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Prince Philip: 70 years of service

The Duke of Edinburgh’s leaves behind a charitable legacy – despite a trail of wince-inducing controversies

Prince Philip has died aged 99, having recently been released from hospital where he was treated for an infection. The Duke of Edinburgh was lauded for 70 years of service to the monarchy, from his marriage to then-Princess Elizabeth in 1947 until he formally stepped back from royal duties in 2017. 

Known for his distinguished military career, a dry sense of humour and controversy, the Duke was married to the Queen for 73 years. She described Philip as her “strength and stay”.

As well as accompanying the Queen on state visits and Commonwealth tours, Prince Philip completed more than 22,000 solo engagements, according to the Royal Family, averaging 317 a year.

Born in Greece in 1921, his family – Danish and Greek royals – were exiled when he was young. He moved to live with Mountbatten family in Britain, later attending Gordonstoun school in Moray, Scotland.

Prince Philip later joined the Royal Navy in 1939, aged 18, and served during World War 2.

He was named Duke of Edinburgh prior to his marriage to Elizabeth but did not formally become a prince until a decade later. Philip reportedly struggled with Elizabeth’s unexpected rise to the throne after the death of her father, King George VI, sacrificing some degree of freedom and forced to reckon with playing a life-long supporting role to the monarch.

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It kicked off a lifetime of service, giving 5,496 speeches, making solo visits to 143 countries as well as countless events by the Queen’s side, and making two round-the-world trips on the Royal Yacht Britannia.

He also had four children with the Queen, as well as eight grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren.

The Duke made his mark through charity work, lending his support to more than 750 organisations. 

But a central pillar of his legacy is the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, launched in 1956, a hugely successful scheme preparing young people for adulthood through volunteering, skills development and outdoor adventure. Now, 65 years later, more than six million youngsters have taken part in the programme, which operates in more than 140 countries.

Prince Philip, like his son Charles, took an interest in environmental issues, acting as patron for conservationists WWF since its creation in 1961 – despite his passion for hunting.

The Duke’s “lifelong passion for the environmental cause” will continue to drive efforts to “protect and restore nature for people and the planet,” the charity said in response to his death.

His Navy ties inspired a passion for engineering too, creating the Prince Philip Designers Prize in 1959 which drove the careers of pioneers like Sir James Dyson – father of the bagless vacuum – and Lord Foster, the architect behind the Gherkin in London.

But the Duke’s outspoken nature often landed him at the centre of controversy, repeatedly causing offence at home and abroad.

“If you stay here much longer you will all be slitty-eyed,” Prince Philip told a group of British students in Xian in 1986.

In 1965, he said Ethiopian art looked like “the kind of thing [his] daughter would bring back from her school art lessons”.

“Do you still throw spears at each other?” he asked a group of Indigenous people in Australia in 2002.

The Duke also told Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, who was in robes, he looked like he was “ready for bed” in 2003.

“In the event that I am reincarnated, I would like to return as a deadly virus, to contribute something to solving overpopulation,” he said in 1988.

And when addressing the General Dental Council in 1960, he said: “Dentopedalogy is the science of opening your mouth and putting your foot in it. I have been practising it for years.”

Among the Duke’s greatest passions was the Armed Forces. Following his own active service, Prince Philip kept close ties to the Armed Forces throughout his life, picking up a series of titles including Honorary Admiral of the Fleet, Captain General of the Royal Marines, Colonel-in-Chief of the Army Cadet Force and Air Commodore-in-Chief of the Air Training Corps.

He “upheld all values” that the military represents, according to Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, adding: “His leadership, dedication and passion for serving his country is something that all those in uniform can relate to.”

“I have seen for myself the impact of His Royal Highness’ role and work with our servicemen and women,” Wallace added. “His commitment and support to those on the frontline, and his interest in innovation for future generations of the Armed Forces was admirable.”

The Duke told his royal biographer he believed his job was to “ensure the Queen can reign”. He leaves behind his wife, 94-year-old Queen Elizabeth II, after 73 years of marriage.

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