A supremely telling and affecting moment suddenly occurred during the late Prince Philip’s funeral in St George’s Chapel, Windsor on Saturday April 17; it was when the cameras focused briefly on the black, bowed, masked figure of the Queen, sitting alone at the end of a pew.
What the image said was that a wife and a husband might spend many decades in utter devotion to each other, but that inevitably one must pass on before the other, and that the bereaved experiences a sense of loss rightly described as a void that nothing in this world can fill.
Such a bereavement is of course a common human experience. It happens to everyone sooner or later. Yet one of the great functions of a royal family like that of Britain is to magnify, to highlight, to project to public view the ordinary individual emotions of all members of society. For those who have themselves been bereaved, there may be some kind of comfort in knowing that the monarch, in spite of all the honour and privilege associated with the royal office, also feels such pain.
It was reassuring, too, that the media commentators several times spoke of the Queen’s Christian faith, which she shared with Prince Philip, as what gives her the strength to cope with her loss. It undoubtedly gives her the deep sustaining conviction that this earthly life is the prelude to something else of which we may have intimations, even though for as long as we are here it must remain largely a mystery.
In the last few weeks, it has also often been said that Elizabeth and Philip were the partners to one of the greatest love-stories of all time.
The marriage itself lasted for 73 years, but they had known each other for 8 years before that. I was 6 years old when the wedding took place in November 1947, and revelled in the newspaper photos and reports. Afterwards I kept drawing pictures of the bride, the groom, and the 8 bridesmaids. Later in life I discovered that in Nigeria 8 is rather a small number of bridesmaids to have at a wedding; even a humble trader might have 16.
Part of the fascination of a hereditary monarchy is that, even if its political power has almost vanished, the personal attitudes and activities of the family that stands at the apex of the nation’s life have widespread effects and implications, sometimes of a political kind. The point is illustrated by the remarkable early life of Prince Philip. He was born in 1921 into the royal house of Greece, at a time when Europe’s ruling dynasties intermarried more than they do today and formed a kind of international royal tribe. Philip was the son of Prince Andrew of Greece, but his mother Alice was peripherally a member of the British royal family. In 1923 Prince Andrew and a group of Greek generals were blamed when Greece suffered a humiliating defeat in a war with Turkey: a Republic was proclaimed, and the royal family was driven into exile. His parents separated, his mother suffered a mental breakdown, and his four elder sisters all married German princes. As a teenager Philip attended a school in Germany founded by Kurt Hahn, a visionary educationist and a Jew; and when Hahn fled from Germany because of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews and re-established the tough, Spartan school at Gordonstoun in Scotland, Philip continued his education there.
The Greek monarchy was restored in 1936, and Philip’s mother returned to Athens, but by now Philip had been virtually adopted by his British maternal uncle Lord Louis Mountbatten, who encouraged Philip to make a career in the British Navy. An ambitious man, Mountbatten may also have deliberately promoted the marriage of Philip to Elizabeth, the heiress to the British throne. At any rate, it was while the British royal family was visiting a naval dockyard in 1939 that the 18-year-old Philip and the 13-year-old Elizabeth met for the first time and (so we are told) there and then fell in love. His attractions in her eyes were increased by the impressive record he built up as a lieutenant in the British Navy during the Second World War.
After the War he assumed the English-sounding name ‘Lt Philip Mountbatten’, and it increased his acceptability to the British establishment. It was the name used at the wedding; and on its eve his father-in-law-about-to-be, King George VI, granted him the title Duke of Edinburgh. Thereafter, he saw it as his duty to give unwavering support to his wife. This was especially important after 1952 when, on the death of her father, she ascended the British throne. If the acceptance of his subordinate role by such an extrovert man is puzzling to some people, it was dictated by the fact that she had a constitutional role to play, while like the spouse of any sovereign he had no constitutional role at all. He turned his position to good account, using his considerable abilities, including creative intelligence and restless energy, for the futherance of the greater public good.
Perhaps the most notable of the benevolent organizations Prince Philip either started or involved himself in is the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme, designed to enable young people to realize their potential through developing skills of endurance and self-reliance. Undoubtedly his interest in the scheme, which has benefited youngsters in over 140 countries, was born out of the experiences of his own younger days. He also promoted concern about the environment long before this became fashionable. As President of the World Wildlife Fund he visited Nigeria several times and encouraged the formation of the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, which, along with President Muhammadu Buhari, expressed condolences to the Queen over his death.
The British public was sometimes dismayed by some of Prince Philip’s utterances, and being a highly self-confident man, he did not mind riling the media and Britain’s more extreme Left-wingers from time to time. He would have riled them even more if he had not known that the ensuing controversy would harm the monarchy.
To those who saw him as arrogant and insensitive, one of his greatest answers was that in 1994, together with his one surviving sister, he attended a ceremony in Jerusalem at which the State of Israel honoured his late mother, Princess Alice, with the title ‘Righteous Among the Nations’. In the Second World War the Germans overran Greece and the Greek royal family went into exile for the second time, but she stayed behind; and when Greek Jews began to be rounded up for extermination, she sheltered a Jewish family in her house and fed them out of her slender means. After the War she founded an order of Orthodox nuns, and is buried in a church in Jerusalem.
Prince Philip’s life thus demonstrates the mystery of the possibility that early adversity can be transformed into later happiness. An old saying is that life is stranger than fiction: here we at least see that a real-life story is just as interesting as anything in literature.
•Jowitt is a Professor of English at the University of Jos.