Queen Elizabeth II’s marriage has been going strong for over 70 years; now two years into its platinum decade, her union is the longest in the history of any British monarch. In fact, it seems likely that no monarch in the history of the world has ever been married longer.
The Queen and Prince Philip provide an unwavering bedrock upon which the increasingly modern – and sometimes tumultuous – relationships of today’s Royal Family have been built. But the courtship of Britain’s beloved matriarch was most definitely of the old world, and the day of their first proper meeting in 1939 predated their wedding by almost a decade.
Their paths had crossed even earlier, when the eight-year-old Princess Elizabeth and thirteen-year-old Philip were both in attendance at the 1934 wedding of Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark to Prince George, the Duke of Kent – and then again at the coronation of Elizabeth’s father King George VI.
As nephew of the King of Greece, Philip had been born a Prince of Greece and Denmark, but found himself somewhat adrift after his uncle’s deposition resulted in his family’s exile to France. His situation was further compounded by his father absconding to Monte Carlo to live with his mistress while his schizophrenic mother was committed to a mental asylum.
There was, however, the glimmer of a silver lining: Philip’s itinerant childhood led to a fateful 1939 meeting with a young Princess Elizabeth, resulting in what has since been described – in the future Queen’s eyes, at least – as love at first sight.
Having fallen on the mercy of wealthy family members in the absence of his parents, Philip completed his education at Gordonstoun School in Scotland and enrolled in Dartmouth Royal Naval College as a cadet in 1939 – which just so happened to be the year that the King and Queen paid a visit, with Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in tow.
It fell to the 18-year-old Philip to entertain the distant third cousins with whom he shared Queen Victoria as a grandmother. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed young man took the 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth to the college’s tennis courts, where he proceeded to lark about for her amusement by jumping back and forth over the tennis nets. The Queen’s governess Marion Crawford would later recall – in a book called The Little Princesses, which Royal Family certainly didn’t thank her for writing – the look of amazement on Elizabeth’s face as she admired him: “How high he can jump,” she said.
Looking back on the encounter, Philip didn’t see the meeting – and the extent to which he had captivated his young guest – as anything other than a “very amusing experience.” But Elizabeth was quite taken with him, and he ended up spending more time with the Royal Family over the course of the weekend; he even joined them on the Royal yacht for dinner, much to the delight of the Queen-in-waiting, who – according to Crawford – spent much of the meal fawning over the young man and asking him what he would like to eat.
As the weekend came to an end, all thoughts of the young Princess might have drifted from Philip’s mind – had she not shown a precocious determination to keep in touch with him. Elizabeth corresponded continually with her dashing beau, tenaciously positioning herself as his pen pal – all through the period that spanned Philip’s repatriatiation to Greece to live with his mother in Athens, his return to the UK to graduate top of his class from Dartmouth, and his becoming an officer in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. Yet he was never far from her thoughts as he criss-crossed the globe; the Princess was known to keep a framed photo of Philip on her bedside table.
Their courtship was a combination of the traditional and of breaking convention, perhaps in a way that foreshadowed the modernising nature of Elizabeth’s reign and the dynamic of their marriage. The Princess was, initially at least, the suitor of their relationship; her mind was made up very early on, with Philip only later coming to see their connection as potentially romantic.
By that point, there were other obstacles on the horizon. King George VI was unsure of Philip’s suitability for his daughter, in part as a result of the young man’s lack of financial independence. There was the complication of Philip not being a British subject, which was constitutionally rectified by the King in the run up to the young couple’s wedding in 1947. Little did they know that Princess Elizabeth would become Queen Elizabeth II a mere five years later, and that Philip would be struggling to make peace with having taken a backseat role in their relationship once more.
But nothing could tear their love asunder; history had already been written, that day in 1939 on the tennis courts of Dartmouth Royal Naval College. Today, they are stronger together than ever.
If you want to learn more about Elizabeth and Philip’s budding romance, watch The People’s Wedding at True Royalty TV by clicking here.