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Prince Philip's 'gaffes' defended as being taken 'out of context' by those who worked with him

Rebecca Taylor
·Royal Correspondent
·5-min read

Watch: Prince Philip death: The Duke of Edinburgh dies, aged 99

Throughout his life Prince Philip became known for his 'gaffes', but friends of the late duke have defended some of what he said, claiming it was taken out of context.

Philip, who died on 9 April at the age of 99, was often quoted as making remarks which left jaws dropping and heads shaking, but some have said the criticism was not always fair.

Martin Palmer, who worked with the duke for many years, told the BBC: "The major issue he had to deal with, imagine this is your 1000th person you've greeted this week, I've watched some of the most brilliant people i've ever worked with meet him and turn into rabbits in the headlights and end up with monosyllabic 'yes' and 'no'.

"Sometimes, what are called his gaffes are really just attempts to get people to open up. One of my favourites was when I introduced him to a group of very earnest Americans who ran a thing called 'Global Awareness programme' and he said 'global awareness, oh good - when were you aware that it was a globe and not flat?'

"And there was a complete look of incomprehension and what I often had to do is say 'you know that was a joke don't you?' and they would say 'oh right'."

HONG KONG - OCTOBER 23:  Prince Philip (duke Of Edinburgh) Meeting Gurkhas Of The Seventh Regiment.  (Photo by Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)
Prince Philip meeting Gurkhas of The Seventh Regiment in Hong Kong. His gaffes often got him in trouble. (Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)

He said the duke could be "really funny" and recalled a short meeting he once organised in a gap between meetings at an event, where Prince Philip was asked "it must be wonderful working with Martin Palmer?"

Palmer said the duke replied: "No, not really. In fact not at all, he's a complete nuisance. It's like working with an octopus.

"You spot this tentacle coming towards you and it's the other seven from behind that grab you."

Palmer was the duke's religious adviser on the environment for 36 years, and described him as a "mate", saying they worked together as recently as January 2021.

He said the duke was passionate about changing people's hearts and minds with stories on the environment, because "no one was ever converted by a pie chart".

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh watching a culture show at Tjapukai Aboriginal Culture Park, Cairns, Queensland. The Duke surprised the aborigines when he asked them
The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh watching a culture show at Tjapukai Aboriginal Culture Park, Cairns, Queensland. The Duke surprised the aborigines when he asked them "Do you still throw spears at each other?" (Fiona Hanson - PA Images)

The duke was also defended by Warren Clements, who was one of the indigenous performers in Australia to whom Prince Philip remarked "Do you still throw spears at each other?" on a trip to North Queensland in 2002.

Clements told ABC: "[Prince Philip and the Queen] were coming down the [cable car] and we were putting on a special performance.

"We had royal fever so we said 'Let's go out the back and throw some boomerangs and spears and hopefully we'll get a glimpse of them as they come down'.

"They waved and we were showing off. I think Prince Philip took that in and that's why he said it.

"He's been taken out of context."

Watch: Britain's Prince Philip through the years

Read more: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle pay tribute to Prince Philip after his death

But historian Jane Connors said while Clements may not have found the comments racist, others would have. 

Connors, who specialises in royal visits to Australia, told ABC: "As the times have changed his remarks have just stood out more and more. Particularly when they've gone in a racist direction, people have just thought, this is so wrong."

She added: "[His comments were often] about primitive people. He made a few about head hunters in Papua New Guinea and he's made one or two comments on cannibalism where there hadn't been any."

Prince Edward, the youngest son of the Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen, also defended him during a special tribute show to Philip, aired on BBC on Friday evening.

He said: "The public image that certain parts of the media would portray was always an unfair depiction.

“He used to give them as good as he got and always in a very entertaining way.

“He was brilliant. Always absolutely brilliant.

“He had a wonderful sense of humour but of course you can always misinterpret something or turn it against them, so it sounds like it’s not right.

“But anyone who had the privilege to hear him speak said it was his humour which always came through and the twinkle in his eye."

File photo dated 09/04/14 of the Duke of Edinburgh smiles as he meets members of the Royal College of Organists during a visit to commemorate the RCO's 150th anniversary at St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle. The Duke of Edinburgh has died, Buckingham Palace has announced. Issue date: Friday April 9, 2020.. See PA story DEATH Philip. Photo credit should read: Ben Stansall/PA Wire
The Duke of Edinburgh meeting members of the Royal College of Organists at St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle in 2014. (Ben Stansall/PA Wire)

Read more: The Duke of Edinburgh - a man who spoke his mind

Philip once defended himself over one of the comments - that he had told a student she would get "slitty eyes" if she stayed in China much longer.

Speaking in a documentary on the occasion of his 90th birthday, he said: "I'd forgotten about it. But for one particular reporter who overheard it, it wouldn’t have come out. What’s more, the Chinese weren’t worried about it, so why should anyone else?"

Author Robert Lacey said the duke had a sense of humour which meant the Queen was often on the receiving end of his so-called gaffes.

He told the BBC: "There's so much he gave to her life. His sense of humour - that's what she will be missing terribly.

"It's one of the reasons why people feel drawn to come to Windsor, we all knew his sometimes ghastly sense of humour, his so-called gaffes, well the Queen was the principal recipient of that.

"For all seriousness and duty, the Queen has a humorous side and she had the ability to put things in humorous terms.

"Well the duke was very much her partner in doing that sort of thing."