The Abdication Threat That Helped Bring About A Royal Marriage

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Did Queen Elizabeth ll, while still a princess, momentarily threaten her parents with renouncing her succession rights when they prevaricated on allowing her to marry the man of her choice, Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark? According to at least two reputable sources, that’s exactly what happened. One of her father’s courtiers, however, was quick to clarify that the sentiment she expressed wasn’t a threat in the technical sense, but rather an empathy with her uncle, Edward Vlll’s, decision to abdicate when faced with similar stonewalling from his government regarding the woman he wished to marry. Still, coming from an heiress presumptive whose belief in the sanctity of the Monarchy, even in her early 20’s, bordered on the religious, this sentiment, regardless of whether or not she was bluffing, was threat enough. This episode is made all the more ironic given that it occurred during the same year that Elizabeth, on her 21st birthday, gave her seminal radio speech while on a state tour of South Africa pledging her undying service to the people of her father’s realm and empire. While Her Majesty’s courtship and marriage to the Duke of Edinburgh has often been portrayed as a straightforward, even generic, World War ll era love story, the truth behind the myth reveals it to have been an all too complex tale of ambition, collusion and callous manipulation on the part of the groom and his family, or more accurately his side of his and his wife’s mutual family; and single minded, albeit genuinely romantic, desperation, even obsession, on the part of the bride.

According to every biographer whose ever deigned to write an account of Elizabeth ll’s life, at 13 she fell in love at first sight with her 19 year old 3rd cousin, Prince Philip of Greece, in 1939 while on a tour of Dartmouth Naval College with her family where he was a cadet. Put in charge of chaperoning Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret by his maternal uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was George Vl and Queen Elizabeth’s official tour guide through the facility, he stirred the future queen’s passions to such an extent that even her governess, Marion Crawford, would later note in her memoir, The Little Princesses, how uncharacteristically flirtatious her prepubescent royal charge became in the presence of the tall, blond, dashing naval cadet. Crawford was obviously not the only person who noticed the undeniable stirring of Elizabeth’s loins. Word soon got back to Lord Mountbatten that his nephew had become the object of the heiress to the throne’s affection. Seizing upon the chance to recreate the Monarchy in his own image, the always conspiratorial Mountbatten immediately sprung a plan into action.

Some explanation is needed to explain the boundless ambition of the man who would eventually be regarded by the current Prince of Wales as his honorary grandfather. While the title Louis Mountbatten, who would eventually become the Earl Mountbatten of Burma, was born with, HSH Prince Louis of Battenberg, might seem impressive to the lay observer, he was in fact born on the ass end of every royal and imperial family he was related to, particularly the British. As a maternal great grandson of Queen Victoria who was additionally a paternal descendant of the morganatic branch of a minor German royal house, Mounbatten’s status within the royal world was further lessened in 1917 when his cousin, King George V, ordered that all members of his family with German titles renounce them, take lesser English noble titles as replacements, and anglicize their last names. Insult was even further added to injury for young Louis when his father, who was serving at that time as First Sea Lord of the Admiralty, was forced to resign because of his German background. From that time forward, Lord Louis Mountbatten swore he’d avenge his family’s dishonor, reclaim his father’s lost position as First Sea Lord, and facilitate the rise of his family to heights even his father couldn’t have imagined. To that end, he launched a scheme after Princess Elizabeth’s first meeting with his nephew to make young Philip Elizabeth’s future husband, Prince Consort, and the progenitor who would change the British royal house’s name from Windsor to Mountbatten. According to authors Lynn Picknett, Clive Prince, Stephen Pryor in their book, War Of The Windsors, Louis soon enlisted the help of his in-laws, King George ll of Greece and Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, who was both a Greek royal and a sister-in-law to George Vl, to help him with his plot.

First, however, he had to convince his nephew. Unless one is inclined toward pedophilia, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Princess Elizabeth’s ardor for Prince Philip wasn’t even remotely requited by her future suitor at the time of their first meeting. As a handsome young man who was not only already a hit with the ladies, but at that time was engaged, according to royal biographer Nicholas Davies, in a prolonged, spasmodic liaison with his first cousin, once removed, Princess Alexandra of Greece, Philip’s initial interest in Elizabeth was more than likely based entirely on her position. Still, for a penniless member of the perennially overthrown and living in exile Greek Royal Family whose childhood had been as unstable and itinerant as that of many refugees with far less exalted pedigrees, it didn’t take long for him to realize the material advantages of being married to Britain’s future queen. He soon began a correspondence with Elizabeth that would last throughout his naval service during the Second World War.

