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The death of Prince Philip, coming at a time of turmoil in Britain’s royal family, offers a moment to reflect on the meaning of monarchy. And, for that matter, on the events spanned by his astounding life — including not only the 74 years in which he was the husband of Elizabeth II but also his family’s entanglements with Germany and his own rise to side with the Allies, for whom he appeared in arms in World War II.
Philip’s death was announced this morning by Buckingham Palace. In 1921, he’d been born in Greece and into the royal families of both Greece and Denmark. In the turmoil of the Greco-Turkish war, his family — with infant Philip — was banished from Greece. He eventually ended up at an elite school in Germany, Schule Schloss Salem, where, in Philip’s own account, he first glimpsed the “antisemitic frenzy” gripping Germany.
And where he early displayed an ability to stand apart. Schloss Salem’s founder, Kurt Hanh, who was Jewish, had “already been driven out of Germany by Nazi persecution and this was well known throughout the school.” One of Philip’s schoolmates was Jewish, though Philip was unaware of it until the lad was set upon by some schoolmates and had his hair cut off. Philip gave the lad his cricket cap in an act of solidarity.
Philip later ended up at the school Kurt Hanh founded in Scotland, Gordonstoun. Philip related the story in 1994, when he attended at Yad Vashem the ceremony at which his mother, Princess Alice, was recorded as one of the Righteous Among the Nations for sheltering a Jewish family in Greece. She is buried at Jerusalem. Philip himself became the first member of the Royal Family to visit the Jewish State. That, of course, was after the war.
In 1939, Philip entered Britain’s naval academy, Dartmouth, and, soon thereafter, met Elizabeth, then 13. In the war, Philip saw action in the Battle of Cape Matapan as an officer on HMS Valiant, from which — and, we’re told by Conrad Black, within what in naval terms was almost point blank range, i.e., maybe a mile — he turned the searchlights on an Italian vessel. Enemy guns shattered his lights. Greece decorated him for valor.
All of which underscores that Philip brought plenty of character of his own to his marriage to the princess who became the Queen. Theirs must be one of the most famous marriages of our time. Its glory has been thrown into sharp relief not only by the failed marriage of Prince Charles but also by the retreat so widely in the West of marriage in general. Elizabeth and Philip’s conduct of the monarchy strikes us as nearly unblemished. Unblemished and important.
The Sun may be, as it is, a republican paper down to the ground. And we would never suggest that America suffers for want of a monarchy, as George III phrased it to John Adams. We don’t mind saying, though, that the British constitutional monarchy seems to have been one of the sustaining features of the country governed by the Mother of Parliaments.
So we express condolences to Queen Elizabeth and all her family. We are glad the wires are reporting that Prince Harry will return for his grandfather’s funeral (it’s unclear if his wife, who is pregnant, will make the trip). It would be good for everyone, it strikes us, to remember that there are things in marriage and life that are bigger than all one’s bruises — a principle that will be personified by Philip for far longer than the century he lived.