Prince Philip: a life of duty and devotion

Sometimes considered brusque and prone to lapses in tact, Prince Philip has nonetheless excelled in his principal role: as the Queen’s stalwart companion for nearly 70 years. Sarah Gristwood discusses their long union and the tricky job of a consort living life in the shadow of a queen...

This article was first published in BBC History Magazine's 'Queen Elizabeth: 90 Glorious Years' bookazine

The 21-year-old princess Elizabeth and Lt Philip Mountbatten
The 21-year-old princess Elizabeth and Lt Philip Mountbatten pictured shortly after their engagement became official in July 1947. (Getty Images)

 

Her husband, said Queen Elizabeth II in her golden wedding speech, “has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years” – and what a lot of years it has turned out to be. This is the longest royal marriage in recorded history. Her grandson, the Duke of Cambridge, says the support that Prince Philip has given the Queen is something of which she often speaks in private too.

This partnership has been one of the great achievements of the Queen’s reign. And it is all the more striking because the choice of consort for a female monarch has always been a vexed one – so vexed that, back in the days of the Tudor queens, the power a foreign husband might have over his spouse was often held to rule out a female monarch. Back in the 1940s, some courtiers expressed the same concerns about Philip.

At the wedding breakfast, on 20 November 1947, King George VI said: “Our daughter is marrying the man she loves.” Philip, newly naturalised as a British subject, said that he was proud, “proud of my country and my wife”. Princess Elizabeth, as then she was, said that: “I ask nothing more than that Philip and I should be as happy as my father and mother have been, and Queen Mary and King George before them.”

This summed it up: love, duty and tradition. It was a genuine romance, but from a girl who was already so well-adapted to her regal role as only to fall in love within a limited gene pool. Philip was the great-great-grandson of Queen Victoria, and had been partly raised in Britain despite his Greek and Danish titles and his Danish and German blood.


The family portrait to mark the couple’s engagement. George VI initially had doubts about Philip and distrusted his ambitious uncle, Lord Mountbatten. (Getty Images)
 

The two first met at family occasions when Elizabeth was a child. Then, in 1939, the 13-year-old princess accompanied her parents to the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, where 18-year-old Philip was a cadet, helping to entertain the royal party.

The two exchanged letters and from that moment the idea of a match appears to have been in currency, not only with the protagonists, but with Philip’s uncle, Lord Mountbatten, who fostered the idea every step of the way. 

Elizabeth, recalls her cousin Margaret Rhodes, was obviously taken with this young man who seemed like “a Viking god”. Philip, even at this early stage, told his naval commander that he might marry the future queen – or so he’d been told by his “Uncle Dickie” (Mountbatten).

But it was after the war that things became serious. By the time Philip was invited to Balmoral in the summer of 1946, it was clear Elizabeth was in love. She accepted his proposal that August, though the king’s consent had still to be obtained. George VI had doubts about ‘Prince Philip of Greece’ – about the young man’s somewhat raffish reputation; about the fact Philip’s own father had been forcibly rejected by his country, leaving his family as penniless exiles; and about the role the ambitious Mountbatten hoped to play. The princess’s parents asked her to wait some months and took her away on a long South Africa tour. But in July 1947 it was posted from Buckingham Palace that, “with the greatest pleasure”, king and queen announced the betrothal of their dearly beloved daughter to “Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, RN”, who had renounced his nationality, his name and his Greek Orthodox religion to make this a possibility.  

There were still some cavils – precisely equivalent, rather oddly, to those that had greeted Prince Albert’s engagement to Queen Victoria. Albert too had been the candidate of a favourite uncle, and there were concerns too over German Albert’s foreignness, about his title. (Victoria, who had wanted him to be king consort, rather than prince consort, “raged” in a perfectly “frantic” way.) The complaints of some MPs about the cost of Elizabeth and Philip’s wedding echoed those about the income Victoria and Albert would enjoy.

In fact the royal family themselves had qualms about whether, so soon after the Second World War, and with rationing growing ever more stringent, a large public ceremony was really appropriate. But the majority opinion proved to be that of Winston Churchill, that it would be “a flash of colour on the hard road we have to travel”. It was less than 30 years since the royals had begun holding their weddings in public, after centuries of private ceremonies, but it was already apparent that this was one of the best weapons in their armoury.