Philip, however, had a hard time initially keeping his uncle’s machinations to himself. Authors Charles Higham and Roy Moseley state in their biography,Elizabeth and Philip: The Untold Story of the Queen of England and Her Prince, that in 1940, while serving on the battle ship HMS Ramillies, he told his captain that his uncle wanted him to marry the world’s most eligible princess. He was even more indiscreet the next year while conversing at a party with famed member of parliament and diarist, Sir Henry “Chips” Channon, who noted the conversation in his diary, which was published posthumously in 1967. Channon writes bluntly that Philip told him he was to become Britain’s future Prince Consort, and that’s why he was being allowed to serve in the Royal Navy. As a Greek national, whose legal status in the United Kingdom could not have been helped by Greece choosing to be neutral at the outbreak of the war, Prince Philip should’ve been sent back to his country rather than being allowed to live in the UK, let alone being allowed to serve in its navy. This circumstance only makes sense in the context of Lord Mountbatten pulling strings behind the scenes.

In the meantime, Princess Elizabeth was falling more and more with her beau with each letter they exchanged. According to Sarah Bradford’s biography, Elizabeth, the future queen expressed her desire to marry Philip as early as September of 1942. Her parents, however, had other ideas. While they allowed Prince Philip and his cousin, and future best man at his wedding, David, Marquis of Milford Haven, to be guests at Sandringham for Christmas in 1943, both George Vl and Queen Elizabeth were suspicious of the sincerity of their elder daughter’s suitor, and extremely weary of his uncle and puppet master. Queen Elizabeth was particularly opposed to the match.

As the daughter of a Scottish earl, the future Queen Mother owed her ascendance into the Royal Family to George V’s policy, engineered by his private secretary Lord Stanfordham, to allow his children to take as their spouses the sons and daughters of the higher aristocracy, as opposed to grafting them exclusively to their mostly German royal cousins on the continent, which had been court policy for the last several hundred years. This move was part of Lord Stanfordham’s long term strategy to de-Germanize the Royal Family and make them more authentically English, or at least British. As Lady Colin Campbell makes clear in her biography, The Queen Mother: The Untold Story of Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, Who Became Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth not only considered it her duty to continue the Anglicization of the House of Windsor, especially when it came to approving the spouse of her oldest, namesake daughter and the future queen, but as a woman whose middle tier aristocratic ancestry ranked well below the origins of most of her in-laws, she had no desire to witness any of her descendants wed a spouse with more illustrious ancestry than her own.

Then, of course, there was the fact that Britain, for the second time in 30 years, was engaged in a horrific war with Germany; Prince Philip’s ancestry, like that of most continental royals, was overwhelmingly German; and his three surviving older sisters, as well as the one who’d recently perished with her husband and family in a plane crash, were married to high ranking Nazi officers. Philip’s personality also left his prospective mother-in-law cold. A brash, jovial and arrogant young man that possessed none of the effeteness the future Queen Mother found so appealing among the opposite sex, many a biographer has characterized her relationship with Philip as having been coldly polite at best, and discretely hostile at worst. Furthermore, Queen Elizabeth could never stand Lord Mountbatten. Knowing a fellow Machiavellian when she saw one, Queen Elizabeth despised his left wing politics almost as much as she resented the ease with which he was able to switch camps from having been one of Edward Vlll’s closest male confidantes to becoming a peripheral, but nonetheless visible, member of George Vl’s court following Edward’s abdication.

And then there was the issue of Prince Philip’s all too enthusiastic sex life. Ben Pimlott makes it bluntly clear in his biography of the Queen that her parents thought Philip was incapable of being faithful to her. There’s much evidence justifying their belief. While he was courting, mostly through long distance, his virgin princess, there’s no doubt among his and his wife’s biographers that he took full carnal advantage of his naval shore leaves. While most of his affairs were casual, at least two of them may’ve been more serious. According to Kitty Kelley in her tome, The Royals, Philip became secretly engaged to a Canadian debutante named Osla Benning at some point during the war, and was only talked out of it by his uncle dearest. Kelley also asserts that Philip later proposed to American heiress Cobina Wright, but she rejected him. While all of this was going on, Princess Elizabeth was ensconced in Windsor Castle romantically daydreaming to Rodgers and Hammerstein love songs, all the while staring at a photo of her beloved resting on her night stand.

When she turned 18 in 1944, King George ll of Greece, who was living in exile in London at the time, broached the subject of Elizabeth and Philip getting married to George Vl. The King coldly rebuffed the idea, stating that his daughter was too young to make such a decision. By this time Prince Philip had returned to England, and was meeting Princess Elizabeth clandestinely at Coppins, the country estate of his cousin and close ally, Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent. It’s doubtful that George Vl and Queen Elizabeth weren’t made aware of these assignations.

