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At their wedding in 1947, Princess Elizabeth vowed to love, cherish and obey Philip Mountbatten – the Duke of Edinburgh, as he’d become the previous day. The use of the word “obey” by the future monarch raised some eyebrows at the time, though the respective ranks of the couple were spelled out six years later at the Queen’s coronation, when Philip knelt before his wife and swore “to become your liege man of life and limb”.

It was, said the Daily Mirror, “one of the ceremony’s most moving moments”. This action wasn’t entirely unprecedented, but you had to go back to the coronation of Queen Anne in 1702 to find the only other example of a royal husband paying such homage in public.

And this time it truly was public. It was estimated that some 20 million people in Britain watched the television coverage of the service (there were only two million licences at the time), and that 88 per cent of the nation was watching or listening to the BBC’s broadcasts. At the sight of a man kneeling before his wife, reported one newspaper, “a noticeable stir ran through the congregation”, and there was a similar frisson in households around the country.

It was one of the many ways Prince Philip’s life reflected wider changes that were happening in the 20th century. From changing gender roles to an increasing focus on protecting the environment, huge cultural shifts took place in the Duke of Edinburgh’s lifetime – shifts that he was a part of.

In the case of gender roles, the symbolism of Philip’s deference to the Queen was out of keeping with the times. Women were neither seen nor heard very much in public life during this period. In the 1951 general election, only 77 female candidates had stood, of whom just 17 were elected; fewer than three per cent of MPs were women.

There was a generational factor, too. The average age of the three main party leaders in that election was 71, and the new prime minister, Winston Churchill, was the oldest of them all. These were men who’d been born at the height of Queen Victoria’s rule. Now, the youngest monarch in more than a century was on the throne, and a woman was at the head of the national family.

Philip’s subsequent role, two paces behind his wife, was not necessarily to become familiar – maybe only Denis Thatcher came close – but the greatest revolution of the new Elizabethan age has undoubtedly been in the position and visibility of women.

Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh are greeted upon their arrival at the Welsh National Eistedfodd in Rhyl, Wales, in 1953
The Queen celebrating the National Eisteddfod in Rhyl, 1953, soon after her coronation. Philip’s role as consort – here, as often, walking behind his wife – augured changes in gender dynamics and relationships across the nation (Photo by Paul Popper/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)

The Queen is no longer such a glaring exception to the male-only rules, and it would be easier to list the really senior establishment posts that have not been occupied by a woman – archbishop of Canterbury, governor of the Bank of England, director-general of the BBC – than those that have.

To return to that example of parliament, the 2019 general election saw 220 female MPs returned – just over one-third of the Commons. To use a wider measure, at the time of the coronation in 1953, around one-third of women of working age were in employment; today that figure is more than 70 per cent. Although we are not yet an equal society, the hard-fought progress has been impressive.

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Revolution in relationships

The impact of this revolution has been enormous, in terms of legislation, social attitudes and personal relations. And the values of society have been transformed – the things that we collectively consider to be important. Most notably, there has been a sea change in the role of marriage.

In 1992, French philosopher Jacques Derrida – father of deconstruction theory – was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Cambridge. Called upon to present the award, Prince Philip was heard to observe that if he wanted to see deconstruction, he need look no further than his own family. This was the year – dubbed an annus horribilis by the Queen – when the marriages of three of their children were publicly acknowledged to have broken up.

At the time of Philip’s wedding, there had been a spike in the divorce rate. Many wartime unions, entered into in haste and under threat of imminent extinction, proved unable to survive the trials of separation, reunion or both. Despite the special circumstances, those of a traditional cast of mind were concerned that the practice might become embedded in society.

“The nation is suffering,” said Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher in 1951, “from the disregard of monogamy, the multiplication of divorces… and the evil of broken homes.”

It was also in 1951 that Labour MP Eirene White introduced the Matrimonial Causes Bill, which would have allowed for divorce on grounds of irretrievable breakdown, even if one partner did not wish it. That bill never made it onto the statute book, however – it was opposed by White’s own government, which instead set up a royal commission to look at reform.

The commission’s report was gloomy. “Old restraints, such as social penalties on sexual relations outside marriage, have been weakened, and new ideals to take their place are still in process of formation,” it said. “It is perhaps inevitable that at such a time there should be a tendency to regard the assertion of one’s own individuality as a right, and to pursue one’s personal satisfaction, reckless of the consequences to others.”

At the time of Philip’s wedding, there had been a spike in the divorce rate as wartime unions turned sour

The number of divorces rose steadily during the 1960s and, at the end of the decade, the Divorce Reform Act 1969 – looking very much like Eirene White’s bill – finally opened the floodgates. In the year before the act was passed, 46,000 divorces were granted in England and Wales; by the 1990s, that figure had more than trebled – with seven out of ten cases initiated by women.

