To his critics, he was a relic, a throwback, who propped up a faintly ridiculous, soap-operatic House of Windsor — an overindulged man who represented the extremes of White male privilege and fronted for a family that traces its lineage to Queen Victoria, back to the days of Britain’s empire, and its attendant colonialism and exploitation. The detractors see a snob, a bigot and worse.
But his many fans see a different duke, who spent his life earning his unearned titles, who steadfastly served his wife and queen — and 800 different charities and organizations.
In the House of Commons, there was a torrent of praise from lawmakers, from the left and right, from monarchists and even republicans, who hailed him as someone who led “an extraordinary life,” who gave his everything for queen and country.
These warm eulogies came even though Philip enjoyed taking the stuffing out of politicians, once declaring Westminster, the mother of parliaments, “a madhouse,” and dressing down a minister as being a “typical” politician — “in charge of something and not a single clue about it.”
At his retirement, Buckingham Palace courtiers reported that Philip had performed 22,191 solo engagements, completed 637 overseas visits and given 5,493 speeches.
But his speeches have been mostly forgotten, or ignored, this past week. Instead, he is best remembered for his off-the-cuff remarks, which even his most ardent supporters — from Prime Minister Boris Johnson to grandson Prince Harry — have commented upon.
Philip once called a man who did not recognize him a “bloody silly fool.” He complained about Elton John’s choice in cars. He told a 13-year-old boy he was “too fat to be an astronaut.” He declared that “British women can’t cook,” and he once suggested that to protect bird life, why not kill house cats?
Many wince, but Philip’s fans have managed to work around this.
“Oh, you know how fickle the British people can be. Having spent years criticizing him for being rude, even racist, now they love him,” said Ingrid Seward, a royal biographer and author of “Prince Philip Revealed.”
Seward said part of the renewed support may come from nostalgic Britons who see in the duke a last member of their version of the greatest generation, who served with distinction aboard Royal Navy battleships during World War II, whose politically incorrect utterances “maybe sound refreshing, in our new woke society, like your grandfather, who said what he wanted to say — and didn’t give a toss.”
In recent years Philip was seen as “very middle of the field” among the royal family, Seward said, far less popular than his wife, Queen Elizabeth II, but ranked in polls above the young lightning bolts, Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
It’s fair to say that, until his death, the duke was respected, maybe admired, but not beloved. He was the lean, athletic, ramrod-straight supporting actor, who looked great in a Saville Row suit but always took care to walk two paces behind the star.
“It is true that he occasionally drove a coach and horses through the finer points of diplomatic protocol,” the prime minister — who himself is known to regularly offend — said in Parliament. “The world did not hold it against him. On the contrary, they overwhelmingly understood that he was trying to break the ice, to get things moving, to get people laughing and to forget their nerves.”
John Crace, a sketch writer in the Guardian, sought to take the prince and his admirers down a peg, arguing that Johnson went overboard in his praise of Philip as “the polymath’s polymath,” as “a scientist, engineer, artist and conservationist rolled into one.”
Crace observed that “the evidence for this was rather thin on the ground. A long-wheelbase Land Rover to carry his coffin. A bespoke barbecue for use at Balmoral. A few unexceptional watercolours. His shooting of a tiger back in the early ’60s was rather overlooked.”
Because most of royal life is so very scripted, and the public utterances so anodyne, so banal — and because nobody really knows what takes place behind the scenes — it was Philip’s “gaffes” that testified.
There have been lists and lists of them published. The Independent newspaper stopped itself at 90.
“Still throwing spears at each other?” Philip asked an Australian Aboriginal-cultural-park owner, William Brim, during a royal visit to Cairns. “No, we don't do that anymore,” replied Brim, a successful entrepreneur, according to a BBC account.
“If you stay here much longer you’ll all be slitty-eyed,” Philip said to a group of British students studying in China.
“And what exotic part of the world do you come from?” the duke once asked a Black British politician, John Taylor, a titled member of the House of Lords.
“Birmingham,” Taylor replied.
“He didn’t really have a filter for his racism, and I suppose for that honesty we should be grateful,” said Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black studies at Birmingham City University.
“I mean, come on, saying Chinese people are slitty-eyed isn’t being ‘a bit rude.’ Who gets away with that kind of thing today, except a member of the royal family?” said Andrews, whose Jamaican grandmother hung a portrait of the queen on her living room wall. “Imagine what he said when he wasn’t in public.”
For many, Andrews said, Philip is popular because of his “gaffes,” not despite them. He was a potent symbol, “a throwback to empire . . . bound up with Whiteness and colonial nostalgia.”
“The royal family’s job is to represent Whiteness,” he said. “And Philip was on brand.”
The prince’s children and grandchildren acknowledge the controversies, but see things differently. It was just grandpa being . . . clever.
“He was authentically himself, with a seriously sharp wit, and could hold the attention of any room due to his charm — and also because you never knew what he might say next,” said Prince Harry. “He was my grandpa: master of the barbecue, legend of banter, and cheeky right ’til the end.”
It was just last month that Harry sat beside his biracial wife, Meghan, and accused the royal family of racism, telling Oprah Winfrey that someone — not the queen and not Philip — had prompted conversations about what color their offspring’s skin might be.
In the Guardian, Afua Hirsch, a Norwegian-born British writer and broadcaster, wrote, “If calling Prince Philip ‘a man of his time’ is an admission that the royals exist in something of a time capsule, then I have to agree. The institution is, as the experience of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex has made clear, outdated.”
Alongside the praise — and condemnation — the lawmakers in Parliament agreed that the prince’s most enduring legacy, for real people, was the Duke of Edinburgh Award, a youth program that Philip once described as a “do-it-yourself growing up kit.”
Most Americans have never heard of it. But for many in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, it could be a life-changing experience.
The award aims to help young people, ages 14 to 24, build confidence and resilience through volunteering and outdoor activities. It operates in more than 140 countries. In Britain alone, more than 6.7 million people have taken part.
Set up in 1956, the Duke of Edinburgh Award was inspired by Kurt Hahn, a German educator and the prince’s headmaster at Gordonstoun, a private school in remote Scotland.
In comments shortly after the duke’s death, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the award connected him with thousands of young people in her country. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the award helped “empower millions of young people from all backgrounds.”
Jon Watts, a 30-year-old chef in St. Albans, England, was the first person in Britain to achieve the award’s bronze, silver and gold levels while in prison. He said the award, which he began when he was 18 and was serving a 6 ½ -year prison sentence for a violent offense, turned his life around.
“One hundred percent,” he said. “It saved my life.”
“It helped me to believe in myself, to stop me from falling back into what I was before. I left prison feeling powerful, that I can go out and achieve things,” he said in a phone interview, using headphones as he was preparing Thai curry for a customer.
Stephen Bush, in the left-leaning New Statesman, noted that for Philip’s efforts and many others, “the British Crown enjoys a combination of unrestrained pomp and public popularity that no other European monarchy can match. . . . While the other great dynasties have for the most part retreated, the House of Windsor remains supreme and seemingly unassailable.”
Bush wrote that for all the tributes, the biggest achievement of Philip’s life is hardly noted: that “he leaves the British monarchy looking considerably more secure than he found it, and that in an ever-changing world the Crown has managed to modernise and survive.”