorably, hours before the statement was released regarding his plan to retire, word had slipped out about a pending announcement, unwittingly triggering a media-and-Twitter frenzy over the possibility that more dire news was forthcoming.

But the Duke of Edinburgh was back on the job at the May 4, 2017, Order of Merit service. When a well-wisher said it was a shame the prince was "standing down," Philip—known for his blunt humor—quipped, "I can't stand up much longer."

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Though he wasn't out and about as often, Philip occupied himself at the various royal residences—he kept driving until early 2019—and while he usually took the liberty of staying home from church on Christmas, he still enjoyed watching polo matches and he attended the 2018 weddings of his grandchildren Prince Harry and Princess Eugenie, the 2019 nuptials of Lady Gabriella Windsor and the private ceremony for granddaughter Princess Beatrice last July when COVID-19 restrictions required a minuscule guest list of 20.

Philip's final public appearance was July 22 outside Windsor Castle for a military ceremony in which he remotely transferred the title of Colonel-in-Chief of The Rifles to his daughter-in-law CamillaDuchess of Cornwall, who remained at Highgrove House, the home she shares with Prince Charles in Gloucestershire. 

In addition to his wife, he's survived by Charles, daughter Princess Anne and sons Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, as well as eight grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

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A lifelong royal, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth and Baron Greenwich, was born Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark on June 10, 1921, on Greek island of Corfu, the youngest of five and the only son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and Princess Alice of Battenberg. Shortly after his birth, his father was exiled amid the turmoil of the Greco-Turkish War and the family moved to France. When he was 10, Alice was committed to an asylum in Switzerland, where she spent three years. 

Philip was sent to England in 1928 to attend the Cheam School and lived with his maternal grandmother, Victoria Mountbatten (a granddaughter of Queen Victoria) at Kensington Palace, and uncle George Mountbatten, in Berkshire. In 1933 he enrolled at Salem, an elite boarding school in Germany owned by one of his brothers-in-law, where he counted pioneering educator Kurt Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound, as a mentor.

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(The Duke of Edinburgh Award, established in 1956, honors youths 15 to 25 who've completed work inspired by Hahn's teachings, and Philip sent all three of his sons—Charles quite reluctantly—to Gordonstoun, the school Hahn founded in Scotland after fleeing the Nazi regime.)

Philip enrolled at the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth in early 1939, months before Britain and France declared war on Germany. It was during his training that he met 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth, who was touring the school with her father, King George VI. Philip was tasked with entertaining Elizabeth and her sister, Princess Margaret—and the future queen, whose family called her Lilibet, is said to have been smitten immediately with the 18-year-old cadet.

The feeling was mutual. Philip and Elizabeth wrote letters to each other throughout the war, which he spent in the navy deployed to different battleships, rising through the ranks to become a lieutenant. Back home, the princess joined the Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service and became Second Subaltern Elizabeth Windsor, mechanic and military truck driver.

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The Mountbattens' butler later told a biographer that Philip always had a picture of Elizabeth with him, kept in an increasingly battered frame. While he'd usually stay with his uncle on his trips to London, Philip spent Christmas at Windsor Castle with the royal family in 1943.

The pair didn't immediately reunite after the war ended in 1945. Rather, Philip, by then a first lieutenant, remained in the Pacific on the destroyer HMS Whelp to help transport POWs back to Europe, then in 1946 was posted as an instructor to the HMS Royal Arthur. In a letter to Elizabeth, he expressed his lack of enthusiasm for serving in a "peacetime navy."

But he didn't have to worry about such things for long. Upon asking King George VI for his daughter's hand in marriage, it was understood that Philip would eventually have to retire from the navy and take on the full-time job of being consort to the future queen.

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Their courtship was intense but private, the couple taking pains to not be seen out together. A newspaper caption called him "a figure largely unknown to the British public" when he was photographed next to the princess at a wedding on May 29, 1946.

Philip is suspected to have proposed while on a hunting holiday at Balmoral—said to be the queen's favorite of all her residences to this day—with her family.

"To have been spared in the war and seen victory, to have been given the chance to rest and to re-adjust myself, to have fallen in love completely and unreservedly, makes all one's personal and even the world's troubles seem small and petty," he wrote to Elizabeth's mother (then Queen Elizabeth, later to be known as the Queen Mother) in June 1946.

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The king and queen weren't entirely thrilled by their prospective son-in-law. To even fathom the match, Philip had to become a naturalized British citizen—and then he had to become an English gentleman.

