‘Two steps behind’: male royal consorts through history

The marriage of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was the longest of any British sovereign, and for nearly seven decades, Prince Philip was royal consort, always keeping “two steps behind” his wife and queen. Following the news of his death on 9 April 2021, Sarah Gristwood considers the life and demands of a male consort to queens regnant through British history…

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, back to back

Before Prince Philip married the future Queen Elizabeth II, he read up everything he could find on Prince Albert. The life of Queen Victoria’s consort seemed to offer the nearest thing to an instruction manual for the anomalous position he knew lay ahead – that of consort to a reigning queen.

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Standing those few steps behind his wife, neither Philip nor Albert found the position easy. In fact, as Philip came to realise, the changing times, and an increasingly elaborate apparatus around the sovereign, meant he would find himself even more constrained than his predecessor.

Nonetheless, the challenges he faced echoed to a remarkable degree those of other male consorts through history. Perhaps it’s only looking back after his recent death that we realise just what an extraordinary job he did in surmounting them – and how that may reflect wider changes in society.

Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip
Before Prince Philip married the future Queen Elizabeth II, he read up everything he could find on Prince Albert. The royal couple are photographed here on their honeymoon in 1947. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

When Elizabeth II ascended the throne, her reign was hailed as a new Elizabethan age, although she rejected the notion during her second Christmas broadcast in 1953. The first Elizabeth, the Queen said, had ruled as a despot – and had never enjoyed the blessing of husband and children. All the same, the accession of both queens regnant posed the same problem as to their marriage. In an echo from the days of the Tudor queens, the power a foreign husband might wield over his spouse was one of the chief fears about a female monarchy.

As Henry VIII wrote, if a woman shall chance to rule: “she cannot continue long without a husband, which by God’s law must then be her governor and head, and so finally shall direct the realm.” The deeply unpopular marriage made by his eldest daughter Mary to Philip of Spain seemed to fulfil his worst fears when it dragged England into a foreign war. Marriage to a subject rather than a foreign prince would bring the risk of faction in the country.

Britain’s reigning queens

Mary I (1516–58) m Philip of Spain (1527–98)

Great care was taken during the marriage negotiations to ensure that Philip should not exercise too much control in England, but it nonetheless remained deeply unpopular.

Elizabeth I (1533–1603)

Though the ‘Virgin Queen’ famously decided never to marry, her favourites – notably Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester – exercised some of a consort’s functions, receiving foreign dignitaries and taking the lead in military ventures, from which her sex debarred her.

Mary, Queen of Scots (1542–87) m François II of France (1544–60); Lord Darnley (1545–67); The Earl of Bothwell (c1535–78)

Mary’s first, childhood, marriage to the French Dauphin would have positioned her as the queen consort of France. But after François’s early death and her return to Scotland, her rash choices offered an object lesson in the difficulties of marriage for any reigning queen. In an age where the husband expected to rule the wife, Elizabeth I needed only look north to see how Lord Darnley, and then Bothwell, expected to lord it over her cousin. “Suppose I be of the baser degree, yet am I your husband and your head,” Darnley told Mary.

Mary II (1662–94) m William ‘of Orange’ (1650–1702)

The arrangement that made William also William III of England saw him take the leading role in government of a country to which his wife had a superior claim; and even continue to rule it after her death.

Anne (1665–1714) m George of Denmark (1653–1708)

The forgotten man of British consorts, George seems to have existed only to sire some 17 short-lived, miscarried or stillborn children on his wife. Nonetheless – despite Anne’s female favourites – the marriage was personally strong.

Victoria (1819–1901) m Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (1819–61)

Often cited as a model for the marriage of Elizabeth and Philip, it in fact saw the consort play a very different role, until Albert’s early death threw Victoria into prolonged mourning and a damaging seclusion. 

Elizabeth II (1926–) m Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (1921–2021)

Prince Philip’s death within weeks of his centenary, after more than 70 years of happy marriage, came at a time of difficulty for the Royal Family amid a global pandemic and family upheaval. But his and the Queen’s partnership is the longest in British royal history.

