Ben Lowry: His enduring marriage to the Queen was key to our understanding of Prince Philip

On the death of Prince Philip yesterday, we were reminded that not only was he weeks from his hundredth birthday but months from his 74th wedding anniversary with the Queen.

Saturday, 10th April 2021, 10:46 am
Updated Saturday, 10th April 2021, 11:13 am
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were a fixture in public consciousness from 1947. When they visited Stormont in the 2012 jubilee year, above, it was weeks after the Queen had seemed visibly concerned for the health of her consort, who was in hospital, but he bounced back and remained active through most of his 90s. Photo: Julien Behal/PA Wire

This took me back 20 years to a time as a young reporter when I wrote stories about long married couples.

In 2001 I wrote about the 67th anniversary from William and Elizabeth Planck from Ballywalter in Co Down, who had married in 1934.

My then news editor wondered if perhaps they were the longest married couple in Northern Ireland. I thought not, so at the bottom of my story about the Plancks put in a notice asking if anyone knew a longer married NI couple.

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A reader called about Frank Hunter and Florence Moore, married 70 years, then another reader about a couple called Hazard, approaching their 70th.

Then we were contacted about Coleman and Bridget Mackin from Co Down, who wed in 1927 and reached their 75th in 2002. I wrote it up, with a fresh appeal for information on a longer married couple, but heard nothing more.

The point is that barely anyone is married for longer than were the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh.

For all the increases in life expectancy, it is still only a small minority of people who live until their late 90s, and particularly unusual for both partners in a couple to do so. The Queen will move into the latter half of her 90s in 11 days.

The marriage of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh has been at the heart of the nation since they tied the knot in 1947, and has been a fixture in the lives of people born in the 1920s as well as adults born this millennium.

It has caught our imagination for a number of reasons.

One reason is that it is a classic love story, with the then Princess Elizabeth having “not taken her eyes off” Philip since she met him in 1939 when in her early teens, as the BBC journalist Andrew Marr described it yesterday.

They were like parents to the country for generations that came after them, then grandparents.

Even if you weren’t interested in royalty it was reassuring that they were always in the background. A reminder that some things do endure, in a changing world. And wow how that world has changed.

I was born in 1971, 50 years after a legendary teacher at my school who was born in 1921 and had been a war veteran. I wondered what life would have been like if born that half century earlier. Philip Mountbatten was also a man of 1921 who bravely served in World War II.

There was no television in 1921, no public air transport, no medical treatments such as penicillin and only primitive cars to which barely anyone had access.

The horrific Great War had recently ended and another disastrous world war was ahead. Much of the UK lived in absolute poverty.

After such bruising experiences, it is hardly surprising that Prince Philip became an antidote to delicate modern sensitivities.

Famously brusque, I know more than one person who emerged from meeting him upset.

But he had traditional qualities that people still greatly admire such as strength in adversity, commitment to family, and a lifelong sense of public duty, carrying out engagements until he was no longer physically capable of doing so.

I reported on his visits over the years, including the Queen’s tour of Dublin in 2011 — something she was said to have wanted to do her whole life.

In 2014, when he visited the Game of Thrones studios in Belfast, I noticed that at 93 he maintained a ramrod-straight back posture as he strode around the set.

At one point he went over to some of the film crew, including young folk, and could be seen holding court, before they all roared with laughter.

The prince also had a reputation for curiosity and intelligence, such as an early concern for the environment. But at the centre of everything we the public knew about him was his marriage to the Queen.

Yesterday I talked to a female friend who was tearful on hearing the announcement and upset at the thought of the Queen now being left on her own. Such a reaction illustrates the extent to which their relationship was so embedded in our consciousness.

It reminded me of the 2012 Diamond Jubilee London concert for the Queen at which, unusually for someone so stoical, she seemed visibly uncomfortable and even vulnerable in the absence of the duke, who was in hospital.

His fate seemed to be troubling her. But weeks later they were together again, driven around Stormont in an open topped vehicle to a cheering crowd.

Recently on radio Frank Mitchell asked me about an article I had written an article condemning the self pity of Harry and Meghan in their TV interview. He asked if I was a staunch royalist.

In fact I have never been a flag waving royalist. When I was younger I thought the hereditary principle was wrong but have long since concluded that a system of non executive monarchy is preferable to elected presidents, who around the world often fail to rise the challenge of being head of state.

Such a post can attract shallow people who above all want to be popular. Prince Philip was the opposite, someone who seems not to care if he is liked. Paradoxically, we often warm to such people.

As to his brusqueness, the more I reported on the royals the more I noticed how rarely they put a foot wrong.

It must be tedious to have to maintain an appearance of enthusiasm as you go from event to event.

I have now observed all the major royals at such functions in Northern Ireland, from touring science labs to visiting schools to watching amateur plays.

The good cheer with which they almost always carry out such often tiring engagements has been striking.

And they took their lead from Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor (other articles by him below, and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the News Letter)

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