More recently it’s fallen back, dipping below 100,000 a year on occasion, but only because the marriage rate (calculated as a proportion of marriages per head of the unmarried population) has collapsed. In 1947, the year of Philip’s wedding, 73 of every 1,000 unmarried men got married; that proportion is now around 20 in every 1,000.

This is a profound shift. Partly it’s related to a decline in religion – fewer than one in four weddings now include a religious ceremony – but the traditional emphasis on marriage went far beyond faith. It was seen as the keystone of the family, which in turn was the basic building block of society. Remove that, some feared, and might not the entire social structure come crashing down?

It was striking, for example, that Margaret Thatcher – then an opposition MP – voted against the Divorce Reform Act, even though she was herself married to one of those wartime divorcees. Around the same time, she voted in favour of liberalising reforms on homosexuality and abortion – yet making divorce easier was a step too far, the real threat to social stability.

Despite Thatcher’s espousal of Victorian values, though, the divorce rate still increased (albeit slowly) in the 1980s, during her premiership. So, too, did the number of single-parent households and the number of children living in those households, both growing by two-thirds.

Philip’s own extraordinarily long-lasting marriage perhaps did not well equip him to understand this new world; he was reportedly bewildered by Charles’s separation from Diana. In common with many of his generation, he seemed to find the behaviour of his children baffling and self-indulgent. Just as typically, though, he accepted and adjusted.

The fears of the 1950s and 60s haven’t materialised. Society hasn’t collapsed as a consequence of widespread divorce, seen in all classes, and the consequent downplaying of marriage. But the country is a very different place as a result, with moral standards about personal relations and domestic life that would have seemed alien in those postwar years.

Custodians of the planet

Alongside this has come a new emphasis on the personal rather than the political, as Britain has moved from empire to empathy. If the dominant trend of the last 70 years has been towards individualism, there has also been a parallel rise in globalisation. At its most positive, this has seen the return of an old ethos of humans as the custodians of the planet.

Among the cornerstones of the modern environmental movement is WWF (World Wildlife Fund or World Wide Fund for Nature), committed to combating the loss of habitats and species, both animal and plant. The British National Appeal for the WWF was launched in 1961, with Prince Philip as president (he later became international president); within two months it had attracted sufficient funds to begin making grants to conservation projects.

As the agenda of environmentalism evolved over time, so too did the issues that Philip addressed. In 1972, he wrote of concerns that catastrophe was looming, citing “problems of overpopulation, environmental pollution, depletion of finite resources and the threat of widespread starvation”.

By the 1990s, he was driving around London in a black cab he’d bought that had been converted to run on liquid gas. And in 1995 he founded the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, a global initiative encouraging religious bodies to adopt eco-friendly approaches to their work.

As the agenda of environmentalism evolved over time, so too did the issues that Prince Philip addressed

The ecological revolution remains unfinished business. It is still unclear how far humanity will – maybe how far it can – accept the underlying challenge to the doctrine of economic growth, the pursuit of which has been at the heart of political thinking of all hues for so long.

What is certain is that the debate hasn’t gone away – and that had been a real fear in the early days. In a speech in 1970, Prince Charles expressed concern about “the whole thing being a temporary craze which reaches a peak of over-emphasis and then deflates itself rapidly”.

Today, Charles continues to pursue environmental issues even more loudly than his father did, and perhaps the ideological differences between the two illustrate a cultural changing of the guard. Philip was pragmatic about, say, the question of genetically modified food: it’s no different to selective breeding, he argued. Charles’ vision allows less room for technology and scientific solutions. Genetic engineering of plants, he said, would take us “into realms that belong to God, and to God alone”.

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, taking part in a press conference for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)
Prince Philip attends a conference in 1995 as WWF’s international president. His long-standing environmental concerns were reflected in his six decades supporting the nature charity (Photo by DAMIEN MEYER/AFP via Getty Images)

Spoiling the magic?

While the royal family’s support of environmental issues has received an unequivocally positive reception, the broadcast of Royal Family in 1969 has often been considered a mistake. The fly-on-the-wall television documentary showed the Queen, Prince Philip and their children at work, at home and at play, and it was criticised by some for letting “daylight in upon the magic”.

David Attenborough worried that it might be responsible for “killing the monarchy”. Others saw it as the justification that the press needed to become more intrusive, trivialising royalty and, turning it into a soap opera.

Perhaps the Queen agreed. It is said that it’s by her order that the programme hasn’t been broadcast since 1977 – that it’s unofficially banned. It’s also said that she hadn’t been keen on it initially, but had been persuaded by Philip. Certainly, he exercised final veto on what was included, so if it was a misstep, the responsibility lies with him.

The intention was to move with the times – to show the people behind the titles – and Philip’s judgment was probably right. The modern world was not as readily awed by magic as once it had been; indeed, it was getting rather fond of daylight illuminating the personal stories, the individual experiences.

