70 Years of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip: Inside Their Epic Modern Romance

There have been some bumps along the way, but the nonagenarian royals have remained devoted to each other for almost their entire lives

By Natalie Finn Nov 20, 2017 11:00 AMTags
Queen Elizabeth, Prince PhilipPress Association via AP Images

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip's golden years have gone platinum.

It was 70 years ago, on Nov. 20, 1947, that the then-future queen of the United Kingdom and head of the Commonwealth walked down the aisle at Westminster Abbey and married the dashing naval officer who had won her heart.

That day, Prince Philip of Greece and Germany became the Duke of Edinburgh and consort of the woman who in 2015 became the longest-reigning British monarch in history.

So too has their marriage been an epic study in stability, loyalty, stoicism, mutual admiration, respect and, of course, romance.  Perhaps even downright steamy romance at that, as The Crown on Netflix has been sure to remind its devoted following that Elizabeth and Philip were once just a couple of young hotties in love.

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Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip's 70-Year Marriage in Pics

But hormones aside, two people don't get to their 70th wedding anniversary without being an exceptional couple—or without having exceptional luck in the health, happiness and history-obliging portion of the program. They have been married longer than any other members of the British royal family, ever.

And though they met in 1939, on the eve of Great Britain's entry into World War II, theirs has been an intrepidly modern relationship. Even once Elizabeth became queen in 1952 and their lives became beholden to tradition, it was tradition with a twist.

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For starters, they were friends first, the princess who went familiarly by "Lilibet" being only 13 when she and her sister, Princess Margaret, toured the Royal Navy College at Dartmouth with an 18-year-old cadet and Greek prince named Philip who was given the task of entertaining the young royals. They started writing letters to each other and their correspondence continued throughout the war, during which the princess, already driven by duty, joined the Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service and became Second Subaltern Elizabeth Windsor, mechanic and military truck driver.

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Prince Philip would carry a picture of Elizabeth with him, kept in an increasingly battered frame, one his trips to London, where he'd stay at the homes of relatives. As a dear friend, he spent Christmas at Windsor Castle with the royal family in 1943.

The prince and princess didn't immediately reunite after the war ended in 1945. Rather, Philip, by then a First Lieutenant, remained in the Pacific on the destroyer HMS Whelp to help transport POWs back to Europe. In a letter to his long-distance love, he expressed his lack of enthusiasm for serving in a "peacetime navy."

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But he did enjoy his naval career, and giving it up would become his greatest sacrifice. 

Philip knew that, if he were to marry the future queen, he would eventually have to retire from active military duty. The family business was a full-time job.

He was in love, though, so he proposed during a holiday at Balmoral, the royal family's castle estate in Aberdeen, Scotland. Elizabeth didn't even consult with her mum and dad (though Philip knew enough to ask the king first). She just accepted.

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"To have been spared in the war and seen victory, to have been given the chance to rest and to re-adjust myself, to have fallen in love completely and unreservedly, makes all one's personal and even the world's troubles seem small and petty," Philip wrote to Elizabeth's mother (Queen Elizabeth, later to be known as the Queen Mother) in June 1946.

In turn, Elizabeth called her fiancé "an absolute angel." She told her parents, "We behave as though we had belonged to each other for years."

Rather reminiscent of certain courtships occurring today, theirs had been intense but private. The couple at first took pains to not be seen out together, and there was certainly no talking publicly about courting, let alone "dating." When Philip was photographed next to the princess at a wedding on May 29, 1946, a newspaper caption referred to him as "a figure largely unknown to the British public." 

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Elizabeth's parents approved of the match...enough. There were a few hoops Philip had to jump through: To be given his own royal title, he needed to become a naturalized British citizen. His future in-laws thought him a bit uncouth and weren't thrilled about his heritage (though he and his betrothed are actually second cousins once removed), but Philip had an uncle who had renounced his German titles during World War I and adopted the surname Mountbatten—so Philip took on that name too. Still, none of the German members of Philip's family, including his  three sisters, who all married Germans, could be invited to the wedding.

