When Elizabeth of York first encountered Prince Philip, she was not intended to be queen. She was seven years old and bridesmaid to her aunt, Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark, as she married the Duke of Kent at Westminster Abbey, while 12-year-old Philip was attending as the bride’s first cousin. The children barely spoke — but the foreign newspapers had already listed Prince Philip as a suitably royal husband for the little Princess, as her third cousin through Queen Victoria.
When they met again, five years later, in 1939, everything had changed. Elizabeth’s uncle, Edward VIII, had abdicated three years earlier. Her father was now King and she was the heir to the throne. Philip was an 18-year-old naval cadet. And Europe was on the brink of cataclysmic conflict and change as World War II was about to begin.
“How high he can jump!” Elizabeth said to her governess, Marion Crawford, in July 1939 when she saw Philip leaping over tennis nets at the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth. Elizabeth had led a very sheltered life with her family, spending most of her time with her sister and governess. Touring the college with her parents and sister, she was dazzled by the star cadet, who would soon be off on active service. Elizabeth’s fascination was obvious to all and was most gratifying to Philip’s uncle, Dickie Mountbatten, who was hopeful of encouraging a marriage — with himself as the power behind the throne.
When the royal party left Dartmouth on the Royal Yacht, all the cadets followed behind in their little boats — until the King instructed them to return to shore. They all did as they were told, apart from Philip, who carried on rowing with all his might as Elizabeth watched him through binoculars.
Philip and his family had fled Greece when he was a baby. The family set up in Paris, but disintegrated. His mother was put in an asylum and his father took mistresses. Philip was sent to boarding schools and flourished at Gordonstoun in Scotland before going to Dartmouth. With no parenting to speak of, he had been very close to his sisters, but his favorite, Cecile, died in a plane crash when she was eight months pregnant. The others were married to German officers — placing Philip and his family on opposite sides in the war.
During the war, Philip wrote to Elizabeth and came to stay for Christmas in 1943. Elizabeth was 17 and a young woman. Philip found her very appealing. She was not only attractive and witty, but she was cheerful and practical, very unlike his own fragile mother.
At the end of the war, Philip came to court Elizabeth with serious intent and took her out to concerts and restaurants or dined in the nursery with Princess Margaret. The Palace was dubious about the match. The King and Queen wished her to “see more of the world” before marrying, and courtiers discussed how Philip was “no gentleman,” “ill tempered” and possibly fickle — he signed visitors’ books as of “no fixed abode.” Everyone mistrusted his machinating uncle, Dickie Mountbatten. The government was obsessed with his background: as one courtier said “it was all bound up in a single word, ‘German.’”
Elizabeth refused to be swayed. She had been determined on Philip since the age of 13 and war had only intensified the romance. The King gave in and the engagement was announced on July 8, 1947, with the wedding date fixed for November 20. Philip became a naturalized British subject, adopted the surname Mountbatten from his maternal grandparents and was created Duke of Edinburgh.
There was concern that a country deep in post-war recession might take a dim view of a lavish wedding. But Winston Churchill chose grandeur, calling it “a flash of colour on the hard road we have to travel.” Royal guests came from all over the world to see the princess marry in a silk dress embroidered with 10,000 pearls. Among those firmly not invited were Philip’s three sisters with their German husbands, and the Duke of Windsor, the former Edward VIII, and his wife, Wallis Simpson.
On the day at Westminster Abbey, Princess Elizabeth made her vows and promised to obey her husband, something that would be technically impossible when she was Queen.
And yet the battles were just beginning. Philip was used to an active life and chafed at the Admiralty desk job that he was given. The couple’s first two children, Charles and Anne, were born in 1948 and 1950 and the family settled at Clarence House, where Philip took charge of the renovations. Philip was stationed at Malta and Elizabeth came to visit him for periods of months at a time. There, Elizabeth was free to be simply an officer’s wife, away from the spotlight.
In early 1952, Elizabeth and Philip embarked upon a tour of Kenya. They began with a retreat at “Treetops,” a lodge over a watering hole in the Aberdare National Park. On the night of February 9, 1952, George VI died in his sleep. After the news reached the royal staff, Philip told his wife that her beloved father had died and they returned to London.
The death of the King was a terrible shock for both Elizabeth and Philip. The King had been in poor health for years, despite still being a relatively young man at 56. Elizabeth and Philip had expected many years more of relative freedom. Now Philip was husband to the Queen and everything changed.
The family had to move from Clarence House to the less intimate Buckingham Palace. Philip had to give up his naval role. And Elizabeth’s grandmother, Queen Mary, set about the royal surname.
Philip had believed that his wife’s surname was his own, Mountbatten — and his uncle Dickie had made unwise boasts about the Royal House of Mountbatten. But Winston Churchill and Queen Mary were determined: the name must remain as Windsor. Philip was heartbroken: “I am nothing but a bloody amoeba.”
By the time their younger children were born — Andrew in 1960 and Edward in 1964 — the Queen had issued an order that any male descendants not titled Prince or Royal Highness were to be “Mountbatten-Windsor.” It was a small victory.
Philip suffered prejudice against his efforts to carve out a greater role for himself. There was resistance to him chairing Elizabeth’s Coronation Commission and his efforts to create a system of awards for service, The Duke of Edinburgh Awards, were met by one minister with shocking ridicule, saying that it sounded “like the Hitler Youth.”
However, with patience, hard work and his continual dedication to assisting and supporting the Queen in her duties, Prince Philip gained the respect and affection of government and the people alike.
Philip had a keen interest in technology and was the first royal to be interviewed on television, when he discussed youth apprenticeships on BBC Panorama with Richard Dimbleby in 1961. Philip was also involved in “Royal Family,” a documentary aired in 1969 which captivated the nation when it showed the family at home — including shots of Philip barbecuing sausages.
Philip was patron to more than 800 organizations and, much like his grandsons, was particularly concerned with wildlife and the environment: he was president of the World Wildlife Fund from 1961 to 1982.
The Duke was particularly fond of the younger royals and will be most poignantly remembered by many for supporting his grandsons, William and Harry, as they walked through the streets of London behind the coffin of their mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, before her funeral in September 1997.
The monarchy’s popularity hit a low point after the death of Diana, but by the time of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, the British public’s enthusiasm for the royal family was clear from the celebrations all over the country.
Through the ups and downs, the Duke was the Queen’s steadfast companion. She is the longest married monarch and the Duke was the world’s longest serving current consort. At 99, he has lived for longer than any other descendant of Queen Victoria.
An active, intelligent man, it was not always easy to walk one step behind the Queen. But, as Prince William said, “he totally put his personal career aside to support her, and he never takes the limelight.”
The Duke rose to the challenge with grace and dignity and never left the Queen’s side, seeing his great role as assisting her. As the Queen said in her Diamond Jubilee speech in 2012, he has been her “constant strength and guide.”