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Prince Philip’s death brings young royals into focus for British monarchy

LONDON —The death of Prince Philip, the steadfast consort at Queen Elizabeth II’s side for more than 70 years, comes at a time when the royal family is under intense public scrutiny.

It brings the next generation of royals into sharp focus, with observers questioning how the traditional institution might take shape in younger hands.

Modernizing the monarchy may mean a smaller number of working royals; more virtual engagements, which began during the coronavirus pandemic; and less prominence given to set-piece ceremonial royal calendar events, in line with trends in other European royal households, said Carolyn Harris, a royal historian and author.

“The monarchy has existed for over a thousand years and has reinvented itself numerous times over the centuries to reflect changing societal norms, political conditions and public opinion,” Harris told NBC News.

She added that Philip’s death was likely to “accelerate” and increase the public duties given to younger royals and cast a greater spotlight on Prince Charles and his son Prince William — both heirs to the throne.

Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, at Windsor Castle in 2020.Samir Hussein / WireImage file

The last few years have been tough on the United Kingdom.

It has endured a messy and protracted split from the European Union following the 2016 Brexit referendum and the highest coronavirus death toll in Europe and is now mourning the death of a senior royal, each denting and recasting the collective national identity.

The queen, 94, is seen by many as a stabilizing figurehead, defined by her quiet custodianship of the institution through controversies and crises.

But with the death of her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, the shift from the old guard may also bring a change in royal attitudes and values.

“The younger generations of the royal family are more inclined to speak their minds and prioritize their personal lives in addition to their royal duties,” Harris said.

She noted that Prince Charles was criticized for speaking out on issues such as climate change, inner cities and homeopathic medicines, in contrast to the non-interference and guarded private persona that has characterized Elizabeth’s reign.

Public squabbling among younger royals — including between Prince William and his wife, Catherine, and the self-exiled Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan — generating headlines in the British and American press has also put the family under substantial scrutiny.

William and Kate could also seek a more holistic balance between their public duties and their family life with their three children, Harris said.

Unlike the queen and Philip, who married in 1947, the couple have often brought their young children on foreign royal tours, such as their 2016 visit to Canada, a trend that could continue. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have also undertaken shorter international trips and carried out more virtual royal engagements, changes that could become more permanent.

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But for some, although the family itself may embrace change, the depth of the royal institutions will remain entrenched.

“The old guard is still going to be the old guard. Prince Charles is older,” said Marlene Koenig, author of European and British royal biographies.

“He [Charles] is what I call a transition. The real focus is William and Catherine,” she added.

Koenig said the fact that the monarchy knew how to evolve at all was in part down to Philip, who, much like Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, had reshaped the institution by being open to some new ideas.

Philip supported the TV broadcast of Elizabeth’s 1953 coronation, allowing the masses to tune in. He also advocated the scrapping of upper-class debutantes being formally presented at court — a practice he called “daft,” which ended in 1958. Instead, he championed annual summer garden parties at Buckingham Palace as a way to meet and recognize the achievements of everyday people.

Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, sitting at his desk at Clarence House in August 1951.Fox Photos / Getty Images

Years later he was also the driving force in a rare behind-the-scenes BBC documentary of royal life in 1969, making the family more accessible to the public.

In an early form of reality TV, the show tapped into British curiosity of life behind palace walls, a fascination that has continued to modern day with millions tuning in to a 2021 interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex by Oprah Winfrey. The royal family’s life has also led to the global success of the Netflix drama “The Crown.”

Even amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Duke of Edinburgh, 99, learned how to adapt to social media and Zoom calls. In a lighthearted interview, Harry told television host James Corden in February that his grandfather would often slam down his laptop to abruptly end online calls with the family.

In front of the cameras too “forceful but funny,” Philip “was someone who was willing to speak his mind,” Koenig said. She acknowledged that often this left him prone to gaffes and criticism, which, she thought humanized him.

As the institution of the royal family continues to evolve, change may also be felt in the Commonwealth, where Caribbean countries such as Jamaica and Barbados have recently expressed interest in becoming republics — an issue future monarchs will have to grapple with.

For now, “the monarchy will continue to reinvent itself,” Harris said. It “will endure in Britain for the foreseeable future.”

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