Love in the House of Windsor: The Queen and Prince Philip
Queen Elizabeth and The Duke of Edinburgh are one of the great modern love stories, a romance that still endures after almost seven decades of marriage, writes Barry Egan
Les Dawson once told his mother-in-law that he met his wife first in the tunnel of love. "She was digging it." Prince Philip, who met his future wife, then just 13, at Dartmouth College in 1939 with her oul' fella King George VI, was somewhat more of a romantic than Mr Dawson.
Soon after Prince Philip and the then Princess Elizabeth married at Westminster Abbey on November 20, 1947, he wrote to his mother-in-law Queen Elizabeth of his new wife: "Cherish Lilibet? I wonder if that word is enough to express what is in me," the Prince pronounced in perhaps one of the most romantic letters to a mother-in-law ever written. Philip said he had "fallen in love completely and unreservedly" with the beautiful heir presumptive of King George VI - and with yet more gush, added, that "the only 'thing' in this world which is absolutely real to me and my ambition is to weld the two of us into a new combined existence that will not only be able to withstand the shocks directed at us but will also have a positive existence for the good."
The Queen did her own letter-writing to her parents from honeymoon on the Balmoral estate (where she went deer-stalking with the Duke, feeling, she said "like a female Russian commando"). The new bride rhapsodised that she and Prince Philip "behave as though we had belonged to each other for years! Philip is an angel."
The young princess's decision to retain the Windsor name for herself and her children turned Philip a tad less angelic, as it transpired. According to Sally Bedell Smith's book Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch, an enraged Philip told chums: "I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his children. I'm nothing but a bloody amoeba!"
There is an apocryphal story - there always are with the Royal family - that Earl Mountbatten, Prince Philip's uncle, once said that the decade-long "delay" in the Queen and Prince Philip having any more children after Princess Anne (who was born on August 15, 1950) and before the arrival of Prince Andrew (on February 19, 1960), was allegedly because of the Duke's ongoing rage over the issue of the family name, dating from when the Queen ascended to the throne in 1952, aged just 25, after King George VI died suddenly.
In 1960, the story went on, the Queen told the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan that the thorny subject of the family name "had been irritating her husband since ... 1952".
Macmillan wrote in his diary: "What upsets me ... is the Prince's almost brutal attitude to the Queen over all this." So brutal, it appeared, that Macmillan's deputy, Rab Butler, by one account, "confided to a friend that Elizabeth had been 'in tears'."
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The reports of the Duke's alleged affairs - a subject the Telegraph once opined was so tricky that royal biographers have "dipped into it with a very long spoon" - might have had HRH similarly in tears down through the years. But the Queen never let on, driven as she is by duty and displaying commendable restraint regarding all the tawdry tittle-tattle. In his 2004 book Philip & Elizabeth: Portrait of a Marriage, Gyles Brandreth quotes the Duke giving a denial of playing away from Buckingham Palace: "How could I? I've had a detective in my company, night and day, since 1947."
However, Sarah Bradford, author of Elizabeth II: Her Life in Our Times, was more forthright. "The Duke of Edinburgh has had affairs," she said in an 2011 interview, "yes, full-blown affairs and more than one. He has affairs and the Queen accepts it. I think she thinks that's how men are."
That said, the love between them is beyond doubt. Years earlier, Patricia Mountbatten, the Queen and the Duke's mutual cousin, possibly put it best: "Philip had a capacity for love which was waiting to be unlocked, and she unlocked it. Supporting the Queen has been his life."
One of the most touching parts of Gyles Brandreth's 2004 book came from Lord Brabourne, who was married to Countess Mountbatten. "Prince Philip is sensitive, profoundly so," he said, "When our son was killed" - by the IRA bomb on August 27, 1979, in Mullaghmore - "the first letter that arrived was from him. It was wonderful. You can talk to him about matters of the heart."
This and other qualities have more than sustained the Queen and the Duke in their long and seemingly happy marriage. "Prince Philip is the only man in the world who treats the Queen simply as another human being," Lord Charteris once said: "He's the only man who can. Strange as it may seem, I believe she values that." She possibly also valued his (in)famous sense of humour. I'm not talking about what he is alleged to have said to a woman in Kenya in 1984 ("You are a woman, aren't you?") or even, disgracefully, in 1986 to a British student, during a visit to China ("If you stay here much longer, you will go home with slitty eyes"), but the more benign side of his wit. You can feel the gin and tonics flowing in the following exchange: the Queen during an Elton John song at a Royal Variety Performance in 2001, said "I wish he'd turn the microphone to one side," to which Prince Philip riposted: "I wish he'd turn the bloody microphone off!"
As well as a love of late afternoon G&Ts and boisterous banter, they both apparently drive on the private roads of their estates "like a bat out of hell". The Queen and Duke are the most entertaining members of the Firm. You can see what the Queen's little sister Princess Margaret was getting at when, hearing the news of their father King George VI's unexpected accession in May, 1937, she asked Elizabeth: "Oh. Does that mean that you will have to be the next Queen?"
"Yes, someday," replied the princess.
Margaret's answer was partly prophetic: "Poor you!"
Possibly just as prophetic were the words of Archbishop of York, Cyril Garbett, who officiated at the wedding ceremony at Westminster Abbey, when he told the Queen and Prince Philip that they should have "patience, a ready sympathy and forbearance".
The latter virtue the Queen and her husband were certainly in need of down through the years, as they dealt with various scandals and upheavals - Princess Anne and Captain Mark Philips' divorce after he fathered a child with another woman; a Texan billionaire's mouth around Sarah Ferguson's toes on the front page of The Sun; Prince Charles' dreams of literally living inside Camilla Parker Bowles appearing in a tabloid tape, otherwise known as 'Camillagate' (almost on a par with 'Squidgygate', the Princess of Wales' leaked chat with James Gilbey); Prince Andrew's dodgy American friends; Fergie offering a fake sheikh access to her estranged husband Andrew for £500,000, and, chief among all of them, the death of Diana.
"Without doubt, the week that Diana died was her [the Queen's] worst moment," royal biographer Sarah Bradford said. "A military historian told me that the police wanted the army called in. Then the Queen pulled things round with her broadcast on the eve of the funeral."
A certain broadcast from outside The Lindo Wing of St Mary's Hospital had my wife (and my mother-in-law) glued to Sky News from 9am until the exact moment - and then for hours after - that Kate and Wills appeared with Charlotte. With our own royal baby Emilia in her arms, my wife Aoife wouldn't move from the TV set. I had to go to the local pub at 5.30pm to watch the Manchester United game. Be that as it may, I found the royal baby television telethon bizarrely compelling. I could suddenly see why Christopher Hitchens called the royals Britain's favourite fetish.
For the record, I danced with Fergie (and Kate Moss and Rod Stewart) at Elton John's Ball in 2003 at his house in the Shires. I was also introduced to Princess Anne at an event in Dublin in the mid-1990s. In a craven and, in hindsight, cringe-making attempt to curry favour with the Princess Royal, I told her that I worked for Sir Anthony O'Reilly. Without hesitation she put all of us in our places, responding with ready wit: "As he is now."