24th November 1947: Princess Elizabeth and The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh enjoying a walk during their honeymoon at Broadlands, Romsey, Hampshire. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Greek prince

Philip the foreigner and the press

Artillery Row Books

Seventy-five years ago peaches-and-cream Princess Elizabeth walked down the aisle with her war hero husband, Philip. No longer Prince of Greece and Denmark, here was a recently naturalised Brit, freshly pressed into the Anglican Church and bearing the shiny new titles of Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth and Baron Greenwich.

Elizabeth and Philip, the story of young love, marriage and monarchy, Tessa Dunlop (Headline, £20)

The journey to British acceptability for this former Balkan royal did not happen overnight. Philip was a man whose devastating good looks, disarming confidence and impoverished foreign status instantly raised hackles. As one courtier observed: “the family were at first horrified when they saw that Prince Philip was making up to Princess Elizabeth. They felt he was rough, ill mannered, uneducated and would probably not be faithful.”

But what Elizabeth wanted (as early as 1940 she was sticking press cuttings of her sailor-prince into a scrapbook), Elizabeth eventually got. If in 1944 George VI pronounced his daughter too young for matrimonial assignations, that had changed by the summer of 1946, when privately at least the couple’s engagement was loosely agreed. Once the decision had been taken, more urgent than any misgivings from snide (jealous) courtiers and politicians, was the need to win around Britain’s fourth estate. 

In his Diamond Queen biography, Andrew Marr writes that in the immediate post-war period only the “most anodyne of references to royalty appeared” in the press, but it isn’t true. In new democratic Britain, the burgeoning mass media not only reported on Elizabeth’s romantic intentions ad infinitum but also encouraged readers to expect a degree of agency over them. After all, had not the monarchy caused unjustifiable upheaval and national disgrace with its marital shenanigans and abdication crisis in 1936? The Guardian was unequivocal; the same mistake could not be made twice, the marriage of a future monarch was “essentially a matter… in which the voice of the people must be heard”.

Here were the seeds of a more challenging, certainly a more invasive, relationship between the press and the monarchy. In early 1947 the Sunday Pictorial stunned the nation with an audacious headline: “SHOULD OUR FUTURE QUEEN WED PHILIP?” The paper demanded that “above all the loyal people over whom the young Princess will one day rule as Queen” needed the chance to express their views. The paper proclaimed there was no better, more “democratic” way of testing the national temperature on “foreign Philip” than through polling. Readers were invited to write in with their opinions and thousands did so.

Britain’s war heroes stewed over the idea of a Greek consort

The results were not a unanimous victory for the Prince — far from it. Across the country Britain’s feted war heroes, its male soldiers who had served overseas and come home to austerity and disappointment, sat in clubs and barracks and stewed over the idea of a Greek consort. The very thought stuck in their craw. “Let’s have no more foreigners in England” was their fall-back position. “Let us not link ourselves with Greece or any other royal household.” Lest there was any doubt: “we would like the Princess to follow in the footsteps of her father and marry a commoner. That worked well.” The Russell family in Euston Road, London, spelled it out: “a father and two sons who have served in both wars” say “‘Definitely no!’ to a marriage with a foreign prince”. Little Britain’s military men wanted to pull up the drawbridge. 

Fears about “foreign” Philip possibly marrying Elizabeth were first mooted a year earlier in The Star: “Rumour is again finding a husband for the most eligible bride in the world — nineteen-year-old Princess Elizabeth”, insisting that, “Nobody, nowadays, would welcome a marriage to some young princeling just for the sake of finding a Royal bridegroom to be the eventual Prince Consort. Philip, the “Greek Prince”, was named in the next paragraph. Even for the less than perceptive reader, the subtext was clear: the paper did not like the idea of a Johnny foreigner marrying their princess. The forthright nature of the article disturbed the Palace, which promptly issued the first of several denials.

If The Star had rattled the Palace, there were other far bigger players that had to be held at bay. Beaverbrook’s Express newspapers had the world’s largest circulation — 2.25 million daily sales. His uncompromisingly patriotic papers were the lifeblood that sustained the magic between the monarchy and its people, and in a country still nursing open wounds from fighting a world war, that monarchy had to be unstintingly British. This posed a problem for Philip that was compounded by Beaverbrook’s well known disdain for his uncle, meddlesome Louis Mountbatten. Ambitious Uncle Dickie understood the stakes were high and pushed an extraordinary “campaign of nobbling”.

Away from home the dashing Duke consistently outshone his wife

Mountbatten kept his messaging simple. Philip was not Greek (racially this much was true — the Greek royal family had not one drop of Hellenic blood). The Prince was “an intelligent, broad-minded, fair, good-looking young man… he could not even speak Greek, having left Greece as an infant”. As for the Prince’s naturalisation application, according to Mountbatten that was only unresolved because of the war. To all intents and purposes, the Prince was British. The Times got the message: Philip was “the grandson of one very distinguished British admiral and the nephew of another” and he “joined the Royal Navy by open competition in the ordinary course”. Mountbatten’s efforts were effective: the conservative press including the Daily Express towed the line, and he finally clinched an agreement for Philip’s naturalisation. As if by magic, the latter’s elongated Germanic tag, Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg vanished, replaced by the already anglicised name of his uncle Mountbatten. Yah boo sucks to all those thin-lipped Brits who worried about Philip’s heritage; now he was officially one of them.

When the royal engagement was finally announced in July 1947, Philip the Greek had a new look. A naturalised Brit with an English name he was also a “sailor from the sea, and a down-to-earth lieutenant who played “skittles” in his local and drank with fellow officers in the wardroom. Even better, when the couple appeared arm-in-arm in public, Philip had the good grace to look “a little shy”. But the whiff of xenophobia was never far from the surface. Lest there was any doubt over his heritage, on the couple’s wedding day the Daily Mirror ran a picture of boy-Philip wearing a Greek costume.

Given this rocky start it is perhaps unsurprising that Philip was uneasy around the press. Things came to a head the night of his stag do when the Duke approached the amassed photographers, convinced them to hand over their cameras by offering to take their picture, then calmly removed and destroyed their flash bulbs. There was little love lost on either side. Overseas it was a very different story. American news outlets immediately identified the Duke’s star power, writing of the Edinburghs’ 1951 tour: “Philip, to tell the truth, almost stole the show from his wife during the couple’s first hours in Washington. Thousands of women along the line of the motorcade shrieked ‘there he is’ as the big blonde boy with the big smile waved at the crowds.”

Away from home the dashing Duke consistently outshone his wife, but not so back in Britain where Philip had to work hard to win the public’s affections. It was never a straightforward relationship for a man who had grown up without media intrusion but was nonetheless aware of his “special” status as the Prince of Greece. The guff interface between the Duke and the press in his later years would eventually become a source of amusement, even affection, but at its core lay an early distrust between a media forced to embrace a “foreigner” and an entitled “foreigner” forced to relinquish his early identity. Luckily for Britain and our monarchy, Philip considered it a sacrifice well worth making. 

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