This was because of a long-standing tradition within the British monarchy. “King” was typically reserved for active monarchs. “Queen,” however, could simply be a symbolic, wifely role. If Philip had been called “king consort,” then people might assume he outranked his wife. “Prince” was a way of signaling that she was the one in charge.
This is the sort of explanation that, even while it’s coming out of your mouth, makes you think, that can’t be right, and then you stop to check Wikipedia, only to learn that yep, it’s right. By birth and by law Queen Elizabeth II could be the longest-reigning, hardest-working monarch in the history of the United Kingdom, but if her husband got four new letters in front of his name, then suddenly people would think she’s the one who should curtsy to him.
And so Philip died at the age of 99, still retaining the boyish title that seemed to belong more in a Disney cartoon than in real life. His wife was a queen, he was a prince, she sat, he stood, she walked ahead, he walked behind, she was a boss, and he — as he once reportedly said, “Constitutionally, I don’t exist.”
In recent years many Americans have observed the British monarchy via a fictionalized Netflix series. The Philip of “The Crown” is petulant and insecure in his younger years, embittered by the event — the untimely death of his father-in-law — that led to Elizabeth’s coronation and chained Philip to Buckingham Palace decades before he expected to be there. Later the character adopts a more soulful ennui, ultimately settling into the supporting role that had been his destiny since he first met Elizabeth as a teenager.
“Everyone in this system is a lost, lonely, irrelevant outsider,” Philip explains to Princess Diana in one episode, “apart from the one person, the only person that matters. She is the oxygen we all breathe, the essence of all of our duties.”
Did the real Philip ever say anything like that? Dunno, but the scene felt true. It felt like how I imagine the man might have made peace with his nonexistence.
In real life the aging Philip made headlines mostly in the form of jovial utterances that the British press spent decades euphemizing as gaffes but that we might more accurately call bigoted.
“If you stay here much longer you’ll all be slitty-eyed,” he once told a group of British students studying in China. “Still throwing spears?” he queried an Australian Aborigine on a visit to the country.
When Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, recently confessed to Oprah Winfrey that a member of the royal family had worried out loud about the darkness of their unborn baby’s skin, social media decided that Prince Philip was the most likely culprit even before Oprah had picked her jaw up off the floor. Oprah later clarified that it wasn’t Philip, but you can hardly blame people for assuming it was. By then he had fully assumed the metaphorical role of problematic grandpa: a remnant, a relic, an eyeroll, a liability.
“He does not mean to be offensive. He just is,” wrote Hamid Dabashi in 2017, in an essay that I still find to be the most helpful summation of what Prince Philip meant, both in terms of what he represented and what he intended. “. . . His sense of class entitlement undiluted, unencumbered, uncensored, liberated from any inkling of bourgeois inhibitions. . . . The Prince is the repository of all the colonial past and all the class privileges of the present.”
In that sense, Prince Philip certainly did exist. His unwillingness to evolve with the times, the way in which the circumstances of his birth insulated him from any real pressure to do so — his was an extreme case, obviously, but you don’t have to be an actual prince to be blessed and afflicted with such exemptions. Those people, we do have in America.
And yet when the news of his death was announced, darned if I didn’t feel the slightest bit sad. Not for the man; it’s hard to look at any near-centenarian and think, He was taken too soon. Harder still when he represented unearned privilege, outdated institutions and worldviews that are best left to pass away with the people who possess them. But somehow, despite the retrograde reality of the man, his symbolic existence managed to also represent something rather important.
The rigid protocols and random bloodlines that circumscribed Philip’s existence also made his wife the head of state. Long before women’s liberation or Margaret Thatcher, long before Elizabeth might have been appointed into the role if British citizens had had a choice. Long before “wife guys” became a thing, long before Marty Ginsburg or Doug Emhoff.
Philip’s public obeisance provided legitimacy. In every public appearance and with every action, he made it clear that she was the important one in the relationship. She was the oxygen, through decades when such an arrangement might have been viewed as emasculating.
“At the Queen’s side or trailing the customary two steps behind, Prince Philip showed the world what it meant to be a supportive husband to a powerful woman,” Barack Obama wrote in a statement Friday afternoon, remembering his introduction to the royal couple.
She could not have performed her role as well if he had not performed his.
She sat, he stood. She spoke, he deferred. She decided, he acquiesced. She lived, he died, and there will be nobody permanently positioned a few paces behind Elizabeth’s elbow. He called her “Lilibet” in private, but in public he always called her “the queen.”
We won’t see anything like that again, not in most of our lifetimes.
Queen Elizabeth will die eventually, and her son Charles will assume the throne. And then in 20 or 30 years, his son William, followed 20 or 30 years after that by William’s son George.
The next 80 or 90 years of the British monarchy is already planned out, and it’s all planned out not with princes but with kings.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.