1 November 2017
This November Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary, becoming the first monarch and consort in British history to achieve such incredible landmark. But which other kings and queens enjoyed decades-long marriages before them? In this article, we count down the five longest marriages of monarchs and consorts in the history of the British monarchy.
Edward and Philippa's was medieval England’s longest sovereign marriage. It started as a diplomatic arrangement between the English monarchy and the county of Hainaut in Flanders, and a papal dispensation was required to marry as they were second cousins, both of them descended from King Philip III of France. They were wedded in York Minster—the only king and queen to have been married there—when Edward was 15 and Philippa only 13-years-old. Despite their youth and the match's diplomatic beginnings their union turned out to be both happy and fruitful. Philippa gave birth to 13 children, 9 of whom survived into adulthood, and she is often credited with keeping harmony among Edward’s ambitious male brood as they grew older.
Edward and Philippa formed one of the most successful royal couples in British history. Edward’s reign was peaceful at home and militarily successful abroad during the Hundred Years War, whilst Philippa became popular for her intercessions on behalf of condemned criminals and the downtrodden (part of the role of a medieval queen). She often accompanied Edward on military campaigns and famously convinced him to spare the lives of the burghers of Calais when that French city was conquered. The only fly in their marital ointment was that Edward took on mistresses (part of the role of a medieval king), something that Philippa silently tolerated as she was expected to do. Her real feelings on the subject are not known, but when she pre-deceased Edward and he promoted his long-term mistress, Alice Perrers, to the role of unofficial first lady of the court, the move was resented by almost everyone who had known and loved Philippa.
The marriage of Queen Elizabeth II’s grandparents had a somewhat macabre beginning. Mary was initially engaged to George’s elder brother, Prince Albert Victor, who died suddenly in January 1892. Queen Victoria, who had personally chosen Mary for a bride because she thought she had all the right qualities to be queen consort, urged George to step in his brother’s place as the new heir to the throne, and do right by Mary. After a suitable mourning period had passed, George proposed to Mary—who was also his second cousin once removed as they were both descended from King George III—and they were married to great popular rejoicing in July 1893. Mary received several pieces of jewellery from local and national committees as wedding presents, including the ‘Girls of Great Britain and Ireland’ tiara that is worn by Queen Elizabeth II in her portrait on British banknotes today.
George and Mary ended up being eminently suited to each other since they shared similar characters and life visions, including dedication to duty and to the monarchy. They both had reserved characters which many mistook for lack of affection, though all who knew them always remarked on their quiet closeness, and on the vital support Mary provided her husband. On one famous occasion in 1928 after George came close to death through illness and was asked what had saved his life, he simply answered: “The Queen”. Throughout their long marriage and 26-year reign they transformed the monarchy into an institution devoted to service and introduced popular middle class values into the Royal Family. George, unlike his father Edward VII and eldest son Edward VIII, never took up mistresses, and he and Mary had six children. Their Silver Wedding anniversary was nationally celebrated in 1918, and Mary was at George’s side when he died in 1936, after which she lived on as the widowed matriarch of the Royal Family for the next 17 years.
The search for Edward’s wife, when he was Prince of Wales, was a vast undertaking that involved most of Queen Victoria’s family combing through the (Protestant) royal and princely families of Europe for a suitable candidate. Luckily, the final choice turned out to be one of the most popular royals in British history: Alexandra of Denmark. The daughter of King Christian IX of Denmark, Alexandra was of course beautiful—a necessary prerequisite for Edward who considered himself an expert on the subject—but it was her other qualities that convinced Queen Victoria she would make a suitable queen. These included patience, affability, and a true sense of kindness for people.
Her arrival in London in 1863 for her wedding was the occasion for massive festivities since it was the first wedding of a Prince and Princess of Wales to be celebrated in Britain for almost 70 years. She and Edward became the centre of London social life and espoused many charitable and welfare causes, and Alexandra also became a style icon throughout Europe. Her sweetness and compassion made her the most popular Princess of Wales in British history (arguably more popular than Diana, Princess of Wales, since Alexandra, differently from Diana, had no public detractors). Although they had to wait 37 years to become king and queen, due to Victoria’s long reign, Edward and Alexandra's short 9-year reign was very successful. They shared a love of ceremony, with Edward loving great spectacles of state whilst Alexandra excelling at looking beautifully regal. Together they revived pomp and ceremonial after the quiet widowhood of Queen Victoria, establishing national royal rituals that persist to this day, like Trooping the Colour and the State Opening of Parliament.
Their personal union, however, was less successful, due to Edward’s constant infidelities. At first genuinely hurt by his extra-marital affairs, Alexandra learned to accept Edward’s merry way of life, bearing everything with her trademark patience and kindness, and they had six children together. They eventually developed a true loving relationship since Edward always considered Alexandra to be the first woman in his life as his affairs came and went with the seasons. Alexandra even came to be friends with some of his long-term mistresses as they both got older. Unsurprisingly (and perhaps bitterly) when Edward died after 47 years of marriage Alexandra refused to part with the body right away, saying that that was the only time she could have him completely to herself. She survived him by 15 years.
