Make Your Own Path
When he turned 90, Prince Philip gave a lengthy interview to the BBC. Reflecting on his entry into the world of the British royals, and specifically, as being Royal Consort to the Queen, the Duke said:
“There was no precedent. If I asked somebody, ‘What do you expect me to do?’ They all looked blank. They had no idea.”
There was no ‘rule book’ for royal spouses, no guidelines or how-tos. Prince Philip, could, if he chose to, sit idly by, wave nicely, smile to the cameras, and unveil a few plaques.
“He had a choice between just tagging along, the second handshake in the receiving line, or finding other outlets for his bursting energies”
Said Basil Boothroyd, the Prince’s biographer.
It took some time, and it wasn’t easy. The prince was young, tall, handsome, and charismatic. He was a war veteran, a ship commander who was used to giving orders and being in charge. Times were different, an era of ‘behind every great man there’s a great woman’ and rarely, if ever, the other way around. In a BBC documentary aired after Prince Philip’s death, his daughter, Princess Anne, said:
“[It was] an incredible challenge. In the Royal Navy he was in charge of ships, he was making all the decisions. In his next life, he was making very few.”
It’s a very bizarre situation. Philip became a prince and the Duke of Edinburgh, he married the Queen. He had reached the top of the ladder in terms of social status and quality of life, and yet in many other aspects, he was facing a life of emptiness.
At first, indeed, he channeled his frustration towards boyish rebellious partying. Not many years went by and Prince Philip decided that when facing the choice of doing nothing and doing something, he will choose the latter. Prince Charles, his son, said:
“I think he’ll probably want to be remembered as an individual in his own right.”
It’s true that there were no rules, no guidelines, and no recent precedent, but Philip did have a role model in mind. Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert the Prince Consort, faced the same challenges in the 19th century.
While at first Albert felt chained by his role as consort and grew frustrated with the lack of actual power, he soon became the Queen’s most trusted advisor. He took it upon himself to champion many public causes, he helped steer the monarchy and had a major effect on political issues. No one expected Prince Albert to do that, no one guided him, he paved his own path. Prince Philip decided to do the same.
Prince Philip had a vision for the monarchy and the royal family, he realized how the institution is becoming seen as ‘out of touch’ by the public and took initiative. With the backing of the Queen, Prince Philip took the royal family into the future. Insisting on a televised coronation ceremony and later giving interviews and inviting a BBC crew to film a documentary of the royal family.
It didn’t always go to plan. And yet, Philip found new responsibilities, a new purpose, a new path.
In 1956, Prince Philip launched ‘The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award”. A global program aimed at young people, and motivates them to learn and connect through outdoor activities and physical challenges. To this day, the program had more than 3 million participants in the UK alone. It operates in 144 different countries. Many of the participants say that being a part of DofE changed their lives for the better.
The Prince didn’t know whether this initiative would be successful at first, but he followed his passion and believes. The main idea behind the program was simple, in his words:
“If you can get a young person to succeed in any one activity, then that feeling of success will spread over into many others.”
Above all, Prince Philip found his purpose with his wife, the Queen. He took it upon himself to support her in any way possible. For 74 years, he was always there, by her side, or more accurately one step behind. In 1997, celebrating their golden anniversary, the Queen told of her husband:
“He is someone who doesn’t take easily to compliments but he has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years, and I, and his whole family, and this and many other countries, owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim, or we shall ever know.”
This was the role of his life. Making the Queen feel like the crown is a bit less heavy than it is actually is.
As a journalist covering UK affairs, I’ve been inspired by Prince Philip’s story for a long time. A proud and strong man that found himself stepping up in life but stepping down in purpose. There were no rules, he could shape and mold the role as he saw fit. If he wanted to, he could have done nothing with the great potential that he was given.
So Prince Philip decided to make his own path. He created his roles, his responsibilities, he created his future. By doing so, he shaped the future of the monarchy, and supported the longest reign in the history of the British crown. Philip was a prince by title but chose to be more. He didn’t ask for permission, didn’t wait to be told what to do, he took his title and gave it a real meaning.