IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip: The story of their marriage

“Tolerance is the one essential ingredient of any happy marriage,” Philip said on their 50th wedding anniversary.
Get more newsLiveonNBC News Now

LONDON — To the British people, he’s the longest-serving royal consort in the nation's history, serving alongside the queen for 65 years.

The country — and the world — paid tribute to Prince Philip after his death Friday at the age of 99.

But for his wife, Queen Elizabeth II, Philip's passing ends a 73-year marriage — one that began as a fairytale love story between a young princess and her older cousin.

Philip and Elizabeth first crossed paths in 1934 at a royal family wedding and then met properly again five years later in 1939 when she was 13 and he was 18 – the first time she said she remembered meeting him. The princess had accompanied her parents on a visit to Britain’s Royal Naval College where he was a cadet.

The two had very different upbringings.

Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics

Handsome and athletic, Philip was worldly, having lived in Paris, Germany and the United Kingdom after his own royal family was forced to flee his birthplace, Greece. He spent much of his childhood apart from his parents and went on to serve in the Mediterranean and the Pacific during World War II.

Elizabeth, meanwhile, was educated at home and never left the U.K. She spoke fluent French and her education included constitutional history and law in preparation for her assumption to the throne.

According to a letter she wrote in 1947, she and Philip were able to spend time together after the war when he was stationed at a naval officers school and spent weekends and a long break with her family.

Their differing backgrounds was a cause of concern to other members of the royal family, according to Clive Irving, the author of “The Last Queen: How Queen Elizabeth II Saved the Monarchy.”

“Before they got married, there was a lot of hesitancy in the court and palace about whether he was the right match,” he said.

Their courtship also took place under the shadow of King Edward VIII, who abdicated in 1936 after he fell in love with an American woman, Wallis Simpson, who was twice divorced. Edward decided to step away from the monarchy rather than give her up.

“There was concern about the institution of the monarchy, as much as about the marriage,” Irving said.

Elizabeth and Philip announced their engagement in July 1947, and got married just over four months later, with the future queen smiling broadly in photos with her new husband. Like other brides in the years after World War II, Elizabeth had to use ration coupons to buy the materials for her wedding dress.

Image: Princess Elizabeth and The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh
Elizabeth and Prince Philip wave after their wedding in November 1947.Keystone / Getty Images

The wedding itself was a grand affair, with 2,000 guests at Westminster Abbey, a reception at Buckingham Palace and a 9-foot-tall wedding cake.

“We behave as though we had belonged to each other for years,” Elizabeth wrote in a letter to her parents shortly after they married. “Philip is an angel – he is so kind and thoughtful.’’

Philip, who was given the title the Duke of Edinburgh and rescinded his Greek royal title, was besotted with his young wife.

“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,” he wrote to his new mother-in-law shortly after the wedding.

This adoration was also clear to Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, who extolled his love in a letter to his daughter after her wedding, expressing how much he would miss her.

“I can see that you are sublimely happy with Philip which is right but don't forget us,” he wrote.

The couple soon had children, with Prince Charles arriving just a year after the wedding, and Princess Anne two years later.

Image: Princess Anne in the arms of her mother Queen Elizabeth II while Prince Philip holds Prince Charles in 1951.
Princess Anne in the arms of her mother Queen Elizabeth II while Prince Philip holds Prince Charles in 1951.Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

During these early years, Philip concentrated on his military career and served as the commander of a Royal Navy ship. The couple lived in Malta from 1949 to 1951, where Elizabeth was less a princess than an officer’s wife.

This carefree existence came to an end with the unexpected death of Elizabeth’s father in 1952, just five years after Elizabeth and Philip’s wedding.

Elizabeth assumed the throne and Philip’s military career came to an end as he took on the role of royal consort, one that was difficult at first for Philip to adjust to, according to Irving.

“Because they have been married for so long, the marriage evolved and it turned out much better than it began,” he said.

Philip has made a significant contribution to the monarchy, according to Sarah Gristwood, a historian and the author of “Elizabeth: The Queen and the Crown.”

“A huge invisible part of Prince Philip’s work and legacy is the support he gave the queen, which has been invaluable to her,” she said. “The fact her monarchy has been so long and successful is in large part to his work behind the scenes.”

And although he was often pictured standing or walking a pace behind his wife, Philip was very much her partner both in their home life and in the monarchy.

“In those first years of her reign, she took a decision that if she was to be the head of state, he would be the head of the family,” Gristwood said.

In formal speeches, the queen has acknowledged his pivotal role in supporting her throughout her reign.

“Prince Philip is, I believe, well known for declining compliments of any kind. But throughout, he has been a constant strength and guide,” the monarch said in March 2012 while addressing Parliament as part of her Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

Though often separated since Philip’s retirement, the couple spent much of the pandemic together at Windsor Castle. On their most recent anniversary, the palace released a photo of the couple reading a card from Prince William’s children, their great-grandchildren.

Image: Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and Britain's Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh look at a homemade wedding anniversary card
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh look at a homemade wedding anniversary card given to them by their great grandchildren in the Oak Room at Windsor Castle on November 17, 2020.Chris Jackson / Buckingham Palace via AFP - Getty Images

Philip himself offered his secret to their happy marriage in a speech given on their 50th wedding anniversary.

“The main lesson that we have learned is that tolerance is the one essential ingredient of any happy marriage,” he said.

“It may not be quite so important when things are going well, but it is absolutely vital when things get difficult — you can take it from me that the queen has the quality of tolerance in abundance.”