British public life will never be the same again.
Prince Philip, the outspoken royal famed for his forthright and sometimes outrageous public comments, is to retire.
The 95-year-old consort of Queen Elizabeth has maintained a remarkably full calendar of public engagements in recent years. He attended 219 official events last year, despite suffering a heart attack in December 2011 and being admitted to hospital on several subsequent occasions. He will no longer carry out public engagements from the autumn of this year.
The announcement came after an emergency meeting of all the queen’s household staff, which sent British media into a panic this morning, with the Sun newspaper accidentally publishing a half-written obituary of the duke.
The palace said in a statement that Prince Philip would attend previously scheduled engagements between now and August, both individually and accompanying the queen, but added, “Thereafter, the duke will not be accepting new invitations for visits and engagements, although he may still choose to attend certain public events from time to time.”
The Duke of Edinburgh is patron, president, or member of more than 780 organizations, with which he will continue to be associated, although “he will no longer play an active role by attending engagements,” the palace said.
Philip, who turns 96 on June 10, will probably be remembered best for his forthright remarks.
When asked in 1967 if he would like to visit the Soviet Union, he said, “I would like to go to Russia very much, although the bastards murdered half my family.”
In 1969, he told the singer Tom Jones: “It is very difficult at all to see how it is possible to become immensely valuable by singing what I think are the most hideous songs.”
He once said of the British class system: “People think there’s a rigid class system here, but dukes have been known to marry chorus girls. Some have even married Americans.”
However his quips were sometimes tinged with racism. When accepting a figurine from a woman during a visit to Kenya in 1984, he asked: “You are a woman, aren’t you?”
He told a World Wildlife Fund meeting in 1986 that “if it has got four legs and it is not a chair, if it has got two wings and flies but is not an airplane and if it swims and it is not a submarine, the Cantonese will eat it.”
While on an official visit to China, he told a group of British exchange students living in the city of Xian: “If you stay here much longer, you’ll all be slitty-eyed.”
His gags often traded in imperial-era national stereotypes. In 1998, the duke asked a British student who had been trekking in Papua New Guinea: “You managed not to get eaten then?”
And he once told the president of Nigeria, who was dressed in his national robes, “You look like you’re ready for bed.”
Philip was born Prince Philippos Prince of Greece and Denmark on the Greek Island of Corfu in 1921, but his family had been deposed and were exiled shortly after his birth.
He was mocked at prep school for having no surname, and only ever being known as “Philip of Greece.” (He took the last name Mountbatten when he became a naturalized British citizen before marrying Elizabeth.)
Philip’s father, Andrew, was the brother of the king of Greece, and his mother, Alice Battenberg (the original Germanic formulation of the name Mountbatten), was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria—making him and Elizabeth third cousins.
Alice was very beautiful but almost completely deaf. She camouflaged her disability by learning to lip-read in multiple languages.
Philip’s parents separated and rarely saw him, and he spent most of his childhood at boarding schools or with his maternal uncle, Dickie Mountbatten. Philip went to school at Gordonstoun in Scotland, where he was head of the school cricket and hockey teams and became head boy.
Philip and Elizabeth fell in love when he was 18 and she was 13. The future queen’s governess described how, while her charges were playing with a clockwork railway, Philip came into the room—and everything changed.
“For a while they knelt side by side playing with the trains. He soon got bored with that,” Princess Elizabeth’s governess said. “We had ginger crackers and lemonade in which he joined and then he said, ‘Let’s go to the tennis courts and have some real fun jumping over the nets!’ At the tennis courts I thought he showed off a little too much. Lilibet [Elizabeth] said, ‘How good he is! How high he can jump!’ He spent a lot of time teasing plump little Margaret.”
Later that evening, when Philip went for dinner with the king, Elizabeth had already been sent to bed, in accordance with the nursery schedule.
Philip joined the Royal Navy in 1939 and was active in the Second World War. As a member of the Royal Navy, he was in charge of operating the searchlights on a battleship called the Valiant. In the battle of Cape Matapan, where the British wiped out a large part of the Italian fleet in a nocturnal attack, Philip was awarded a medal and mentioned in dispatches for his skill with the searchlights, which contributed to the devastating results.
When asked about the action later by his cousin Alexandra, Philip told her, “It was as near murder as anything could be in wartime. The cruisers just burst into tremendous sheets of flame.”
Immediately after the attack, Philip used his searchlights to scour the ocean for survivors to rescue.
Philip has been a tireless fundraiser and charitable campaigner. He has made a remarkable contribution to the lives of millions of youngsters around the world through the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme, which recognizes adolescents and young adults for completing a series of self-improvement exercises.
Just yesterday, Philip showed he showed is still able to poke fun at himself, declaring, as he opened a new £25 million stand at Lord’s cricket ground: “You’re about to see the world’s most experienced plaque-unveiler.”