I think we can safely say Charles and Anne are getting a hell of a lot more screen time this season than they did the last. Heaven help us, but Elizabeth has been shown actually interacting with her children on multiple occasions. Shocking. But before we we get to that, let’s start at the beginning.
There’s nothing quite like a divorce scandal, is there? This time, of course, it is Mike and Eileen Parker, and the latter’s inability to live one more day in her sham of a marriage is enough of a threat to the House of Windsor to compel Tommy Lascelles out of retirement. Frankly, I was glad to see him because no one else quite captures the incredible snobbery and pained realism that defines the very Palace hounds Philip hates.
Tommy and Elizabeth both try to make Eileen see reason – if not to keep her marriage together, then to at least manage the disclosure of its dissolution. For Elizabeth, to whom the linkage between Mike Parker’s behavior and Philip’s is unbelievably painful and embarrassing, this means a trek to the Parker family home where she can reference memories of grocery shopping in Malta together and ask her to wait until the Palace can figure out a way to make it seem like she herself is happily married. But Eileen is done with a life in service to the RF. “Some women choose to put up with this humiliation,” she says. “I have too much respect for myself and my children.” Ouch.
The divorce becomes public and Philip forces Mike to offer his resignation immediately, chiding him for “breaking the rules.” The letters, of course, were incredibly stupid. As Tommy recounts to Elizabeth and the Queen Mother, the British papers have fallen in line but the international media are comparing the entire debacle to the Abdication Crisis and the days in which Wallis Simpson was flouncing around Buckingham Palace.
The idea of flying Philip back to London immediately is floated, but rejected. Instead they will meet in Lisbon and put on a show before returning home together. Philip is to turn up at the aircraft to welcome his wife – they make him wear a hat, which he hates, but so that he can make a show of taking it off and being chivalrous. It’s an intricate ceremony, one which ends with him standing on the plane and seeing his wife for the first time in five months. They do not touch or so much as exchange pleasantries before it’s a smiling and waving game until they’re safely behind closed doors.
We see again the battle royale depicted in this season’s opening scene, but this time we learn what Philip’s actual price is. He’ll stay in the marriage – of course he will – but he wants the respect of the courtiers via the only means he’ll get it. “I’m currently outranked by my eight-year-old son,” he complains. Well, of course you are, Elizabeth retorts, he’s the heir to the crown. Nevertheless, she asked for his price and he gave it to her.
Back in London he is made a prince of the realm and styled HRH the Prince Philip. Wrapped up in ceremonial robes with a crown on his head, he looks ridiculous and uncomfortable – and the faces of the audience members are stony. Are you happy now, Philip? It certainly doesn’t look that way. In fact, he and Elizabeth look downright miserable on their thrones.
He is photographed by Cecil Beaton afterwards in a shoot reminiscent of Elizabeth’s in the finale. Only this time he does not personify the role with the comfortable lack of humanity his wife so easily embodied.
He ends up in Mike’s flat, now separated and boiling his own water for tea. Philip tells him that Elizabeth wants more children, a second act for her as a mother. But instead of framing it as a woman now a little older and settled in her role wanting to give it another go, Mike instead points out that Charles is a physical embodiment of her own death – the heir that will eventually replace her. Of course she wants more children, Mike says, she wants kids who can just be kids. More devastatingly, he says quite frankly that Elizabeth doesn’t really love Charles. Philip’s only reply is that she does the best she can – not quite a robust defense for the mother of your children.
So, this first chapter of the second season resolved, we are left with one question: is this depiction of infidelity accurate? To a certain extent, yes, however whether or not the real Philip was ever unfaithful is a matter of conjecture. There have been rumors over the years, and one can certainly argue that where there is smoke there is fire. You could also argue that rumors like this will always surround high-profile couples and you don’t get a much higher profile than the marriage of the British sovereign.
The length of the tour is accurate. So, too, is the fact that the middle of the 1950s weren’t known to be a particularly rosy period in the royal marriage. The Palace was prompted to release a statement in early 1957 rebutting gossip that the relationship was in trouble, prompted in part by the length of their separation, and rumors of cheating were absolutely in the mix. And yes, Elizabeth met Philip in Lisbon that February.
From that we can only speculate.
And in case you are wondering, the real life Mike and Eileen Parker were divorced in 1958, his royal career firmly over.