In summer 2017, Prince Philip retired from his royal duties, appearing in public only rarely as a new generation of British royals rose in stature.
But in the years since Philip’s retreat from public life, people around the world — or at least people who subscribed to Netflix — felt they were becoming even more intimately familiar with the private life of Queen Elizabeth II’s husband, who died Friday at 99.
“The Crown,” Peter Morgan’s lavish portrait of the royal family, reintroduced Philip into popular consciousness — especially in America, where the average person may not be steeped in the arcana of 20th-century Britain or the internal politics of the monarchy.
He has been incarnated on the series by two capable actors: Matt Smith portrayed him as a churlish young man struggling to find his footing at Buckingham Palace; Tobias Menzies played him as a wryly detached realist fitfully settling into middle age. (Jonathan Pryce gets his turn next season.)
In much of the public imagination, “The Crown” has effectively displaced the actual historical record — a phenomenon that troubles some professional historians because the series liberally blends fact and fiction.
But biographical accuracy notwithstanding, the fictionalized version of Philip, who has riveted viewers since the show premiered in November 2016, is worth considering both as a standalone television character and a cultural symbol.
In its first two seasons, “The Crown” was preoccupied with questions of the fictional Philip’s basic integrity. The second season was especially concerned with rumors that he committed adultery — suspicions the real-life Philip and several biographers forcefully denied.
The storyline about Philip’s suspected indiscretions was not just addictive melodrama, however. It also fed into a growing public belief — soon to be validated, for some skeptics, by real-life events — that life behind the gates of Buckingham Palace was not always picture-perfect.
In that sense, “The Crown” might have helped drive interest in some of the recent public relations storms that have consumed the monarchy: Prince Andrew’s ties to Jeffrey Epstein, or Meghan Markle’s revelations in an interview with Oprah Winfrey.
The third and fourth seasons of “The Crown” further complicated perceptions of Philip, showing him growing increasingly comfortable with the formal procedures and unwritten rules of his role as consort.
In the fourth season, which largely revolves around the marital troubles of Princess Diana (Emma Corrin) and Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor), Menzies’ Philip tries to steer the young royals into accepting their public positions — personal unhappiness be damned.
“We can be a rough bunch in this family,” Menzies’ Philip tells Corrin’s Diana in the fourth season finale. Diana replies that life with the royals feels to her like a “cold, frozen tundra” and then threatens to “break away” from the Windsors.
“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” Menzies’ Philip says ominously. “Let’s just say I can’t see it ending well for you.”
Philip’s role in the fourth season reverberates at a time when — owing largely to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s declaration of independence — we find ourselves wrestling with the psychic pressures and emotional burdens of life inside the royal family.
Smith’s Philip embodied the sometimes unseemly underside to the sanctioned narratives that govern British public life. Menzies’ Philip personified the rule-bound ethos that by some accounts keeps royal members’ personal aspirations tightly under wraps.
The two versions of Philip presented on “The Crown” may not be grounded in strict historical truth. But they resonate deeply in a culture whose relationship to the British royal family is shifting rapidly — and perhaps irrevocably.