When Prince Philip married the heir to the British throne, he knew he was stepping into virtually uncharted territory.
There was no official role for the husband of a sovereign queen, no constitutional duty or legal responsibility.
“There was no precedent,” he said when he turned 90. “If I asked somebody, ‘What do you expect me to do?’ They all looked blank. They had no idea.”
His wife Elizabeth knew exactly what she had to do when she became queen in 1952 after the premature death of her father, King George VI. For Philip, though, her ascension to the throne marked the end of his career as a naval officer and a plunge into uncertainty.
But at that crucial moment, he carved out the part he would carry through the decades: the queen’s honest and unwavering bedrock of support through a turbulent reign in which the thousand-year-old monarchy was forced to reinvent itself for the 21st century. It was a role the Duke of Edinburgh played until his death Friday at age 99.
His marriage both defined and constricted his life, placing the irascible, tough-minded Philip three steps behind the queen in public, even if he played a significant role at home, including in raising four children.
His life spanned nearly a century of European history, starting with his birth as a member of the Greek royal family and ending with him as the longest serving consort in British history, surpassing Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III.
He was known for his occasionally deeply offensive remarks — and for gamely fulfilling more than 20,000 royal engagements to boost British interests home and abroad. He headed hundreds of charities, founded programs that helped British schoolchildren participate in challenging outdoor adventures.
Philip saw his sole role as providing support for his wife as she confronted the changing demands placed on a constitutional monarch who began her reign as Britain retreated from empire and steered the monarchy through decades of declining social deference and U.K. power into a modern world where people demand intimacy from their icons.
In the 1970s, Michael Parker, an old navy friend and former private secretary of the prince, said of him: “He told me the first day he offered me my job, that his job — first, second and last — was never to let her down.”
The queen — a very private person not given to extravagant displays of affections — once called him “her rock” in public.
In private, Philip called his wife Lilibet; but he referred to her in conversation with others as “The Queen.”
Over the course of the decades, Philip’s image changed from that of handsome, dashing athlete to arrogant and insensitive curmudgeon. In his later years, the image finally settled into that of droll and philosophical observer of the times, an elderly, craggy-faced man who maintained his military bearing in public despite a host of ailments.
Not content to stay on the sidelines, he promoted British industry and science, espoused environmental preservation long before it became fashionable, and traveled widely and frequently in support of his many charities.
In those frequent public appearances, Philip developed a reputation for being impatient and demanding and was sometimes blunt to the point of rudeness.
Many Britons appreciated what they saw as his propensity to speak his mind, while others criticized behavior they labeled as racist, sexist or out of touch.
In 1995, for example, he asked a Scottish driving instructor, “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to pass the test?” Seven years later in Australia, when visiting Aboriginal people with the queen, he asked: “Do you still throw spears at each other?” On one visit to a military barracks, he asked a sea cadet instructor if she worked in a strip club.
Many believe his propensity to speak his mind meant he provided needed, unvarnished advice to the queen.
“The way that he survived in the British monarchy system was to be his own man, and that was a source of support to the queen,” said royal historian Robert Lacey. “All her life she was surrounded by men who said, ‘yes ma’am,’ and he was one man who always told her how it really was, or at least how he saw it.”
Lacey said that during the royal family’s difficult times with Diana, Philip spoke for the family with authority, showing that he did not automatically defer to the queen despite her position as monarch and head of state.
Philip’s relationship with Diana became complicated as her separation from Charles and their eventual divorce played out in a series of public battles that damaged the monarchy’s standing. It was widely assumed that he was critical of Diana’s use of broadcast interviews, including to accuse Charles of infidelity.
But letters between Philip and Diana released after her death showed that the older man was at times supportive of his daughter-in-law.
After Diana’s death in a car crash in Paris in 1997, Philip had to endure allegations by former Harrods owner Mohamed Al Fayed that he had plotted the princess’s death. Al Fayed’s son, Dodi, also died in the crash.
