Dr John Sentamu has said it is a “pity” the Duke of Edinburgh will be remembered for his gaffes, saying “behind those gaffes was an expectation of a comeback”.
The former Archbishop of York said Philip was always looking for robust debate and for someone to challenge him, and that he always walked away from conversations with the duke feeling “energised”.
Speaking to BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, Dr Sentamu said people had sometimes been “too deferential to Philip” because of his status.
“I am sure he regretted some of those phrases, but in the end it is a pity that people saw him simply as somebody who makes gaffes,” he said.
“Behind those gaffes was an expectation of a comeback but nobody came back and the gaffe unfortunately stayed.”
Dr Sentamu went on: “He would make an off-colour remark but if somebody challenged him you would enter into an amazing conversation.
“The trouble was that, because he was the Duke of Edinburgh, the husband of the Queen, people had this deference.”
Dr Sentamu recalled an incident when he himself had made a joke about racism, and the duke had approached him and demanded: “Do you think that’s fair?”
He said the challenge had led to an in-depth discussion about what Philip was trying to achieve with the Duke of Edinburgh Award.
“It was an eye-opener,” Dr Sentamu said.
“(The award) was in every country he had been to, and when he met young people – whether they were black, whether they were white, whether they were Asian – actually it didn’t make the slightest bit of difference, as long as they were given the opportunity to get on in life.”
Dr Sentamu said Philip believed the majority of people who felt downtrodden had not been given real opportunity in life, and the award was intended to create a level playing field.
He said that with the duke “there were no conversations that were off limits” and that Philip had also closely followed the inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence.
“Whenever I met him we would get into a conversation – (about) something that he had been thinking about – and then he would also give a very robust reply,” Dr Sentamu said.
Referring to the Lawrence inquiry, he said: “(Philip) came and ask me about how it all was and he said ‘You must have had a very tough time listening to evidence – it really was appalling’.
“Then we had a conversation of about three or four minutes.”
He added: “There were areas we disagreed about but he loves a very good conversation and he doesn’t want you to let him off or for you to be let off.”
Dr Sentamu said the duke had also been very open and accepting of the fact that we live in an ever-changing world, and was wary of the word “reform”.
He recounted a conversation in which Philip told him: “Please look around you, everything is changing, nothing is static, and the only thing that is stable – the Earth – is still revolving around.”
Dr Sentamu said the duke believed the important thing was “to make sure that you are there to make a better change than a terrible one”.
He continued: “(Philip) would go for ‘change’ rather than ‘reform’ because he would say ‘I don’t know what that means, because the powerful are the ones that want reform, and who do they want to reform? The weaker people. But if we talk about change, all of us are involved in it.”
Friend of the Prince of Wales Sir Nicholas Soames echoed Dr Sentamu’s thoughts on Philip’s often notorious one-liners.
Speaking to Times Radio, the former Conservative MP said the duke “was someone who wanted to put people at ease” and that often members of the public became “paralysed” in the presence of royalty.
“Actually what he was trying to do was to make a conversation and ease the moment, and to bring them into feeling that this was not an awe-inspiring occasion but something where he had come to meet people and to learn from them, and to listen to them,” he said.
Sir Nicholas added: “So, whilst I absolutely understand the joy of the press in the so-called gaffes, there weren’t many of them, (and they were) for a purpose.
“Some of them went a bit off piste, but, my God, whose doesn’t?”