It is difficult for most of us to fathom how long Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were married. According to the Bible, the normal human lifespan is three score years and ten (Psalm 90:10), which suggests that the normal marriage might last between 40 and 50 years. But the Queen and her consort were married for 73 years, which is not just unusually long but ascends nearly to the ranks of the heroic in its durability.
Prince Philip was born in the Greek island of Corfu, but he wasn’t exactly Greek. When Greece became independent in 1832, it did so as a monarchy with an imported Bavarian prince on the new throne. After the hapless King Otto was overthrown in 1862, a younger son of King Christian IX of Denmark became King George I, who reigned until his assassination in 1913. George’s son Andrew married Princess Alice of Battenberg, and together they produced a son, Philip. Greece was never blessed with stable political life, and shortly after his birth, Philip’s family were forced into exile. Thus he did not grow up speaking Greek, had no Greek ancestry, and had no memory of Greece.
By the time Philip turned nine, his parents were no longer living together. He attended schools in France, Germany, England and Scotland, entering the Royal Navy at age 18, the year the Second World War broke out. Corresponding with the teenage daughter of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth during this time, he received permission to marry her after the war, knowing full well that she was destined to be Queen.
Church of England convert
By all accounts, Philip would have been happy to continue his naval career, and for the first years of their marriage, he and the heir to the throne were stationed in Malta, maintaining a semblance of nonroyal military life. During their goodwill tour of the Commonwealth in 1952, the Queen’s father died, and her new responsibilities demanded the couple return to London. The scriptwriters for the Netflix series The Crown suggest that their marriage was rocky during these years. But if it was, the media were loath even to suggest it, as they had yet to assume the vicious prurience for which they are notorious today.
Unlike the Queen, who has conducted herself flawlessly throughout her long reign, Prince Philip felt somewhat freer to speak his mind, occasionally courting controversy over a careless remark. He could be blunt, in contrast to his more diplomatic wife.
Baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church, Philip converted to the Church of England at the time of his marriage to Princess Elizabeth in 1947. At the same time he was granted several titles, most notably Duke of Edinburgh.
The writers for The Crown suggest that Prince Philip flirted with atheism in his younger years, but former Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, claims to The Yorkshire Post that Philip discussed with him freely his and the Queen’s shared rootedness in the Christian faith: “Of course, the Queen and I are so strong in Jesus Christ.” His remarkable mother, Princess Alice, had founded an order of Orthodox nuns in Greece, spent the war years sheltering Jews during the German occupation, and ended her life at Buckingham Palace with her son and daughter-in-law. Her presence in Philip’s life likely had an impact on his own faith. Nevertheless, he was known to be inquisitive about other religions and was interested in fostering interfaith dialogue.
After such a long marriage, the Queen has suffered a great loss. But with the passing of the generation that came of age during the Second World War, we remember with the psalmist that our lives, however long they may be, will one day draw to a close. Even if we, “by reason of strength,” attain to four score or, like Prince Philip, five score, they remain in God’s hands.