Appearing on ITV’s Face the Press in 1968, Philip had already suggested that he understood the need to adjust to new conventions. “The monarchy is part of the fabric of the country,” he explained, “and, as the fabric alters, so does the monarchy and the people’s reaction to it.”

Members of the British Royal Family seated around a dining table during filming of the television documentary Royal Family in London in 1969. From left: Princess Anne, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip and Prince Charles
The 1969 documentary Royal Family revealed the Windsors’ home and working life. Philip reportedly persuaded the Queen to allow the fly-on-the-wall television film, which was criticised by some and is said to be unofficially banned (Photo by Rolls Press/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)

In the decades since Royal Family, the lines between private and public have largely been blurred. If we were then still a long way from Philip’s granddaughter-in-law being invited to “speak your truth” by Oprah Winfrey on primetime television, that was the direction of travel.

Some saw a decline of deference, a refreshing rejection of stuffiness; others perceived an indulgence of disrespect, or a deplorable Americanisation of Britain. Either way, it would have been folly to imagine that the most famous family in the country could remain entirely aloof.

The days when the British press kept quiet about the abdication crisis were gone. Television and the tabloids had changed the rules, and the monarchy – like all major international brands – needed to learn the game of media management.

The days when the press kept quiet about the abdication crisis were gone. Television and the tabloids had changed the rules

In any event, the public’s fascination with the private doings of the royal family went back long before soap operas. In a less respectful earlier age the people had been entertained by stories of the bitter dispute between the prince regent (later George IV) and his estranged wife, Caroline, and by rumours in 1810 that the Duke of Cumberland had murdered his valet.

In the 1970s and 80s, the love lives of the young royals were bound to attract the media. That younger generation could, though, have learned something from Philip about where to draw the line. “I’ve never discussed private matters, and I don’t think the Queen has either,” he commented in 1994, shortly after Charles had talked on TV about the breakdown of his marriage to Diana.

Despite all the endless guff and gossip, the reality was that the monarchy did remain part of the fabric of the country – it still fulfilled its role of reflecting the image we had of ourselves, even as that image has been refashioned in a post-imperial Britain.

The Queen’s golden jubilee in 2002 provided a chance to mark the changes in society since the last such celebration 25 years earlier. “If you’d said the word ‘samosa’ to me during the silver jubilee, I wouldn’t have known what you meant,” said a 61-year-old woman, wearing a plastic union flag apron at a street party in the appropriately named Jubilee Street in Whitechapel, east London. “But this time round it’s important to make this day special for all members of this community. We can hark back to the good old days as much as we like, but things have to move on.”

That was the theme of the 2002 celebrations. There were formal events, of course: traditional moments of pomp and circumstance, such as when the Queen and Prince Philip, accompanied by Charles and Anne on horseback, were driven in the Gold State Coach from Buckingham Palace to a service at St Paul’s Cathedral.

But there was also a pioneering display of cultural diversity. A pageant along the Mall featured a collection of vehicles intended to evoke the spirit of Britishness: double-decker buses, yellow AA vans, old police cars, ambulances and fire engines, as well as a contingent of Hell’s Angels. Accompanying them on foot were Chelsea pensioners, hula-hula dancers, thousands of gospel singers, a Dalek, groups from the Notting Hill Carnival and children from every Commonwealth nation.

The Queen and Prince Philip also gamely turned out for a concert in the palace grounds, featuring an eclectic line-up that included S Club 7, Shirley Bassey and Ozzy Osbourne.

This was the new story that Britain wanted to tell about itself – still headed by the same family, itself having changed along with the nation

Back in 1977, Philip had observed that the massive enthusiasm for the silver jubilee had been driven not by love of the royal family so much as the need for some fun amid economic and social crises. This time, it felt more like a genuine celebration.

Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897 had featured London’s biggest ever parade, with the colonies and dominions of the empire kneeling in tribute to the woman who ruled a quarter of the world. Now the same nations were dancing, not kneeling, and Britain felt rather pleased with its new, inclusive identity.

Former cabinet minister and Daily Telegraph editor Bill Deedes wrote: “Of all the royal pageants I have seen in the past 70 years, this one came closer to the life of our nation than any before it.”

This was the new story that Britain wanted to tell about itself in the 21st century – about a country that could embrace tradition and modernity, pageantry and pop music, still headed by the same family, itself having changed along with the nation.

Despite his subsidiary public role, Philip played a part in that reinvention, just as Prince Albert – the consort on whom he said he modelled himself – had done in the 19th century.

Alwyn Turner is a senior lecturer in history at the University of Chichester and a writer specialising in the cultural and political history of Britain in the 20th century. His latest book is All in it Together: England in the Early 21st Century (Profile Books, 2021)


This article was first published in the June 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine