Elizabeth and Philip: was theirs the last truly royal marriage?

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·8 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
The Queen and Prince Philip were both born of royal blood – but none of their children or grandchildren married royals - Donald McKague 
The Queen and Prince Philip were both born of royal blood – but none of their children or grandchildren married royals - Donald McKague

The announcement from Buckingham Palace, on the evening of 9 July 1947, made clear that the dashing, blond-haired navalman, newly engaged to the heiress presumptive, Princess Elizabeth, was no ordinary lieutenant of the Royal Navy. Philip Mountbatten, the Court Circular informed an enthusiastic British public, was the ‘son of the late Prince Andrew of Greece and Princess Andrew (Princess Alice of Battenberg)’. At a stroke, the future Elizabeth II had achieved the impossible. Her husband-to-be, naturalised as a British subject in February, was not only an officer with a distinguished record of wartime service in Britain’s navy but of royal blood: a scion of a reigning European dynasty, a first cousin of Greece’s new king, Paul I.

It was not an accident that the announcement also reminded the public that Philip’s mother had been born a Battenberg princess. The stateless Battenbergs were related to Britain’s own royal family through Queen Victoria’s second daughter, Alice; Philip’s mother had been born at Windsor Castle in 1885. Like his bride, Philip was a great-great-grandchild of Britain’s last queen regnant. Despite his naturalisation as plain Philip Mountbatten, as Elizabeth’s third cousin he was a thoroughly royal suitor for the heiress to the throne. One columnist described him as a "young, fresh-faced sailor, a naturalised Englishman, who once was sixth in line of succession to the Greek throne".

The Queen’s marriage to the man whom her father created Duke of Edinburgh and a Royal Highness on the eve of their wedding, is the last example in British history of a royal royal marriage. None of the couple’s children or grandchildren has married fellow royals and it seems certain that future royal spouses will be commoners.

Prince Philip had to fight to win acceptance within some corners of the British institution - Donald McKague 
Prince Philip had to fight to win acceptance within some corners of the British institution - Donald McKague

In its way, it was an old-fashioned choice on Princess Elizabeth’s part. As long ago as 1871, Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter, Princess Louise, had married a non-royal, the Scottish aristocrat John Campbell, Marquess of Lorne. Stuffy Continental royals protested, but Victoria was unimpressed by their snobbery, writing ‘If the Queen of England thinks a person good enough for her daughter, what have other people to say?’

In 1923, Elizabeth’s father, the future George VI, followed Louise’s example: he also married a Scottish aristocrat, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. In the aftermath of the First World War, his choice of a homegrown bride over a foreign princess had pleased the British public, as the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, had assured the royal family it would. Their marriage, wrote one of George VI’s speechwriters, "marked the [royals’] emancipation… from a tradition of political and dynastic alliances, which to many people had always been distasteful, and in the circumstances of the modern world had become manifestly out of date".

Two of George VI’s siblings made similar choices. Princess Mary, the Princess Royal, married the immensely rich Henry, Viscount Lascelles, while Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, married a daughter of the Duke of Buccleuch. Only the youngest of George VI’s brothers, the Duke of Kent, married a fellow royal, glamorous Princess Marina of Greece, an older cousin of Philip’s. The Duke’s eldest brother, Edward, Prince of Wales, afterwards Edward VIII, reacted with disdain. "You know my views on 'Royal Marriages'," he wrote to a friend, before describing the courtship as ‘so d--d quick that one wonders how long it will last’. Dramatically Edward rejected any such marriage for himself. In 1936, his decision to marry the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson cost him his throne and brought about seismic changes in the life of his niece Elizabeth.

By 1947, neither Elizabeth’s parents nor the public expected her to marry other than for love. On the Continent, royals continued to choose spouses from within the royal fold. Philip’s cousin, King Paul, had married Princess Frederica of Hanover in 1938. Frederick IX, king of Denmark since April 1947, was married to Princess Ingrid of Sweden. In Britain, however, George VI and Queen Elizabeth rated their daughter’s happiness above royal pedigree. Indeed, Queen Elizabeth – afterwards the Queen Mother – had set her heart on a marriage like her own, preferring for her elder daughter an aristocrat of outdoorsy tastes, like the future dukes of Grafton and Buccleuch. It was Princess Elizabeth herself who had other ideas.

