Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip: How the Royals' Most Enduring Romance Almost Didn't Happen

The British monarchy has got love stories aplenty (and enough intrigue to fill five seasons of The Crown), but when it comes to royal romances, one truly rules.

By Sarah Grossbart Nov 20, 2020 8:00 AMTags
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Listen, watchers of The Crown, we're all here for the Princess Diana and Prince Charles drams. It felt like we waited to get a glimpse of that wedding dress, and the duo's tempestuous 15-year marriage provided plenty of real-life, stranger-than-fiction intrigue for Netflix's writers to mine. 

But let's not forget whose head truly wears that 2.3-pound diamond- and ruby-studded bad boy or the original love story that got us to this point. 

Because for all of our gushing over Kate MiddletonMeghan Markle and even the eventual love of Charles' life, Duchess Camilla, Queen Elizabeth II has had herself a real one for the past 73 years, the charming young princess and her dashing naval officer Prince Philip marrying in a relatively understated (by royal standards, anyway) Westminster Abbey affair on Nov. 20, 1947.

One of the monarchy's most enduring unions, together they've weathered wars, recessions and the "annus horribilis" that was 1992 when three of their four children ended marriages.

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Queen Elizabeth II & Prince Philip's Romance Through the Years

And more than 68 years deep into a reign, that has seen her deal with shocking deaths, political upheaval and enough juicy family drama to keep a slew of royal biographers in business, the queen has leaned hard on her Greek and Danish prince. 

A steadying force beneath his gaffe-prone tendencies and all those whispers about his feelings regarding his wife's station, "He is someone who doesn't take easily to compliments," she said of Philip in a 1997 speech marking their golden anniversary, "but he has quite simply been my strength and stay all these years."

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Yet he almost didn't get the gig.

By all accounts 13-year-old Lilibet, as she was then known, was instantly smitten when she spotted the 19-year-old cadet during a tour of the Royal Navy College in Dartmouth, Devon. As her governess Marion "Crawfie" Crawford would later write, the then-princess "never took her eyes off" the 6-foot blonde with intense blue eyes and chiseled features, although, he "did not pay her any special attention."

As far as he was concerned, he would tell biographer Basil Boothroyd, "It was a very amusing experience, going on board the yacht and meeting them, and that sort of thing, and that was that."

Nevertheless, Elizabeth, the presumptive future queen, had made her choice. Her cousin Margaret Rhodes would later detail in her autobiography that Elizabeth "was truly in love from the very beginning."

It was a sentiment Philip's uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten, would echo in a letter to Charles years later, writing, "Mummy never seriously thought of anything else after the Dartmouth encounter."

With their meeting taking place on the cusp of Great Britain's entry into World War II, their courtship was not without obstacles. As Elizabeth, driven by a sense of duty, joined the Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service and Philip served overseas in the Mediterranean and the Pacific, they maintained a connection almost entirely through correspondence. Philip reportedly carried a well-worn photo of the princess throughout his travels.

And when a leave allowed him to spend the Christmas of 1943 at Windsor Castle, the romance solidified. A 17-year-old Elizabeth was tapped to take the lead in a pantomime performance and Philip watched from the front row. "She's giving all the lines, she's giving them marvelously. It's a completely different view of Elizabeth," British historian and professor Kate Williams detailed in the Smithsonian Channel's Inside Windsor Castle, "and of her figure. She's 17 and she looks absolutely fantastic."

By that point it was clear to Elizabeth's father, King George VI, that the relationship was progressing—and he wasn't altogether pleased.

The issue wasn't that the pair were third cousins, which they were, sharing the same great-great-grandparents in Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert. That sort of thing was both respected and more or less expected of the royal family in the first half of the 20th century. After all, Victoria and Albert were first cousins themselves.

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Rather, the problems were twofold. Though Philip boasted the proper lineage as an attractive foreign prince, he was quite poor by royal standards. As a baby he was forced into exile when the Greek monarchy was overthrown and he was dispatched to a series of boarding schools after his mother was committed to a psychiatric hospital.

Even more problematic were his German roots, the precise wrong heritage for a nation still fighting the Second World War. 

"It was sort of ironic that Philip would have been sort of perfect by the standards of the 1930s," Royal Holloway College's Dr. Anna Whitelock," relayed on Inside Windsor Castle. "But now things had changed. The fact that he came from German background meant that he was far less desirable."

Which meant, the King—and a slew of whispering courtiers—had some misgivings.

