Most of us will remember the excitement surrounding Prince William and Catherine Middleton’s wedding in 2011, and a lot of us will remember watching Charles and Diana’s fairy tale wedding on TV when we were kids. Compared to those lavish affairs, Elizabeth and Philip’s wedding was fairly restrained. It was, after all, only a few years since the end of the war and the country was still feeling the effects. England had been hit hard and was still suffering from empty farmland, empty factories, high unemployment and taxes, rationing, and a weakened economy. King George VI’s Chancellor of the Exchequer called 1947, the year of Elizabeth’s marriage, “annus horrendus,” the horrendous year (and you know it must be bad if you have to express it in Latin). And yet, for Philip and Elizabeth, life looked grand.
Editor’s Note: This is the third in an ongoing series about the entire life of Queen Elizabeth II that will be published in the Anglotopia Print Magazine. Each issue of this magazine will feature an article about every aspect of her life. This was the first, published in Issue #12 in 2018. To keep up with the series, please subscribe to the Anglotopia Print Magazine.
Philip and Elizabeth were, like most royalty in Europe, related, sharing great-great-grandparents Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. As royal cousins, they came across each other several times in their younger years, at family weddings and at the coronation of Elizabeth’s father. But it wasn’t until 1939 when Elizabeth was 13 and Philip was 18 that the relationship really started to take hold. Philip was a young, handsome, dashing cadet at the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth when Elizabeth went for a visit with her parents and Margaret. Elizabeth was smitten from the start, Philip maybe not so much (she was, after all, 13, and this wasn’t Romeo and Juliet). Ever the social climber, Philip’s uncle and Elizabeth’s cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, affectionately known as Uncle Dickie, arranged for Philip to be invited to tea at the palace shortly after. Crawfie, the princesses’ nanny, noticed that Elizabeth “never took her eyes off him,” even though Philip didn’t seem to notice. Soon it was the war years, yet Philip made several visits to see the family at Windsor, and Elizabeth wrote to him while he was serving with the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean and the Pacific. As we remember from our last article, Elizabeth did a lot of growing up during the war years, and by the time Philip returned, he was paying her quite a lot of attention. As their cousin, Patricia Mountbatten recalls, “she would not have been a difficult person to love,” and Crawfie described him saying, “He came into the Palace like a refreshing sea breeze.”
But what was Philip’s story and could he have possibly been worthy of marrying the future Queen of England, so beloved by her parents? Elizabeth’s mother and quite a few others didn’t think so, at least not at first. Philip was born Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark in Corfu just before a coup when his family was exiled from Greece. He was raised in Paris in an unhappy and unloving home. His father spent a lot of time with his girlfriends, and his mother soon had a nervous breakdown and left to join a convent. He was fond of his sisters, but most of them married Nazis or suspected Nazi-sympathizers, and one of them, Cecilia, and her family died in a plane crash while Philip was at school in Scotland. Philip was very much on his own. At the age of 8, Philip was sent off to boarding school and from then on was, in essence, homeless and neglected by his family. He first went to school in Germany, but only for a year when the war forced him to move on to Gordonstoun School in Scotland (the school in that horrible episode of The Crown, you may remember). While the school may have been difficult, Philip was fairly happy there, learning leadership, service, and hard work. He was even made Head Boy (and without older brothers there, we can assume he wasn’t teased the same was Percy Weasley was in Harry Potter when he was named “Bighead Boy.”) Uncle Dickie took a lot of interest in young Philip, nurturing his education and leadership skills, and Philip grew up well—handsome, athletic, intelligent, clever.
Philip, however, had neither money nor land and was not considered English enough to marry Elizabeth. And yet, Elizabeth’s family—the Windsors—only became “Windsors” during World War I when their Germanic background and last name became problematic. George V, in 1917, changed the family name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (Prince Albert was German, and Victoria took his name at their wedding) to Windsor; George III was the first Hanoverian born in England, his father and grandfather, Kings George I and II didn’t even speak English. Philip’s mother was a British citizen and was born at Windsor Castle; Philip was educated in Britain and didn’t even remember living in Greece and was by this time a decorated sailor in the British Royal Navy; he had also already dropped his Germanic family name and had taken his mother’s British name of Mountbatten; he converted to Church of England. Calling him not British enough seemed a little “pot calling the kettle black.” The only real impediment was that Elizabeth was so young, just 20 years old when Philip proposed on a family trip to Balmoral in 1946. Philip had been to Balmoral before, in 1944, when he spent a very pleasant, happy vacation with the royal family. It was a trip that would have stood out in contrast to his unhappy, dysfunctional family life. The Windsors loved to play together—games, hunting, tag—something Philip didn’t do with his own family. The Windsors liked each other.