The wedding presents were put on display at St James’s Palace – though not presumably the Aga Khan’s thoroughbred filly, or the Siamese kitten from two district nurses in Wiltshire. Nor, indeed, the hunting lodge from the people of Kenya. But there was the sapphire and diamond set from the king, who also gave Purdey guns, the dinner service from President and Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the tea cloth Gandhi spun on his own wheel. (Queen Mary took it for one of his loincloths, and exclaimed at the indelicacy.)

The wedding dress from British designer Norman Hartnell was to be a triumph of patriotic production, with even the nationality of the worms turning out the silk proving to be a matter of debate. Hartnell’s inspiration came from Botticelli’s paintings, and the dress was to be a festival of flowers, with the blooms picked out in crystal and pearls – a promise of rebirth and growth after the long winter of war. At the dance in the palace two nights before the wedding, King George lead a conga through the state apartments, while the groom’s stag night took place at the Dorchester Hotel.


The prince had to renounce his nationality, his name and his Greek Orthodoxy in order to marry Elizabeth. (Getty Images)
 

The crowd on the day was 50 people thick, despite the November weather. But the archbishop of York, officiating alongside the archbishop of Canterbury, said that the wedding in Westminster Abbey was “in all essentials exactly the same as it would have been for any cottager who might be married this afternoon in some small country church”. The bride promised to obey, and the couple left the abbey to the strains of Mendelssohn’s ‘Wedding March’. The wedding breakfast was an ‘austerity’ event for a mere 150 guests, with the main course a casserole of unrationed partridges. As the couple set off to spend the first days of their honeymoon at Broadlands, Lord Mountbatten’s Hampshire home, they were accompanied by the princess’s favourite corgi.

This was the first time newsreel cameras had been allowed to follow a wedding party into the abbey itself – an omen, perhaps, of the modernising role Prince Philip would come to play within the royal family. Crowds around the world rushed to the cinemas to feel a part of what commentator after commentator described as a fairy story. Perhaps the only fly in the ointment was the tensions that meant that Philip’s three surviving sisters, married to German princes, were not invited to the ceremony.

The couple’s early years together were eased by the fact that Elizabeth (unlike Victoria) was still only a princess when she wed, hence the long spell in Malta the couple were able to enjoy, with Elizabeth living the comparatively private life of a naval wife. George VI’s failing health soon led to Philip’s giving up his naval career, but in 1952 news of the king’s early death, and Elizabeth’s precipitous accession, was arguably as great a shock for husband as for wife.


In their early years before her accession Elizabeth was able to live the relatively normal life of a naval wife in Malta. (Getty Images)
 

At Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, Prince Philip was the first to swear allegiance to her, that he would be her “liege man of life and limb”. But there had always been debate about his precise titles and place in the royal pecking order. Now, with the new queen already the mother of two, the question of a surname arose – of whether, as Philip’s uncle unwisely boasted, the House of Mountbatten now sat on the throne. The decision was taken that those directly in line for the throne should keep the name of Windsor, causing Philip to curse, reportedly that he was “just a bloody amoeba”, valued for his reproductive function and no more. There would be other issues, over what Prince Philip’s role was supposed to be. Before the Queen’s accession, Philip said, whatever they did was done together and “I suppose I naturally filled the principal position”.

No longer. Accounts vary as to whether it was the courtiers or the Queen herself who decreed he should not be privy to the red boxes of state papers or present at the weekly audiences with her prime ministers. (Just as Victoria had limited Albert’s role to “dealing with the blotting paper”. But Victoria’s pregnancies gave Albert his opportunity, so that he was able to fulfill his hope of becoming not only “the natural head of the family”, but Victoria’s “sole confidential advisor in politics… her private secretary and her permanent minister”.)

In 1972, the radical MP Willie Hamilton asked Prince Philip whether he saw his role as equivalent to Prince Albert’s as the power behind the throne. He got the answer that “times, circumstances and personalities are entirely different” today. In the late 1950s, when the first adjustments of the new reign were over and everyone was settling down for the long haul, there were indeed press reports of a ‘rift’ between the Queen and her husband. But these would soon die away.

Prince Philip found a way to accommodate himself to the situation and then stuck to it. As his grandson William says, he “totally put his personal career aside to support her, and he never takes the limelight, never oversteps the mark”. He has often been a force for change, insisting on the reform of some of the more arcane practices of the royal household (like the powdering of footmen’s wigs).

