“He has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years.” These were the words of Queen Elizabeth II as she described her husband on their golden wedding anniversary in 1997. Her marriage to Prince Philip is – at more than 70 years long – the longest of any British sovereign, surpassing that of George III and Queen Charlotte by more than 13 years. But their relationship hasn’t always been straightforward, and when a young Prince Philip of Greece sought the hand of Britain’s most eligible woman, many obstacles lay ahead…
Falling in love
Elizabeth and Philip were first introduced to one another when the former was just eight years old, at the wedding of Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark (Philip’s cousin) and Prince George, Duke of Kent (Elizabeth’s uncle) in 1934. Five years later, when Elizabeth was 13 and Philip was 18, they met again at the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth. It was here, reportedly, that Elizabeth fell in love with her future husband, and they later began exchanging letters.
In 1946, Philip asked King George VI for his daughter’s hand in marriage. The king agreed on one condition – that the formal announcement of the engagement was delayed until Elizabeth turned 21 the following April. According to reports, both the king and his wife Queen Elizabeth were reluctant to approve the marriage out of fear that their daughter was “too young”.
In postwar Britain, there were also fears over how Philip – who was born in Greece, considered himself Danish and had German relations – might be accepted as a member of the royal household. Indeed, upon becoming engaged to Elizabeth, Philip dropped his Greek and Danish royal titles, becoming a naturalised British subject and taking the surname Mountbatten from his maternal grandparents. Later, on the eve of their wedding, King George conferred upon him the titles of Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth and Baron Greenwich.
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Elizabeth and Philip’s wedding day took place at Westminster Abbey on 20 November 1947. The event did not go without incident: Elizabeth’s tiara snapped on the morning of the wedding, and Philip was stopped for speeding through central London on the day of the rehearsal dinner (19 November). He reportedly said at the time: “I’m sorry officer, but I’ve got an appointment with the Archbishop of Canterbury.”
At their wedding breakfast, King George VI described the union as a genuine romance: “Our daughter is marrying the man she loves,” he said. Meanwhile, former prime minister Winston Churchill hailed the event as a “flash of colour on the hard road we have to travel” – referring, no doubt, to the climate of postwar Britain.
Following their marriage, and in the years before Elizabeth became queen, the couple held a royal residence in Malta from 1949–51, where Prince Philip was stationed in the Royal Navy. They spent several years on the Mediterranean island, and it was here that Elizabeth lived the (relatively) normal life of a naval wife.
As a surprise for their 60th wedding anniversary in 2007, Prince Philip took the Queen back to the island (and also to Broadlands, a country house in Hampshire, where they spent their wedding night).
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On 14 November 1948, Elizabeth and Philip became parents for the first time to a son, Prince Charles – now the longest-serving heir apparent in British history. Three more children arrived in the years that followed: Princess Anne, on 15 August 1950; Prince Andrew, on 19 February 1960; and Prince Edward, on 10 March 1964.
The birth of the four children, and Elizabeth’s accession to the throne in 1952, brought with it a discussion on the family’s surname. The royal family had held the surname of Saxe-Coberg and Gotha until 1917, when King George V decreed that the family name would be the less Germanic-sounding Windsor. When Elizabeth became queen – just over three years after the birth of Charles – the name of the Royal House remained the same.
Whether this caused any contention with Prince Philip is debatable. According to a biography of Elizabeth by Sally Bedell Smith, he once privately complained: “I am nothing but a bloody amoeba. I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his own children.” Surely enough, on 8 February 1960, a declaration made in Privy Council ensured that Mountbatten-Windsor would be the surname of Elizabeth’s and Philip’s male-line descendants.
In 1952, while on vacation at Sagana Lodge in Kenya, news of King George VI’s death reached the couple. Prince Philip was the person to break the news to Elizabeth, who was just 25 years old at the time.
Having ascended to the throne, Elizabeth II’s coronation took place on 2 June 1953. Prince Philip was the first to swear allegiance to the new queen, describing himself as her “liege man of life and limb”. Incidentally, becoming consort to his wife spelled the end of Philip’s Royal Navy career, and years later, when Philip’s biographer Gyles Brandreth asked him how he thought he was perceived, he replied: “I don’t know. A refugee husband, I suppose”.
In 1992, the Queen had what she has famously described as an ‘annus horribilis’, or ‘horrible year’. The marriages of three out of four of her children had ended, and the whole family had been the attention of multiple media scandals (including, notably, the confirmation of an affair between Charles, Prince of Wales, and socialite Camilla Parker Bowles). Also that year, a fire broke out at Windsor Castle, one of the Queen’s residences, causing extensive damage.
The royal couple have also had to face a number of other close bereavements over the years. These include, notably, the death of the Queen Mother in 2002, and the death of the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, in the same year.
When Princess Diana died in a car crash in 1997, just one year after her divorce from Prince Charles, the response from the royal family came under criticism from the public. Under pressure to demonstrate her grief, the Queen made an unprecedented TV broadcast in which she described Diana as an “exceptional and gifted human being”. “I admired and respected her,” she said, “for her energy and commitment to others, and especially for her devotion to her two boys.” The Queen was later accused by some of not expressing enough sadness.
As the longest-reigning British monarch in history, the Queen has celebrated a number of jubilees – silver (1977), golden (2002), diamond (2012) and, most recently, sapphire (2017). In a speech addressing the Houses of Parliament on 20 March 2012, to mark her diamond jubilee, she noted that Prince Philip “has been a constant strength and guide” to her throughout her reign. Indeed, the prince has accompanied the Queen on many of her royal engagements, and when he announced his retirement from his duties in August this year, he had completed 22,219 by himself.
Expanding the family
The Queen and Prince Philip have eight grandchildren in total – Prince William of Wales, Prince Harry of Wales, Peter Phillips, Zara Tindall (nee Phillips), Princess Beatrice of York, Princess Eugenie of York, Lady Louise Windsor and James, Viscount Severns.
Their first great-grandchild, Savannah Phillips, was born in 2010 to their grandson Peter and his wife Autumn Phillips, with a second great-granddaughter, Isla Phillips, arriving in 2012. In 2014, a third great-granddaughter called Mia was born to their granddaughter Zara and her husband Mike Tindall. Sadly, the couple’s second pregnancy, which had been due in spring 2017, ended in miscarriage. The couple went on to have another child, Lena Elizabeth Tindall, in 2018.
In 2012, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s announcement that they were expecting a baby sparked a remarkable change in royal precedent. The Queen introduced a new rule on royal succession which meant that if the new baby was a girl, she would become the third in line to the throne (and not be overtaken by any future younger brothers). As it was, the baby turned out to be a boy, who was named George. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge later went on to have a baby girl Charlotte, in 2015, and another boy, Louis Arthur Charles, in 2018.
Rachel Dinning is Website Assistant at History Extra.
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in November 2017