How Prince Philip Modernized—and Fought to Preserve—the Monarchy
The U.K.’s longest-serving royal consort died Friday at age 99
When a commission chaired by Prince Philip proposed broadcasting the 1953 investiture ceremony that formally named Elizabeth II as queen on live television, Prime Minister Winston Churchill reacted with outright horror, declaring, “It would be unfitting that the whole ceremony ... should be presented as if it were a theatrical performance.”
Though the queen had initially voiced similar concerns, she eventually came around to the idea, allowing the broadcast of all but one segment of the coronation. Ultimately, notes the BBC, more than 20 million people tuned in to the televised ceremony—a credit to the foresight of Philip, who died Friday at age 99.
Elizabeth’s coronation marked a watershed moment for a monarchy that has, historically, been “very hands off, old-fashioned and slightly invisible,” as historian Sarah Gristwood, author of Elizabeth: The Queen and the Crown, tells NBC News’ Rachel Elbaum.
Over the following years, the royals continued to embrace television as a way of connecting with the British people: In 1957, the queen delivered her annual Christmas address during a live broadcast. Four years later, in 1961, Philip became the first family member to sit for a television interview. Toward the end of the decade, the Windsors even invited cameras into their home, offering the BBC the opportunity to film a behind-the-scenes documentary.
Much of this push for transparency can be traced back to Philip, an irascible outsider whose unconventional upbringing inspired him to modernize “a monarchy he feared could end up as a museum piece,” per the Guardian’s Caroline Davies. At the same time, says Victoria Howard, editor and founder of the Crown Chronicles, to the “Today Show,” the prince was known as “someone who often put his foot in it,” making a slew of brash and racist comments throughout his career.
Later in life, Philip’s priorities shifted from adapting the monarchy for the modern age to protecting the increasingly embattled institution.
“[A]s pageantry was upstaged by scandal, as regal weddings were followed by sensational divorces, his mission, as he saw it, changed,” writes Marilyn Berger for the New York Times. “Now it was to help preserve the crown itself.”
The royal family announced Philip’s death on Friday. Per a statement, the Duke of Edinburgh “passed away peacefully this morning at Windsor Castle.” He had been in poor health for the past several years, retiring from public duties in 2017 and undergoing a medical procedure for a pre-existing heart condition earlier this year.
Born on a kitchen table on the Greek island of Corfu in June 1921, Philip was the great-great-grandson of Queen Victoria and nephew of Constantine I of Greece, whose 1922 abdication forced the young infant and his family to flee their home country. The future consort’s childhood was a peripatetic one, with Philip spending stretches of time in France, England and Germany, and was notably marred by tragedies, including the institutionalization of his mother and death of his beloved older sister in a plane crash.
Philip and Elizabeth first met in 1934, when he was 13 and she was 8. Five years later, the pair crossed paths again: As Elizabeth’s cousin recalled in her autobiography, the princess “was truly in love from the very beginning.” The couple wed in 1947, embarking on a 74-year partnership that would cement Philip’s status as the United Kingdom’s longest-serving royal consort.
American audiences are perhaps most familiar with Philip through Netflix’s “The Crown,” a heavily dramatized series that portrays him in an “often less-than-flattering if eventually sympathetic” light, according to USA Today’s Kelly Lawler. The first two seasons of the show in particular emphasize the prince’s struggle to carve out a role for himself within an institution centered on his wife—a message at least partly echoed by the actual Philip.
In his own words, the process of defining what it meant to be a royal consort was one of “trial and error.” Speaking with BBC One’s Fiona Bruce in 2011, Philip explained, “There was no precedent. If I asked somebody, 'What do you expect me to do?' they all looked blank. They had no idea, nobody had much idea.”
Contrary to “The Crown”’s depiction of the royal marriage and Philip’s resentment at playing second fiddle, the prince recognized that his “first duty was to serve [the queen] in the best way I could,” as he told ITV in 2011. Though this role was somewhat ill-suited to his “[d]ynamic, driven [and] outspoken” temperament, biographer Philip Eade tells Al Jazeera that Philip “performed [it] with utter devotion.”
Arguably Philip’s greatest legacy was his push to modernize the centuries-old monarchy. Progress was incremental, says royal biographer Ingrid Seward to NBC News, “as he had opposition from the old guard who wanted to keep [everything] as it was,” but nevertheless resulted in significant changes.
Per the Guardian, the prince encouraged Elizabeth to end the outdated practice of presenting debutantes at court, in addition to hosting informal lunches and garden parties designed to engage a broader swath of the British public. He took steps to reorganize and renovate the royal estates and generally sought to “make the royal household and the monarchy less stuffy, not to have so much formality everywhere,” as Charles Anson, the queen’s former press secretary, tells Al Jazeera.
Speaking with CNN’s Poppy Harlow and Jim Sciutto, biographer Sally Bedell Smith says:
By the ’80s, he had written nine books. He was the first person in the royal family to use television. He did a television documentary. He persuaded the Queen in 1957 to televise her annual Christmas message. And he even taught her how to use a teleprompter. He was the first member of the royal family to use a computer … He picked up the phone, but also wrote all his own emails. He wrote his speeches. He was a man of searching intellect, great curiosity.
The BBC began filming its “Royal Family” documentary in June 1968. Philip oversaw the process, leading a committee that personally approved every scene, and sought to ensure that the two-hour film presented the royals in a humanizing light. In one shot, the prince barbecued sausages at Balmoral, the family’s Scottish Highlands estate; in another, the queen made small talk with President Richard Nixon.
Though the documentary premiered to widespread acclaim—and strong viewership—Buckingham Palace soon decided to lock it away, barring its broadcast without the queen’s permission. (Clips resurface on YouTube every so often.) As Otto English writes for Politico, the film “revealed the royals to be a fairly normal, if very rich, British upper-class family who liked barbecues, ice cream, watching television and bickering.”
English adds, “The mystery of royalty took a hit below the waterline from their own torpedo, a self-inflicted wound from which they never quite recovered.”
In its obituary for Philip, the Telegraph notes that some critics identify the documentary “as the moment when the monarchy began to lose the aura of grandeur which distance conveyed.” Over the following decades, as the royal couple’s children—most notably Prince Charles—navigated much-publicized divorces, this sense of demystification was exacerbated tenfold, with many Britons beginning to view the royal family “as increasingly dysfunctional,” according to the Times.
As threats to the monarchy’s stability mounted in the 1990s and 2000s, Philip faced criticism for seemingly refusing to adapt to the times. He continued to make headlines for his offensive comments, many of which played on racial stereotypes, and brought much unwanted attention to the royal family as a steadfastly “headstrong contrarian,” per the Washington Post’s Adrian Higgins.
Despite these late-in-life events, Gristwood tells CNN that the prince “helped create the model of the British royal family that has enabled it to continue forward into the 21st century.”
She continues, “We may have lost sight of that now, but I hope we’ll remember him for it.”
The queen, for her part, summarized the couple’s relationship in a 1997 speech marking their 50th wedding anniversary: “He is someone who doesn’t take easily to compliments but he has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years, and I … owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim or we shall ever know.”