He cheered and encouraged the Queen into undertakings she did not at first find easy – the social, crowd-pleasing, aspect of her duties. He should perhaps take some share of the credit for the recent resurgence in the popularity of the monarchy. But the bottom line is that he is “always on her side, and he’s an unwavering companion”, as Prince William put it appreciatively.  

Of course, the Duke of Edinburgh has not always been viewed so warmly. His famous gaffes, his brusqueness with the press and his impatience may just be the natural expression of a man of his age and background; or they may be an essential escape valve – a letting off of steam – for a man not temperamentally attuned to life in his wife’s shadow.

More serious is the fact that the Queen and Prince Philip’s own happy marriage somehow failed to provide an example their children were able to follow. The marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer was also widely seen as a fairy story – hence the bafflement, from Queen as well as country, that it turned out so disastrously.

Here, perhaps, the Queen’s principle of allowing her husband to wear the trousers in their private life – sending Prince Charles to Gordonstoun, urging him into marriage before he was ready – has made for difficulty. But another generation on and the royals may be able to take Elizabeth and Philip as an example and a legacy. The Duchess of Cambridge has spoken of how “special” it must be for the Queen to have the support of a husband on public occasions “and behind closed doors”, that having to fulfill her role alone would be “a very, very lonely place to be”.


Britain’s oldest ever spouse of a serving monarch has been the Queen’s companion at thousands of events. (Getty Images)
 

At the Queen’s diamond jubilee, after gallantly standing by his wife, tapping his foot to music as the royal barge steered up the Thames through drenching rain, Prince Philip had to be hospitalised suddenly. The Queen had to face the crux of the celebrations without him, and to some if felt like a symbol of what may be ahead.

And it might be only after the duke is gone that we are likely to appreciate him properly – to realise that this partnership, almost 70 years long, has been genuinely extraordinary. 

 

Married to the queen

Philip is Britain’s longest-serving male consort. But how did some of his predecessors fare?

Mary I (1516–58) and Philip II of Spain

Mary Tudor was always determined to marry into her mother’s Spanish/Habsburg family, but the alliance proved deeply unpopular in England. The concern with the husband of any reigning queen was that he would have mastery not only of her, but of her country – fear that seemed justified when England followed Spain into a costly war with France. Mary’s example was a dreadful warning to her sister Elizabeth, the ‘Virgin Queen’, as was the example across the Scottish border…

 

Mary, Queen of Scots (1542–87) and her three husbands 

Mary’s first youthful marriage made her dauphine, and then briefly queen consort, of France and risked making Scotland a satellite of that country. Her second, to Lord Darnley was bedevilled by his conviction that his gender should give him precedence, and by his part in the murder of David Rizzio, her private secretary. When Mary made a third marriage with the Earl of Bothwell, widely suspected of Darnley’s own murder, the scandal cost the queen her country, and ultimately her life.


(Alamy)

 

Mary II (1662–94) and William of Orange

William and Mary are unique in that his role was not merely that of consort. Indeed, he continued to rule England alone after her death. In 1688, 11 years after marrying Mary, William invaded England to seize the crown from her unpopular Catholic father, James. He had the support of many of the ruling classes who, however, wanted to crown Mary as sole monarch, a proposition William (and his wife) refused. In their joint monarchy, there was no doubt his was the mastery.

 

Queen Anne (1665–1714) and Prince George of Denmark  

Queen Anne’s husband is the forgotten man among royal consorts, despite having fathered some 17 children with her (none of whom lived to maturity). Younger brother to the Danish king, dull George was acceptable as a Protestant and because the Danish alliance represented a curb on Dutch power. By contrast to his brother-in-law William, George played only a minimal role in Anne’s reign. He was widely blamed for the mismanagement of the navy, but his death left her devastated.

 

Queen Victoria (1819–1901) and Prince Albert

The keynote of their relationship was set when Victoria, already a reigning queen, had to propose to Albert, rather than he to her. The early years of their marriage saw some flaming rows about his role and status, but Victoria’s frequent pregnancies ultimately gave him his opportunity to play a larger part in state affairs. He was a beneficial and a calming influence until his early death at 42 flung her into extreme mourning which led even to doubts of her sanity.


(Alamy)
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