Daniela Elser: Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s extraordinary love story
Queen Elizabeth has paid tribute to her “beloved” husband of more than seven decades, after he passed away Friday.
“It is with deep sorrow that Her Majesty The Queen has announced the death of her beloved husband, His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh,” the royal family announced in a statement.
Prince Philip “passed away peacefully” at Windsor Castle. His death follows a recent four week stay in hospital and heart surgery. He was discharged and returned home on March 16.
While the 99-year-old royal had largely been living out of the public eye, having retired from public duties in 2017, the Prince was an abiding presence and ardent supporter of his wife throughout her extraordinary reign.
Theirs was an unusual union in many respects. While countless other royal and aristocratic pairings were arranged marriages, both Philip and then-Princess Elizabeth genuinely fell for one another over a courtship that spanned a number of years and a world war. It was an unlikely match in that he was a penniless European whose royal lineage included a few too many Germans for many in establishment Britain, while she was the most eligible girl in the world.
The third cousins (they shared the same great-great-grandparents, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert), had first met in 1934 at a family wedding and then again in 1937 at the coronation of George VI. But it was in 1939, when the Queen and King visited Dartmouth Naval College, with their young daughters in tow, that Elizabeth first noticed Philip.
According to reports, the 18-year-old Philip impressed 13-year-old Elizabeth by jumping backwards and forwards across a tennis net. The Princess’ beloved nanny, Marion “Crawfie” Crawford, would later write that she “never took her eyes off him,” though reassuringly given the uncomfortable age difference, he “did not pay her any special attention”.
The Queen’s cousin, Margaret Rhodes later said: “She never looked at anyone else.”
When war broke out in 1939, Philip was a midshipman in the navy and went to sea. However the duo stayed in contact, with teenage Elizabeth regularly putting pen to paper. Royal biographer Kitty Kelley claims that it was Philip’s uncle Lord Louis Mountbatten who particularly encouraged Philip to stay in touch with the Princess (“A card here, a note there, would be very nice, my boy”), allegedly intent even then on his nephew marrying into the royal family.
On shore leave, Philip would return to the UK where, without a home of his own, he would rely on the generosity of friends and family members’ to put him up, including his maternal grandmother, the Dowager Marchioness of Milford Haven who lived in a grace-and-favour Kensington Palace apartment. Also on that list was the Windsor family, with the King reportedly growing increasingly fond of the brave and charismatic sailor.
When Philp came to stay at Windsor Castle for Christmas in 1943, the first stirrings of romance were detected, when he watched then-17-year-old Elizabeth perform in a pantomime version of Aladdin.
After the war, Philip returned to London in 1946 and headed north to the Windsors’ beloved Scottish estate, Balmoral. It was there, during a walk in the garden that he proposed. Elizabeth, without her parents’ approval, accepted immediately.
The King agreed to their union on the proviso they would not announce it to the following year, when the Princess would turn 21.
Their mutual cousin, Patricia Mountbatten has previously said: “Philip had a capacity for love which was waiting to be unlocked, and Elizabeth unlocked it.
Philip’s Paris-based mother, Princess Alice, retrieved a family tiara from a bank vault and several diamonds from that were used to create the future Queen’s relatively modest engagement ring.
While the couple was totally smitten with one another, the British nobility were appalled that an interloper from the Continent had stolen the future Queen’s heart. For years he would be rudely called “the Hun” or “the refugee”.
“He came from the other side of the tracks, which attracted Elizabeth. That and the fact that he was dead glamorous, absolutely drop dead glamorous. Although he was never quite digested into the British establishment, he decided in time to become just as pretentious, dull, and stuffy as the rest of us, while pushing his own personality uphill,” the daughter of the Duchess of Marlborough has told Kitty Kelley.
In 1947, having never been given a surname, as was standard for members of royal families, Philip renounced his Greek and Danish titles and adopted the anglicised version of his mother’s name, Battenberg, thus becoming, Philip Mountbatten. Later that year in July, the King made him the Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth, and Baron Greenwich. (In 1957 he was conferred with the title of Prince of the Realm.)
There were indications, even then, that life for Philip as the future Queen’s consort would be complicated: Of the 2,500 wedding invitations sent out, he was given only two.
The weight of what he was about to commit to reportedly weighed on Philip. Lord Mountbatten’s daughter Patricia later said that just prior to the wedding: “I saw him just after breakfast that morning. We were alone together – we were cousins and we knew each other very well – and I said something about what an exciting day it was and, suddenly, he said to me, ‘Am I being very brave or very foolish?'”
After years of wartime, the nation came together to celebrate the union of the dashing naval officer and the pretty young Princess, with 2,000 people lining the streets while millions listened to the ceremony on the radio.
