“Everybody knows,” wrote the historian A. L. Rowse in Vogue, “that the marriage of Elizabeth and Philip was a love match like that of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort.” Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, capitalized on his outsider status to transform British taste, leaving a permanent mark on his adopted country’s cultural landscape. He was the driving force, for instance, behind such initiatives as the Great Exhibition of 1851, and gave his attention and name to the future Victoria & Albert Museum and the Royal Albert Hall. Prince Philip’s artistic tastes were more representative of the middlebrow tastes of his adopted country, with his personal art collection, for instance, running to photorealist studies of battleships on choppy seas and wildlife in the African bush.
For Prince Philip, however, his role was clear: to support his wife and stabilize the crown. “He told me the first day he offered me my job,” Michael Parker, the prince’s first private secretary, related to his feisty biographer Fiammetta Rocco, “that his job—first, second, and last—was never to let her down.”
Six years after the wedding, in the middle of a royal tour of Africa, India, and Australia, this role became preeminent when the princess’s father, the self-effacing King George VI, died at the age of 56 of coronary thrombosis (he had been a heavy smoker throughout his adult life) and his eldest daughter ascended to the throne. For Prince Philip, who had finally discovered the stability of family life and was enjoying the home that the young couple had created together at Clarence House, it must have been another profound upheaval in a young life already defined by them. He also had to give up his beloved naval career, a loss that he can only have felt keenly. Instead, he dedicated himself to public service: Over the ensuing decades he became the diligent patron, president, or member of more than 780 organizations, and by the time he retired from official duties in 2017 at the age of 96, he had completed a giddying 22,219 solo engagements—and, of course, many more with his wife.
At the coronation, the royal couple’s young children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne, were present (Princes Andrew and Edward would follow in the subsequent decade), but as at the prince’s wedding, his mother Princess Alice of Battenberg was the only other member of his family to have been invited. His father had died in Monte Carlo in 1944, and his beloved older sister, Princess Cecilie of Greece and Denmark, had died in a plane crash before the war—but his three surviving older sisters Princess Margarita, Princess Theodora, and Princess Sophie were all married to German officers (Sophie’s husband, Prince Christophe of Hesse, was an Oberführer in the Nazi SS, while Margarita’s husband Gottfried, Prince of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, had been involved in the abortive attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life in July of 1944), and in postwar Britain, anti-German sentiment still ran high.