Traditional, religious and no fuss: What Prince Philip's funeral tells us about him

Gordon Rayner
·4 min read
Prince Philip waves to well-wishers as he leaves following the Royal family Christmas Day church service at St Mary Magdalene Church in Sandringham on December 25, 2012 - Leon Neal/AFP
Prince Philip waves to well-wishers as he leaves following the Royal family Christmas Day church service at St Mary Magdalene Church in Sandringham on December 25, 2012 - Leon Neal/AFP

The Duke of Edinburgh distilled his own personality into a stripped-down funeral service by choosing simplicity, tradition and piety over sentimentality, extravagance or vanity.

Prince Philip, a deep and devout religious thinker, believed his funeral should glorify God, rather than himself, insisting there should be no eulogy, or even a sermon.

The Queen once remarked that her husband did not “take easily to compliments”, and even in death he made sure there would be no opportunity for acclamation.

He did, however, allow himself the indulgence of repeated references to his first love and lifelong passion, the sea, in the form of nautically-themed hymns and lessons.

Prince Philip funeral: St George's Chapel service (stage 5)
Prince Philip funeral: St George's Chapel service (stage 5)

The hymn, Eternal Father, Strong to Save, known as the sailor’s hymn, beseeches God to protect “those in peril on the sea”, while Psalm 104 makes four references to the sea, which the Lord made to be the “robe” of the earth.

The first lesson, taken from Ecclesiasticus, refers to God’s mighty creations, and that “those who sail the sea tell stories of its dangers, which astonish all who hear them”.

The naval theme continues in the prayers, during which the Dean of Windsor will lead the congregation in praying that God will “ever be with those who go down to the sea in ships and occupy their business in great waters”.

As the Duke’s coffin is lowered into the royal vault, buglers of the Royal Marines will sound the Last Post and Action Stations, while the State Trumpeters of the Household Cavalry will play the Reveille.

The Duke’s lifelong interest in conservation also shines out from the words of the psalm, which speaks of wild asses and goats, of birds and all of God’s creations.

The service will begin with The Sentences, which include the sort of unvarnished phrasing favoured by the Duke: “Though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.”

Duke of Edinburgh funeral – Processional route
Duke of Edinburgh funeral – Processional route

While The Sentences and The Collect are both taken from the Book of Common Prayer burial service of 1662, and the Duke chose the most traditional, shorter, version of The Lord’s Prayer, he mixed ancient with modern and British traditions with Russian to reflect his personal and family history.

The Anthem, which will be sung by a four-strong choir and contains the phrase “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return”, is taken from the Russian Kontakion of the Departed, referencing Prince Philip’s ancestral links to the Romanovs, the last Tsars of Russia.

The Duke, who had more than 1,000 books on religion in his personal library, chose for the Commendation a verse which was originally a Catholic prayer, and which was also used at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales.

The Collect, which makes reference to the last judgement, was used at the funeral of Winston Churchill, the first prime minister of the Queen’s reign.

The Duke had been making the arrangements for his funeral for at least 18 years, and wanted to make sure that he remained in control of every element of the service and the ceremony surrounding it.

Not only the music, but their arrangements were personally chosen by him, reflecting his meticulous attention to detail. The Jubilate will be sung to an arrangement written, at the Duke’s request, by Benjamin Britten, while the psalm will be sung to an arrangement by William Loveday first performed in honour of the Duke’s 75th birthday.

Prince Philip's funeral - April 17
Prince Philip's funeral - April 17

The nearest thing to a eulogy at the service will be The Bidding, a brief address by the Dean of Windsor at the beginning of the service in which he will tell mourners they are committing Prince Philip’s soul to God and remembering how “his long life has been a blessing to us”.

It will also pay tribute to “his courage, fortitude and faith” as well as his “kindness, humour and humanity”.

Before his coffin disappears from sight, the Garter Principal King of Arms will list the 15 styles and titles of the Duke, including his military ranks and his orders of chivalry. Last to be mentioned will be his most important role, and the one for which he will be missed the most: Husband of Her Most Excellent Majesty Elizabeth the Second.