As a life goes, it was extraordinary. At the side of the sovereign for 70 years, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was a constant in the national story and a reminder of the enduring nature of monarchy through decades of war, political upheaval and revolutionary changes in culture and lifestyle in the country he came to know as home.
He was born on June 10, 1921 in a continent scared by the war which alas did not end all wars. Corfu was his birthplace and his lineage boasted connections to the Greek and Danish Royal families. His family were exiled from Greece following the events of the Greco-Turkish war between 1919 and 1922. His uncle King Constantine I was forced to abdicate and his father Prince Andrew was arrested.
The family settled in Paris, where Philip was educated firstly at an American school before continuing his education in England and Germany and eventually at Gordonstoun in Moray. The weather was no doubt as austere as the educational experience with its emphasis on physical and mental endurance as well as learning and the young Prince loved the place, cemented by a love of sailing around the Scottish coast.
If the aftermath of the first war led to a nomadic existence, the Second World War would anchor him in the British military and pave the way for the relationship which would define his life.
He joined the Royal Navy in 1939 after leaving school but his military service was not at all cosseted by his privileged upbringing and he saw action at the Battle of Crete and the Battle of Capa Manata in 1941. During the allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, as second-in-command of HMS Wallace, he saved his ship from a night bomber attack by distracting the airplanes with a raft of smoke planes.
Around this time he dated Princess Elizabeth, who would later become Queen. Philip relinquished his Green and Danish titles and became a naturalised British citizen. Taking the name Philip Mountbatten he became engaged to the future monarch in July of 1947. They were married on November 20 that year.
The Princess was smitten by Philip who cut a dashing figure. Any opportunities not to be burdened by the constraints of duty and public service were relatively short lived. The Princess ascended to the throne at the age of 25 after the death of her father George VI.
Queen Elizabeth was the Head of State of a country still living with the economic consequences of war. The times were harsher for the British people and the Royals occupied a position marked by near universal deference in a socially conservative society where class distinction underpinned many of the social mores.
Philip would be the Queen’s constant companion where he had a ringside seat at some of the defining moments of the 20th century from the end of empire and the embrace of the Commonwealth to the contraction of British military strength and a mid- century gravitation to the idea of the UK as part of a wider trend towards greater European cooperation.
And of course he would have met world leaders and heads of state and been close to Prime Ministers starting with Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee.
He did however carve a role for himself against the initial instincts of a palace old guard who perhaps regarded tradition and protocol as immovable and unchangeable anchors of monarchy.
The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award was launched in 1956 and has helped several million young people across 144 nations. He became patron of the industrial society in 1952 and was the first president of the World Wide Fund for Nature in 1961. He paradoxically had a lifelong passion both for hunting and for the preservation of endangered species.
At that time it was central to the mystique of monarchy that is was seen to be a symbol of nationhood. The key members of the Royal household lent an air of dignity to the idea of country as one extended family but they remained aloof from the experiences of their subjects.
The advent of a mass media made Philip something of a celebrity. By the late 1950s however the old certainties were under attack and the age of knowing one’s place came to an end. It marked a period when the hitherto unthinkable happened: the behaviour of the Royal’s was not above scrutiny or criticism.
This change led to occasional castigation for Philip after repeated cases of foot in mouth. At Kenya’s independence ceremony in 1963 he was moved to ask Jomo Kenyata ‘Are you sure you want to go through with this?’
In Canada in 1969, cutting a ribbon, he memorably said, ‘I declare this thing open, whatever it is’. In Oban in 1995 he asked a driving instructor ‘How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to get them through the test?’
Some of this could be filed under banter or even risqué teasing. Some of his utterances drew little sympathy with references which were plainly racist. His supporters did however regard him as a victim of changing attitudes buttressed by a heavy thump of political correctness.
In his time as the Queen’s consort, Philip became the patron of more than 780 organisations. He was also at era defining moments: the 1966 World Cup Final, the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and the London Olympics opening ceremony in 2012.
To celebrate his 90th birthday the Queen appointed him Lord High Admiral of the Royal Navy, the highest title in the organisation. And on their 70th wedding anniversary on November 20 2017, the British monarch also named him Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order for ‘services to the sovereign’.
What is beyond dispute is the strength that the Queen has drawn from their long marriage and by his support in the execution of her duties. His embrace of public engagements lasted into his 90s in a show of stamina and service the envy of many a younger man.
The end of an era is one of the most over used and abused phrases upon death. In a sense his passing is the end of several eras for his was a life marked initially by the horrors of war and which traversed monumental societal change.
And through it all, despite acute crises, the institution of monarchy managed somehow to remain relevant. By being a source of encouragement, strength and love to the Queen, he played his part in the enduring of a very British institution.