THE DUKE OF EDINBURGH
Article for ConservativeHome, 12th April 2021
“To become your liege man of life and limb, and of earthly worship; and faith and truth I will bear unto you, to live and die, against all manner of folks.” This oath of medieval lineage was used by the Duke of Edinburgh at the Queen’s coronation on 2 June 1953, and has become one of the two defining quotations of the modern monarchy – and the reason that the institution has been so successful during the second Elizabethan Age.
The evolution of monarchy over many centuries has ensured its survival in this country. The struggle for supremacy which saw monarchs vie for power with and against other powers, noble, religious and popular, became, by the time of our current Queen, to be a constitutional monarchy in which the sovereign has never sought to interfere politically and the monarchical safeguards, which still exist, are operated in such a way that she never needs to be.
This evolution naturally begs the question of how the monarchy flourishes once all political power is ceded. Prince Philip’s oath provides the answer. It is about service to an institution embodied in an individual who represents the nation. The many obituaries have enumerated the volume of work that the Duke carried out over his lifetime. The tens of thousands of engagements, the thousands of speeches and, although no one has yet estimated the number of hands he shook, it must be over one million. And all to serve the purpose of being the liege man of his sovereign.
As that liege man, he sublimated himself wholly to the interests of the nation. He, along with other members of the royal family, by representing the Queen are the glue that binds the nation and indeed the Commonwealth together. The Duke’s tireless example showed how monarchy can still be important and useful. To do this, not only did he have to be endlessly dutiful, but also memorable. Royalty are blessed and cursed by the fact that everyone they meet will remember every word that is spoken. The Duke’s ability to be pithy may have amused the media from time to time, but it ensured that all whom he met had a story to tell afterwards.
The Duke’s steadfast dedication, demonstrated not only devotedly but with good humour, was a linchpin to our monarchy and so to our constitution and the health of our nation. The United Kingdom has been blessed, in its final transition to a constitutional monarchy, to have a sovereign and consort willing to accept Bagehot’s purely dignified role, which only works if tireless duty and service are at its heart.
Previous generations of royals might have balked at the selfless toil required. The sons of George III would hardly have butteressed a constitutional monarchy, while the behaviour of Edward VII, as Prince of Wales, would have caused comment. Equally, any suggestion regarding the divine right of kings would be as well received in the twenty-first century as it was in the seventeenth.
Nonetheless, it is the sacramental, the anointing and the oath before God that creates that aura of monarchy which makes people value its presence. The oaths made by Her Majesty and Prince Philip before God link the sovereign to our collective history, allowing and encouraging her personification of the nation. People are honoured to meet or be thanked by the Queen or her immediate family because of this symbolism. A plaque being unveiled by her consort is special because of the religious element of the coronation, the divine blessing if not right that the sovereign enjoys.
Alongside the Duke’s oath another defining quotation of the modern monarchy is from the Queen on her twenty first birthday when she said: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong”.
This statement of absolute duty alongside the Duke’s oath speaks to the truth that those who appear to rule in fact serve. Through this service the constitutional settlement of this nation has thrived, providing a stability of fundamental importance to our prosperity. Countries which suffer from revolutions and tumults are rarely prosperous.
Perhaps the greatest tribute to the Duke is that he made it look easy. That is the proof of how well it has been done and a reminder of the debt we owe for a long life as the country’s first vassal, Her Majesty’s liege man.