LONDON (AP) — Prince Philip, the irascible and tough-minded husband of Queen Elizabeth II who spent more than seven decades supporting his wife in a role that both defined and constricted his life, has died, Buckingham Palace said Friday. He was 99.
His life spanned nearly a century of European history, starting with his birth as a member of the Greek royal family and ending as Britain’s longest-serving consort during a turbulent reign in which the thousand-year-old monarchy was forced to reinvent itself for the 21st century.
He was known for his occasionally racist and sexist remarks — and for gamely fulfilling more than 20,000 royal engagements to boost British interests at home and abroad. He headed hundreds of charities, founded programs that helped British schoolchildren participate in challenging outdoor adventures and played a prominent part in raising his four children, including his eldest son, Prince Charles, the heir to the throne.
Philip spent a month in hospital earlier this year before being released on March 16 to return to Windsor Castle.
“It is with deep sorrow that Her Majesty The Queen has announced the death of her beloved husband, His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh,” the palace said. “His Royal Highness passed away peacefully this morning at Windsor Castle.”
Philip saw his sole role as providing support for his wife, 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.”
Speaking outside 10 Downing St., Prime Minister Boris Johnson noted the support Philip provided to the queen, saying he “helped to steer the royal family and the monarchy so that it remains an institution indisputably vital to the balance and happiness of our national life.”
The queen, a very private person not given to extravagant displays of affection, 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 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 despite ailments.
The popular Netflix series “The Crown” gave Philip a central role, with a slightly racy, swashbuckling image. He never commented on it in public, but the portrayal struck a chord with many Britons, including younger viewers who had only known him as an elderly man.
Philip’s position was a challenging one — there is no official role for the husband of a sovereign queen — and his life was marked by extraordinary contradictions between his public and private duties. He always walked three paces behind his wife in public, in a show of deference to the monarch, but he was the head of the family in private. Still, his son Charles, as heir to the throne, had a larger income, as well as access to the high-level government papers Philip was not permitted to see.
Philip often took a wry approach to his unusual place at the royal table.
“Constitutionally, I don’t exist,” said Philip, who in 2009 became the longest-serving consort in British history, surpassing Queen Charlotte, who married King George III in the18th century.
He frequently struggled to find his place — a friction that would later be echoed in his grandson Prince Harry’s decision to give up royal duties.
“There was no precedent,” he said in a rare interview with the BBC to mark his 90th birthday. “If I asked somebody, ‘What do you expect me to do?’ they all looked blank.”
But having given up a promising naval career to become consort when Elizabeth became queen at age 25, Philip was not content to stay on the sidelines and enjoy a life of ease and wealth. 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 offensive and 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?”
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 at the time of the royal family’s difficult relations with Princess Diana after her marriage to Charles broke down, Philip spoke for the family with authority, showing that he did not automatically defer to the queen.
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 one in which she accused 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.