During a lengthy inquest into their deaths, a senior judge acting as coroner instructed the jury that there was no evidence to support the allegations against Philip, who did not publicly respond to Al Fayed’s charges.
Philip’s final years were clouded by controversy and fissures in the royal family.
His third child, Prince Andrew, was embroiled in controversy over his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein, an American financier who died in a New York prison in 2019 while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges.
U.S. authorities accused Andrew of rebuffing their request to interview him as a witness, and Andrew faced accusations from a woman who said that she had several sexual encounters with the prince at Epstein’s behest. He denied the claim but withdrew from public royal duties amid the scandal.
At the start of 2020, Philip’s grandson Prince Harry and his wife, the American former actress Meghan Markle, announced they were quitting royal duties and moving to North America to escape intense media scrutiny that they found unbearable.
Last month, they gave an explosive interview to Oprah Winfrey, saying that Meghan had suffered neglect and racist attitudes while a working member of the family, though Winfrey later said Harry told her one particularly hurtful remark did not come from either of his grandparents. The palace called the issues raised by the couple “concerning” and said they would be “addressed by the family privately.”
Born June 10, 1921, on the dining room table at his parents’ home on the Greek island of Corfu, Philip was the fifth child and only son of Prince Andrew, younger brother of the king of Greece. His grandfather had come from Denmark during the 1860s to be adopted by Greece as the country’s monarch.
Philip’s mother was Princess Alice of Battenberg, a descendant of German princes. Like his future wife, Elizabeth, Philip was also a great-great-grandchild of Queen Victoria.
When Philip was 18 months old, his parents fled into exile in France. His father, an army commander, had been tried after a devastating military defeat by the Turks. After British intervention, the Greek junta agreed not to sentence Andrew to death if he left the country.
Philip went to school in Britain and entered Dartmouth Naval College as a cadet in 1939. He got his first posting in 1940 but was not allowed near the main war zone because he was a foreign prince of a neutral nation. When the Italian invasion of Greece ended that neutrality, he joined the war, serving on battleships in the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean and the Pacific.
On leave in Britain, he visited his royal cousins and, by the end of war, it was clear he was courting Princess Elizabeth, eldest child and heir of King George VI. Their engagement was announced July 10, 1947, and they were married Nov. 20.
Then, in 1952, King George VI died of cancer at age 56.
Philip had to give up his naval career and his subservient status was formally sealed at the coronation, when he knelt before his wife and pledged to become “her liege man of life and limb, and of earthly worship.”
The change in Philip’s life was dramatic.
“Within the house, and whatever we did, it was together,” Philip told biographer Basil Boothroyd of the years before Elizabeth became queen. “People used to come to me and ask me what to do. In 1952, the whole thing changed, very, very considerably.”
Said Boothroyd: “He had a choice between just tagging along, the second handshake in the receiving line, or finding other outlets for his bursting energies.”
So Philip took over management of the royal estates and expanded his travels to all corners of the world, building a role for himself.
Since 1956 he had been Patron and Chairman of Trustees for the largest youth activity program in Britain, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, a voluntary, non-competitive program of practical, cultural and adventurous activities for young people that exists in over 100 countries worldwide.
He painted, collected modern art, was interested in industrial design and planned a garden at Windsor Castle. But, he once said, “the arts world thinks of me as an uncultured, polo-playing clot.”
In time, the famous blond hair thinned and the long, fine-boned face acquired a few lines. He gave up polo but remained trim and vigorous.
To a friend’s suggestion that he ease up a bit, the prince is said to have replied, “Well, what would I do? Sit around and knit?”
But when he turned 90 in 2011, Philip told the BBC he was “winding down” his workload and he reckoned he had “done my bit.”
The next few years saw occasional hospital stays as Philip’s health flagged. He announced in May 2017 that he planned to step back from royal duties — after roughly 22,000 royal engagements since his wife’s coronation.
Philip is survived by the queen and their four children as well as eight grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.