News, Culture & Society

Story behind The Queen and Prince Philip’s wedding

Of all the royal records she has broken — and she has smashed almost all of them — there is one that surely means most to the Queen.

She and Prince Philip have now enjoyed the longest royal marriage in history. To cap it all, on November 20 they will mark their platinum wedding anniversary.

To be celebrating 70 years of marriage is a fabulous achievement by any standards, even more so when all seven decades have been spent in the unrelenting media spotlight.

The Queen and Prince Philip (pictured on their wedding day) have now enjoyed the longest royal marriage in history

If the Queen were not the Queen, she could actually look forward to a message of congratulation from the palace, since the Sovereign doesn’t just send out cards when her subjects reach the age of 100. 

Anyone with a 60th, a 65th and a 70th wedding anniversary automatically qualifies, too (and there is one every year thereafter). But she will not be sending greetings to herself.

No big celebrations are planned. There will be no service of thanksgiving or grand luncheon, as there were on previous anniversaries.

It was at the couple’s golden wedding anniversary lunch, given by Prime Minister Tony Blair, that the Queen delivered one of her most famous remarks. Paying tribute to an uncharacteristically bashful Prince Philip, she thanked him for being her ‘strength and stay’.

Princess Elizabeth leaves the Palace in the Irish State Coach accompanied by her father HM, King George VI for her wedding to the Duke of Edinburgh

Princess Elizabeth leaves the Palace in the Irish State Coach accompanied by her father HM, King George VI for her wedding to the Duke of Edinburgh

At another golden wedding lunch, he observed that the secret to every happy marriage is tolerance. ‘You can take it from me,’ he went on, ‘that the Queen has the quality of tolerance in abundance.’

For the 70th, there will be just a small family celebration. The Royal Mail will produce commemorative stamps and the Royal Mint has been busy, too. But there will be no walkabout or palace balcony appearance by the couple, who wish to mark the occasion — at the respective ages of 96 and 91 — in private.

How very different it all was 70 years ago. For a bomb-scarred nation, enduring genuine austerity and still living on wartime rations, the royal wedding would be the biggest morale-booster since VJ Day — the end of World War II two years earlier.

And it will all be vividly remembered — and recreated — in a stunning ITV documentary to be screened next week.

With contributions from many of those who were present in Westminster Abbey — including one of the page boys, Prince Michael of Kent — and others who were just thrilled to see it from afar, A Very Royal Wedding is a delightful reprise of the moment Winston Churchill called ‘a flash of colour on the hard road we have to travel’.

The presenter, Alexander Armstrong, revisits everything, from the ring and the cake to the making of the dress, while celebrities including Dame Joan Collins, Sheila Hancock and Jilly Cooper remember the impact of the occasion on a country that was still dusting itself down after years of horror and mess.

Indeed, what comes through loud and clear from the start is people’s simple, heartfelt yearning for a spot of glamour — and that is exactly what the 21-year-old princess and her gallant sailor beau were giving them.

‘Hollywood comes to London,’ is how Joan Collins puts it. ‘Even as a schoolgirl, I could see there was this huge kind of love which we’d only seen in the movies.’

Prince Philip — or Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten as he was when the engagement was announced in the summer of 1947 — was genuine heart-throb material. ‘Suddenly this gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous naval officer turned up,’ says Jilly Cooper. ‘He was the first man that one thought: “Gosh, this is a very attractive man.”’

Thousands of Londoners gathered around the Victoria Memorial at the entrance to Buckingham Palace to cheer the newly married Princess Elizabeth and Philip

Thousands of Londoners gathered around the Victoria Memorial at the entrance to Buckingham Palace to cheer the newly married Princess Elizabeth and Philip

The former Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark — he would be made Duke of Edinburgh on the eve of the wedding — had an unexpected creative streak, too. When it came to finding an engagement ring for the most eligible young woman on the planet, he created one himself.

