IN addition to the 25 or so regnal titles affixed already to the name of Queen Elizabeth II, another doleful one can now be attached: ‘The Widow of Windsor’. This was last applied to Queen Victoria (the Queen’s great-great-grandmother), after the death of her husband Prince Albert in December 1861.
Like Prince Philip, Albert passed away at Windsor Castle. Unlike Philip, though, Albert as husband of a Queen regnant craved the title of Prince Consort. Prince Albert (a minor German princeling) desired a degree of equivalence with his younger wife, the Queen. In Prince Philip’s case, though, he had married Elizabeth before she became Queen and, at her coronation in 1953, he took an oath to be her “liegeman of life and limb”. That oath went beyond alliteration. As her companion, Philip saw “his job — first, second, and last — was never to let her down”.
Prince Philip descended from a potpourri of dynasties — Greek and Danish on his father’s side, German and British on his mother’s. He had three tutors: Dr Hahn who ran Gordonstoun — a “rugged” school designed “to free the sons of the rich and powerful from the enervating sense of privilege”; his uncle Lord Louis Mountbatten who apprenticed him on the mechanics of monarchy; and then 73 years of unbroken experience as the Queen’s “strength and stay”.
Over that period, Prince Philip became an exemplar of public service. He patronised 780 organisations, delivered over 5,000 speeches, and unveiled countless plaques (he described himself as the “world’s most experienced plaque-unveiler”). He performed more than 22,200 solo engagements, not counting the ones he undertook jointly with the Queen, at home and abroad. He subsumed private feelings to official demands, agreeing to visit the Soviet Union even though “the bastards murdered half my family”.
Prince Philip made royal routine appear effortless.
Two initiatives of his — The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award which he founded in 1956 and the World Wildlife Fund which he helped incubate (he served later as its president from 1981-1996) — enabled him to use his status beyond the realm of royalty. Both touched Pakistan in more ways than our blinkered governments recognise.
Few people in Pakistan know that Prince Philip’s successor as president WWF International was our Syed Babar Ali. He hosted the prince on a number of occasions, accompanying him for example to Hunza in 1994 and to Chitral in 1997. Only intimates recall the prince’s reluctance to have breakfast at the Mir’s palace in Hunza, especially after he had peeped into the kitchen and seen its less than hygienic preparation. Or the prince’s sage advice at an auction in Lahore in aid of WWF to collect money from the successful bidders before they could change their minds.
In subtle ways, he acknowledged the embarrassing residue of Britain’s colonial past bulging in the Royal Collection. Once, while showing garments of Tipu Sultan exhibited in a showcase in Windsor Castle, the prince admitted to his guest that these historic relics had not been “given” as gifts, but were “taken” as trophies. An avid reader, Prince Philip was anxious to finish, before landing there, Robertson’s The Relief of Chitral (1898). He could and did recite by heart Edward Lear’s absurd lines: “Who, or why, or which, or what/ Is the Akond of Swat?”
His obituaries are riddled with recounts of his gaffes. They provide poor epitaphs for a man whose tongue worked faster than the speed of pedantic protocol, who put millions of those whom he was obliged to meet at their ease, and who made the monotony of royal routine appear effortless and interesting. In time, historians will recognise Prince Philip’s contribution to the modernisation of the monarchy in today’s searchlight society. It took a century for the British to acknowledge their debt to Prince Consort Albert and his far-sighted innovations. Prince Philip deserves a quicker recognition.
Prince Philip leaves behind a widow at Windsor who will not mourn him as Queen Victoria did her “irreplaceable” Albert. Victoria wore black widow’s weeds until her own death 40 years later, she had his clothes laid out every day as though in anticipation of a premature resurrection, and she required that her male descendants should include ‘Albert’ among their numerous names. Even the progeny of her godchildren could not escape. Her protégé Maharaja Duleep Singh named two of his sons Victor Albert and Albert Edward.
Queen Elizabeth II’s homage to her husband will not be to sequester herself (Covid-19 or not) in Windsor but to continue to perform her public duties as he did, with diligence, dignity and devotion. She never sought the top job, but once she inherited it, and more so after she took the oath on the Bible at her coronation in 1953, she knows that, like his, hers is a job for life.
The writer is an author.
Published in Dawn, April 22nd, 2021