Richard Berthelsen: A Canadian remembrance of Prince Philip
TORONTO -- Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh was a prince by any measure.
Born a member of the Greek and Danish royal families in a time when intermarriage between royal families was in decline, he could well have expected to lead a life of gilded idleness after his family went into exile shortly after his birth.
Instead, he fell in love with a distant cousin and threw himself into a life of service to the peoples of the Commonwealth, becoming the longest serving consort in our history.
A crusty character on occasion, Prince Philip irritated some and confounded others while defying political correctness in his often brusque and sometimes insensitive attempts at levity in small talk. No group escaped his gaffes -- or wit, depending on one’s perspective.
Among his memorable lines was to a group of Labour MPs at Buckingham Palace in 2000, "Ah, so this is feminist corner then." In Canada, when asked about the possible abolition of the monarchy in 1976, he responded "We don't come here for our health. We can think of other ways of enjoying ourselves." It was an attempt to remind listeners that the Crown and Royal Family exist for a public purpose in Canada, not the private aggrandizement of the Royal Family.
This frankness was perhaps most at home in the Royal Navy, in which Philip came to prominence on his own merit. He saw action in both European and Pacific war theatres and witnessed the Japanese surrender as a young naval officer. It was with many misgivings that he put aside his naval ambition when the Queen succeeded to the throne earlier than planned in 1952. Nautical matters always fascinated the Duke, and he was probably never happier than travelling the world in HMY Britannia, which he participated closely in designing.
He was always at home in uniform, and seemed in his element when surrounded by veterans who had served and with whom he had a special bond. His honorary appointment by the Canadian government on his 90th birthday to the top ranks in the Royal Canadian Navy, the Canadian Army and the Royal Canadian Air Force was an apt tribute to his lifetime of service and the esteem in which he was held by the Canadian Forces. Since he had earned it, he proudly wore his Canadian Forces Decoration (with five clasps) recognizing his more than 68 years of service as colonel-in-chief to five Canadian regiments. As a kindred spirit, his ongoing loyalty to them as well as to the young people in the Royal Canadian Sea Cadets, Royal Canadian Army Cadets, the Royal Canadian Air Cadets will be deeply missed.
It was fitting that he was finally invested by then-governor general David Johnston as an Extraordinary Companion of the Order of Canada and an Extra Commander of the Order of Military Merit in Toronto in 2013, during his last visit to Canada. Characteristically, he was here to present a new regimental colour to one of his units, the Royal Canadian Regiment. He would not accept an honorary appointment in these Canadian orders, as he did not consider himself a foreigner to these shores.
The duke first encountered Canadians in 1943 during the Second World War, when he was second-in-command on HMS Wallace providing naval cover to the Canadian beachhead on Sicily.
After his marriage, on his first visit to Canada in 1951, he somewhat overshadowed his young wife, the then-Princess Elizabeth, as a dashing war hero prince. He returned to Canada more than 60 times, with the Queen and often on his own, frequently piloting the aircraft to support charities and to visit every part of the country.
A trip to the Canadian north in 1954 led to the establishment of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Commonwealth Study Conference, which has brought together industry and community leaders more than 10 times since, including four times in Canada. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, still going strong almost 60 years after it was also established in this country, has engaged more than four million young people in almost 60 countries - 500,000 in Canada alone.
The duke was also a familiar figure in sport, having played a key role in each Commonwealth Games hosted in Canada and opening the Winnipeg Pan Am Games in 1967. His support for his charities in Canada was legendary, notably attending events to raise funds for the World Wildlife Fund or to recognize young people with his award.
When Churchill advised the Queen to confirm that the Royal House continued to be Windsor on her succession to the Crown in 1952, without reference to Philip’s surname of Mountbatten, it caused him some discomfort and he was said to remark, "I am nothing but a bloody amoeba.”
It was fitting that the Queen and government were able to agree to modify this in 1960 to ensure that those of their descendants who did not have a title could use the surname Mountbatten-Windsor, and he lived to see it used by at least two of his eight grandchildren and one great-grandson, and by some of his children on their marriage registers.
Recently, two newborn great-grandsons were given Philip as a second name. His name will live on. He was no amoeba.
In the short term, the Prince of Wales will succeed his father as Duke of Edinburgh, but it was announced that Prince Edward will be given the title in due course to ensure it remains in prominent use in his family. Edward, his youngest son, has increasingly taken the mantle of leadership in his eponymous award.
The Queen referred to Philip as “her strength and stay” throughout their marriage, and the Prince played a key role in modernizing the monarchy and as head of the family. Not one to stand on unnecessary ceremony, he once blasted the person who invented the red carpet as “needing to have his head examined.”
A man with no shortage of interests, he advocated for new technology, industry, good design and the environment while practising what he preached at home.
While his gaffes often made the news, he rarely received the praise he deserved for his tireless devotion to and love for his wife and the Commonwealth which he served.
It was remarkable that he was still undertaking more than 200 engagements a year and maintaining links with more than 700 charities and regiments in 2017, when he stood down from royal duties at age 96. Up until age 65 he was averaging around 600 commitments per year, more than 20,000 on his own throughout his royal life in addition to when he accompanied Her Majesty.
As the Queen’s consort and devoted husband, the duke was constantly at her side throughout her reign. It is difficult to imagine Elizabeth without Philip. He has constantly been a respectful distance behind, but always her equal in a long and stable and affectionate marriage. To the Queen, who is in the sunset of a long and successful reign, his death will come as a great blow.
Many throughout the Commonwealth will join Her Majesty in sadness and will have nothing but the deepest sympathy for her, and for our collective loss.
We shall not see his like again.