It is almost a century ago that the infant Prince Philip was smuggled out of Corfu in a fruit box, aboard the British naval vessel HMS Calypso. Like so many children, Philip was destined to experience a traumatic childhood. In exile, his father, Prince Andrew of Greece, became a somewhat dissolute character who lived on the French Riviera before dying in the Hotel Metropole, Monte Carlo, towards the end of the Second World War. His mother, Princess Alice, suffered a breakdown and was institutionalised before becoming a Russian Orthodox nun. In 1937, Philip attended the funeral of his older sister Cecile who died alongside her husband and two young children when the light aircraft within which they were travelling crashed into a factory in Ostend. Sixty years later he would walk behind the coffin of his daughter-in-law in support of his grandsons Harry and WIlliam. Philip’s older three sisters all married Germans and his brother-in-law Prince Christoph of Hesse became a member of the Nazi Party and Waffen SS. It was a wretched and disjointed childhood.
A cruel distortion of the tragic accident in Ostend was served up in The Crown. It was a version of events that served to indirectly project the blame for the accident upon Philip who was, at that point, a sixteen year old student at Gordonstoun, a progressive school set up by the German educationalist, Kurt Hahn. Prince Philip thrived at Gordonstoun and relished the focus upon outdoor adventure and personal leadership. Kurt Hahn was an early architect of the International Baccalaureate and the IBO is suffused with his educational philosophy. After Gordonstoun, a glittering naval career followed. In 1947, he married Princess Elizabeth. From that point on, his life became one of service to the monarchy and the British people.
The Duke of Edinburgh’s death last week marked the end of an extraordinary era which started 69 years ago, when Elizabeth ascended to the throne in 1952. He carried out more than 22,000 solo engagements, authored fourteen books, visited over 140 countries and gave 5,496 speeches. He was the patron of 785 organisations and charities and flew 6000 hours in 59 different types of aircraft. For 73 years, he walked a few steps behind his wife and accepted that it was his duty to do so.
We live in a world which appears to favour binary judgements about people’s characters. It is true that Philip’s acerbic wit was challenging and occasionally offensive – even allowing for the social mores of times gone by. Her Majesty doubtless winced each time another ‘gaffe’ threatened to cause a minor diplomatic outrage. Imagine the outrage when Prince Philip complained, during an interview on NBC in 1969, that if the royal family’s financial situation did not improve, ‘ we might have to move to smaller premises’. He continued to muse that perhaps he would have to give up polo or sell a yacht. Whilst he might not have garnered much sympathy for such comments, Philip did plenty else to earn the enduring respect and admiration of people at home in the UK and overseas. Philip was co-founder and first president of the World Wildlife Fund and did much to champion British technology. He was fascinated in comparative theology and yet shunned the ceremonial aspects of church life and fought to modernise the monarchy. Perhaps his greatest personal achievement was the establishment of the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme which is as relevant today as when it was first conceived back in 1954. He understood the importance of adventure in terms of developing confidence and a sense of accomplishment in young people.
Above all else, Philip was a man of action. A pragmatist and private soul who had little time for self-absorption, his life serves as an outstanding example of service. It is the steadfast nature of his commitment to his wife, monarch and nation that serves as a compelling example of an ideal that is becoming rather unfashionable in this atomised and increasingly individualistic world. Communities depend upon service and the impulse to serve others is a virtue worth celebrating. Some schools claim to ‘develop character’ whilst others argue that ‘character’ is intrinsically personal to the individual and, as such, cannot be taught. What is clear, is that schools such as Rossall have, for generations, encouraged young people to dedicate their lives to serving others. That service does not need to take place upon a warship or in a theatre of war. It need not require physical suffering or personal sacrifice but at its heart lies an empathy for our fellow human beings which leads us to conclude that our true purpose is to serve others and to enrich the lives of those with whom we have contact.
So Philip was a fascinating and complex character. There is nothing contradictory about recognising his great achievements and outstanding contribution to this nation whilst gently acknowledging that some of his foibles were challenging. We are all capable of being of service to others and the ability to do so is not dependent upon a saintly disposition but an understanding of our extraordinary potential to enrich, support, encourage and provide leadership to those around us. During this last year, that sense of service has been incredibly important to institutions like Rossall and it has been our lifeblood during the worst days of the pandemic. Many of our staff exemplify what it means to serve. The great author Iris Murdoch observed that:
Philip’s death resonates with people around the world because he was relatable and despite his flaws, served with a constancy and devotion that serves as a great example of faithfulness and fortitude. It is my hope that the virtue of ‘being of service to others’ will gain a fresh sense of meaning as the tangible link with those who experienced the very worst that the twentieth century had to offer begins to fall away.
It was lovely to read the reflections of Old Rossallians who met the Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen when they visited School. This Saturday afternoon, we will assemble in the Square to remember the Duke of Edinburgh and to give thanks for his service to the crown and country.