Just a few dozen members of the public had gathered outside the gates of Windsor Castle by Friday afternoon. In the hours after the announcement that the 99-year-old Duke of Edinburgh had died, crown estate staff tried to limit the number of bunches of flowers left outside the royal residence where he died, peacefully among his family.
But among the unusually sparse number of floral tributes, many of the flowers left by the southern entrance to Windsor Castle at the end of the Long Walk bore notes offering condolences to the royal family, and to the woman who had lost her “strength and stay”. One simply stated: “I’m sorry about your husband.”
In the pandemic, the time-honoured outlet for public expression of grief was curtailed. Shortly after the announcement of the duke’s death, the government asked people not to gather at royal residences as part of efforts to limit the spread of Covid, stating: “We are supporting the royal household in asking that floral tributes should not be laid at royal residences at this time.”
The town itself appeared no more busy than might be expected on a spring day in a country only beginning to emerge after more than a year of intermittent lockdowns.
But despite being told to stay away, some felt compelled. “It’s to pay our respects,” said Roger Smith, a retired builder from Windsor.
Nicola Stingelin, a doctor of medical ethics from nearby Maidenhead, said “there was something in the air” that made her want to come.
“With everything being so insecure and strange [due to] Covid, that maybe encouraged me even more to want to come out,” she said.
Describing herself as a critical monarchist, she said the monarchy offered the country security. That was something worth respecting, in her eyes. “It’s identity, isn’t it?,” she said.
“I’m here as much for the Queen because she’s such a stoic woman, with her stiff upper lip and having to keep her emotions under control and she’s just lost her husband. So, it’s as much out of respect for her, I feel.”
A tearful Denise King admired the duke for, as she put it, marrying a country. “The Queen said he was head of the family and she was the sovereign,” she said.
“I heard it on the radio about 12 o’clock when they announced it, you know, with the anthem, and I feel really sad.
“I followed the Prince Philip story and when you think he was born in Corfu and then he and his family had to leave because the whole Greek thing, he was a prince without a throne.
“And, when he met the Queen, he probably thought to himself: ‘This isn’t only going to be my wife but she’s going to be my country’, as it were.”
Many of the tributes focused on the bereaved monarch, recognising her immense loss.
“Prince Philip will be sadly missed as a husband and interesting person dedicated to his role and his family,” read one. “A husband and prince of a country and a country he most loved.”
Some of the mourners talked about the wider impact of the Duke of Edinburgh’s death, how it could herald a change in the style of monarchy.
For Smith, that would only come if the Queen decided to relinquish control, a moment that fellow mourner King predicted could be hastened by the passing of her husband.
“Prince Philip stopped working in 2017 – only four years ago. The poor man was 30 years older than the normal person for retirement. It’s almost as if he felt he couldn’t stand aside or stand down,” she said. “I think he had this thing where he was grateful to the nation and the country for taking him in.”
She wondered if the experience may prompt the Queen to reflect on her own position, asking why the monarch should not get some “years to herself”.
Those present in Windsor did not shy away from discussing criticism of Philip.
“A lot of the stuff he said that was a bit controversial, he was saying in jest,” said Smith. Offering the same example, he and King both deemed a particularly controversial comment he made about Chinese people as an attempt at humour.
That type of comment wasn’t unusual, they pointed out. “Look at Boris Johnson and his ‘letterbox eyes’ comment,” said King.
For those mourning outside the palace, it was a moment to reflect on the public service of the longest-serving consort in British history. “It was part of his personality that, 99.9% of the time, he behaved immaculately, and everybody has a bad day,” said Stingelin. “I think his temperament was such that, on very rare occasions, he did say something [unacceptable], but I mean, who hasn’t?”