Prince Philip’s Death and the Last Embers of British Stoicism

The death of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was announced just after midday Friday, in London. He was ninety-nine years old, and, given the celebrated toughness of his hide, it had been hoped, and widely predicted, that he would reach his centenary. Along with this hope went a sense of genuine puzzlement. By custom, every British citizen who attains the age of a hundred receives a congratulatory telegram from the Queen. But what happens if the Queen happens to be your wife? Would she have handed the telegram to Philip at breakfast, reaching shyly over the marmalade? Or, as a stickler for tradition, would he have had to stand by the front door and wait for the arrival of the mail, like everyone else? Alas, we shall never know.

Already, the flood of condolence has started to swell. Expressions of sympathy, and of gratitude for a life of long service, have been voiced by the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who said, of the Duke, that he “consistently put the interests of others ahead of his own.” That is indisputably true, and was demonstrated, for decades, by the sight of Philip patrolling in the slipstream of the Queen, like a frigate in the wake of an aircraft carrier—a step or two behind her, to one side, with his hands diplomatically clasped behind his back. To maintain that secondary position, without tiring of it or (in public, at any rate) carping about it, requires a formidable level of self-control, especially in a man who had once, as a naval officer, enjoyed command of a ship. Renouncing his own career, in 1951, he was required to kneel before Her Majesty, at her coronation, two years later, and swear to be her “liege man of life and limb.”

Nowhere will his passing be more intently mourned than on Tanna, a small volcanic island no more than twenty-five miles long. It lies in a province of Vanuatu, in the South Pacific, the closest land mass—though it’s not that close—being the northeastern shoulder of Australia, across the Coral Sea. It is on Tanna, and nowhere else on earth, that the late Duke of Edinburgh was worshipped as a god. Indeed, because one advantage of divine status is that immortality comes as part of the job, he presumably still is worshipped there. We shall see.

How Philip acquired this unusual distinction is a tangled and frequently baffling tale. It is best told in “Man Belong Mrs Queen,” an entertaining book by the British journalist Matthew Baylis. First published in 2013, it relates Baylis’s journey to Tanna—specifically, to the village of Yaohnanen, where, as the author discovered, “the Duke of Edinburgh was the focus of religious devotion.” Philip is by no means the only center of a cult on the island; elsewhere, some inhabitants revere the mythical figure of John Frum, who is dimly connected with an American serviceman of the Second World War.

The Philip legend is a phenomenon of some splendor. He is said to have been a king, who sailed past Tanna in a uniform of silver and gold, together with his wife. He pointed out a rock to her, and, in Baylis’s account, declared as follows: “I am from Tanna, and one day I will leave you and return. I am coming back to that rock, and, when I put my foot on it, mature kava roots will spring from the ground, the old men will become young again, and there will be no more sickness or death.”

This revivifying process may be well under way, although the press office at Buckingham Palace has yet to issue any updates to that effect. Do not despair, though, because the palace has been in formal contact with Tanna in the past. A signed photograph of the Duke was requested and sent to the faithful, in 1978, and they, in return, sent him a nalnal—a club that is used to kill pigs. The Duke, wearing a suit and tie, then posed with the club in the palace grounds, and photographic proof was duly dispatched to Tanna. If only all religions could be established upon such clear and unambiguous foundations.

The roots of the cult remain obscure, though it is, perhaps, no coincidence that the Duke accompanied his wife—who, in the local tongue, is referred to as Kwin Lisbet—on a visit to Vanuatu in 1974, roughly six years before the country gained independence. (It had hitherto been known as New Hebrides, and governed jointly and messily by Britain and France.) The royal couple did not, however, make it as far as Tanna. Toward the end of “Man Belongs Mrs Queen,” Baylis wonders about the choice of Philip as a god, and comes to the conclusion that he was actually not a bad candidate. I can certainly think of worse ones. The Duke was clever, restless, resilient, brusque, hot-humored, at one with the deep ocean, and oddly unreadable: pretty much as we expect our gods to be.

