Prince Philip: the loyal consort

As history has shown, life as a monarch’s spouse is rife with pitfalls and sacrifices. Yet the Queen’s partner, Prince Philip, navigated the challenges and remained her stalwart companion for more than seven decades. Sarah Gristwood traces their life together

Portrait of Prince Philip

It was the longest marriage in British royal history – a partnership that endured for more than 73 years. That’s surely a feat for any couple, but the marriage of Elizabeth and Philip had its own special difficulties as he struggled to accommodate himself to life in his wife’s shadow.

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Over those years, however, both partners came to terms with the anomalies of their position. Prince Philip had, said Elizabeth II in her golden wedding speech, “quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years”. And for his vital role as a moderniser during the early years of his wife’s queenship, Philip should be recognised as one of the chief moulders of Britain’s modern monarchy.

Yet the man the young Princess Elizabeth chose for love once seemed something of an outsider to the British royal family. Of course, he too was royal – like his wife, a great-great-grandchild of Queen Victoria. But Philip’s grandfather King George of Greece had been assassinated, his uncle King Constantine deposed, and his father Prince Andrew exiled, along with most of the family. His parents’ marriage did not survive the strain of exile. Initially settling in Paris, Philip’s father moved to Monte Carlo, while his mother was placed in a mental institution, suffering from what the conventions of the day described as a nervous breakdown. Philip was sent to school in England and raised there in the care of his mother’s Mountbatten family (anglicised from its German form, Battenberg, during the First World War).

He and Elizabeth had met on family occasions while she was a child. In 1939, the 13-year-old princess accompanied her parents to the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, where the 18-year-old cadet Philip, tall and blond, helped to entertain the royal party. The two exchanged letters, and in 1943 he was invited to spend Christmas with the royal family at Windsor. There he watched a zestful 17-year-old Elizabeth sing and dance through the annual family pantomime, after which the young people turned on the gramophone and danced till 1am. It may (suggested the princess’s governess, Marion Crawford, known to the princesses as “Crawfie”) have been then that her real interest in Philip began.

Only a few months later the prominent diarist Henry “Chips” Channon recorded his belief that “a marriage may well be arranged one day” between the pair. Any “arranging” behind the scenes was done by Philip’s ambitious uncle Lord Mountbatten, who had promoted the match from an early stage. (Philip himself at one point felt the need to tell his “Uncle Dickie” to step back and allow him to do his own courting.) On Elizabeth’s part, though, no arrangement was necessary.

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, subject to the king’s consent, which had still to be obtained. Philip had an impressive war record, seeing active service and being mentioned in dispatches, but George VI had doubts about his daughter’s youth and Philip’s raffish reputation. There was concern, too, over public reaction to Philip’s German relations, so soon after the war. Courtiers complained he was “no gentleman”; the impoverished Philip was still like “a dog without a basket”, arriving for weekend visits without spare clothes and writing “of no fixed abode” when signing his name in visitors books.

The princess’s parents asked her to wait some months, and took her away on a lengthy tour of southern Africa during which her famous 21st-birthday speech was broadcast. But on 10 July 1947 it was posted from Buckingham Palace that “with the greatest pleasure” the king and queen announced the betrothal of their dearly beloved daughter to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, RN (Royal Navy). He had renounced his nationality, his name and his Greek Orthodox religion. Other sacrifices would follow.

Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham Palace shortly after they announced their engagement
Princess Elizabeth and Philip, pictured after the announcement of their engagement in 1947. They wed that November, and their marriage appears to have remained solid for over 73 years until his death in 2021 (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Philip, Elizabeth wrote to her mother from honeymoon, “is terribly independent, and I quite understand the poor darling wanting to start off properly, without everything being done for us”. Philip himself wrote that: “My ambition is to weld the two of us into a new combined existence that will not only be able to withstand the shocks directed at us but will also have a positive existence for the good.” The words came to sound almost like a prophecy.

Harsh realities

The “shocks” came comparatively quickly. The early years of the marriage encompassed a time that, in retrospect, must have looked like an extended honeymoon. Philip seemed set for a high-flying naval career and, when he was posted to Malta, Princess Elizabeth accompanied him, relishing the comparatively private life of a navy wife. All too soon, though, George VI’s failing health required Philip to give up his work.

The young couple were in Kenya, on safari at Treetops lodge, when in February 1952 they received news of the king’s death, resulting in Elizabeth’s sudden accession to the throne. It fell to Philip to break the news to her, but the shock for him was almost as severe.

