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The Observer view on the legacy of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh

Observer editorial
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: WPA/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: WPA/Getty Images

The death of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, at the age of 99, marks both a moment of personal grief for the Queen and the royal family and a moment of national mourning for a man who dedicated his life to public service.

The Queen’s loss is a profound one: at the age of 94, she has lost her husband and companion, her “strength and stay” of 73 years. Many people up and down the country who have lost their spouses in a year that has brought more death and grief than usual will know and understand her pain.

To the country, Prince Philip was one of the last living members of a generation of war heroes. Much of his time as consort to the Queen spanned an age where the press was more deferential, when the royal family was more private, when it commanded an even greater presence in the national consciousness than it does today. And his death, though expected, serves as a reminder that even an institution as enduring as the monarchy has to evolve and change, and that the Queen herself will not live forever. The nation, too, has much to grieve: not just the man, but what his passing represents.

Related: A life in pictures – Prince Philip

One thing stands out about Prince Philip above all else as a public figure: his unwavering commitment to service to this country. He fought with great courage during the Second World War, becoming one of the navy’s youngest first lieutenants. That sense of duty shaped the way he chose to live his role as consort to the Queen. The anachronisms of the hereditary institution he married into, with its constitutional role in a modern democracy, may be manyfold. But he embraced a lifetime of service with gusto and deserves respect and acclaim for the positive impact he had on Britain.

His most notable achievement was the foundation of the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, which since 1956 has helped create opportunities for millions of young people around the world to undertake service in the community and enjoy the outdoors. But he also did much to advance British engineering and science, to highlight issues around conservation, and he served as patron to many important charitable causes. He carried out more than 22,000 solo public engagements before retiring from public life at the age of 96. But perhaps his most important role was as a partner and personal support to the Queen, who has shown such enduring dedication to this country as our sovereign of almost seven decades.

Prince Philip was anything but a dull character. He reportedly did not enjoy pomp and circumstance for its own sake and his wishes for his funeral were for it to be kept simple. One imagines he may have had little time for some of the more sycophantic coverage of his life in the last 48 hours. He was considered immensely likable by those who met him, but was not afraid to cause controversy through his occasional public use of racist and sexist language long considered unacceptable.

It is easy to forget that Prince Philip was viewed as a great modernising force for the monarchy that helped keep it in step with an evolving postwar nation. His eldest son, and heir to the throne, Prince Charles, who has long spoken of his wishes to slim down the institution and reduce the number of working members of the royal family, will inherit that mantle from him.

The fact of a long and richly lived life can never compensate for its loss. There will be many who grieve Prince Philip in the days, months and years to come, here in the UK and abroad; some because they met him and were touched by him, others because of what he represents to them. But above all else, he was a husband and a father. No one could envy the Queen the role she was born into, which she has performed with extraordinary commitment for 70 years. That solitary role of hereditary sovereign has just become more lonely, without her partner in life by her side. It is her for whom the most heartfelt condolences should be felt.