By Chris Jones
I met Prince Philip, who died Friday at the age of 99, one time.
He put his hands behind his ramrod-straight back and then leaned his statuesque self down to my height (I was even shorter then than now). He looked me straight in the eye and asked me how I got to school.
“By bus, sir,” I piped up.
“Very good, young man” he said, ratcheting himself back up, smiling and walking on.
No one who knows me would describe my memory as photographic. But I remember that scene, and Prince Philip’s face, with total clarity.
It was November 1976. I was 13 years old. The Duke of Edinburgh, who already was 55, not that I noticed, had come to my school, Bury Grammar School, which was celebrating an anniversary. He also was pushing his signature scheme, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, a series of challenges designed to encourage adolescent self-improvement.
We didn’t see royals much (really, at all) in the faded factory town where I went to school so this was a big deal. I remember the head teacher, always big on appearances, nearly bursting with pride.
I remember my mother fussing over my signature disheveled look, arguing I needed a clean, white shirt. I don’t recall any cynicism among my classmates; maybe that’s because we got out of class for half a day.
We kids had been arranged behind two ropes on the field where we played soccer in a kind of fake royal walkabout (the shortest were sent to the front; hence my interaction). His Royal Highness walked from the gymnasium to a room where they had arranged tea. We all could see the fancy sandwiches through the window; that occasioned a great deal of cynicism.
A few years later at that school, I remember a project where we had to argue for and against the monarchy. The “against” notions were, in essence: It’s absurdly anti-democratic in its veneration of birthright and hereditary privilege (duh!); it inherently promotes and protects the establishment (you don’t say); it keeps the people in their place (I sure felt in mine); it costs money (and, at that austere time, plenty).
Save for its ability to attract tourists, the “for” notions for the monarchy were more ephemeral. To my mind, there only are two. Weird as it might be, it works. And the ordinary working people have no appetite for change.
Why not? Well, since that day, and throughout the tumultuous history of the royal family (familiar, with embellishments, from “The Crown” and you might recall a certain recent interview with Harry and Meghan), I’ve read lord knows how many words grappling with that reality, which has wavered from time to time, but abides. At least while the queen remains alive.
It rests on notions of service: People tolerate the greater privilege of others only if they perceive them as serving greater causes (the knives come out when they are seen as helping only themselves). Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip grasped that existential truth far better than their own children, and their children’s children.
They served. Even at 13, I had a notion that Prince Philip’s strutting his handsome self across the muddy playing fields of Greater Manchester and asking kids like me how they got to school (and we almost all took the regular town bus) must, you know, grow old.
So, of course, did this couple, which greatly strengthened their bond with their subjects. Despite all the dramatic recreations and tabloid hysteria, no one ever has questioned that their marriage was one of genuine affection, which history reveals to be a real rarity in royal-dom, where any number of other considerations come into play; many of them have been lucky to escape with someone they can barely tolerate.
In 1970s Britain, males married to very important women still were seen as unusual characters. Three years after my encounter with Prince Philip, Margaret Thatcher would become prime minister and her dweeby husband, Denis, would come in for all kinds of ribbing as an official holder of a handbag.
Prince Philip, though, was too rigorous a personality to suffer the same fate. Perhaps it was his status as an outsider, born in Greece and then living a life of exile. He clearly mastered the art of dignified support, even though, when he married Princess Elizabeth, he surely could not have imagined he would be a queen’s consort less than five years later, effectively trimming the sails of personal ambition.
It often is said of the queen that almost all living Britons have known no other. The same could be said of Prince Philip. This was a marriage that lasted 73 years. And it ended at a time when so many of her subjects have known the loss of someone who is elderly.
Due to COVID-19, Prince Philip’s funeral won’t be what he would have wanted. On the other hand, he got himself out of hospital and able to pass his last days at home with his wife, as any of us would wish. She was home more than usual, too.
As soon as I woke up Friday, I called my mother, who is 98 and inestimably fond of her slightly younger queen. I knew she’d be worried about her losing Prince Phillip.
“Prince Philip said some stupid things,” she said. “But he always supported the queen. That was a marriage of love, you know?”
One could not say more, could one? Not in death, anyway.
Chris Jones is a critic for the Chicago Tribune.
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