Prince Philip exemplified a greater generation of service and duty
May 7, 2007 was among the most memorable days of my life — the day I met Queen Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. With the duke’s passing on Friday at age 99, the world lost an iconic figure — a constant for nearly a century. So, too, we lost a connection to another era and a leading example of the lessons of the “Greatest Generation,” the merits of duty and honor.
In the early 2000s, I advised the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee on U.K. affairs and founded the Congressional United Kingdom Caucus. In connection with these duties, I was thrilled to receive an invitation to the British Embassy Garden Party in honor of the royal couple’s 2007 State Visit. Like other attendees, I was awestruck to meet this pair, but the duke broke the ice by asking, “Young man, what is your affiliation here today?” I replied, “Sir, I founded a congressional group called the United Kingdom Caucus.” With the timing of a great comedian, Prince Philip shot back, “Oh, I do hope there are more than two members.”
This world figure so steeped in the history of the 20th century delighted in making impressions of the sort I experienced. Reaching age 99 is undeniably impressive, but the duke’s death leaves a void as culture wars rage and modern standards for public service decline; notoriety for its own sake has replaced honor with so many.
Over his life, Prince Philip worked unwaveringly for his country and his family (which is also his country’s family). In fact, as the reigning queen’s husband, he embraced a role where, at best, he always came second. It is impossible to fathom his comprehension or acceptance of his grandson Harry’s and wife Meghan’s quest for self-promotion and self-enrichment.
During times when presidents dare not speak without their teleprompters, Prince Philip by many accounts addressed his audiences naturally, without notes and with a gifted actor’s timing and delivery. He was known for his directness and surprising informality, as corroborated by my own exchange with him. True to his background as a naval officer, he possessed qualities that often are short in supply: self-reliance and practicality.
In the face of adversity, Prince Philip overcame. Raised in exile after his grandfather, King George I of Greece, was assassinated, Philip’s parents separated when he was a child. Afterward, the young prince saw little of his father and his mother was institutionalized in Switzerland following a nervous breakdown. Philip’s sisters married German princes (later estranging him after World War II) while he was shuttled off to various boarding schools. These experiences helped him develop self-reliance that served him well — not only in a naval career, but also as an eventual “outsider” who married into the British royal family.
It is ironic that, like Meghan Markle, Phillip initially was seen as an outsider. Having attachments to nationalities including Greek, Danish, German and British, and though royal, no wealthy income streams, Philip was difficult to categorize. While many accounts indicate that his and Elizabeth’s was a love match, many Brits initially did not welcome the “foreign” duke. But unlike his future granddaughter-in-law Meghan, Philip rose to the occasion and triumphed.
Had she been interested, Meghan Markle could have learned a lot from the Duke of Edinburgh, who won the hearts of those in his adopted country by distinguishing himself through service to queen, country and community. In its obituary, the BBC notes: “As the longest-serving consort in British history, the prince took on some 22,191 solo engagements. When he retired from royal duties in 2017, he was said to be patron, president or a member of more than 780 organizations.”
And surely his most consequential legacy is the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, founded in 1956, which has helped to transform the lives of young people in 144 countries, including the U.S., through life skills learned by volunteering, engaging in physical fitness, and team-building exercises.
The United Kingdom — and the world — will miss Prince Philip, but perhaps no one more so than his wife, Queen Elizabeth, who, faithful to her famous pledge, will carry on resolutely. Her own commitment and faith, bolstered by public affection, will ensure her pledge to continue despite losing the man she called her “strength and stay.” His memory will be a blessing to her and us all.
Lee Cohen, a senior fellow of the Bow Group and the Danube Institute, was adviser on Great Britain to the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee and founded the Congressional United Kingdom Caucus.