King George was impressed with Philip’s naval record, his intelligence, and his effect on Lilibet, and Elizabeth’s mother was coming around. After that trip to Balmoral, Philip was often seen driving his little black MG roadster up to the private entrance at Buckingham Palace, wandering around the palace in his shirtsleeves, and treating Elizabeth just like he would have treated any other girl, a refreshing and surprising turn of events for the royal family. While he could be testy, hot-tempered, and impulsive, he was also attentive and witty and seemed to be comfortable enough with the royal family. By the time Philip went to Balmoral again two years later, Elizabeth accepted his proposal immediately, without consulting her parents (although we can imagine that the topic had come up with them before), and Philip commented that he was pleasantly surprised “to have fallen in love completely and unreservedly.”
The family chose not to announce the engagement publicly for a while, instead of taking one last royal family tour together as just “we four.” The King and Queen and their daughters spent three months in Africa plus another month traveling round trip by boat. While they were separated, Elizabeth and Philip wrote to each other faithfully, and while she was away, Philip was busy preparing. With the help of Uncle Dickie, Lord Mountbatten, Philip renounced his titles as Prince of Greece and Denmark and became a British Citizen, which turned out to be unnecessary considering his mother was born at Windsor. And as a wedding present, he gave up smoking. On the family’s return, and after a royal engagement party at Buckingham Palace, just before the wedding, the King named Philip Duke of Edinburgh, the title by which he’s called today, as well as Earl of Merioneth and Baron Greenwich, although not Prince Consort as Prince Albert had been named. It was also decreed that Philip would be called His Royal Highness, and he was given the Order of the Garter, the highest honor the King can confer. Giving up his title as Prince of Greece and Denmark didn’t seem to do Philip any harm.
The wedding took place on 20 November 1947. Elizabeth used her wartime rations, still in place, to buy the fabric for her wedding dress, the royal family was conscious of appearing too extravagant during the country’s difficulties. And still, the country and the Commonwealth were eager to celebrate with the family. They received thousands of letters and telegrams wishing them well, Gandhi sent a loincloth (the family found this funny and had to assume it was unused). The crowds turned out in the tens of thousands in the cold to watch the procession of the King and Princess Elizabeth in the Irish State Coach on the way to Westminster Abbey. Winston Churchill called the whole affair “a flash of color on the hard road we have to travel.”
Inside the church were some two thousand guests, among them heads of state from around the world, Philip’s mother and sisters (not their husbands, and his father was already dead by this point), and no former King Edward now just Duke of Windsor. He was no longer invited to family events. Reports tell of Elizabeth looking calm and lovely with Philip by his side in his dress uniform.
For the procession out of the Abbey, Elizabeth switched to the Glass Coach, this time with Philip by her side. They were accompanied by the Household Cavalry and 100,000 people cheering in the streets. They returned to a relatively small luncheon (trying again to be respectful of post-war austerity) of 150 people at Buckingham Palace, where Philip cut the wedding cake with his sword.
After all the wedding festivities, the couple was off on their honeymoon, leaving from Waterloo Station with Elizabeth’s dog and a small crew of private staff. They spent their first week in Hampshire and another two weeks on the grounds at Balmoral. In a letter to her parents, Elizabeth wrote, “Philip is an angel—he is so kind and thoughtful.” And Philip also wrote to Elizabeth’s mother, saying that Elizabeth 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 newly 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.” Philip already seemed to be aware that this would, at times, be a difficult relationship to navigate. Upon returning to London, he was able to keep working, for a time, with the Navy, which is what he was hoping for. The couple lived next to St. James’s Palace at Clarence House, and Philip could walk to the Admiralty every day for work. Elizabeth worked at home and at Buckingham Palace with her private secretary, Jock Colville, learning how the government and the monarchy operated. This was a good time for the couple.
Philip and Elizabeth seemed to be well suited for each other, adoring of each other and complementary in their skills and personalities. They were both crazy drivers—Elizabeth in the years to come would have at least two formal complaints filed against her reckless driving, and Philip would later crash his car just after giving a speech on road safety. Crashing his car seemed to be a not uncommon occurrence for him, common enough that the chauffeurs at the Palace were reluctant to let him drive their cars. Philip’s dry wit and complete willingness to say whatever was on his mind helped lighten many situations, with him commenting to his cousin Patricia’s husband, when he noticed how lovely Elizabeth’s skin was, “yes, she’s like that all over.” Elizabeth’s secretary, Martin Charteris, said later, “Prince Philip is the only man in the world who treats the Queen simply as another human being.” We have to assume their life was never dull. Their treatment of and fondness for each appeared to be just what Elizabeth and Philip needed; they were off to a good start together.