Once upon a time, Queen Elizabeth II was known as Princess Elizabeth, Duchess of Edinburgh. As bizarre as it sounds, it only recently occurred to me that the Queen would have been known by the feminine version of her husband’s title in the years between their marriage and her accession. You hear about her as Princess Elizabeth and you hear about her as queen, but you rarely, if ever, hear her referred to as the Duchess of Edinburgh, even in past tense to reflect the years 1947-1952.
And yet, those years are illuminating. They represent a five-year span in which the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were living as adults, but before they were weighed down by the responsibilities of the crown. If ever there was a time that provided some insight into who Elizabeth and Philip are as people, it is likely this one – when they could choose to live as they wished.
The major takeaway from this period is that they chose to live outside of Britain. Philip’s naval career to them to Malta where they split their time between their home there and undertaking public engagements on behalf of Elizabeth’s father, George VI. Perhaps most notably, they lived without their children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne. They would reunited, for better or for worse, in 1951 when the King’s poor health mandated the Edinburghs return to England and then the following February, their mother ascended the throne at just 25.
In a lot of ways, Elizabeth did everything young. She fell in love with Philip when she was just 13. She married him at 21. And she became a mother for the first time on November 14, 1948 at the age of 22.
The announcement that she was pregnant would in no way fly today. Unlike the Twitter posts favored by Kensington Palace to announce when the Duchess of Cambridge is expecting a child, Buckingham Palace simply issued a statement that read:
”Her Royal Highness the Princess Elizabeth will undertake no public engagements after the end of June.”
There was no mention of pregnancy or a baby, but the meaning would have been clear enough. At the end of June, Elizabeth would have been five-and-a-half months along, meaning her retreat from the public came far sooner than the eight-and-a-half that Kate usually chooses as the point from which she begins her maternity leave. As such, there aren’t photos of Elizabeth heavily pregnant with Charles and it was a matter respectfully left alone by the press. No speculation as to the due date or when the baby was conceived. No think pieces on what kind of mother Elizabeth would be or what symptoms she was experiencing while expecting. My God, how civilized.
But that is not to say that the British weren’t excited by the idea of a royal baby. They were. Philip and Elizabeth were the young, fun royal couple of the late 1940s and 1950s and the idea of welcoming a new generation into the Royal Family was just as hotly anticipated then as it was now. At one point, Elizabeth even remarked, “Why does everyone make such fuss? I am not the only woman who is going to have a baby.”
Yes, but she was the only one carrying a future monarch.
Charles was the last generation of royals to be born at home. The Belgian suite, on the first floor of BP overlooking the Mall, was converted into a birthing suite, as it was again in 1960 and 1964 for the births of Princes Andrew and Edward. (Perhaps worth noting is that this particular suite also served as where the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge spent their wedding night in April 2011.)
It was reportedly a long and difficult labor for Elizabeth – 30 hours. In a true sign of the times, Philip was not at his wife’s bedside. Instead, he spent some time playing polo and then went for a swim in the BP pool to burn off nervous energy. It was there, in the pool, where he was told he was the father to healthy baby boy courtesy of a footman while he was drying off with a towel.
Up until Charles’s birth, it was customary for the Home Secretary to be a witness to the birth of royal babies so as to ensure they were legitimate and “of the blood.” Elizabeth and Philip chose to dispense of this practice and it hasn’t been picked up since (thank God).
Soon after the birth, Elizabeth wrote of her new baby:
“They are rather large, but fine with long fingers — quite unlike mine and certainly unlike his father’s. It will be interesting to see what they will become. I still find it difficult that I have a baby of my own.”
Well, yes, when you consider that she had essentially gone straight from the nursery to childbed.
A small crowd gathered outside of the Palace waiting for news of the birth. When Charles’s arrival was announced, they began cheering and calling out, “We want Philip!” The Duke declined the invitation and instead a live band played lullabies. The BBC interrupted regular broadcasting to report the news and cancelled a show so as to play the national anthem and, yes, lullabies once more. Gotta stay on theme.
The lights in the Trafalgar Square fountain (my favorite v. spot in London) were turned blue, troops dressed in ceremonial uniforms fired salutes and Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral rang bells in celebration.
And that, my friends, was 69 years ago today.