Queen Elizabeth II’s late husband was older than some of the newspapers that loved reporting on his seemingly endless stream of gaffes. Born on the Greek island of Corfu in 1921, Prince Philip went by the title Prince of Greece and Denmark when he caught the eye of a young Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King George VI. They “crossed paths” at a number of family gatherings (both shared Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as great-great-grandparents, making them third cousins), but it wasn’t until 1939 that “sparks really flew,” according to History. Philip was a cadet at Dartmouth’s Royal Naval College at the time, and he continued courting Elizabeth during World War II, despite being deployed to both the Mediterranean and Pacific.
In 1946, with the war won and some form of normality restored in Britain, Philip proposed. He married Elizabeth the following year, and, for a time, they enjoyed a relatively carefree life. They spent time in Malta and went as far as Africa on state visits. It was during a trip to the then-British colony of Kenya that royal life suddenly got very real for them — they received word that the king was dead, and Elizabeth was to take his place. She would become the longest-serving British monarch ever. Philip was, by extension, the longest-serving royal consort ever — but that’s not what he became known for.
The Duke of Edinburgh, who died at age 99 on April 9, 2021, had a long reputation for stirring controversy. Here’s why.
Prince Philip riled up parents after the Dunblane school shooting
The U.K. was rocked to the core in March 1996, when a man carrying legally-owned guns entered Scotland’s Dunblane Primary School and massacred a class of 16 children and their teacher before turning the gun on himself. The parents of the murdered kids, all aged between five and six, called for immediate changes to U.K. gun control laws, and support quickly grew. “Within a year and a half of the Dunblane massacre, U.K. lawmakers had passed a ban on the private ownership of all handguns in mainland Britain, giving the country some of the toughest anti-gun legislation in the world,” CNN reports.
Not everyone was in support of tighter restrictions, however. Some Brits were of the opinion that those who owned firearms for sport were being unfairly demonized, the late Prince Philip among them. Speaking to the BBC, he said (via the Independent): “If a cricketer, for instance, suddenly decided to go into a school and batter a lot of people to death with a cricket bat, which he could do very easily, I mean, are you going to ban cricket bats?”
Ann Pearston, who helped get the Dunblane Snowdrop petition off the ground in the aftermath of the tragedy, referred to the Duke of Edinburgh’s remarks as “a disgrace” during an interview with the Independent. She added, “To think of the Queen coming up here and laying a wreath at our school and then hearing her husband say something like this sickens me.”
The Duke of Edinburgh mocked a blind teen’s tie
The royal family knows all about the death and destruction wrought by the IRA in decades gone by, especially the late Prince Philip. In 1979, the Duke of Edinburgh’s uncle, Lord Mountbatten, was killed by a bomb that had been planted in his boat. In a private letter to actor Lionel Jeffries written shortly after Mountbatten’s murder, Philip wrote (via Irish Central) of his “hope that the great wave of revulsion against this senseless act of terrorism may yet bring a change of heart in those that believe that violence and brutality are the only solutions to their problems.”
The Duke of Edinburgh’s admirable stance in the letter makes his reaction to meeting 15-year-old Army cadet Stephen Menary in 2002 all the more baffling. Menary was partially blinded by an IRA bomb, a fact that the prince appeared to make fun of during a tree-planting ceremony in London. According to the Daily Mail, when Queen Elizabeth asked the brave teen how much of his vision remained, her gaffe-prone husband butted in and apparently said: “Not a lot, judging by that tie.”
Menary’s mother was left “gobsmacked” by the comment, she told the Daily Mail, adding, “The Queen looked like she wanted to plant Philip next to Stephen’s tree. Maybe it was a joke to put us at ease, but it was the wrong sort of joke.”
Prince Philip’s controversial comments to British students in China
In October 1986, Queen Elizabeth II became the first U.K. monarch to embark on a state visit to China, and it came during an important period in Sino-British relations. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had signed a declaration stating that China would resume control over Hong Kong just two years earlier, though the island was still British territory at the time of the queen and Prince Philip’s trip. The royal couple were given special tours of the Great Wall of China and the pits of the Terracotta Warriors, but they also took time to speak with some British students who were on the tour with them.
One of these students was Simon Kirby, a University of Edinburgh attendee who caused an international stink when he revealed to a reporter what the prince had said to his group per The Telegraph: “If you stay here much longer you will all be slitty-eyed.” Kirby didn’t intend to hang the queen’s husband out to dry (in fact, he penned a letter of apology afterwards, declaring that he was “certainly not some kind of Communist nutter”), but a media storm ensued nonetheless.
When the BBC asked Prince Philip about the incident in 2011, he said (via The Telegraph) that he’d “forgotten” it even happened, adding, “The Chinese weren’t worried about it, so why should anyone else?”
The Duke of Edinburgh asked a Scottish politician if she owned tartan underwear
When Pope Benedict XVI arrived in the U.K. for a state visit in 2010, it was a big deal. This was the first time the head of the Catholic Church had been to Britain in decades, and everyone involved wanted to make a good impression — which is why there was a sense of trepidation when it came to the late Prince Philip. The pope’s visit was to include a meeting with the queen, and that meant the supreme pontiff was going to be exposed to her notoriously offensive husband. Luckily, the Duke of Edinburgh dropped his inevitable gaffe before the religious leader arrived at Holyroodhouse, the royal family’s official residence in Scotland.
