The love story between Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip spanned more than 70 years. They met in the summer of 1939, when Philip’s Viking good looks caught the eye of the young princess. They married eight years later, and in the decades that followed he has been a source of great strength and stability, helping transform a shy young Queen into the great monarch we know and love today.
For many, the way Philip is portrayed in the TV series The Crown will be the only insight into his younger years. The actor Matt Smith and writer Peter Morgan are excellent at conveying the frustrations and sacrifices entailed by Philip’s responsibilities as consort following his wife’s accession to the throne.
When they married in 1947, King George VI was expected to reign for at least another 20 years, during which time Prince Philip would have remained in the Royal Navy — where he was widely admired and expected to reach the highest rank — and also enjoyed a relatively carefree and private life ashore.
But when the King died aged 56 from lung cancer in 1952, the door on their gilded cage banged shut. Barely five years after his marriage, at the age of 31, this dynamic and headstrong alpha male had to give up his cherished naval career and take on a new role of walking a yard or two behind his wife at royal functions, addressing her as “Ma’am” in public and bowing whenever she entered a room.
Morgan’s script and Smith’s acting capture the resulting tensions very well, as they do the strength of opposition to Prince Philip from snooty courtiers at the Palace — epitomised in The Crown by the perpetually frowning Alan “Tommy” Lascelles (played by Pip Torrens). “I think they’d have preferred a nice pink-faced marquess with a grouse moor in the Scottish Borders,” mutters the prince in episode one.
Greek-born Prince Philip was a scion of Europe’s most unstable monarchy, dismissed by the crusty old guard in The Crown as “a foundling” — having lost his mother to a psychiatric asylum when he was eight and thereafter been brought up by his Mountbatten uncles in England. Added to that, all of his sisters lived in Germany and one had been married to a member of the SS.
There was also considerable unease about the influence of his uncle, Lord Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten, an intriguer who had done so much to engineer the courtship between his nephew and the young princess. Many suspected he had tried to use his nephew as a Trojan horse to infiltrate the monarchy and reform it along what they saw as dangerously progressive or “rather pink” lines.
Unlike Prince Albert, who had acted as Queen Victoria’s secretary and adviser, Prince Philip had no entitlement to lighten his wife’s burden and was continually warned by the likes of Lascelles against straying into affairs that were not his concern.
While the Queen possessed an abundance of qualities that would make her a good monarch, Prince Philip’s restless energy and strident opinions meant he was less obviously cut out to play the supporting role. While his wife mourned her father, he mourned the end of his free life. The years ahead were to be bruising ones for him as he struggled to find a new sense of purpose.
At every turn there seemed to be an attempt to undermine him. When the Queen attempted to confer the cherished appointment of Colonel of the Grenadier Guards on her husband, the regiment’s officers made it clear that while they could not refuse to accept the prince as their new colonel, they would not welcome him — presumably on account of his German ancestry.
There were similar rebuffs over such matters as the family name and where they were to live, Prince Philip favoured staying put at Clarence House, which had been his first proper home since he was 10 and whose extensive renovation he had done so much to oversee.
That he was prepared to put up with all this and make the sacrifices he did was a testament not only to his sense of duty but also his deep love for the Queen. For her part, she clearly found his manly and unfawning persona extremely appealing. “He was not all over her,” observed one courtier, “and she found that very attractive.”
His love and support for the young Queen early on in her reign enabled her to overcome her shyness in much the same way the Queen Mother had with George VI. “He helped make her what she’s become,” said one diplomat some years later. “She is very shrewd and had a protective shell around her, and he brought her out of it. We are extremely fortunate that he married her.”
Philip Eade is the author of Young Prince Philip: The True Story of His Turbulent Early Life