Alexander Armstrong meets the jeweller’s grandson to find out how it was done. The prince had been given some diamonds from a tiara belonging to his mother, Princess Andrew of Greece. He took them to Philip Antrobus of Old Bond Street to have them set in platinum to his own design — an Art Deco-style ring, featuring a brilliant-cut diamond flanked by five smaller diamonds on either side.

The bride-to-be, meanwhile, was going through hoops to avoid being accused of extravagance or preferential treatment. With rationing still in force, Princess Elizabeth was bombarded with clothing coupons from members of the public. As this was technically illegal, they all had to be sent back.

The authorities were also nervous about the prospect of the Household Cavalry wearing dress uniform for the first time since the outbreak of war. Might it not be a bit, well, showy?

There were even parliamentary questions about the provenance of the silk in the royal dress. Were the silkworms not Japanese — and thus enemy silkworms? The historian Lady Antonia Fraser recalls the sense of relief when they turned out to hail from China instead.

But what all these naysayers had overlooked was that Britain was crying out for a spectacular celebration to do justice to this true fairytale. They wanted their princess to look like a proper princess and Britain to feel proud. Never mind if it cost a few quid.

‘I can’t imagine anybody was miserable enough to say she should wed in her ATS [Auxiliary Territorial Service] uniform,’ says Shelia Hancock. ‘I think they probably did feel grateful, as my parents did, for the way the Royal Family behaved during the war. They thought they deserved a good knees-up for their daughter’s wedding.’

The dress was taking shape amid the sort of secrecy reserved for a wartime secret weapon. The designer, Norman Hartnell, had all his windows painted over to shut out prying lenses and ordered an assistant to sleep alongside his handiwork each night.

The producers have tracked down seamstress Betty Foster, who was given the special task of sewing on the royal buttons; and Barbara Unwin, who wove the silk — and whose reward for her efforts was a seat in Westminster Abbey, no less (where she had to resist the temptation to jump on her chair for a better view of the dress).

Equally challenging was the cake. McVitie’s was charged with the task of producing a thing of wonder, a 9ft-high, 500lb fruit cake. By way of a tribute, the documentary’s production company, Oxford Films, commissioned an exact replica.

Even today, it is a challenge — but the original cakemakers had the additional hurdle of food rationing to overcome.

Back in 1947, all the ingredients were in short supply. Step forward, the Commonwealth. Old friends and allies soon came to the rescue.

When it came to finding an engagement ring for the most eligible young woman on the planet, Prince Philip created one himself 

When it came to finding an engagement ring for the most eligible young woman on the planet, Prince Philip created one himself 

There was flour from Canada, butter from New Zealand, sugar from Barbados, rum from Jamaica. But the real stars were the Girl Guides of Australia, who pooled their pocket money to provide the requisite sugar, crystallised fruit, spices and other ingredients. These were shipped from around the world to the McVitie’s North London factory.

Finally, the whole four-storey monster was iced with exquisite, almost baroque, detail, right down to sugared emblems and armorial bearings.

Seventy years later, the old soldiers of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, are happy to eat the finished cake, though it is a nervous moment as Armstrong watches the cake-makers slot the top tier of four in place. Today’s chefs have a hydraulic lift to help; back then, it all had to be done with stepladders.

The wedding gifts –— all 2,583 of them — were a fabulous assortment, ranging from dazzling diamonds to a (very sensible) pair of Pyrex dishes.

Some, such as the piece of cloth that Mahatma Gandhi had woven himself, are well known. But many came from ordinary well-wishers — a washing machine from the people of Royal Leamington Spa, a potato peeler from a Mr and Mrs Cavanagh.

Certainly the bride would never be short of that rarest of wartime luxuries, stockings. She received 148 pairs.

Armstrong’s own favourite is the ‘slightly inappropriate’ choice of the Rev Robert and Mrs Hyde — a bath sponge.

