“He has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years, and I, and his whole family, and this and many other countries, owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim, or we shall ever know.” With these words, spoken on their Golden Wedding anniversary in 1997, the Queen perfectly encapsulated the essence of her relationship with the Duke of Edinburgh, a bond that stretched back to the 1930s. It began as a private love affair when they were both at a very early stage in life, but became a public partnership that defined Her Majesty’s reign. Across more than seven decades of change and turmoil, the Duke was always there to support her.
They first met at Prince Philip’s cousin Princess Marina’s wedding to Princes Elizabeth’s uncle, the Duke of Kent, in 1934, although their first publicised meeting was in 1939 when the princess, then aged 13, visited the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth with her parents. Their relationship developed over the next few years but as rumours of an impending engagement intensified, King George VI took his family on a tour of South Africa in 1947, leaving the Prince behind. Her father did not want Princess Elizabeth to rush into such an important decision at such a young age – she turned 21 during the tour - and decided she needed some time away to think it through. But the princess was unmoved and, shortly after their return, the engagement was announced on July 9, 1947.
In post-war Britain the news captured the public imagination and the romance even had a soundtrack – the princess played “People Will Say We’re In Love” from the musical Oklahoma! again and again after she and Prince Philip joined her parents and sister at the opening night performance in London in April 1947. The couple were married at Westminster Abbey on November 20, 1947. It was a relatively simple affair as Britain was still recovering from the war, but public expectation for the marriage was immense and it was the first time the princess had been truly centre stage at a national pageant. After spending their honeymoon at Broadlands in Hampshire and Birkhall, Balmoral, their family soon had two new arrivals, with Prince Charles born in November 1948 and his sister, Princess Anne, two years later. They began their marriage as a young couple living in Malta between 1949 and 1951, as Prince Philip was based there as an officer in the Mediterranean Fleet.
Those early days were rare carefree times before their lives were beset by duty. They attended parties and went dancing, appearing very much like any other newlyweds. But the gilded cage that was to define them came earlier than expected. King George VI’s death aged 56 on February 6, 1952, put Princess Elizabeth on the throne as Queen Elizabeth II, with the Coronation held the following June. Ever since, the Duke of Edinburgh was a devoted ‘Consort’ to the Queen, living his entire life true to his Coronation vow, where he stated: “I, Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, do become your liege man of life and limb, and of earthly worship; and faith and truth I will bear unto you, to live and die, against all manner of folks. So help me God.”
Over the years they have had to juggle their royal responsibilities with bringing up a young family – Prince Andrew was born in 1960 and their fourth child, Prince Edward, arrived in 1964. And while their children suffered disappointment in their own love lives – Charles, Anne and Andrew all had failed marriages – the union between the Queen and the Duke has never publicly faltered. “It is a partnership of two people who recognise the fact that marriage is a partnership between two people,” Prince Andrew once said of his parents’ marriage. “Compromises have to be met on both sides, life has to continue and in that life there has to be an element of discipline in order to make that partnership and marriage work.”
The Queen made her famous declaration of gratitude to the Duke on their Golden Wedding anniversary, and in the same year the Duke shared his own reflections on their marriage. “It’s been a challenge for us, but by trial and experience I believe that we have achieved a sensible division of labour and a good balance between our individual and joint interests,” he said. “I think the main lesson we have learnt is that tolerance is the one essential ingredient of a happy marriage. It may not be quite so important when things are going well, but it is vital when things get difficult.” Their Diamond and Platinum anniversaries followed in 2007 and 2017, but as they aged the number of shared public engagements lessened. And when the Duke retired from public life in August 2017 the Queen looked elsewhere for support, with the responsibility falling on the shoulders of the younger generation of royals, those who had grown up learning from the partnership of their grandparents.
As coronavirus took hold in 2020 and the world locked down, the Queen and Prince Philip travelled to Windsor Castle. They were vulnerable to Covid-19 because of their advanced age, but were protected by “HMS Bubble” - their reduced household of about 20 staff. It was at Windsor where they celebrated their 73rd wedding anniversary – however it would be their last.
Prince Philip – the longest-serving consort of the British monarch – died on 9 April 2021. The monarch’s “strength and stay” was no longer by her side and she had to say goodbye to her husband at a poignant funeral service - limited in numbers because of Covid restrictions. An image of the Queen sitting alone in the pews of St George’s Chapel was a striking one – she had to sit socially distanced from family members. But it also served as a reminder of her resilience during difficult times – a reoccurring theme throughout her reign. The Queen may have had a long and glorious reign, but it was her long and loving partnership with the Duke of Edinburgh that helped sustain it.
The Queen died at Balmoral on Thursday, September 8, 2022, aged 96.