The survival of monarchy, especially in Britain, has been the story of transformation from dynasty to family; from aristocracy to middle-class paragons. But royal families are vulnerable to the contradictory obligations of their job description. They must be familiar but ceremonious; traditional yet modernising; formal here, informal there. While they are required to be politically buttoned up, they also need to show candour. At that last job, as well as so many others, Prince Philip was famously, or notoriously, good; the royal yang to the Queen’s yin. Without that complementary match, which, in a departure from much royal history other than Victoria and Albert, was born and rooted in authentic love, the monarchy might not have survived.
Prince Philip wore his own catastrophic family history on the signet ring he retrieved from the funeral of his father, Prince Andrew, and never removed. The Corfu villa where he was born in 1921 was called “Mon Repos” but his early life had none of it. His grandfather King George of Greece was assassinated. His father was one of those blamed for poor military performance in the Greco-Turkish war of 1921-22; and it was thought that he might well be tried and executed like other prominent accused leaders.
The baby Philip was rescued by a British cruiser. But his childhood was almost swallowed up by the European maelstrom. His sisters married Germans who served the Nazi Reich while Philip was a young hero in the Royal Navy at the battle of Cape Matapan and in the invasion of Sicily. His mother Princess Alice was institutionalised as a schizophrenic. His father lived out his days in Monte Carlo with a pneumatic actress who invented a faux-aristocratic title for herself.
As princes go, then, when the cadet appeared, duly tall and handsome, to escort Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret around Dartmouth Naval College in 1939, he was uprooted, financially rocky, his family compromised in every imaginable way. Miraculously, though, the 13-year-old Elizabeth knew he was The One. And precisely because his upbringing had been so perilous, Philip embraced the marriage, the constitutionally indeterminate role of consort, and the hard work of making the morphing of empire into commonwealth seem like a chapter of British renewal rather than an unedifying retreat, with full-on energy rather than ritual resignation.
There was of course all the Good Work: the hundreds of charities and organisations, social and educational, for which he put in time as patron; the Duke of Edinburgh Awards which were instituted as a forward and outward-facing revision of the austerely muscular education he had got at Gordonstoun. His prescient work for the World Wildlife Fund connected the monarchy to environmentalism.
But his indispensability to the monarchy lay in two other vital roles. The first was the mission to modernise, urgently but never so crassly as to run ahead of public expectations of the dignity of the crown. The televised wedding and live broadcast of the coronation shaped one crucial route of modernisation, and in 1969 a BBC documentary did what it could to humanise the family part of the royal family, notwithstanding the Duke’s barking at the “bloody cameras” when, in his view, they were too much in the Queen’s face. At that point of course Philip could have had no inkling that, should family matters go badly wrong as they catastrophically did with the Charles-Diana mismarriage, the Firm could feel the sharper side of the two-edged sword of television.
In the end, though, the anchorage he gave was personal as much as institutional. Notorious for speaking his mind, often, as he acknowledged, to the point of offensiveness and beyond, the candour was exactly what the Queen, trapped in deference, the compulsive calculations of the Firm’s managers, the rituals of the daily and yearly round, needed to hear. The paradox was that Philip’s unedited instincts, the raw side of his personality, turned out to be indispensable to her own composure, often when family matters had turned dark and the whole institution seemed almost in free fall.
He was the longest-serving consort to the longest-serving monarch in British history. But actually it was not the length but the depth of the marriage which turned out, in spite of every calamity, to make the very idea as well as the reality of “royal family” something far stronger than a consolatory national myth.