A golden marriage: Sacrifice, duty, a lot of love and the only Person who could call the Queen a ‘bloody fool’
TO UNDERSTAND the relationship between the Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen, it is instructive to go back to November 20, 1947. It is the morning of their wedding and, amid all the preparations, two things happen that shed a light on their future union.
First, Philip has one of those moments of self-doubt that often afflict bridegrooms. “Am I being very brave or very foolish?” he says to his cousin Patricia Mountbatten.
As she was to explain years later, he was uncertain not so much about marrying Princess Elizabeth, but what the marriage would mean to him. “He was giving up a great deal,” she said. “In many ways, nothing was to change for her. Everything was going to change for him.”
Second, he gives up smoking. King George VI — still alive then — was a heavy smoker and the princess, who had seen the effect that cigarettes had on her father, did not want her husband to follow his example. With characteristic discipline, Philip gave up overnight.
So a theme emerges. Sacrifice, selfknowledge, determination: he knows that he is giving up a lot, but he is prepared to go through with it because that is the deal.
He had ambitions — he may have entertained the thought of being first sea lord, like his uncle Lord Mountbatten. He gave it up for the Queen.
From the start he made himself indispensable. He would suggest phrases for her speeches, coach her to lower the girlish tone of her voice, and generally do whatever he could to help her to gain confidence.
She never underestimated his importance to her. Although she may not have been able to carry out her duties without him, that does not mean it was easy for Philip. During the early years of her reign he had to endure the condescension of courtiers who thought he was an outsider, brash and possibly unreliable.
She had her ministerial boxes to read every day, her constitutional function was clearly defined; he, by contrast, was a man looking for a role, desperate to prove his usefulness.
Then there was the business with the name. After the King died the question was raised: would the royal family continue to reign as the House of Windsor, or would they take Philip’s name and become the House of Mountbatten? There were consultations, rows and, finally, a declaration from the Queen: Windsor it was.
When the Queen discussed the matter with Rab Butler, who was act
ing as deputy prime minister, he said it was the first time he had seen her in tears. While Philip may have been the epitome of loyalty in public, in private he was not afraid to question her judgment, or even to call her a “bloody fool”.
Lord Mountbatten used to tell the story of the Queen and Prince Philip driving to Cowdray Park. The duke was driving too fast and the Queen started flinching and drawing in her breath. “If you do that once more, I shall put you out of the car,” he said. Afterwards Mountbatten asked why she had not protested. “But you heard what he said,” she replied. “And he meant it.”
Such marital explosions did seem to dissipate quite quickly. In Australia in 1954 a documentary crew waiting to film the Queen watched in astonishment as the door of the couple’s chalet flew open and out came the duke, followed closely by a pair of tennis shoes and a racket. Then came the Queen, shouting at the duke to stop running and come back. She eventually dragged him into the chalet and the door slammed shut. After a decent interval the Queen emerged once more, quite calm by now, and said to the waiting crew: “Oh, thank you very much. I’m sorry for that little interlude, but, as you know, it happens in every marriage. Now, what would you like me to do?”
Philip was, it has been remarked, an obstreperous man and the Queen could find him difficult to deal with. Over the years she got better at handling him, teasing him when she thought he was being irrational telling him to “shut up” if he was going too far in his criticism.
Once on board Britannia, after the royal yacht became caught in a gale off Bermuda, the Queen appeared the next day and told her guests: “I have never seen so many grey and grim faces round a dinner table.” She paused. “Philip was not at all well.” She paused again. “I’m glad to say.”