In normal times, the ceremonial marking of Philip’s death might have been a grand affair, adorned with pageantry. Because of the pandemic, everything will be, if not exactly spartan, scaled down and simplified—by chance, a good match for the man, whose scorn for fuss was doubtless heightened by having to sit through so much of it over the years. Called upon to inaugurate a college of technology, he announced to those present that “a lot of time and energy has been spent on arranging for you to listen to me to take a long time to declare open a building which everyone knows is open already.”

That fierce and funny view of the world was at once a boon and a curse. It both stood Philip in good stead and, notoriously, landed him in trouble, with ill-considered remarks that made for loud headlines and drew accusations of racism. Obituarists will crowd upon us, in the coming days, to explain such gruffness; unlike the Queen, whose powers of restraint are monumental, he seemed to be operating visibly under pressure, and the cracks came as no surprise. Whatever you think of Philip, there’s no denying that the pressure was there from the start, long before he was forced to become a liege.

He was born in Corfu, in 1921. The following year, his father, Prince Andrew of Greece, was banished from the country. The family was taken to Italy on board a British naval destroyer. The baby Philip slept in a cradle made from a box that had been used to store oranges. For the next ten years or so, he lived a peripatetic existence, with no fixed home. His mother, Princess Alice, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and consigned to a sanatorium. (Later, she sheltered Jews in Athens during the German occupation and was honored, in 1994, as Righteous Among the Nations. She is buried on the Mount of Olives, in Jerusalem.) As for Prince Andrew, he went to Monte Carlo to live with a mistress. After he died, in 1944, Philip went to collect his father’s possessions and found little more than some clothes, a signet ring, and a shaving brush.

All four of Philip’s sisters married Germans. One of the sisters died in 1937; he attended her funeral, amid throngs of Germans giving the Nazi salute. (An experience almost as bewildering, one imagines, as walking silently and publicly behind the coffin that bore the Princess of Wales, in 1997.) Before long, he would find himself fighting, to all intents and purposes, against his in-laws. When he married Princess Elizabeth—as she then was—in 1947, with the memories of war still fresh, none of his sisters were invited.

In later life, Philip was asked about the effect of this fractured upbringing, with more than its fair share of wanderings, betrayals, and losses. He replied, “The family broke up. My mother was ill, my sisters were married, my father was in the South of France. I just had to get on with it. You do. One does.” That is the authentic note of stoicism, embattled but unlamenting. It is very rarely struck these days; with the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, I suspect, we will hear it less and less. The stoical strain has become not merely unfashionable but easily mocked, or, worse still, suspected of being a cover for harsh psychological damage. Philip would have argued that some sort of shield is required, by all of us, whatever our situation, to fend off any sudden blows and to steel us for the slough of boredom. There are no fair shares.

The principal fault of the stoic, as a rule, is an inability to see why other people can’t take the same basic precautions—why they find it so damnably difficult to grow a thick skin. Did Philip consider the modern world too thin, too soft, and too yielding for his taste? Probably so. Yet he was an unorthodox example of the hardy breed, because his primary duty, as it turned out, was to protect not his own interests but those of someone else, who happened to be the Queen. She herself is made of stern and durable stuff, but few observers believe that she would have weathered so long a reign, let alone found any joy in it, without the presence of her consort. Crucially, they made each other laugh. The difficult question now has to be: How will she survive his passing? Will the burden of widowhood weigh her down and hasten her end? Such was the fate of another Elizabeth—the wife of Sir Albertus Morton, a diplomat of the seventeenth century—recalled in a famous poem:

He first deceased, she for a little tried
To live without him, liked it not, and died.

There is a noble simplicity to that response. The Queen, nonetheless, is just as likely to redouble her efforts, and to proceed with mournful dignity toward her own centenary. I like to think of her, in a little over five years’ time, pouring the tea, buttering the toast, opening a letter, and exclaiming, with unfeigned delight, “Oh, good, a telegram from me!” Her late husband—friend, adviser, sailor, grouch, almost an orphan, and perhaps a god—would surely wish for no less.

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