Fr Michael Halsall of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham reflects on the life and times of the Duke of Edinburgh, HRH Prince Philip, who died on Friday at the age of 99.
To be clear, I am not a monarchist, royalist, or any other kind of titled groupie. However, I have always had a keen interest in those who have been grafted into the royal family by marriage or association; those who, for better or worse, have had greatness ‘thrust upon them’.
Prince Philip was the epitome of such persons, and his seventy three years of standing in the shadow of his wife, demonstrated a loyalty and humility which is rare in any walk of life today. At Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, Prince Philip swore allegiance to her, vowing that he would be his wife’s ‘liege man of life and limb’, and in their Golden Wedding speech, she affectionately referred to him as being her ‘strength and stay’.
Quoting from a popular evensong hymn, Her Majesty demonstrated an affection for the man with whom she fell in love at the age of 13, when he was a cadet at the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. He was the only person on earth who was not required to call her ma’am (as in jam), nor bow nor curtsey.
From the first days of their marriage in 1947 he had to carve out a role for himself, and he was unceasing in championing the causes of all classes of people in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. He had a keen interest in science and engineering, and regularly criticised the leaders of British industry for their lack of vision. He was ahead of his time in using contemporary technologies in his office. Not content to gain his flying wings with the RAF, he amassed over 5000 flying hours in his busy schedule, even taking the controls of iconic aircraft such as Concorde.
Born on the island of Corfu in 1921, the only son and fifth child of Prince Andrew of Greece and Princess Alice of Battenberg, he was baptised into the Greek Orthodox Church. Upon marriage he was officially required to relinquish his Orthodox faith in favour of the Church of England, although he never ceased to make the Orthodox sign of the cross in public. This losing of his religious roots was accompanied by significant trauma as a child: his parents had a turbulent and separated marriage, his mother had severe psychiatric illness, and the whole family were forced into exile from Greece to Britain.
He often referred to himself as a refugee, and would sign visitors books as ‘NFA’ – no fixed abode.
Prince Philip’s sense of self-reliance and resilience were proven during his naval service in the second World War, and his affection for the ordinary seaman extended into his visionary work as Consort to the Queen. This was demonstrated through the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, and being president of various grass roots sporting bodies and charities, which were a far cry from the elitism of the world of polo and the glamour of royal life.
My personal and enduring memory of Prince Philip was receiving my first degree from him in 1983. He was Chancellor of the University of Salford where I studied, and was regularly seen casually walking around the campus and student accommodation. In my second year I had a ground floor room, and he once popped his head in my open window whilst I was working. We chatted about my course in engineering, prospects in life, and family. He was at ease with people from all walks of life, and from those outside of his rarefied circle of privilege. We must not forget that despite his ‘life in the shadows’, he had his own significant royal credentials: he was a great-great grandson of Queen Victoria through his mother.
Life presented him some difficult challenges, which he overcame in his unique matter-of-fact way, but perhaps without the honed diplomacy of his wife. They were a formidable team on the world stage. Their leadership and service extended across monumental changes in world affairs, and his personal awareness and vision was truly ‘modern’, in that he pioneered movements and championed technologies which we shall value long after his death.
His scientific and environmental interests were never divorced from a spiritual vision: in 1986, as President of the World Wildlife Fund, he invited leaders of five world religions to Assisi to discuss how together they could inspire a greater respect and stewardship of the planet. When Pope Benedict XVI visited Britain in 2010, it was Prince Philip who met him off the plane, such was his abiding interest in religion, and involvement with leaders across all faiths.
May he rest in peace.
Fr Michael Halsall is a priest of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, and a member of the staff of Allen Hall Seminary, London, where he teaches Philosophy.