Philip said that before his wife became Queen Elizabeth II, whatever they did was done together, adding: “I suppose I naturally filled the principal position.” After her accession, he recounted to author Gyles Brandreth, “I was told to keep out of the way, and I did.” As Elizabeth got to grips with her new responsibilities, Philip (unlike Prince Albert in Victoria’s day) would not be privy to the red boxes of state papers sent to her; nor would he be present at the weekly audiences with her prime ministers.

A king’s wife, of course, would never have expected to play any part in matters of state but, for a man of Philip’s generation and temperament, it was intensely humiliating to be excluded so completely. Behind the scenes, however, it was Prince Philip who understood that, in a postwar world, the new monarchy had to sell itself differently to the nation. It was he, reported some contemporary newspapers, who backed the move to permit television cameras inside Westminster Abbey on coronation day, 2 June 1953.

Princess Elizabeth and her husband Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh during their honeymoon in Malta
In the early years of marriage, before she was Queen, Elizabeth enjoyed spells of the relatively normal life of a naval wife in Malta, where Philip had been posted (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Prince Philip rode to the abbey beside Elizabeth in the Gold State Coach, but there could be no question of him processing with her through the abbey. He was, instead, the first of the temporal lords to swear allegiance. On his knee, his hands between hers, he had to swear fealty, touch the crown and kiss his wife’s left cheek. “I, Philip, do become your liege man of life and limb, and of earthly worship,” he recited, “and faith and truth I will bear unto you, to live and die, against all manner of folks.” He kept his word – though there was, and would continue to be, debate about his precise titles and place in the royal pecking order.

The role of a male consort had been a problematic one since the time of the Tudor queens, and one immediate controversy related specifically to Philip’s masculine identity. With the couple already the parents of two children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne, the question of a surname arose. Philip’s uncle, unwisely, was heard boasting that the House of Mountbatten now sat on the throne. Instead, the decision was taken that the Queen, and those of her descendants in the immediate line of succession, should keep the name of Windsor. Philip reportedly complained that he was “just a bloody amoeba” – valued for his reproductive function and no more.

Philip as consort

When, in the autumn of 1956, Prince Philip set out (with his wife’s blessing) on a four-month solo tour of the Commonwealth, it was against a background of gleeful press speculation about his regular attendance at the all-male Thursday Club, an informal lunch gathering at a restaurant in Soho. The Queen’s press secretary was forced to issue a statement: “It is quite untrue that there is any rift between the Queen and the Duke.” Stories that Philip had found balm for his wounded pride in flirtations with other women would continue, but they would never threaten the fundamental solidity of the relationship, any more than his abrupt manner in private with his wife.

The Queen’s own way of easing a difficult position was to defer to her husband in their domestic life. He became, unusually, the more hands-on parent to their children while Elizabeth settled into the position of arguably the world’s number-one career woman. His decisions may not always have been happy ones: it was Philip, for example, who sent Prince Charles to Gordonstoun, where the bracing atmosphere had suited Philip but which Charles found desperately uncongenial. But perhaps his parenting style, like that of his wife, changed with the changing times. He was playing squash while Elizabeth gave birth to their first child, but in the room (at her request) and holding her hand as she gave birth to their fourth. For her part, the Queen took a conscious decision when the couple’s “second family” came along – Andrew in 1960 and Edward in 1964 – to spend more time with them.

Together, Elizabeth and Philip enjoyed or endured more than 73 years of state visits, ceremonies and charitable initiatives, family milestones both good and bad, and a mounting tally of grandchildren and, indeed, great-grandchildren. But there were also summers spent at Balmoral, Christmases at Sand-ringham, and voyages on the royal yacht Britannia that, until she was decommissioned in 1997, was perhaps the couple’s most personal home. During picnics at Balmoral, he was the one managing the barbecue while the Queen, famously, did the washing up. On official tours in the early days of her reign, it was Philip – despite his own tetchy reputation – who urged his wife to smile more and be more forthcoming.

By trial and experience

Looking back on the occasion of their golden wedding anniversary in 1997, speaking at the Guildhall the day before his wife made her own laudatory speech, Prince Philip remarked that time seems to fly when you are busy – and that to him and his wife, the previous 50 years had indeed seemed busy. Prince Philip had been patron of some 850 organisations, more even than are sponsored by the Queen, as well as managing the family’s estates.

“It’s been a challenge for us but, by trial and experience, I believe we have achieved a sensible division of labour and a good balance between our individual and joint interests,” he declared. Perhaps it is as much as any couple could say. The following day his wife declared that “I, and his whole family, and this and many other countries, owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim, or we shall ever know.” Over the two decades that followed, the marriage must have become more important still as Elizabeth saw the other supporters of her youth – her mother, her sister, friends – slip away.