It’s perhaps because of their daughter’s continuing ardor, despite their disapproval of Philip, that they nonetheless agreed to help Mountbatten, who became a Viscount shortly after the war ended, in his efforts to have his nephew naturalized as a British subject. Realizing that neither Philip’s foreign title or German last name, Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderberg-Glucksberg, would go over well with the British people, he suggested that Philip renounce his title and take his uncle’s surname. Though initially reluctant, he soon acquiesced. Sir Alan Lascelles , the King’s private secretary, was also enlisted by the King to help with the process, though instructed to remain silent about its motivation. According to Ben Pimlott’s The Queen, when asked by a colleague why various members of the Royal Family were maneuvering for a minor Greek prince to become a British subject, the Private Secretary’s notorious reply was that he suspected said prince was a “matrimonial nigger in the woodpile” obviously intended for the heiress presumptive. The naturalization process went through, and by the time Philip proposed to Elizabeth in September of 1946 he was simply Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten. In retrospect, this process was wholly unnecessary since the 1714 Act of Settlement makes clear that any descendent of Sophia, Electress of Hanover, which Philip definitely was, is automatically a British subject. One can only presume none of the parties involved had read this clause.

Upon accepting Philip’s proposal, Elizabeth chose not to tell her parents until two days later when Philip asked the King for his permission. George Vl, once again citing his daughter’s youth, refused to grant it. As stated in the Royal Marriages Act, no legal marriage could be contracted by a member of the Royal Family at that time without the Sovereign’s permission. George Vl and Queen Elizabeth were no doubt stonewalling in an effort to convince their daughter to change her mind. Ben Pimlott makes clear that such a goal wasn’t an unreasonable expectation on Their Majesties’ part, for Princess Elizabeth had certainly carried on momentary flirtations with other men while Philip had been on naval duty. One such suitor, Lord Carnarvon, is suspected by many biographers as having played on all too important role in Elizabeth ll’s private life, and bedchamber, in the ensuing years. None of these young men, however, even came close to supplanting Philip in the Heiress Presumptive’s affections. What the King and Queen didn’t count on was that their daughter could be just as intractable as they were.

Authors Picknett, Prince and Prior write that it was at this time that Lewis Douglass, the U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James as well as being a close friend of George Vl, reported to his country’s State Department that Princess Elizabeth, in essence, threatened her parents with abdicating her place in the Line of Succession if they didn’t allow her to marry Philip. Many years later Kitty Kelley interviewed one of George Vl’s senior courtiers asking specifically about the incident. The courtier insisted that Princess Elizabeth didn’t specifically threaten to renounce the throne, but rather told her parents that, under similar circumstances, she understood why her uncle, the Duke of Windsor, had done so. As so often happens in the world of royal and diplomatic communication, this was a clever way of making a threat without explicitly doing so, and her parents took it with the utmost seriousness.

After all, they had taught Elizabeth to see her uncle’s action as nothing less than the ultimate betrayal both to his dynasty and his country. The fact that Princess Elizabeth was willing to make such a threat, even if she was likely bluffing, so she could be allowed to marry Philip demonstrates how desperate she’d become. It also, unfortunately, demonstrates how delusional she was regarding their relationship, given that his behavior clearly demonstrated that, had the shoe been on the other foot, one doubts Philip would’ve gone to such lengths to marry Elizabeth. While few biographers doubt Philip’s affection for his wife, many also doubt it evenly matches the Queen’s all consuming love for her husband. The question still remains, however, regarding what role the Viscount, soon to be Earl, Mountbatten of Burma played in Princess Elizabeth’s decision to present her parents with this fait accompli. Princess Elizabeth didn’t at that time have the reputation for shrewdness that she would obtain as Queen, and such a maneuver could certainly have been suggested to her by a man already known at that time for his intrigues, and who stood so much to gain by the proposed marriage. As with so much else concerning the legacy of the late Earl, one will probably never know.

Still hoping by February of 1947 their daughter would change her mind about marrying a man her mother would come to privately nickname “The Hun,” George Vl, Queen Elizabeth and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret embarked on a three month state tour of South Africa. It was during this tour that Princess Elizabeth turned 21 and on that day gave her famous radio broadcast speech, easily the most famous of her life, dedicating her life to the service of the British people and the people of the British Empire, later Commomwealth. By the time they returned, the King and Queen finally realized their daughter wasn’t going to change her mind, and George Vl gave his consent to the marriage. The engagement was announced in June, and after bestowing the title of HRH Duke of Edinburgh plus two lesser titles on Philip, but curiously not the title of Prince, Elizabeth and Philip were married on November 20, 1947. It wouldn’t be until 1957 that Queen Elizabeth ll would officially make her husband a Prince of the Realm.

As a final, ironic footnote, it was widely presumed at the time of her marriage that Princess Elizabeth’s last name, and the last name of all her descendants, was Mountbatten. In 1948, shortly before the birth of Prince Charles, George Vl’s Assistant Private Secretary wrote in a letter regarding the Letters Patent to be issued after the birth that in terms of British common law, Princess Elizabeth had taken on her husband’s name at the time of their marriage. The Earl Mountbatten of Burma would notoriously declare the dawn of the House of Mountbatten shortly after after the death of George Vl in 1952. It would take the combined efforts of Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and Winston Churchill, with the acquiescence of the new Queen, to ensure that didn’t happen. Mountbatten couldn’t get his way all the time!