Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant.
As the pomp and circumstance of a 41-gun salute led by the Royal Navy echoed around the United Kingdom and across the seas from noon on Saturday, it was a tribute to much more than a royal consort.
The passing of the Duke of Edinburgh has highlighted the towering contribution he made for more than seven decades in the service of this country, its people and the wider Commonwealth.
Like the Queen, to whom he swore fealty at the Coronation almost 70 years ago, he exemplified public service, duty and self-sacrifice.
Statistics compiled by the Press Association provide a snapshot of an extraordinary record; before his official retirement aged 96, he had undertaken 22,191 solo engagements and made 5,493 speeches. This does not include those ten of thousands of occasions he accompanied the Queen, both at home and abroad, in his chief role as Royal Consort. As an early Private Secretary, Michael Parker, explained: ‘He told me the first day he offered me my job, that his job, first, second and last, was never to let her down.’
For those of us daunted at the prospect of getting dressed up for a work do and an evening of indifferent food and small talk – if not tiny talk – with strangers, our sinking hearts must go out to the late Duke. Not for him crying off at the last minute or that extra glass of wine to help jolly things along. No looking bored or swallowing yawns, either. Year in, year out, he was permanently on parade.
The Duke’s decades as an exemplary consort would have been enough to earn him gratitude across the globe, but he gave so much more. He was involved in hundreds of charities, great and small, from the Society of Underwater Technology to the Junior Astronomical Society via the Alvis Owner Club. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award was a counterpoint for millions of young people increasingly cocooned by a health and safety-obsessed culture, while the Duke himself wanted to build a green future long before the Ecology Party became the Green Party. His concern about the under-reported problem of global over-population – a concern more recently shared by environmental scientist James Lovelock – is worth revisiting.
Like the majority of men his age, he had served the country in the Armed Forces during the Second World War, when he was mentioned in despatches. His anticipated life-time career in the Royal Navy was cut short with the Queen’s accession. Instead, he served Queen and country in a very different role. In famously walking two paces behind the Queen, for decades Prince Philip offered the country moral leadership.
It is only following the Duke’s death that his qualities are being fully appreciated. In a pre-feminist era, many men would have baulked at publicly subordinating themselves to a woman. As the man in the shadows to a woman in the limelight, he pre-dated Denis Thatcher by more than a quarter of a century in time – and light years in public attitudes towards gender equality.
The Duke leaves behind a country where political leadership is not viewed as an honour in itself, but a potentially lucrative entry in the CV. His passing coincides with uncomfortable questions for David Cameron about lobbying on behalf of Greensill Capital, along with the general murkiness surrounding billions of pounds of Covid-related contracts which have led to accusations of cronyism.
For the Duke to have spent decades in the public eye beyond any reproach and above suspicion is testimony to him. Two examples in Europe point to might have been: King Juan Carlos and Prince Ernst August of Hanover. The former Spanish monarch was forced to abdicate and is now in exile following accusations of corruption, while the German prince last month received a suspended prison sentence for assaulting a police officer. Conversely, the Duke’s charge sheet seems to amount to handful of off the cuff remarks.
Had he been a 26-year-old marrying into the Royal Family today rather than in 1947, much would have been made of his personal journey from stateless, penniless refugee to palace. Instead, as he said, ‘I just had to get on with it. You do. One does.’ This stoicism was apparent when he reflected on lost or wounded naval comrades. He observed: ‘It was part of the fortunes of war. We didn’t have counsellors rushing around every time somebody let off a gun . . . You just got on with it.’
The Duke was in hospital when Oprah Winfrey interviewed the Duke of Sussex. It is unimaginable that the Duke would ever have offered up to the media his unsettled childhood, his parents’ divorce or the history of his mother’s mental health in an effort to claim exculpatory victimhood and garner the sympathy of press and public. Following the loss of their patronages in February, the Sussexes declared: ‘We can all live a life of service. Service is universal.’ This underlines the generation gap between grandfather and grandson – and the gulf in their values.
In the hours after his death was announced, Boris Johnson stated that the Duke helped to steer the Royal Family and the Monarchy so that it remained an institution ‘indisputably vital to the balance and happiness of our national life.
On Friday evening the tenor bell at Westminster Abbey tolled 99 times, one for each year of the Duke’s life. The Queen has lost a beloved husband and the country has lost one of the most admirable public servants in its history.