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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

16 April 2021

Malcolm Guite recalls a moment of sharp-edged humour with Prince Philip

I WAS very sorry to hear of the death of Prince Philip, not only because of the terrible loss that it represents for the Queen, and because of all the service he has done for the nation, both in supporting her and in his own right, but also because he was such a strong and likeable character, as I discovered for myself when, in his role as Chancellor of Cambridge University, he gave me one of the most memorable days of my life, and certainly a story to dine out on.

The whole adventure occurred when I was myself in role as consort, in my case consort to the Senior Proctor; for it happened that Maggie was Senior Proctor in 2009, the year Cambridge celebrated its 800th anniversary. So there were all kinds of ceremonial occasions to attend, and the chief of these was a special ceremony in the Senate House at which honorary degrees were given to the great and the good.

Prince Philip himself was to award the degrees and attend the small reception afterwards, at which also the University’s “800th-birthday cake” was to be cut. Given that not only the Prince, but many others of the great and the good were in attendance, security was high. We were all vetted and checked over in full airport style before we were admitted — though, as it turned out, I still ended up armed and dangerous.

The ceremony went splendidly. Maggie looked very well in her full proctorial fig and delivered her Latin, as always, with accuracy and aplomb. Then we all adjourned to a marquee for the birthday festivities. We were given champagne and canapés, and then, as if from nowhere, someone produced a magnificent cake, decorated with the university arms, and, as the King’s choristers sang “Happy Birthday” an aide handed Prince Philip a ceremonial sword with which to cut the cake, which he did with his usual gusto, remarking that the age of the University entitled us all to feel comparatively young.

Then he looked around, clearly hoping to hand the sword back to someone so as to have a free hand for another drink. No one stepped forward. Then his eye lit on me. I was wearing the scarlet and palatinate Durham doctoral gown, which, someone once remarked, made me look like a cross between a flamboyant pirate and a dodgy Renaissance cardinal. There was a glint in Prince Philip’s eye, and he grinned broadly as he handed me the sword and said, “Why don’t you take this: you certainly look as if you know what to do with it!” Then he turned back to his champagne and conversation, and I was left holding this magnificent weapon.

Nobody came to take it from me. So much for security! I had Bill Gates to the left of me and the Aga Khan to the right, and a few swift strokes might have made my moment in history. But I thought better of it. I noticed however, that the choirboys, who had retreated to a corner of the marquee with the remains of the cake, were looking with great interest at the sword. So I went over to show it to them, remembering how I loved playing with swords as a child. Indeed, the child in me was very much alive holding this one.

Naturally, the choristers wanted to hold it, and, naturally, I let them. It turned out that what they really wanted to do was scrape the last bits of jam and cake off the blade with their fingers. Then the speeches started, and, leaving the sword with the choir boys, I went to stand with the proctor, but was relieved, as I glanced back, to see that someone had at last relieved the choirboys of the sword.

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