The Philip I knew

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain reflects on his many encounters with the Duke of Edinburgh


Britain's Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, attends the Windsor Sea Cadet Unit opening in Windsor, Berkshire, West of London, on April 7, 2014. The Sea Cadet Corps is a UK national youth organization sponsored by the Royal Navy and open to young people between the ages of 10-18 years old. AFP PHOTO / POOL / LEON NEAL (Photo by LEON NEAL / POOL / AFP) (Photo by LEON NEAL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

April 09, 2021 13:42

In the popular mind, Prince Philip was often associated with gaffes and non-pc declarations. However, in the overall course of his life they were fairly inconsequential, while his more forthright quotes were only an average of one every four years.

Despite the occasional headlines he generated, in many ways he was the opposite of high profile. Most of the time, he was notable for his low visibility, either working alongside the Queen, but always two paces behind, or quietly making visits of his own on a daily basis.

 It is true that he was not as reticent as Dennis Thatcher, of whom it was said during his Downing Street years, that he was ‘always present, but never there’. Nor did he stick to one of the latter’s responses when asked why he never gave his opinion on political matters: ‘Whales only get shot when they spout’.

 Even when Prince Philip was outspoken, there was often an element of truth to his remarks, which may have offended some sensitivities, but which also highlighted a serious point.

Thus, when on a school visit, he asked one of the pupils what he wanted to do when he grew up. On being told that the lad intended to be a space explorer, he riposted: ‘But you’re too fat to be an astronaut!’ Was that an unjust remark that caused a brutal blow to the child’s ego, or a helpful piece of advice that would change his lifestyle and improve his future?

 I was fortunate in seeing him at close quarters, being part of a special think-tank he had established and having lunches with him for a number of years. So I know he was equally capable of challenging the high and mighty. When discussing the plight of England’s uplands, for instance, which had become de-populated in recent years, a leading expert started pontificating imperiously on how important it was to get ordinary people to settle there.

 ‘Why talk about it?’ replied the Prince, ‘If you want people to do that, go there yourself and get people to follow your lead!’ The man fell silent.

On another occasion, during a discussion on prison reform, when a person of exalted status was talking about improving the condition of gaols, he interjected: ‘Nonsense, we need to do the exact opposite, make prisons as horrible as possible, so much so that people in them aren’t keen to go back to them’.

This would certainly displease those who want prison to be a place of education and rehabilitation, but might strike a chord with those who feel it should have a strong deterrent effect.

Whether one agreed or disagreed with particular comments, his bluntness was the product of a fundamental honesty that stands in stark contrast to those in public life who just mouth platitudes, utter slogans or engage in verbal gymnastics.

What is without doubt is that the vast majority of his work was away from the cameras, not consorting with the wealthy but meeting ordinary people – such as in factories or research laboratories, in day-care centres or youth-training hostels - who work hard and do good, but who never receive publicity and appreciate his interest. His presence showed that they mattered to the national life and those whom he visited often felt he sprinkled fairy dust over what they did.

Equally hidden from view was his passion for engineering. Everyone knows about the Duke of Edinburgh Award, but much less famous is The Prince Philip Designer Prize. It has encouraged many to develop their skills, including Ronal Hickman who went on to make the all-purpose workshop bench known as ‘Workmate’, while another contestant, Andrew Ritchie, designed the folding bicycle. Few people using either of them realise they have the Prince to thank.

His life also involved numerous visits to Jewish institutions, from the Sternberg Centre to the Jewish Museum, and have ranged from 1956 - when he was the guest of honour at a dinner celebrating British Jewry’s 300th anniversary since the Resettlement - to a repeat attendance fifty years later at the community’s next milestone. 

While these were always in an official capacity, his relations with Jews were coloured by the memory of the war-time actions of his mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg.

She had married Prince Andrew of Greece and lived in Athens during the Nazi-occupation. She personally hid six Jews – Rachel Cohen and her five children – in her residence, saving them from deportation to the death camps.

This was at considerable danger to herself, for the Nazis went to great lengths to round up all Jews; unfortunately, they were very successful, and out of a total population of 67,000 Greek Jews, some 60,000 were murdered.

As a result of her action, Princess Alice was later honoured by the State of Israel, and a tree was planted in her name in the special avenue for ‘the Righteous Among the Nations’ at Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

Whereas the first Queen Elizabeth never married, apparently worried that a husband would take over and become a rival, the current monarch found that having a husband meant she had a very dutiful ‘workmate’ of her own.

The Prince never received the centenary letter that his wife sends out, but he did lead an extraordinarily long life of public duties, only retiring at 96, more than thirty years after most other people do. Even Republicans have to acknowledge his remarkable stamina, while Monarchists need no prompting in mourning his loss.


Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain is minister of Maidenhead Synagogue and author of ‘Confessions of a Rabbi’ (Biteback)

April 09, 2021 13:42

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