Today marks 70 years of marriage for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Together they have evolved from a young couple supporting Elizabeth’s father, George VI, in post-war Britain to the heads of the British Royal Family as it rolls into the 21st century. From four children, born between 1948 and 1964, they’ve amassed eight grandchildren, five (soon to be six) great-grandchildren and lived through three of their children’s divorces (and two of their remarriages.) It’s hard sometimes to reconcile the images of the two of them as 20-somethings in the 1940s with the grandparent figures they’ve become – just as it’s hard to reconcile the RF of the mid-20th century with how it looks and behaves today – but they are the common denominators.
That these two have survived a lifetime of the spotlight in the “top job,” with the demands of the monarch and her consort, and evolved the institution from what it was to what it needs to be is staggering if you sit down and actually try to wrap your head around it. Whatever happens down the line, later in Elizabeth’s reign or when the Prince of Wales ascends the throne, the sheer achievement of the Queen’s tenure is and should be celebrated for its historical significance. She has broken ground on a number of firsts, including this one: She and Philip are the only royal couple in history to reach 70 years of marriage.
The two met for the first time in 1934 when Elizabeth’s uncle, the Duke of Kent, married Princess Marina of Greece. Philip, a member of the Greek Royal Family with British heritage, attended. Elizabeth was just eight years old and Philip 13. There was no indication then that she would ever inherit the crown – her grandfather, George V, still sat on the throne and his heir was her Uncle David, the Prince of Wales. Philip’s family had broken up by then – his mother suffering from mental health issues and his father throwing his hands up and retiring to France. Philip was educated in Scotland and spent his summers with his mother’s British relations, including the Mountbattens.
They met again three years later in 1937. The Abdication Crisis behind them, Philip turned up in London for the coronation of Elizabeth’s father, George VI. Now and 11 and 16, there’s no record of either taking particular notice of the other. Elizabeth was more concerned that day with making sure her younger sister, Margaret, behaved herself in Westminster Abbey and didn’t shame the entire family.
But on July 22, 1939, George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, brought their two daughters with them for a visit of the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth and the rest was history. The 13-year-old princess fell head over heels in love with the 18-year-old Philip, who didn’t appear to much notice at the time. He was, after all, on the cusp of adulthood and preparing for a naval career as Britain careened into World War II, while Elizabeth was still firmly in the nursery. Even so, according to Elizabeth’s former nanny, she didn’t take her eyes off of him during tea. Hey, we’ve all been there.
Over the next six years of the war, Philip was a regular guest at Windsor Castle thanks to his ties to the family and the machinations of his uncle, Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten, who became set on the idea of Elizabeth someday marrying her nomadic cousin. At some point a genuine friendship was formed, which seemingly involved into mutual affection. When Philip was serving he and Elizabeth stayed in touch with letters.
Romance seems to have been cemented in December 1943 when Elizabeth and Margaret put on a performance of Aladdin – onlookers say that Elizabeth had never seemed to animated and she apparently made an impression on the visiting prince. Elizabeth’s grandmother, the Dowager Queen Mary, wrote to one of her friends shortly afterwards that the two had been in love for 18 months or “some time longer than that.” Whether it was mutual or adoration on Elizabeth’s part is unclear – and I only leave that caveat because 18 months before December 1943 Elizabeth was only just turning 16.
Philip visited the Windsors at Balmoral in the summer of 1944. At some point George VI and Queen Elizabeth became aware of the infatuation, but they believed that their daughter was too young to contemplate a serious relationship. And while George grew fond of Philip, praising his intelligence, sense of humor and the fact that he “thinks about things the right way,” the Queen was less of a fan, believing the young man brash and occasionally ill-mannered.
When peace came in 1945, Philip contemplated another deployment in Asia, but instead opted to return to London full-time in March 1946. He moved into his uncle’s home and made frequent visits to Buckingham Palace to visit Elizabeth, who turned 20 that April. That summer, at Balmoral, Philip proposed and Elizabeth immediately accepted. George consented to the match, but asked that the couple keep their engagement quiet until after April 1947 when the princess turned 21.
That Philip had also fallen in genuine love shouldn’t be doubted; he said as much in a letter to the Queen, wondering if it was fair for so many good things to happen to one person and admitting he loved Elizabeth “completely and unreservedly.” Such sentiment was important: George and Queen Elizabeth’s marriage had been a genuine love match, one which George had pursued for nearly three years before finally getting an acceptance of his proposal.