King George VI also didn't want to announce his daughter's engagement until she was 21, so they continued to keep it under wraps until July 9, 1947. Their first public appearance together was at a garden party at Buckingham Palace.

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When they tied the knot, the bride wore a gown designed by Norman Hartnell, the court designer. With Great Britain still picking up the pieces after the war and strained economically, Princess Elizabeth used ration coupons to pay for all that silk, lace and tulle (the government allowed her 200 extra coupons for the occasion).

The star-patterned, 13-foot-long bridal train represented rebirth and growth for the post-war nation, and the dress was embroidered with crystals and 10,000 seed pearls imported from the United States.

The morning ceremony at Westminster Abbey was broadcast by BBC Radio and is said to have been listened to by more than 200 million people all over the world. A breakfast reception followed at Buckingham Palace and then they were off to their honeymoon at Broadlands, the country home of Philip's uncle Earl Mountbatten, in Hampshire.

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Prince Charles was born almost exactly a year later, on Nov. 14, 1948. Their second child, Princess Anne, arrived on Aug. 15, 1950. Philip was stationed in Malta from 1949 until 1951, a period that's said to have been one of the family's happiest—as it would turn out that their days of "normalcy" were more numbered than they thought.

The young royals were in Kenya on Feb. 6, 1952, having stopped in Africa on their way to Australia, when the call came that Elizabeth's father had died at Sandringham House in Norfolk.

"In 1952 the whole thing changed, very, very considerably," Philip recalled the abrupt end to their so-called normal lives following the king's death at only 56.

The head of his little family and by then a Lieutenant Commander in the navy, in the blink of an eye Philip forever became forever his wife's No. 2 at Buckingham Palace in the eyes of the world. Meanwhile, 3-year-old Charles became second in line to the throne.

"There was no choice. It just happened," Philip recalled. "You have to make compromises. That's life. I accept it. I tried to make the best of it."

For their fifth wedding anniversary that year, he gave his wife a ruby and diamond bracelet engraved with "E and P."

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But while the weight of her world was shifted to Elizabeth's shoulders when she assumed the throne, the young queen still needed Philip for support and counsel. And though he admittedly struggled with his public role at times (the struggle occurring more behind the scenes because, after all, he knew his place), Philip proved a devoted husband and amiable "plaque unveiler," who over the years became patron and/or head more than 700 organizations.

Their son Prince Andrew was born in 1960 and their youngest, Prince Edward, was born in 1964.

"Part of the reason she keeps going so steadily is that she has him there beside her," an attendee at a reception marking their 70th anniversary told People earlier this month. "They're a great team, and that's still the case."

As the second season of The Crown, premiering Dec. 8 on Netflix, promises, however, times were turbulent as the queen struggled with the ever-delicate balance between tradition and modernization, criticism (which persists to this day) that the British monarchy was an unnecessary relic of an earlier time, and her place among the nation's other leaders as England began to lose its status as a world superpower in the mid-1950s.

And all with a cranky, gaffe-prone husband to boot.

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While on a tour of Australia, Philip's said to have responded to a man who told the royal that his wife was a doctor and considered much more important than he was with, "Yes, we have that trouble in our family too."

Though that may have been considered TMI coming from the queen's consort, it's Philip's comparatively rough edges that charmed Elizabeth from the beginning.

They both reportedly share a wicked sense of humor and are still laughing together after all of these years.

"Prince Philip is the only man in the world who treats the Queen simply as another human being. He's the only man who can," says the queen's former private secretary Lord Charteris. "Strange as it may seem, I believe she values that."

"Back then, there was a very different attitude to women," Prince William discussed in a 2011 interview the unique challenges his grandmother faced when she first became queen. "Being a young lady at 25—and stepping into a job which many men thought they could probably do better—it must have been very daunting. And I think there was extra pressure for her to perform."

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"For her to have found somebody like him, I don't think she could have chosen better," Prince Edward's wife, Sophie Rhys-Jones, once said of her in-laws. "And they make each other laugh—which is, you know, it's half the battle, isn't it?"

