Elizabeth and Philip, by Tessa Dunlop

This splendid book provides a fresh perspective on a well-known story.
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As Tessa Dunlop says in her introduction, when she began to write Elizabeth and Philip, she did not expect the story to end so definitively with Queen Elizabeth’s death, despite her great age. The monarch had lost her husband of seventy-three years in 2021; he had been her strength and stay. This book, described as a story of young love, marriage and monarchy, looks at the beginning of Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship both in personal terms and also in the wider context of the society of the time. The original and fascinating perspective that Tessa Dunlop brings to this well-documented story is to draw on the memories, experiences and sometimes trenchant opinions of the royal couple’s contemporaries. These were the people who were peers of the Princess Elizabeth and their perspective is very different from later generations who saw her as a “fantasy grandmother.”

The book begins on VE Day and takes us through the intricacies of Elizabeth and Philip’s courtship against the background of a post-war world where there was a craving for stability but also the glamour of a fairy tale royal romance. The Abdication Crisis was still fresh in the memories of many people and the royal family was walking a fine line between appearing to lead lives that mirrored the masses in terms of strong family values whilst providing the sparkle that people craved in times of austerity. This was a world where gender was intensely important. In the private sphere, Philip was head of the family even as the royal couple dealt with the power imbalance inherent in their respective positions.

Tessa Dunlop skilfully leads us through the early years of the marriage, the influence of the press and the courtiers, and the wider context of the nation, its place in the post-war world and the monarchy’s place within that. There are some delightful examples of how the royals were in tune with broader trends in society, such as Philip “re-purposing” his family heirlooms to come up with an engagement ring suitable for the heir to the throne whilst other couples also refashioned old jewellery in the 1940s as there were no 22 carat wedding rings being made. It is also fascinating to see how much press intrusion there was in the lives of the royal family even in the 1940s; in a newspaper poll on whether Princess Elizabeth should marry Prince Philip, the voting initially came out with 55% in favour and 40% against. This was hardly a ringing endorsement although over time Philip’s “approval rating” improved. The description of the public scrum that ensued to see the Princess and their new husband on their honeymoon is also an eye-opener. When they attended a service at Romsey Abbey three days into their marriage, the crown knocked over gravestones and climbed up the church windows in their rush to get a glimpse of the newlyweds. It all feels surprisingly familiar.

This splendid book provides a fresh perspective on a well-known story, illuminated by the reflections of contemporaries of Elizabeth and Philip and the parallels, similarities and differences in their lives. The focus on the press scrutiny of the royal couple during their courtship and the early years of their marriage is also fascinating. It is a book that weaves the personal story of Elizabeth and Philip into the national and international context of their early years and is deep and insightful.

Nicola Cornick is a historian, writer and author of The Winter Garden.