As one such court member, the late Sir Edward Ford, once told People, "The line was slightly tenuous at that point. So, it was only natural that the older generation—friends of the King like Lord Salisbury—were concerned that who the Queen was with was totally and utterly suitable. So they were sniffing around to see what he was like."

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Working in Philip's favor, said Ford, was that "he was a perfectly natural young sailor and very much in love with the girl of the house." However, he added, "He would not in any way fawn on the elders and say, 'What a suitable husband I am going to be.' He was very much his own man."

Still, Williams said on Inside Windsor Castle, "The King realizes that no matter how much he distrusts Philip, no matter how much he doesn't like him, if he denies Elizabeth her chance to marry him, she will never forgive him. And so he has to do it. He has to let her marry him."

With most every other move in her life dictated since birth, The Crown executive producer Suzanne Mackie calls the fact that Elizabeth was "allowed to marry the love of her life," a not entirely common situation at the time, one of the monarch's "greatest achievements."

Though it wasn't without hurdles. When it became clear their friendship had blossomed into romance, Elizabeth's father set forth of series of demands. The first: They were to keep their relationship under wraps until the conclusion of the war.

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

That time came in March 1946, when Philip returned to London from his outpost in the Pacific and, per Vanity Fair, became a frequent visitor at Buckingham Palace. "I suppose one thing led to another. I suppose I began to think about it seriously, oh, let me think now, when I got back in '46 and went to Balmoral," Philip told biographer Boothroyd. 

He proposed during that month-long stay at the family's Scottish retreat, his bride-to-be accepting immediately, without consulting her parents. In a letter to her mother, Elizabeth said of her "absolute angel" prince, "We behave as though we had belonged to each other for years."

Philip, in turn, gushed to Queen Elizabeth (later know as Queen Mother), "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."

But despite Philip's sweet tribute, Elizabeth's father had more conditions. They would wait until after the princess' 21st birthday the following April to announce the engagement. During that time Philip would secure British citizenship, forcing him to abandon his title, H.R.H. Prince Philip of Greece, and select a surname. His choice was Mountbatten, the English version of his mother's moniker Battenberg.

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By the time the betrothal was officially revealed July 9, 1947, Philip had retrieved a diamond-and-aquamarine encrusted tiara from his mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, tasking London jeweler Philip Antrobus with crafting the stones into a three-carat ring worthy of a future queen.

As they put together their November 20 vows—featuring a luncheon for just 150, a nod to the country's tough post-war times—the young couple had no idea just how soon Elizabeth would claim the throne, her father's sudden death in February 1952 making her accession official. But Philip was well aware of the path that lay ahead. 

His cousin, Patricia Brabourne, told Vanity Fair that Philip wondered if he was being "very brave or very foolish" by following his heart. "Nothing was going to change for her," she said. "Everything was going to change for him."

And it did. With Elizabeth's 1953 coronation, Philip sacrificed his career as a Navy Lieutenant Commander and a portion of his identity. Days after Elizabeth was named queen, she agreed to maintain her last name of Windsor—and pass that on to her children—rather than adopt the Mountbatten name and turn her reign into the House of Mountbatten. (Per a 1960 declaration, the British monarchy asserted that members of the royal family use the amended Mountbatten-Windsor when a surname is required.)

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Being permanently relegated to the No. 2 position came with more than a few struggles, Philip has admitted. "I thought I was going to have a career in the Navy, but it became obvious there was no hope," he would later say. "There was no choice. It just happened. You have to make compromises. That's life. I accepted it. I tried to make the best of it."

Along with his ability to balance out Elizabeth's more shy, reserved persona—"He's someone who can be frank and someone she can have a laugh with," Our Queen at Ninety author Robert Hardman told People—that willingness to accept a supporting role has made both their union, and the Queen herself, that much stronger.

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"My grandfather was, you know, had a very successful career in the military, in the navy," Prince William stated during a 2012 ABC News special. "He gave it all up to do his job, to be there to support the queen." William acknowledged, "It must have been quite difficult" for Philip to be in "the shadows" and serve in a supporting role, "but he does it fantastically well. He's never complained. Well, he has complained a little bit, but not sort of too openly."

As Prince Harry saw it, his grandfather's role was every bit as crucial as the Queen's: "It's obvious from all of us and it should be obvious to everybody else that sees it going on is the fact that, without him, you know, she would be slightly lost, I think."

Thankfully she never had to find out.

(Originally published Nov. 20, 2018 at 5 a.m. PT)