When they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1997, the queen paid tribute to her husband in a speech. 

"He is someone who doesn't take easily to compliments. But he has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years," she said. "I and his whole family, in this and many other countries, owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim or we shall ever know."

And Philip, who only retired from public life this year at the age of 96, has confirmed, "My job first, second and last, is never to let the Queen down."

Enjoy their romance through the years:

1947: The Engagement

Princess Elizabeth met Philip Mountbatten at age 13 on a tour of the Royal Naval College in 1939. As the story goes, the two fell in love and began a written correspondence that led to Philip asking the King for Elizabeth's hand in marriage in 1946. Shortly after announcing their engagement, the royal couple posed for this precious photo at Buckingham Palace. 

1947: The Royal Wedding

The pair married Nov. 20, 1947 at Westminster Abbey. Just look at her gown! The marriage was a major national celebration, but came at a hard time for the country, which was still recovering from World War II.  

1947: The Honeymoon

After their honeymoon, the happy couple takes a stroll in the gardens at Broadlands in Hampshire. 

1948: A Prince is Born

Philip stands behind Elizabeth, who cradles Prince Charles after his christening at Buckingham Palace. 

1949: Horsing Around

The cute couple attend a Royal Horse Show at Windsor. They may be there for the horses, but they've only got eyes for each other. 

1951: Stepping out

Philip and Elizabeth show off their moves at a square dance held in their honor in Ottawa, Canada. 

1951: A Growing Family

Elizabeth and Philip watch over 3-year-old Prince Charles and baby Princess Anne at Clarence House in Westminster. 

1952: A Family Vacation

The royal family poses for a photo during a getaway at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. 

1953: Becoming the Queen

Following the death of her father, King George VI, Elizabeth was crowned Queen Elizabeth II at only 25 years old. On her coronation day, she became the ruling monarch of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, Pakistan and Ceylon. All the while, Prince Philip was right by her side. 

1955: The Royal Family Relaxes

The royal family enjoys summer vacation in August, 1955 at Balmoral Castle. Prince Philip swings Prince Charles and Princess Anne while Queen Elizabeth looks on, holding her pet corgi.

1965: Prince Edward is born

The royal family plays with baby Prince Edward in Windsor. 

1972: Stealing Time for Themselves

The royal couple spends some time alone at the Balmoral Estate in Scotland. 

1974: Supporting the Troops

The Queen and Prince Philip turn out for the annual Trooping the Color ceremony at Buckingham Palace. 

1977: Smiling in the Sun

The royal couple taking soaking up some sun on a tour of Fiji in 1977.

1982: The Perfect Couple

The pair look regal as ever in this fun photo from a tour of Tuvalu in the 1980s. 

1986: Foreign Figures

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip explore the Great Wall of China on a royal tour of the country. 

2002: Royal Duties

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip smile after the Queen's annual speech at the ceremonial State Opening of Parliament in London. 

2003: A Loving Laugh

The Queen laughs as she realizes the man dresses as part of the Queen's Guard is her husband, Prince Philip.

2006: Celebrating the Queen's 80th Birthday

Elizabeth and Philip are all smiles for the Queen's 80th birthday dinner, held at St. Paul's Cathedral in London. 

2007: The Diamond Anniversary

The pair returns to Broadlands for their 60th wedding anniversary. This image is a recreation of a photo taken just after their wedding in 1947. It looks like the Queen is wearing the very same necklace and brooch! 

2011: The Royal Family Today

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip take to the sidelines to celebrate Prince William and and Princess Catherine Middleton's marriage in 2011. 

2015: Making Memories

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip hold hands as they leave a ceremony marking the end of combat operations in Afghanistan at St Paul's Cathedral in London.

2015: A Timeless Romance

The royal couple have been through everything together and still look at each other with loving eyes 68 years later. They truly have a timeless romance. 

2017: Platinum Anniversary

The palace released a new portrait to mark their historic 70th wedding anniversary, as the longest marriage in British royal history endures.

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