Prince Philip’s Century: How the Queen’s Husband Fought to Modernize the Monarchy, and Why It Backfired

Prince Philip, who died April 9 at the age of 99, was slated to celebrate his centennial in June. To mark the occasion, royal biographer Robert Jobson had written the book Prince Philip’s Century, which follows the Duke of Edinburgh’s life from exile as a member of the Greek royal family to the decades spent by the side of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth. “His story shows his strength of character, how he was determined to triumph over adversity, tragedy, or disaster,” Jobson told Vanity Fair. “He was a fascinating, intelligent, funny, driven person, whose sharp mind and unique skills have contributed to him helping to create a better world. I hope the book gives a more complete portrait of the real Philip, with all his passions and flaws, rather than a pencil sketch.”

Upon the news of the duke’s death, Jobson said, “I send my deepest condolences to Her Majesty and the Royal Family at this sad time. The Duke lived an extraordinary life and was a man of immense character and vision who will be sorely missed, His work with young people and the environment and wildlife will never be forgotten. His service to the Crown and his wife the Sovereign immense.”

In this exclusive excerpt from the book, Jobson looks back at the period in the 1960s when the queen was just beginning her reign, as Philip settled into his role as consort and made efforts to modernize the monarchy, including pushing for the landmark, notorious documentary Royal Family. As Jobson said, there has been a tabloid tendency in recent years to “dismiss him as a rude old man from a bygone age.” But from his fascination with television and space travel to his conviction that the royals must remain relevant to the public, Philip had his eye on the future, even when so many forces within the palace seemed more committed to the past. “When I finished the book I liked him more than when I started,” Jobson said. “I not only found him an amusing, driven man who got things done, but what impressed me most about him was his loyalty, integrity, and courage to do what he believes in.”

Philip, always a modernist at heart, was ready to seize the reins in trying to breathe new life into the institution of monarchy. By now in his mid-40s, the duke was the first to appreciate just how out of step the monarchy as an institution had begun to appear, particularly in the eyes of the younger generation. His work not only with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, but with organizations like London Youth, his first charity patronage in 1947, meant he was perfectly placed to hear feedback on the ground. He started again to examine the outmoded practices of the palace and what he discovered infuriated him. He insisted royalty and staff no longer had their meals cooked in separate kitchens at the palace, saving huge amounts of money and waste. It was only when Philip questioned the custom of servants leaving a new bottle of whisky by the queen’s bed every night that the reason was revealed. Queen Victoria had once asked for Scotch whisky to combat a cold, and the order had never been rescinded.

He felt the situation was serious enough to raise his concerns with the queen and bluntly warned that unless the monarchy she led took proactive steps to modernize and embrace the age the institution they both served would be vulnerable. While some senior courtiers were vehemently opposed at the time, Philip felt it was essential that the royal family was more accessible to the public to help boost their popularity. Philip believed the traditionalist, still wedded to the past, approach was actually doing harm to the institution. Philip was determined that the monarchy benefit from the new vibe for change and set out to reboot the ancient institution so that it appeared more relevant to a less deferential public and remained in step with the societal revolution.

Throughout the 1950s Philip had been a lone voice at court. He was the one person at the heart of the monarchy who was seen as an innovator alive to new ideas. He wanted the Windsor Dynasty to reflect that modern face. A man of his time, he embraced new technology and set out to identify himself with scientific advancement and industrial achievements. He was fascinated by new gadgets and was the first person in Buckingham Palace to put computers in his office. He more than anyone encouraged the queen and her advisers to reengage with a modern Britain in transition. One medium above all presented the royals with that opportunity, television. He saw the advantages of speaking directly to the public, bypassing what he saw as the sneering press who he had by now grown to detest. His loathing for the press was best summed up in comments like, “You have mosquitoes. I have the press,” as he joked to the matron of a Caribbean hospital in 1966.

Philip’s use of television was interpreted as a significant step toward modernizing the Royal Family. Philip became the first member of the Royal Family to give an interview on television in a Panorama program broadcast on May 29, 1961. The duke was interviewed by broadcaster Richard Dimbleby, talking about the Commonwealth Technical Training Week. As patron of the initiative, Philip, who was usually only glimpsed on ceremonial occasions as the queen’s consort, emphasized the need to encourage the training of skilled workers for the modern labor force. The interview was on an uncontroversial subject, and Dimbleby’s tone was respectful throughout, but it was still remarkable as the first time a member of the royal family had been questioned on camera.

In one television interview in 1968 on Face the Press on Tyne Tees Television/ITV, Philip said, “Instead of having to fend off too close a scrutiny in an attempt to try and live a normal life, it is now possible not to go on the offensive but to try and make contact and try and create a kind of two-way relationship.” Philip, perhaps more quickly than anyone in the royal family and royal household, had recognized that the royals could not stay hidden away in that metaphorical gilded tower forever and they had to get out and communicate with the public. And, in his view, this was the time to do it.

Senior Buckingham Palace courtiers were by now growing increasingly concerned about an apathy felt toward the institution of monarchy in Australia and New Zealand in particular. After the success of the queen’s first Commonwealth tour—which reached fever pitch on the Australian leg of the trip—many felt the links between Britain and its former colonies were assured. However when the queen returned to Australia in 1963, nine years later, on a less formal tour than before, the love affair with the royals seemed to have cooled. Outspoken critics said the British government’s drive to get closer to its European neighbors in the European Economic Community was at the expense of its old Commonwealth ties. Support for the monarchy had reduced and there were growing calls for Australia and New Zealand to become independent republics. The queen and her advisers needed to respond.

The queen was open to suggestions and when Philip saw an opportunity to put his theories to the test he grabbed it with both hands. Lord Mountbatten’s son-in-law, Lord Brabourne, was a television producer and in 1968 he asked Philip if he could make a so-called “fly on the wall” documentary about the royal family. Inspired by the idea, Philip championed the project to film inside the palace and show the royals carrying out their everyday lives. He also chaired the committee to explore the idea.

The queen’s more cautious courtiers tried to convince her that the public would lose respect for the royal family and monarchy if they saw them as television characters in some kind of soap opera. They advised her that once you invited the cameras in they would be hungry for more. There was a conflict, two visions of the monarchy. It boiled down to—stay as you are relying on looking backward and doing what you’ve done well in the past, or adapt Philip’s vision and change because if you don’t you die.

Philip’s influence was in the ascendency. By 1968 the Queen Mother was approaching 70 and was no longer the power she was, the old Queen Mary and the traditionalist Churchill were both dead. Lord Brabourne suggested such a film would be a good way of introducing the public to the then 20-year-old Prince Charles, ahead of his investiture as Prince of Wales. The concept behind the documentary was to soften and modernize the royal image. Members of the royal family, including the queen, were reportedly dubious about the idea from the start. But she eventually agreed to support her husband this time, feeling Philip’s vision had caught the spirit of a new Britain. Her press secretary, Sir William Heseltine, backed the idea too and felt Philip was right to endorse a new approach to public relations. Cameras were allowed into the palace for the first time, thus letting “in daylight upon magic,” something writer Walter Bagehot had warned against when writing about the future of the monarchy during Queen Victoria’s reign in his book, The English Constitution (1867).

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