‘She sparkled around him’: How Prince Philip and the Queen first fell in love

Philip Eade
·7-min read
<p>Lasting love: the royal couple at Balmoral in 1979</p> (AFP via Getty Images)

Lasting love: the royal couple at Balmoral in 1979

(AFP via Getty Images)

For Christmas 1943 Prince Philip, having, as he nonchalantly put it, “nowhere particular to go”, went to stay at Windsor Castle where he was to attend the annual royal pantomime, Aladdin, with the two princesses in the starring roles.

However much, or little, 22-year-old Philip had thought about his 17-year-old cousin in romantic terms before then, Elizabeth certainly seems to have thought a lot about him. According to her governess, Marion Crawford —known to the family as Crawfie — Elizabeth had already let on to her that Philip was “the one”, and she now went pink with excitement at the prospect. “Who do you think is coming to see us act, Crawfie?”

The pantomime went off well, with Philip entering into the fun and laughing loudly at all the bad jokes, and Elizabeth “more animated” than ever. “There was a sparkle about her none of us had ever seen before,” recorded Crawfie. “Many people remarked on it.”

Afterwards he stayed the weekend of Christmas at Windsor and, as Elizabeth told her governess: “We had a very gay time, with a film, dinner parties and dancing to the gramophone.” The highlight was Boxing Day, when dinner at the castle for the family and retainers was followed by charades, and afterwards, the king’s private secretary, Sir Alan Lascelles, recorded: “They rolled back the carpet in the crimson drawing-room, turned on the gramophone and frisked and capered away till near 1am.”

The weekend proved to be a turning point. In his thank-you letter to the queen, Philip ventured to hope that his high-spirited behaviour “did not get out of hand”, yet also that she would not think it too presumptuous if he now added Windsor to his favourite places. After a subsequent visit to Windsor in July, he wrote to say how much he loved being with the royal family. “It is the simple enjoyment of family pleasures and amusements and the feeling that I am welcome to share them. I am afraid I am not capable of putting all this into the right words and I am certainly incapable of showing you the gratitude that I feel.” There is a sense in his letters that he at last saw a way of regaining what he had lost when his own family had disintegrated more than a decade previously.

Philip was still virtually unknown to the British public, but his presence that Christmas at Windsor, reported as it was in the press, nevertheless helped to fuel rumours of a possible future marriage. Shortly afterwards, Philip informed his cousin, George II of Greece, of his intentions. The Greek king had then asked George VI and Queen Elizabeth whether they might consider his young cousin as a suitor for their daughter.

To begin with, the king and queen had misgivings about the match. According to the diplomat and author Harold Nicolson: “The family were at first horrified when they saw that Prince Philip was making up to Princess Elizabeth. They felt he was rough, ill-mannered, uneducated and would probably not be faithful.” But the more they got to know him, the more they found they liked him, especially George VI, whose biographer Sarah Bradford observes that Philip was “very much the king’s type of man” with his forthright manner, joshing humour and love of the outdoors. Yet however highly he came to think of Philip, the king still found it hard to believe that his elder daughter had fallen in love with virtually the first young man she had met.

Philip wasn’t universally popular in royal circles. Some palace insiders made the jibe that he was “no gentleman” and referred to what opponents perceived to be his rude and overbearing manner. However, his forthrightness and independence were precisely the traits that had won Elizabeth’s heart, accustomed as she had been all her life to fawning deference. “He was not all over her,” observed one courtier, “and she found that very attractive”. There was, as one biographer put it, “something of the wild stallion about him” and his “raw energy and uninhibited behaviour spoke to a side of Elizabeth which had seldom been allowed to express itself. This shy, reserved young woman, desperately needed bringing out of herself and Philip was just the man to do it”.

With their family in 1965PA
With their family in 1965PA

In 1944 Philip was posted to Australia aboard HMS Whelp and as far as his crew members were concerned their first lieutenant was courting Princess Elizabeth. It was common knowledge aboard ship that their letters came and went from the mail room and that he had a picture of her in his cabin. Back in Britain Crawford also professed to have been aware at the time that they wrote to each other. She recalled seeing a photo of Philip on Elizabeth’s mantelpiece and warning the princess that it might lead to gossip. The next time Crawfie went in, it had been replaced by another one of Philip disguised behind the beard he grew at sea. “There you are, Crawfie,” said the princess. “I defy anyone to recognise who that is.”

After the war, Philip was posted to HMS Royal Arthur, near Bath. His home posting did at least allow for more trips to London where Crawford recalled Philip’s MG sports car roaring into the forecourt of Buckingham Palace and the prince getting out “hatless” and “always in a hurry to see Lilibet”. According to Crawfie, all of a sudden Elizabeth took more trouble with her appearance and to play People Will Say We’re In Love from the musical Oklahoma!

Last year on their 73rd wedding anniversaryChris Jackson/Getty Images
Last year on their 73rd wedding anniversaryChris Jackson/Getty Images

Behind the scenes the courtship was entering a new and bolder phase. In summer 1946, the queen asked him to Balmoral for three weeks. Philip was later hazy about what had happened there, admitting only: “It was probably then that we, that it became, you know, that we began to think about it seriously, and even talk about it.” The indications are that it was during this holiday that he proposed and they told her parents.

Philip’s thank-you letter this time bordered on the euphoric. “I am sure I do not deserve all the good things which have happened to me,” he wrote to the queen. “To have been spared in the war and seen victory, to have been given the chance to rest and readjust myself, to have fallen in love completely and unreservedly, makes all one’s personal and even the world’s troubles seem small and petty.” At last, he said, life had a purpose. The holiday had helped to dispel the depressed and uninspired feelings he had had about his future in the Navy since returning home. “The generous hospitality and warm friendliness did much to restore my faith in permanent values and brighten up a rather warped view of life. Naturally there is one circumstance which has done more for me than anything else in my life.”

On honeymoon in 1947-/AFP via Getty Images
On honeymoon in 1947-/AFP via Getty Images

The king agreed in principle to let them marry, but wanted no final decision to be taken until the next year when the family had completed their first — and, as it happened, last — overseas royal tour together to South Africa, by which time Elizabeth would be 21.

With the engagement still not yet official before they left for South Africa, Philip had not been asked to attend the farewell luncheon or come to Waterloo to see them off, and he was not at the pier to welcome them home on May 11 either — giving rise to speculation that the relationship had been broken off. But after their return Philip wrote to the queen to say that he was sure the delay had been the right thing but that he and Elizabeth now wanted to start their new life together.

Extracted from Young Prince Philip by Philip Eade (William Collins, £8.99)

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