How Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip's Private Romance Set the Tone for the Young Royals

Harry and Meghan and Kate and William, modern as they are, actually took courtship cues from the Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, who have turned 101 June 10.

By Natalie Finn Jun 10, 2022 2:05 PMTags
Watch: Queen Elizabeth II Honors Prince Philip With A Special Accessory

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's wedding, witnessed by millions of people, was a game-changer for Britain's royal family.

The 2018 nuptials set an unprecedented bar for diversity, inclusiveness (relatively speaking, of course) and modernity, the divorced American actress bride ushering in a new era that gently floated into the chapel on the tail of her 16-foot-long silk veil.

But for all the nouveau moments that rattled the usual gilded cage, part of what we love about these royal extravaganzas, complete with fairy-tale love stories and castles and diamond-encrusted tiaras, is actually the consistency, the lack of change in certain arenas where, if it isn't broken... there's no need to fiddle with it.

Case in point: Harry and Meghan's courtship.

In very modern fashion, they met on a blind date set up by a mutual friend (though if it were truly of the now, they would've met on the Internet), and their third date was a safari getaway in Botswana. So that's a little new for royals, if not celebrities, although since they're both adults in their 30s (Meghan's even three years older, also very hip) they had almost all of the freedom and autonomy in the world to really go for it.

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

Otherwise...they pretty much went according to the course set out for them 75 years beforehand by Harry's paternal grandparents Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, who were married for 73 years before Philip's death in April 2021.

A love match back when no one necessarily expected that to be part of the package, they proved the platinum standard of what an enduring, supportive, affectionate and not overly dramatic royal relationship can be.

Prince William and Kate Middleton are counting on a little more time to themselves, since William inheriting the throne is hopefully at least a couple decades away, and Meghan and Harry have pretty much counted out one day making the move to Buckingham Palace. But the public unfolding of both couple's romances was modeled on their elders' 1940s-era propriety. 

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In case anyone thought that ducking photographers and arriving and leaving separately were some recent Hollywood invention, just look to Elizabeth and Philip's early years together.

Well, their earliest years were spent writing letters, as Princess Elizabeth wasn't yet 14 when she was introduced to Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark while she and her sister, Princess Margaret, were touring Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, Devon, and the strapping 19-year-old cadet started showing off for the young royals by jumping back and forth over the net on the tennis court. 

Watch: Prince Philip, Husband of Queen Elizabeth, Dies at Age 99

"Well, we'd met at Dartmouth, and as far as I was concerned it was a very amusing experience, going on board the yacht and meeting them, and that sort of thing, and that was that," Philip recalled to biographer Basil Boothroyd. (Their paths had previously crossed at the ages of 8 and 13, at a wedding when Philip's cousin married Elizabeth's uncle.)

Elizabeth kept a photograph of a clean-shaven, dapper Philip, who served with the Royal Navy in Europe and the Pacific during World War II, in her room—but when she started getting teased about her affection for the young officer, she's said to have swapped out that photo for a more rugged shot of a heavily bearded Philip. (She couldn't have known that would be the fashion 70 years later, with grandson Harry staying hirsute for his wedding.)

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When Philip would return to England, he stayed with his uncle in Belgravia but would always visit Elizabeth and her family. Those close to her observed that she took more care than ever before about her appearance when she'd go to parties also attended by Philip, and her favorite tune to spin on the gramophone became "People Will Say We're in Love," from Oklahoma! Meanwhile, the butler who regularly unpacked Philip's weekend bag for him reliably came across a photo of Elizabeth in a worn leather frame tucked among his belongings.

"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 said, regarding the decision to make it official.

He proposed during his summer visit to Balmoral Castle in Scotland in 1946 and 20-year-old Elizabeth was all for it—but her father, King George VI, wanted to wait until his daughter and heir to the throne was 21 before they announced the engagement. Ultimately almost a year passed before their betrothal was shared with the public on July 9, 1947.

Much has been made since of when, exactly, William proposed to Kate, and similarly when Harry actually proposed to Meghan—because both couples had to sit on the news for a bit before the timing was right for an announcement.