Prince Philip’s health, however, began to give cause for concern. He was hospitalised during the celebrations for his wife’s diamond jubilee in 2012. Five years later he announced his decision to step back from public life, joking that he had to stand down before he fell down. Even so, he may still have been supporting and advising his wife behind the scenes – the aspect of his work the public never saw.

Prince Philip died on 9 April 2021, some two months short of his 100th birthday. During the restrictions imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic, he had lived in isolation with the Queen at Windsor Castle. As a result of the same restrictions, his funeral at St George’s Chapel in Windsor was attended by only 30 people. Pictures of a black-clad Queen, seated alone, echoed the losses suffered by so many around the world, and media coverage of his death reflected a fresh appreciation of a man who, in his later years, had come to be known chiefly for his brusqueness and infamous gaffes.

Press and public alike observed that – prickly and sometimes problematic though he may have been – Prince Philip had been ahead of his time when he set aside his own career to support his wife and help frame the first decades of her reign. Together, he and the Queen had triumphed over not only the ups and downs common to any couple, but also the fluctuating fortunes of the British monarchy. Indeed, their partnership, perhaps more than any other single factor, kept the institution flying into the 21st century.


The royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten

When Princess Elizabeth married Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten on 20 November 1947, qualms were expressed: was a large public ceremony appropriate? Should it not be held quietly, at Windsor? The country, after all, was still in the grip of wartime rationing. But though some MPs did complain about the cost, Winston Churchill declared that it would be “a flash of colour on the hard road we have to travel” – and it was clear the public felt the same way.

A huge crowd gathers outside Buckingham Palace to see the royal family, who are standing on the balcony
The royal wedding was a bright moment for a country enduring postwar austerity (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Huge crowds came to admire the wedding presents set out on display at St James’s Palace, including the sapphire-and-diamond set from the king, who also gave Purdey guns. Eleanor Roosevelt sent more practical gifts of towels and kitchen cloths, and President and Madame Chiang Kai-Shek sent a dinner service of Chinese porcelain. Gandhi sent a cloth made from yarn spun on his own wheel; Elizabeth’s grandmother, Queen Mary of Teck, took it for one of his loincloths and exclaimed at the indelicacy. A woman in Brooklyn sent a turkey because, she said, “they have nothing to eat in England”. Many members of the public sent nylon stockings – still a rationed luxury.

Norman Hartnell, designing the wedding outfit, had to ask his manager to sleep in the workroom to thwart the attentions of press desperate to steal a glimpse. The dress, inspired by Botticelli’s paintings, was a festival of flowers, with the blooms picked out in crystal and pearls. Like the wedding itself, it promised rebirth and growth after six cold years of war.

At a dance in Buckingham Palace two nights before the wedding, King George led a conga through the state apartments. It was the first time Europe’s extended royal family had been able to assemble since before the Second World War. The groom’s stag night was held at the Dorchester Hotel with fellow naval officers.

There were some last-minute mishaps on the wedding morning itself. No-one could find the bride’s bouquet, and it was discovered that the double strand of pearls she had planned to wear – a gift from her parents – was still on public display at St James’s Palace. But the bouquet was traced to a cool room where it had been placed to keep fresh, and the princess’s private secretary leapt into a hastily commandeered car to retrieve the necklace in the nick of time.

The day dawned cold and clammy, but crowds standing 50 deep watched as the bride and her father drove to Westminster Abbey in the Irish State Coach, escorted by the Household Cavalry. It was a welcome return to the world of pomp and pageantry – the first time the cavalry’s full ceremonial uniform and plumed helmets had been seen since prewar days.

The archbishop of York, officiating alongside the archbishop of Canterbury, said that the wedding 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”. Postwar tensions dictated that Philip’s three surviving sisters, married to German princes, were not invited to the ceremony – perhaps the only controversy surrounding the day.

The bride promised to obey, and the couple left the Abbey to the strains of Mendelssohn’s ‘Wedding March’. At the wedding breakfast, an “austerity” event for a mere 150 guests, Filets de Sole Mountbatten was followed by a casserole of unrationed partridges and “bombe glacée Princesse Elizabeth”.

King George VI said: “Our daughter is marrying the man she loves.” Prince Philip, newly naturalised as a British subject and created a Royal Highness, declared he was “proud of my country and my wife”. And Elizabeth said: “I ask nothing more than that Philip and I shall be as happy as my father and mother have been, and Queen Mary and King George before them.”

Huge audiences around the world watched film and newsreel footage. In occupied Berlin, a 4,000-seater cinema was full day after day. Every film, every article, described this as a fairy tale. More importantly, it proved also to be the start of the royal family’s most enduring love story.

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