Philip was among a group of VIPs assembled to meet the pope at the Edinburgh palace, and he decided to have a little joke with some politicians as he they waited. The royal reportedly noticed that Iain Gray (leader of the Scottish Labour Party at the time) was wearing a tartan tie and decided to ask Annabel Goldie (Gray’s Conservative Party counterpart) if she had a “pair of knickers made out of this?” Sources told The Guardian that Goldie saw the funny side, but the Palace refused to draw on the incident. “We don’t comment on private conversations and this would come into that bracket,” a spokesperson said.
Prince Philip asked Aboriginal Australians if they ‘still throw spears at each other’
Prince Philip always had something of a complicated relationship with Australia. He became the country’s highest-ranking military officer (in a ceremonial sense, at least) in 1954, but in a private letter from the 1960s that was later auctioned, the Duke of Edinburgh criticized Australians at large for, among other things, showing an “almost excessive gratitude” towards the United States for its aid during World War II, the Daily Mail revealed. When he visited the country with his wife in 2002, it was the native inhabitants that he left gobsmacked.
Queen Elizabeth’s late husband made headlines back home and around the world when he reportedly asked the owner of the Tjapukai Aboriginal cultural park if his people “still throw spears at each other” during a now infamous meeting. “No, we don’t do that anymore,” a man named William Brim, described as “a successful Aboriginal entrepreneur” by BBC News, answered.
The Palace claimed that the comment had been taken out of context, and so did one of the Indigenous performers from that day. “We had royal fever so we said ‘Let’s go out the back and throw some boomerangs and spears and hopefully we’ll get a glimpse of them as they come down,'” Warren Clements told ABC Far North. “They waved and we were showing off. I think Prince Philip took that in and that’s why he said it.”
This controversial prince didn’t have time for deaf teenagers
When Eva Fielding-Jackson of the British Deaf Association took a group of teens to an event in Wales in 1999, she was thrilled to see Prince Philip in attendance. She approached the Duke of Edinburgh and asked him if he would like to meet the equally excited youngsters that she was with, which he apparently had zero interest in doing.
According to Fielding-Jackson, Queen Elizabeth’s late husband pointed to a nearby speaker playing Caribbean music and is said to have made an offensive remark. “He said, ‘Deaf? If you are near there, no wonder you are deaf,’ and he walked away,” she told The Guardian. “He was not joking.” Fielding-Jackson was absolutely furious about the snub (“If he was trying to be funny, then he needs some more exercises in being funny,” she said), and the teens in her care were left stunned. “It was such a shock,” 19-year-old Elizabeth Jenkins said, while Neil Roach, who was just 17 at the time, said that the duke should “have shaken our hands and shown us some respect.”
Coming so soon after the death of Princess Diana (who was a patron of the British Deaf Association and was beloved by the community for learning and spreading awareness about British Sign Language), Prince Philip’s off-the-cuff comment was perceived as particularly galling.
Prince Philip joked about unzipping a young woman’s dress
Queen Elizabeth II embarked on her Diamond Jubilee Tour in 2012, with her husband in tow. With the couple traveling the U.K. and interacting with regular people, it seemed like only a matter of time before Prince Philip put his foot in it, and he did just that when they stopped at Bromley in Kent. The locals were clearly thrilled to receive the royals, though one 25-year-old council worker got way more than she bargained for. Hannah Jackson decided to wear a red dress with a zip up the front to the event, and when it caught the attention of the Duke of Edinburgh, that dress would become front page news.
According to one attendee, Prince Philip left a nearby officer in stitches with the gag that he made. “The policeman was standing in a council line-up along with this girl looking pretty in a red dress and I had to ask him exactly what he’d said because he was laughing so much,” they told the Daily Mail. “He told me the duke had said: ‘I would get arrested if I unzipped that dress.'”
Critics were appalled at the prince’s reported behavior, but Jackson herself apparently didn’t think it was a big deal. “She’s amazed at the reaction and can’t believe why there’s so much fuss,” one of her colleagues at the council told the tabloid.
Prince Philip’s gaffe about a ‘deadly virus’ seemed worse than ever during the pandemic
Prince Philip’s gaffes made instant headlines, especially in the U.K., where opinion on him tended to be split down the middle. That wasn’t really the case when Queen Elizabeth’s husband decided to offer his opinion on the topic of reincarnation back in 1988, however. His comments were played off as Prince Philip being Prince Philip at the time, but they seem all the more controversial in the age of the coronavirus.
During an interview with Deutsche Press Agentur (via Royal Central), the Duke of Edinburgh reportedly said: “In the event that I am reincarnated, I would like to return as a deadly virus, to contribute something to solving overpopulation.”
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip spent much of 2020 isolating in Windsor Castle amid the COVID-19 pandemic (they were also able to spend some time at Balmoral, where Philip proposed to Elizabeth back in 1946, between the two national lockdowns), and it provided “an opportunity for them in their later years to reconnect,” Majesty magazine editor Joe Little told the Press Association (via the Evening Express). They both received their first coronavirus vaccinations in January 2021. The following month, the 99-year-old duke was admitted to hospital after feeling unwell and was found to have an unrelated infection. He was released after one month, but passed away three weeks later at home in Windsor Castle.