Prince Philip, who was one of the most popular and long-serving members of the House of Windsor, has died aged 99. Dr Ed Owens, historian, royal commentator, and author of The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and the British Public, 1932-53, looks back at a royal love story.
Had it not been for Lord Louis Mountbatten, it is unlikely Philip would have ever succeeded in marrying into the royal family. ‘Uncle Dickie’, as he was better known to Philip, played a pivotal role not only in encouraging a romance between his nephew and the then Princess Elizabeth, but also in soothing public concerns regarding what many in Britain saw as the young Philip’s problematic family connections.
When rumours of an ‘unofficial engagement’ between heiress presumptive to the throne Elizabeth and Philip of Greece first emerged in gossip columns in late 1946, several of Britain’s leading national newspapers questioned whether such a match was wise. At the time there raged a civil war in Greece between royalists and communists. It was felt by commentators and politicians on the left that, if such a marriage went ahead, it would be interpreted as Britain signalling its support for the Greek royalist faction. At a time when many in Britain saw the communist Soviet Union as an ally, this would not do.
Britain, the empire, the US, and USSR had come together to win the Second World War against the Axis powers. But in another unfortunate turn of events, all four of Philip’s sisters had married German noblemen who had supported the Nazis. Many ordinary British people harboured a deep loathing of Germany in the aftermath of the war. Philip’s inauspicious family history could therefore prove a major public relations disaster for the British monarchy if openly publicised. One newspaper even announced a national poll (the first of its kind on a royal topic) which, after explaining the geopolitical complexities of the rumoured marriage, asked readers the question: ‘should our future queen wed Philip’?
After one week, the poll results suggested that 40% of respondents opposed a marriage between the couple with most claiming they were concerned about Philip’s ‘foreign’ pedigree or the problems that a union between the British and Greek dynasties might create in terms of European ‘power politics’.
Luckily for Philip, Uncle Dickie had anticipated this kind of criticism and, weeks earlier, had embarked on a secretive series of meetings with some of the most influential news editors and reporters on Fleet Street. He pleaded with them to give his nephew a positive write up; asked that they downplay Philip’s connections to Greece; and instead that they play up his ‘Englishness’. Indeed, Mountbatten provided each of them with a ‘biographical information pack’ which highlighted how Philip was British ‘in all but birth’, having been schooled at Gordonstoun, served in the Royal Navy as a sailor during the war, regularly attended Church of England services, and spent most of his life in the UK. Also, in this information pack were photographs of Philip looking particularly dashing in his navy uniform (see below).
Mountbatten’s carefully coordinated campaign did the trick. The alarm that had initially characterised the British press’s response to the rumoured marriage quickly faded and was replaced by a happiness that Princess Elizabeth had fallen in love with a handsome navy officer who, it suddenly seemed, had impeccable British credentials. By the time the couple’s engagement was finally officially announced in July 1947, the press had stopped labelling Philip a prince of Greece and instead only referred to him by his new, English-sounding name, ‘Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten’, which he took when he became a naturalised British citizen in February that year, forgoing his right to the Greek throne in the process. His family ties to Nazi Germany were also quietly ignored.
Elizabeth and Philip would face a number of other challenges before they were married in November 1947. But the first and most important battle had been won thanks to the cunning of Uncle Dickie.
Dr Ed Owens (@DrEdOwens) is a historian, royal commentator and author of The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and the British Public, 1932-53 (University of London Press).