For more than seven decades, Prince Philip had been, in Queen Elizabeth II's own words, her "strength and stay." With her reign at 69 years and counting, the longest of any British monarch, most Brits cannot remember a time when Elizabeth was not the head of state, Philip at her side. His death is a moment in British history, both for what it recalls and for what it presages about the monarchy itself.
Maybe this will still be a time of intrafamily healing. Meghan is not expected to travel to the ceremony because of the advanced stage of her pregnancy, but Harry is.
While a 99-year-old prince might seem an unlikely "modernizer," that is indeed what Philip was when he entered the royal family. With his death comes an inevitable period of reflection, and the conclusion must be that to face the challenges of the current century, the House of Windsor needs a new modernizer.
In its obituary, The New York Times judged that Philip "brought the monarchy into the 20th century." Part of Philip's reputation for doing so came from his interest in new technology. Viewers of the TV series "The Crown" may remember how he was shown encouraging the royal family to embrace the possibilities offered by the broadcast age. In particular, he is seen persuading the queen that her 1953 coronation should be televised to make it accessible to a mass audience. The ceremony was eventually shown on TV — the first broadcast in British history to become a national event.
And in an age when women were generally expected to sacrifice their careers for marriage and motherhood, Philip set a counterexample. His marriage to Princess Elizabeth made it inevitable that one day his naval career would have to end as he took up a full-time role as the monarch's consort. That day came sooner than expected when Princess Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth at the age of 25. "I know it was a huge loss to him. I know it," the former head of the British navy told the BBC about Philip's decision to end his much-loved service at sea. But ever the dutiful officer, he accepted his new role and set a model by fulfilling it.
Of course, as the years have gone by, there have been new technology and cultural changes, and they have presented the monarchy with a new set of challenges. The passing of Philip is a reminder that the next royal generation must find ways to adapt.
Buckingham Palace has seemed much less sure-footed in dealing with the current media environment, in which the royal family's private struggles have played out in full view. In 2019, for instance, Prince Andrew, the second son of the queen and Philip, gave a disastrous TV interview about his friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Most strikingly, Andrew said he did not regret his acquaintance with Epstein because it had "some seriously beneficial outcomes" for his career. Andrew's public relations adviser was reported to have left his role after his warning not to do the interview was ignored.
More significantly, there has been the tumultuous handling of Prince Harry's marriage to Meghan Markle, which led to a breakdown in family relations and royal duties as the couple quit the U.K. for the U.S. Philip was beginning his fourth week of a lengthy stay in the hospital in March when Harry and Meghan's explosive TV interview with Oprah Winfrey aired on both sides of the Atlantic.
Perhaps most damaging were the allegations of royal racism made in the interview. (Winfrey later said that the member of the royal family who had asked how dark the skin of Harry and Meghan's baby Archie would be was neither the queen nor Philip.)
It is particularly unfortunate that the palace seems ill-equipped to navigate this modern relationship because Harry and Meghan provided one of the best opportunities for the royal family to embrace evolution and breathe new life into a centuries-old institution. Harry was eager to serve his country and carve out his own future in the military, while Meghan — an American, biracial, divorced actress — epitomized a multicultural, self-made path for royalty.
Importantly, there is a generational split between how Brits see the renegade couple. While those over 50 side more with Buckingham Palace, according to a poll conducted after the interview, that flips when it comes to young people. Forty-eight percent of 18- to 24-year-olds back Harry and Meghan; only 15 percent sympathize more with the queen.
In some ways fittingly, if unfortunately, the wider national mood over Philip's death can really be judged only through the media, mainstream and social. That's because coronavirus restrictions mean large public gatherings are banned. Buckingham Palace has asked people to refrain from placing flowers at the palace gates. In an apparent sign of the devotion felt by some subjects, people have defied the request to pay their respects, though media reports said some of these tributes have been removed.
But other members of the public have exhibited a little less reverence, in what seems to be yet another example of changing times. Newspapers and websites have given over thousands of words and countless pages to reporting Philip's death and assessing his legacy, while TV channels and radio stations switched to special programming offering continuous coverage. For many, this has been too much.
The BBC has had to set up a special webpage where people who feel the coverage has been excessive can complain. The Sunday Times of London reported, "All the main broadcasters suffered pronounced slumps in their viewing figures." "Gogglebox" — a show on which viewers comment about what they are watching — topped the ratings Friday evening.
Still, the established media are unlikely to change course. Coverage leading up to and including Philip's funeral Saturday will be extensive. It is something the BBC in particular will take extremely seriously. As a BBC journalist in the mid-1990s, I was required to attend annual rehearsals for any royal death that might happen. The idea was to minimize the chance of error of fact or tone when the event occurred.
I covered both the 1997 funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales (Prince William's and Harry's mother), and that of Elizabeth, the queen mother, in 2002. They were huge public occasions. Crowds spent the night on sidewalks where the funeral cortege would pass to get a glimpse of the coffin and pay their respects. This will be very different. Philip himself had left instructions that his should be a low-key funeral. The pandemic means that it cannot be otherwise.
While modernity has intruded on the mourning rituals of the broader public, maybe this will still be a time of intrafamily healing. Meghan is not expected to travel to the ceremony because of the advanced stage of her pregnancy, but Harry is. It will be his first visit since the Winfrey interview, and former Prime Minister Sir John Major has suggested that this may be "an ideal opportunity" for Harry to mend the rift with his brother, William, that is rumored to have followed Harry and Meghan's damaging account of their time as full working members of the royal family.
Within the family, repairing that rift should be a priority (viewers of "The Crown" may remember that the queen's uncle renounced the throne because of his love for a divorced American woman, and he remained an outsider for the rest of his life). Beyond the royal circle, the House of Windsor needs to seek new ways to engage with the public, especially those members of the younger generation who sympathize with Harry and Meghan.
The queen will be 95 this month, so generational change is surely coming. If the House of Windsor is to negotiate a changing world in this century, as it did in the last, it will need to embrace Philip's legacy and find a new modernizer.