As the guests descended on London, the partying began. The Queen’s friend Lady Myra Butter recalls a pre-wedding ball at Buckingham Palace where the King led the conga and the Queen of the Netherlands felt obliged to join in. Moments later, she caught her toe and over she went.

‘If there’s a conga line, you join it,’ chuckles Lady Myra.

On the day of the wedding, there was a stream of mishaps, before and after. As the Princess was getting ready — modern brides may be astonished to learn that she did her own make-up — her tiara snapped. An emergency intervention by the Crown Jeweller saved the day.

Members of the Cordon Bleu cookery school add final touches to their show-stopping recreation of the Queen and Prince Philips 9ft high, 500lb 1947 wedding cake

Members of the Cordon Bleu cookery school add final touches to their show-stopping recreation of the Queen and Prince Philips 9ft high, 500lb 1947 wedding cake

The programme also dwells on one mystery surrounding the wedding photos.

In the original shots, taken immediately afterwards at Buckingham Palace, the Princess appears to have no bouquet. In the official wedding portrait, issued later, she has one.

The florist, David Longman, knew why. His son Martin explains that a few days after the wedding, his father had a call from the palace asking for an exact replica.

Passing through London for the second part of their UK-based honeymoon, the new Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh had dressed up in their wedding clothes all over again for a state portrait. Hey presto, the bouquet magically appears.

All these enjoyable little details pale before the sheer drama of that moment when the Irish State Coach set off from the palace with the bride and her father, accompanied by the Household Cavalry.

Early colour film shows how this starburst of pageantry contrasts brilliantly with the relentless greyness of London. While the public seem to be dressed entirely in brown and khaki, the bridal procession is a riot of red, gold and silver — with the bride, in stunning white, at the centre of it all.

Watching the footage again, Prince Michael of Kent is mesmerised and somewhat amused to see grainy cine footage of his five-year-old self tearing down a palace corridor.

He was one of two page boys charged with carrying the train. ‘One was fairly preoccupied holding onto the train,’ he recalls, ‘and the responsibility of not getting anything wrong was drummed into one, so that you didn’t dare let go or scratch your nose.’

But others recall that the young prince’s performance was not entirely glitch-free. As a girl, Lady Antonia Fraser had been fascinated by Princess Elizabeth’s veil. Her mother had been among the wedding guests, and as soon she returned home, the young Antonia grilled her on the day’s events.

‘She said: “Prince Michael — he crunched the veil [scrunched up the intricate and delicate fabric in his hands].” And I thought: “This is horrifying.” And sometimes I look at pictures of Prince Michael and I think: “You crunched the veil!”

The moment seems to have escaped the prince’s memory. ‘The whole thing went so smoothly,’ he reflects, ‘that there was no moment of horror which has haunted me ever since.’

His abiding memories are of the size of the cake and the size of the crowds that greeted the wedding party when they stepped onto the palace balcony: ‘The noise they made was fantastic. So there was an enormous feeling of some great event going on, which to anybody, especially to a small child, was an intoxicating thing.’

Alexander Armstrong tells me that one thing which struck him while making the programme was the lack of flag-waving. Materials were in short supply and many people couldn’t afford flags anyway.

For the Windsors themselves, it was a turning point. ‘It was the first happy, jolly family reunion, I suppose, since the war,’ says Prince Michael, whose own father had been killed on active service shortly after he was born.

For the people of Britain, there was a similar sense of a corner turned, of a new, happier chapter starting to unfold.

So much has changed since then, from the way we eat, dress and live to the colours of the map of the world. Yet through it all, this great love story endures. As Armstrong — whose earliest royal memory is of the 1977 Silver Jubilee — says, the Queen and the Duke’s platinum anniversary should be an inspiration to us all.

‘It’s a wonderful, mature relationship and they clearly take such pleasure in each other’s company,’ he says. ‘I find that the older and more sentimental I get, the more it is something I am moved by.’

He is not the only one.

A Very Royal Wedding is on ITV at 9pm on Monday.