But true love won the day, much to the delight of their future subjects. Their engagement was publicly announced on July 9, 1947, the king wanting to wait until the bride-to-be was 21, and the betrothed pair made their first public appearance together at one of Buckingham Palace's famous garden parties.

Elizabeth and Philip were married on Nov. 20, 1947, at London's Westminster Abbey.

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The young royals, by then parents of two, were in Kenya on Feb. 6, 1952, having stopped in Africa on their way to Australia, when the call came that King George VI had died at Sandringham House in Norfolk.

"In 1952 the whole thing changed, very, very considerably," Philip recalled the abrupt end to their so-called normal lives following the king's death at only 56.

The head of his young family up until then and a Lieutenant Commander in the navy, in the blink of an eye Philip forever became resident No. 2 in Buckingham Palace. Their 3-year-old son, Prince Charles, became first in line to the throne.

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Philip's time as an active duty officer in the Royal Navy was over, as was his climb up the ladder based on merit. However, his continued passion for military life was reflected in his various appointments as he became Admiral of the Sea Cadet Corps, Colonel-in-Chief of the Army Cadet Force and Air Commodore-in-Chief of the Air Training Corps, as well as Admiral of the Fleet, Field Marshal and Marshal of the Royal Air Force.

"It has such extraordinary moods that sometimes you feel this is the only sort of life—and 10 minutes later you're praying for death," Philip explained his attraction to the sea in a radio interview. "If you go to sea in the Merchant Navy, or in the Navy, or as a yachtsman, you are in a completely different environment and so you have to function in a different way and relate to people in a different way."

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But so also began the plaque-unveiling chapter of Philip's life. He ultimately became president, patron or a member of more than 780 organizations. An avid sportsman who played polo and captained cricket and field hockey teams in school, he continued to enjoy hunting, boating and equestrian life. He was interested in scientific research and technology, and was an early champion of conservation, becoming the first president of the British branch of the World Wildlife Fund.

Having not known his own parents very well, Philip was as much of a hands-on dad as the times could abide—nothing like Prince William or Prince Harry, but enough so that William sought his grandfather's advice before his first child, Prince George, was born in 2013. 

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While he didn't always see eye to eye with Charles, Philip not quite understanding his eldest son's more sensitive, cerebral nature, later in life he was a doting grandfather, his love of sports and the outdoors suiting him well when it came to bonding with the next generation.

"I think Grandpa is incredible," Princess Eugenie said in the 2016 documentary Our Queen at Ninety. "He really is strong and consistent. He's been there for all these years, and I think he's the rock, you know, for all of us."

When Matt Smith asked William if he had any advice on how best to approach playing the patriarch in The Crown, having run into the prince at a charity polo match, William had one word for the actor. "'Legend!'" Smith told Hello! in 2016. "And he's right, Philip was a bit of a rock star, really."

Philip was the one who got 14-year-old William to agree to walk behind Princess Diana's casket during the funeral procession for the teen's mother in 1997. "If you don't walk, you may regret it later," he advised his grandson, who was understandably reluctant. "I think you should do it," Philip encouraged. "If I walk, will you walk with me?"

And so William went to—as he put it years later—"another level of duty" in taking that interminable 13-minute walk from St. James's Palace to Westminster Abbey, along with his brother, father, grandfather and uncle Earl Charles Spencer.

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Reflecting on that heartbreaking time, William acknowledged in 2017 that being asked to take that walk "goes to another level of duty."

Going hand in hand with his blunt ways, Philip also reliably didn't hold back when it came to sharing his opinions in public—a habit that earned him a reputation as a gaffe-maker.

"When we were in South Africa some years ago, I flew up to Kimberley and was persuaded to take some media people with me," he said in a 1999 interview. "On the way back, one of them said to my policeman that it had been a waste of time as I had not put my foot in it."

As time went on though, it was easier to see that Philip's lack of a filter had humanized and endeared him to the public more than he ever offended.

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When he was approaching his 80th birthday, he was asked about his legacy, how he wished to be remembered. His somewhat melancholy reply was, "What you wish to be remembered for has nothing to do with it. You can wish all sorts of things. If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen."

He may have been thinking about his abbreviated naval career and the road he might have taken if he hadn't taken on the role of world's most dutiful husband. But he made history nonetheless, and a piece of the majesty of the British monarchy is gone with him.