The early years of Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage were extraordinarily happy, with the couple becoming parents to son Prince Charles in 1948 (one of the official doctors to the royal family, Sir John Weir, later said he’d “never been so pleased to see a male organ in all his life”) followed by Princess Anne in 1950.
With the kids being looked after by a team of nannies, and with doting grandparents on hand, the Prince and Princess set off to Malta when Philip was posted there by the navy.
However, tragedy and duty would intervene. On the 6th of February, 1952 while the pair were on a royal trip to Kenya, the King died suddenly, immediately transforming 25-year-old Elizabeth into the monarch. It was Philip who broke the devastating news to his wife.
Whether they were ready or not, their life was about to irrevocably and dramatically change. Only six years after their wedding there, the Princess and the Duke returned to Westminster Abbey in 1953 for her coronation during which Philip kissed her and promised to be her “liegeman of life and limb”.
While her new role was clearly laid out, Philip’s place in this hierarchy was much less defined, leaving him – a proud, macho man – to be forced to walk in his wife’s wake. It also meant that he had to resign from his post in the navy. One courtier has said that in the early days, the Duke was “constantly being squashed, snubbed, ticked off, rapped over the knuckles” by the establishment.
Still, Philip, with his easy way with words, offered the Queen, who found herself insecure and self-conscious when greeted by vasts throngs of cheering subjects, the perfect ballast.
While she saw royal life as one bound by weighty duty, he often approached it with an infectious bonhomie. He infamously once told his wife, during a tour in Australia when she was faced with the prospect of shaking thousands of hands, “Cheer up, sausage. It is not so bad as all that.”
(He is also said to have given her the affectionate, but less-than-regal, nickname of Cabbage.)
Veteran royal reporter Gwen Robyns has said that during tours: “Philip was fiercely protective of her when her energy started flagging. He would leap to her side and wave off photographers, if he thought they were getting too close or might embarrass her.”
The couple faced a personal crisis in 1960. The Queen was pregnant with her third child, son Prince Andrew and a dormant marital issue was about to flare up. In 1952, under pressure from then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the Queen had given her first two children the surname Windsor. Philip had been incensed. “I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his children,” he reportedly said. “I’m nothing but a bloody amoeba.”
Now, expecting for the third time, the Queen wanted to appease her husband and told members of her Privy Council that her descendants would instead use the surname Mountbatten-Windsor. The incorporation of the German-derived ‘Mountbatten’ was a move that horrified many in the establishment and was condemned in some parts of the media.
At age 36, the Queen had her last child, welcoming Prince Edward in 1964.
By the time the 70s and 80s rolled around, it was the younger royals who dominated the headlines: Charles, who was busy squiring a bevy of women about town and Anne who was making a name for herself as a world class equestrian.
In the next two decades Elizabeth and Philip would contend with ongoing family dramas and scandal: Charles’ disastrous marriage to Diana; the arrival of rambunctious Sarah Ferguson in their midst, and then both couples’ scandal-plagued splits (along with Anne’s from husband Mark Philips).
The greatest test would be in 1997 when Diana, Princess of Wales was killed in a car crash in Paris. The Queen’s seemingly cold response to the immediate and vast outpouring of public grief was one of the biggest miscalculations of her reign. (However, some reports have suggested that her decision to remain in Balmoral after the news broke had less to do with adhering to tradition and more to do with wanting to stay by her young grandsons’ side.)
The monarchy emerged in tact, barely, and tremulously faced the new century.
The noughties bought with it two new royal marriages, both of Prince Charles to his lifelong paramour Camilla Parker Bowles and later Prince William to Kate Middleton.
As a new generation of Windsors assumed the spotlight and growing royal responsibility, the Queen and Prince Philip showed no sign of letting age weary them from their duty. Well into their 80s and 90s the pair would still regularly be photographed enjoying a giggle together at events, their abiding bond apparent.
In 2017, at age 96, the Duke retired, a day after he drolly dubbed himself “the world’s most experienced plaque-unveiler” during an official event.
The Queen and the Prince were the longest married royal couple in history, but more importantly, their more than seven decades union was the cornerstone of the Windsor family and the monarchy.
“He’s the only person in the world who can treat her like a normal woman. And he does,” Gyles Brandreth, author of Philip & Elizabeth: Portrait of a Marriage, said prior to his death. “I mean, no one else is normal with her. There is an invisible moat around the queen at all times. That in mind, even her children will bow and curtsy to her.”
The Queen paid tribute to her husband’s support during her 2012 Diamond Jubilee, saying during an address to parliament: “During these years as your Queen, the support of my family has, across the generations, been beyond measure. Prince Philip is, I believe, well-known for declining compliments of any kind. But throughout he has been a constant strength and guide.”
Life as Prince Consort demanded fealty and devotion to his wife and was a responsibility he felt deeply. Michael Parker, the Prince’s private secretary once said: “[Philip] told me his job, first, second and last, was never to let her down.”
• Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.
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