Best Royal Weddings of All Time

Meanwhile, though as Elizabeth told her mother they behaved as though they "had belonged to each other for years" and they were serious enough to get engaged a couple short months later, when Elizabeth and Philip were photographed together at a wedding in May 1946, the newspaper caption identified him as "a figure largely unknown to the British public." And while Kate and Meghan's identities were inescapable—Kate because she'd been dating William for almost seven years when they got engaged, and Meghan because she starred on a cable drama and had a big presence on social media—relatively few pre-engagement photos of the respective couples were taken for public consumption.

Harry and Meghan managed to date for about five months before their relationship became broad knowledge in October 2016. The following month Harry was compelled to release a statement via the palace imploring the media, and the public at large, to respect his girlfriend's privacy. William had to do the same a decade prior when the media obsession with Kate got out of hand.

Just like the news in 2010 and in 2017, the engagement news in 1947 was promptly followed by the release of official photos of the happy couple arm in arm. Philip helped design Elizabeth's platinum-and diamond ring, which contained stones from a tiara that belonged to his mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg. Decades later Harry helped design Meghan's ring, utilizing diamonds from his mother's collection as well.

Meghan and Harry's photos were practically steamy compared to Kate and William's affectionate but slightly more staid pictures, which were more reminiscent of Elizabeth and Philip's prim reveal. But like the future queen and her consort to be, all the kids were in love.

Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

"The heart of the world is thrilled by the prospect of one royal wedding with the genuine aura of romance," an American newsreel reported in 1947.

Cue the subsequent hoopla. 

The joint televised interview that William and Kate and, seven years later, Harry and Meghan sat down for was of course more of a modern ritual, the increased accessibility of the royal family more of a priority in recent years than it was doing WWII-era Britain, when it was more important to portray the monarchy as an unflappable institution that was always there for its subjects—for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.

PA/PA Wire

The future queen of England (though no one predicted just how imminent her ascension would be, just over four years later) married Prince Philip on Nov. 20, 1947, at Westminster Abbey. (Philip had to become a naturalized British subject before any wedding could take place; Meghan had secured a visa to live in the U.K. as the partner of a British citizen, but she would have had to spend five years living there before she could apply for an "indefinite leave to remain" visa, after which she could apply for citizenship.) 

Philip wore his military dress uniform for his wedding, as did his grandsons at their nuptials. None of the groom's German-born family—nor his sisters, who married Germans—were invited, due to still raging anti-German sentiment in Britain after the war. So, family drama and wounded feelings are hardly a new concept, either. After the ceremony, Elizabeth's bouquet was placed on the Grave of the Unknown Warrior, representing all British soldiers who've died in military conflicts since World War I, at Westminster Abbey—as was Kate's in 2011 and Meghan's last year.

All three brides are also now sporting wedding rings made from the same clump of Clogau Welsh gold that's been in the family for generations, as did Princess Diana.

Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

Though Harry and Meghan eventually honeymooned in Africa, they chose duty first and made their first public appearance as His and Her Royal Highness the Duke and Duchess of Sussex three days after their wedding at a party for Prince Charles' 70th birthday.

Elizabeth and Philip chose duty first in another way. They didn't have any pressing official engagement, but they opted for a local honeymoon in Hampshire, England, at Broadlands House, which was owned by Philip's uncle, and then visited Birkhall in Scotland, a favorite family vacation spot for Elizabeth when she was a girl. Later they took a second honeymoon to Malta, but their wedding being so soon after the war, they didn't want to take a splashy, luxurious trip while most of their compatriots were still struggling.

While the generation of royals that's currently of marrying age will continue to be entrusted with bringing the monarchy into the future—speaking out more about issues such as mental health that affect people universally, raising their children with less hired help, wearing black while not in mourning—some practices stand the test of time.

Finding a soul mate and being so in love that all of the nonnegotiable rigmarole seems worth it, for instance, is certainly a tradition worth keeping.

(Originally published May 23, 2018, at 3 a.m. PT)