A “peculiar and delicate position”

The fundamental question was how to navigate the issue of a husband being expected to ‘rule’ his wife, when she was queen regnant. When it came to Elizabeth I, English bishop John Aylmer (1521–94), tried to rationalise a solution that would have allowed Elizabeth I to marry, arguing that: “so far as pertaining to the bands of marriage, and the offices of a wife, she must be a subject: but as a Magistrate she may be her husband’s head.” Ie, a ruling queen could be his inferior in “matters of wedlock”, and yet his leader in “the guiding of the commonwealth”. It was a claim fraught with difficulty. But it was in a way the model Elizabeth II would try to follow in encouraging Prince Philip to act as the head of the royal family. As the Duke of Edinburgh’s friend and biographer Gyles Brandreth put it colloquially, she wore the crown, but he wore the trousers.

Elizabeth II encouraged Prince Philip to act as the head of the royal family

Of course, as the second Elizabeth said in her Christmas broadcast of 1953, the position of any British sovereign in the 20th century was very different to what it had been in the 1500s. The European family of Philip of Greece, unlike that of Philip of Spain, would never be able to force Britain to follow their own interests. But when Philip married Princess Elizabeth, there had nonetheless been concern over his ‘foreignness’ and, so soon after the Second World War, particularly his German connections (just as there had been over those of Prince Albert). Those concerns were surely given added weight by the dominance a husband might still, in the 1940s and ’50s, be expected to exercise over his wife.

Victoria and Albert's wedding
Before his wedding to Queen Victoria, there were concerns about Prince Albert’s ‘foreigners’. (Photo by Roger Fenton/Roger Fenton/Getty Images)

A female consort might expect to be crowned in the same ceremony as her husband, but planning Elizabeth II’s coronation, the authorities had to look back to that of Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch, to find a role for Philip. The problem had not arisen over Albert, since Victoria was already queen when they married. But Albert’s chagrin – when, in the early days of their marriage, Victoria famously suggested his role in her state paperwork would be dealing with the blotting paper – echoed Philip’s early difficulties in finding a role.

Prince George of Denmark
When planning Elizabeth II’s coronation, the authorities had to look back to that of Queen Anne, who had married Prince George of Denmark, above. (Photo by Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Prince Albert once wrote that his “most peculiar and delicate position” required “that the husband should entirely sink his own individual existence in that of his wife”. In fact – in light of Queen Victoria’s character and her many pregnancies – Albert would eventually become not only officially Prince Consort but, in Benjamin Disraeli’s opinion, the virtual ruler of England. Prince Philip never sought a similar title or opportunity. When in the mid-1970s he was asked by the republican MP and author Willie Hamilton to compare his position with Albert’s, he replied that “times, circumstances and personalities are entirely different”. He quoted Albert boasting that he eventually became not only “the natural head of the family” but Victoria’s “sole confidential advisor in politics… her private secretary and her permanent Minister”. Elizabeth already had a trio of private secretaries – she didn’t need her husband to fulfil this duty. Instead, Philip found other ways to accommodate himself to the situation, to find influence and use his role: his awards scheme, his foreign journeys, his interests in science and technology.

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, visiting Liverpool to present badges
Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, visiting Liverpool to present badges and certificates for the Duke of Edinburgh award, c1958. (Photo by Staff/ Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

Consorts abroad

Of course, even in wider Europe and Asian kingdoms, the history of the female ruler and her male consort did not begin in the Tudor century. Hungary and Sicily, Navarre and Burgundy had all known female rulers, and various solutions to the issue of their marriage; from the youthful heiresses whose husbands were themselves crowned and subsequently conducted most of the government, to the rare older woman who managed to keep her husband ‘under her thumb’, or the successful joint (if not entirely equal) rule of Ferdinand and Isabella.

Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth
Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth, photographed on their diamond wedding anniversary. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)

But considering the male consort on our minds at the moment, we might look to the future as well as past. We’ve heard a lot in recent days about the modernising influence that a young Prince Philip exercised within the royal family. Perhaps this – the willingness, in the end, to play second fiddle to a prominent woman – is just another instance of his being ahead of his day.

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Sarah Gristwood is a best-selling Tudor biographer, novelist, broadcaster, former film journalist and commentator on royal affairs