Famously, she had fallen in love with Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark at the age of thirteen. In this dramatic coup de foudre, Philip’s royal status may have played a part. Elizabeth was very young and impressionable, by all accounts she enjoyed being a princess, and her formidable, dynastically minded grandmother, Queen Mary, had imbued her with a strong sense of royalty’s uniqueness. Yet even if this were the case, it was not Philip’s royal status that sustained Elizabeth’s affections in the eight years until her engagement. Dutiful even as a teenager, she was not motivated by the idea of a ‘suitable’ marriage but by powerful loving feelings that would survive more than seven decades.

There were so many reasons for Elizabeth not to choose Philip in 1947. Reaction to news of the engagement was mostly positive, though in the United States, the Chicago Tribune cautioned that their union was ‘fraught with dark political implications’ arising from the marriages of Philip’s sisters to German princes – his former brother-in-law Christoph of Hesse had been an ardent Nazi – as well as the instability and ambiguous international reputation of Greece’s monarchy. Additionally, in postwar Britain, xenophobia was widespread: one opinion poll noted significant disapproval of Philip as ‘a foreigner’.

Newspapers focused instead on Philip’s good looks and his war record, as well as the time he had spent in Britain from childhood, including his schooling at Gordonstoun. The Scotsman told readers that Elizabeth’s fiancé was "young and handsome, a sportsman and a good dancer, unassuming by nature but allied by birth to several of the Royal families of Europe, and with active service with the Royal Navy in war-time to his credit". Inside Buckingham Palace, opposition to the marriage lingered, especially among a coterie of courtiers close to Elizabeth’s mother, led by the earls of Eldon and Cranborne.

Elizabeth made an old-fashioned yet inspired choice in marrying Philip - Baron/RBO 
Elizabeth made an old-fashioned yet inspired choice in marrying Philip - Baron/RBO

Time would show that Princess Elizabeth had chosen well. At his preparatory school, Cheam, Philip’s headmaster had concluded that the 12-year-old prince "would make a good king", possessing "two vital qualities, leadership and personality". He also possessed considerable grit. In exile, following their flight from Greece when Philip was still a baby, his family collapsed, his mother confined to sanatoria for treatment for mental illness, his father footloose in the South of France, while Philip and his four sisters lived modestly outside Paris in a house provided by a wealthy aunt, Princess Marie Bonaparte. Holidays were spent with royal relatives across Europe. "One very lovely year", Philip’s sisters remembered, they were guests of Queen Helen of Romania at the castle of Peles in the Carpathian mountains. Much of Philip’s spartan childhood played out in a distinctively royal milieu. The man who married Britain’s heir to the throne combined leadership qualities with close familiarity with the royal world.

Undoubtedly, the first decade of Prince Philip’s marriage presented challenges as he faced some hostile sidelining by several within the palace. But from the outset, this cosmopolitan prince related to the British, Danish, Swedish and Russian royal houses understood the business of royalty. Unlike subsequent non-royal royal spouses, Philip embraced the demands and expectations of royal life while accepting its constraints and restrictions on his personal fulfillment. To the manner born, he shared his wife’s conviction of the key importance of duty and public service. Philip’s own royal background, however, played its part in smoothing his adjustment to an extraordinary position.

Nevertheless, neither the forward-thinking Philip nor the Queen seriously considered similar marriages for their children: rumours that the Queen favoured Princess Marie-Astrid of Luxembourg as a wife for Prince Charles were never more than rumours. The divorces of Charles, Anne and Andrew however do illustrate the challenges of marriage into an institution that, while bestowing immense material privilege, also makes exceptional demands.

That the younger generation has fared better, exemplified by the success of Prince William’s marriage to Catherine Middleton, partly reflects altered times, different expectations and greater freedom of choice. Across Europe, monarchs and monarchs-in-waiting have married non-royals. Princess Marie-Astrid is a rare exception: she married Archduke Carl Christian of Austria. But in Britain, the era of the royal royal marriage dies with the Duke of Edinburgh.

Matthew Dennison is author of The Queen – available from Telegraph Books

Prince Philip's life - Read more
Prince Philip's life - Read more
Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting