A very young princess, determined to marry for love. A royal suitor "handsome as any film star" who provoked suspicion. A nation so traumatized by war that its people looked askance at extravagant weddings—and at dynastic couplings in general.
The new series The Crown reveals the challenges faced by a young Queen Elizabeth II. But even before she succeeded to the throne of England in 1952, Elizabeth faced obstacles in marrying the man of her choice, her distant cousin Philip. The road to that wedding, on November 20, 1947, was not perfectly smooth.
Elizabeth was infatuated with Philip by age 13. She was already heiress to the throne on the day she and her parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, toured the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. The young officer who escorted the princess was a fellow royal, an 18-year-old blond naval cadet called Philip of Greece. Soon the two were writing letters; she kept a framed photo of Philip by her bed.
Elizabeth and Philip were both great-great-grandchildren of Queen Victoria. But while Elizabeth was part of a close, loving family, Philip was practically penniless and had seen little of either of his parents for years. His family, originally Danish, ruled Greece until the abdication of his uncle, King Constantine I, after World War One. They all fled Greece forever. Later, Philip's mother suffered from mental illness and his father left her to live in France with a mistress. Philip himself grew up in boarding schools.
A naval officer, he served bravely in the Mediterranean and the Far East. Through letters and occasional moments together, Philip courted the princess. In 1946 he proposed in Scotland and she immediately said yes. But that is when their romance turned tricky.
Her father, King George, insisted the couple wait to announce their engagement until the princess, barely 20, was older. There were plenty of murmurings against Philip. Of course everyone could see his attraction. "A blond Greek Apollo"; "a Viking"; "handsome as any film star"—those were the descriptions that followed him. But he was "unpolished," arrogant, destitute, and—perhaps worst of all for a country just emerging from World War Two—he was "too German."
There was no getting around it: Philip was of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksberg. While he'd been taken in by English relatives in his youth, his four sisters all married German princes. Three of his brothers-in-law joined the Nazi party. Elizabeth's mother, the Queen, was not too sure about Philip as a son-in-law. In private she called him "the Hun."
But the princess was determined to marry him and her parents relented. In January 1947 the king and queen announced their daughter's betrothal. Philip became a British citizen and took the name "Mountbatten." Just before the wedding, he was named Duke of Edinburgh.
Many of Philip's new countrymen were wary of the match. One newspaper polled its readers and 40 percent were against it. "The days of intermarriage of royalty have passed," intoned an editorial.
But the romance of the attractive young couple eventually won the necessary hearts. The wedding date was set. The only obstacle that remained was money. The country still had food rationing, after all, and exercised controls on imports of petrol, tobacco, and paper.
It was billed as an austerity wedding and the government awarded Princess Elizabeth an extra 200 clothing coupons for her dress. She still managed to wear something beautiful: an ivory silk wedding gown sewn with thousands of seed pearls. The-star patterned bridal train was 13 feet in length. Rumor had it the dress was inspired by a Botticelli painting from 1482.
It was Philip who hewed closely to the austerity mandate. Always indifferent to clothes and fond of economizing, the Duke of Edinburgh brushed off his naval uniform and reportedly wore darned socks to Westminster Abbey.
On the way to the ceremony, Princess Elizabeth's diamond tiara snapped. Her mother, the Queen, kept everyone calm while the court jeweler was summoned to make repairs. It would be fixed, the Queen promised. And she was right.
This was the wedding of the future monarch, so anonymity was out of the question. The ceremony was broadcast on the radio to millions of listeners, and there were 2,500 guests at Westminster, including six kings and seven queens. Afterward, the bride and groom left the abbey for a wedding breakfast at Buckingham Palace.
And they were radiant.