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We 'Owe Him a Debt Greater Than ... We Shall Ever Know'

A look at the long life of Prince Philip
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 9, 2021 12:02 PM CDT

(Newser) – Mourners have appeared outside London's Buckingham Palace to pay tribute to Prince Philip, the longest-serving consort in British history. But his spouse, Queen Elizabeth II, won't be able to see them, at least not in the physical, as she's staying at Windsor Castle, where Philip died early Friday. The College of Arms says his funeral will be held at Windsor's St. George’s Chapel, but the public will not be involved because of the coronavirus pandemic, per CNN. The outlet reports Philip was involved in planning the funeral, which should come as no surprise: He was always working behind the scenes. More:

  • Born a prince: Philip was born on a dining room table on the Greek island of Corfu in 1921 to Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and Princess Alice of Battenberg, per CNN. (He would later take the anglicized form of the family name, Mountbatten.) But his family had to flee to Italy on a British warship a year later following a coup. The BBC reports the infant Philip slept in a fruit crate during the passage.
  • Never a king: While a woman who marries the monarch can use the ceremonial title of queen, the title of king is reserved only for male sovereigns, per the BBC. Hence Philip's title of Duke of Edinburgh, which was bestowed at his marriage to Elizabeth, only after he renounced his foreign titles, became a naturalized British subject, and joined the Church of England.

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  • Childhood hardships: He was 8 when his mother was committed to a psychiatric institution. His dad took off to France with a mistress, and Philip spent most of his teens at a Scottish boarding school. He was 16 when his pregnant sister Cecilie was killed in a plane crash along with her husband, mother-in-law, and two young sons.
  • A key meeting: It was at the UK's naval academy that he encountered his third cousin, 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth and her sister, Margaret, in July 1939. Philip had been assigned to entertain the royals during an official visit by King George VI. Elizabeth was apparently impressed with how high he could jump, per CNN. He later graduated top of his class and became one of the Royal Navy's youngest first lieutenants.
  • Love conquers all: He exchanged letters with Elizabeth while serving in World War II. And "over Christmas 1943, after Philip had been to stay with the Royal Family, a photograph of him in naval uniform appeared on her dressing room table," per the BBC. By 1946, Philip wrote to his future mother-in-law, telling her that to have "fallen in love completely and unreservedly, makes all one's personal and even the world's troubles seem small and petty."
  • The wedding: They were married on Nov. 20, 1947. He was 26, she was 21. Five years later, with the death of her father, Elizabeth became queen. Friend Michael Parker later recalled Philip's moment of realization: "He looked as if you'd dropped half the world on him. I have never felt so sorry for anyone in all my life."
  • A long career: In his official work as consort, Philip attended 22,191 solo engagements and visited 143 countries. He advocated for wildlife and the environment. He also raised four children: Prince Charles, 72; Princess Anne, 70; Prince Andrew, 61; and Prince Edward, 57.
  • The discipliner: Speaking of his childhood, Prince Andrew once told royal biographer Ingrid Seward, “Compassion comes from the Queen. And the duty and discipline comes from him." However, Andrew also recalled his father inventing stories at bedtime, per the BBC.
  • Gaffes: Philip was prone to gaffes, particularly on his trips abroad, and critics faulted him for remarks seen as belittling to other ethnicities.
  • The Crown's take: Many Americans got to know Philip through The Crown's portrayal, which was often negative. But the series "suggests that Philip was crucial to Elizabeth's success as a monarch even if it took him significant time and effort to accept his role as a subordinate," per USA Today.
  • Living in a shadow: It couldn’t have been easily spending seven decades in his wife’s shadow. One big fight erupted in the early 1950s over the royal family taking the name Windsor instead of Mountbatten, per the BBC. "I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his children!" Philip raged. "I'm nothing but a bloody amoeba!"
  • A necessary push: Still, Philip led a revolution as the first member of the royal family to use a television and computer, royal biographer Sally Bedell Smith tells CNN. She notes he even taught Elizabeth how to use a teleprompter. He generally embraced new approaches and encouraged a more personal connection between Brits and their queen.
  • Elizabeth's rock: "He has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years," Elizabeth said in a speech honoring their 50th wedding anniversary, per the BBC. "I, and his whole family, and this and many other countries, owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim, or we shall ever know."
  • Reuters and the Washington Post offer roundups of reactions from leaders around the world.
(Read more Prince Philip stories.)

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