Press first caught wind of the romance when the two were photographed at the wedding of their cousin, Lady Patricia Mountbatten, in October 1946, but there was no indication of how serious they were. Instead, Elizabeth was escorted out – usually with Margaret – by a number of well-heeled young men, any one of whom one presumes the Queen would have preferred for her daughter. Philip was among such men, but when he was spotted out with his betrothed, Margaret was always there too as a cover.
In February 1947, Elizabeth accompanied her family for an overseas tour of southern Africa. It was there, in South Africa, where her 21st birthday was celebrated in April, an occasion marked with her historic speech pledging lifelong fidelity and service to the Commonwealth countries and all of their people.
Back in London, the announcement of the engagement finally came on July 9. The following day, the couple made their debut at one of Buckingham Palace’s famous garden parties. The ring was made from one of Philip’s mother’s old tiaras – she retrieved it from a bank vault and he used some of the diamonds to create an engagement ring. Later on, he was confirmed in the Church of England, having been baptized Greek Orthodox back in 1921.
During the engagement, Philip was equipped with protection officers for the first time – just as we see today – as well as a valet. He spent most of his time with the Windsors, including their summer sojourn to Balmoral, which would make up his annual calendar for the rest of his life (at least, thus far).
As for the reaction to the pairing, well, most of the British people were overjoyed by the idea of a royal wedding. Wartime had been grim and festivities light. Finally, in the middle of all the political furor as Europe settled down, there was a national event on which everyone could center their attention. Girls sent Elizabeth their ration cards so that she could design her dream wedding dress, knowing that she would be containing her investment to her official allotment (the girls were thanked and their cards returned to them).
But the mood at court was less joyful. Philip’s heritage was a bit of tricky situation. He had been born into the Greek RF, but his family had been deposed and that particular family was very German. So were the Windsors, but they had taken care to change their name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in 1917 and the beloved Queen Elizabeth was wholly British. Philip’s ties to Britain were extensive – his mother had been born at Windsor Castle, he was educated there, he had lived there for years and he had served in the Navy during the war. Even so, his father had been an exiled prince and all four of his sisters had married Germans, two of whom had been Nazis. As for his mother, she had returned to Athens to serve as a nurse. It wasn’t quite the same milieu as the Eton-educated young men many had assumed the future queen would marry.
Before the wedding, George invested Philip in the Order of the Garter and bestowed on him the titles of Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth and Baron Greenwich in exchange for him renouncing his foreign titles and place in the Greek succession. On November 18, a ball was held at Buckingham Palace, during which Noel Coward described Elizabeth was “radiant” and the guests “shiny and happy.” Philip distributed a gift of an Art Deco style silver compact with the couple’s initials to all of the attendees.
“He dealt them out like playing cards,” noted Lady Elizabeth Longman, one of Elizabeth’s bridesmaids.
On the morning of November 20, Philip promptly gave up smoking, a habit that Philip loved, but which Elizabeth detested. He had spent the night before the wedding at Kensington Palace and based on comments made in the last moments of solitude, his friends remarked that he seemed nervous and well-aware of how much his life was going to change.
Tens of thousands of people lined up outside Westminster Abbey and the surrounding city. The ceremony was held promptly at 11:30 AM and Elizabeth’s gown was custom-made by Norman Hartnell, featuring ivory silk satin covered in pearls and crystals. Her 15-foot long train was carried by her cousins, Prince William of Gloucester and Prince Michael of Kent. Philip wore his Naval uniform.
After an hour-long ceremony, the couple then rode through London in a Glass Coach back to Buckingham Palace. There they posed for photos and then stepped out on to the balcony where the crowds erupted, though this was a generation before the bride and groom shared a kiss. A luncheon for 150 guests was held at the Palace, the small guest list a concession to post-war austerity.
A train at Waterloo Station then swept the couple from London. They spent a week at the Mountbatten residence of Broadlands in Hampshire and more than two weeks at Birkhall in Scotland, which now belongs to the Prince of Wales. During the honeymoon, Elizabeth wrote to her parents:
“I only hope that I can bring up my children in the happy atmosphere of love and fairness which Margaret and I have grown up in … [Philip] behave[s] as though we had belonged to each other for years! Philip is an angel – he is so kind and thoughtful.”
While Philip wrote to the Queen:
“Cherish Lilibet? I wonder if that word is enough to express what is in me … [She is] the only thing in this world which is absolutely real to me, and my ambition is to weld the two of us into a new combined existence that will not only prove able to withstand the shocks directed at us but will also be a positive existence for the good.”
Prophetic words, because here we are 70 years later.