Britain’s longest-reigning king was fittingly married to its longest-reigning queen consort, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Charlotte also holds the record for the most children ever born by a British queen: 15 children, all healthy births, 13 of whom reached adulthood—a record that is unlikely to ever be broken. From a minor princely family in Germany, Charlotte was chosen specifically by George for her simple domestic qualities since he did not want a spouse who would meddle into politics like his mother and grandmother had done. Charlotte did make the occasional intervention in state affairs when it was absolutely necessary (as she was no simpleton) but she largely respected George’s wishes throughout their marriage, concentrating on palace life and on her many children. She was kind and caring, though famously too attached to her daughters, many of whom were forced to remain unmarried to keep her company in old age. Her relationship with George was deeply affectionate: unlike all the other Hanoverians kings, George kept no mistresses. But he also had the tendency to be controlling, choosing Charlotte's activities and interests especially in the first years of their marriage. Charlotte eventually developed a life-long interest of her own in botany and contributed to the creation of Kew Gardens in London. Their marriage was unique among sovereign couples in Europe at the time as they both preferred simple domestic pleasures rather than grand spectacles at court, as was the case for example in France.
The biggest strain on their marriage was of course George’s madness. During the first episodic bouts of his illness between 1780-1804 Charlotte was genuinely frightened by the change in her husband’s character, and was also distressed by the undue responsibilities placed on her for her husband’s care and the running of the family. For his part, George found his confinements even more harrowing because he did not have Charlotte by his side. Their reunions each time he recovered from his illness were joyous occasions for the whole family. As they grew old they became national icons, sometimes celebrated as the essence of Britishness during the Napoleonic Wars, at other times lambasted in the press for having raised a brood of dissolute sons. Sadly, their life together came to an end when George finally descended into permanent madness in 1810. Although Charlotte was made the legal guardian of George's person--whilst their eldest son took on official roles as Regent--it is believed they stopped seeing each other during the last five years of their marriage while he was being kept in medical seclusion at Windsor Castle. By then George had become an unrecognizable, incoherent shadow of his former self, and when Charlotte died in 1818, 14 months before him, he did not even realise that she was gone. Their marriage, however, founded on simplicity, faithfulness and domesticity, served as model for later sovereign couples like Victoria and Albert, George V and Queen Mary, and indeed the next and final couple on this list.
Most amazingly, Britain’s longest ever royal marriage is still a work in progress after 70+ years. Elizabeth II and Prince Philip’s marriage was cynically said to have been engineered by Louis Mountbatten, Prince Philip’s uncle and a distant cousin of Elizabeth (Liz and Phil are third cousins through Queen Victoria, and also second cousins once removed via a different family line). However young Elizabeth by all accounts became smitten with young, tall, blond Philip when they met as teenagers in 1939, and she decided to marry him even against the objections of her parents who called him ‘the Hun’. Time apart during the Second World War failed to weaken their relationship and they were eventually engaged in 1947, after Philip had become a British citizen. Their wedding was the first national celebration after the hardships of the war, bringing a flash of colour to a drab Britain, and they received wedding presents from all over world. These included a cloth woven by Mahatma Gandhi, and an entire ready-to-cook turkey offered by an American lady who was worried they might not be able to afford a full meal in what was still rationing Britain.
Their first years of marriage were spent as a British Navy couple as Philip continued to pursue a naval career, living at Clarence House when in London, and in Malta while Philip was stationed abroad. This brief private idyll ended with the premature death of King George VI in 1952, forcing Elizabeth into a lifetime of duty at an early age. It was actually Philip who broke the news to her that Elizabeth’s father had died and she was now Queen, becoming in effect the first subject to acknowledge her as sovereign. Ever since then his life has been devoted to help her fulfill her role as monarch. During the last 70+ years Philip has accompanied Elizabeth to countless state occasions and trips around the world, always walking a few steps behind his wife as sovereign, and always putting his own personal interests behind his commitment to be by his wife’s side at major public events. Before he officially retired, it was a known royal routine that at the beginning of each year his engagement diary was filled first with the Queen’s own engagements where he was expected to be by her side, and then with his own commitments afterwards. Philip’s own achievements as Prince Consort have also been substantial on their own. He is said to have been one of the driving forces behind the modernisation of the Royal Family during Eliz'sabeth reign, including the use of TV cameras at the 1953 coronation and the introduction of royal family documentaries; the opening of royal palaces to the public; and the creation of the successful Duke of Edinburgh Award for young people.
Stories abound regarding their relative failures as parents leading to their children’s divorces, and about Philip’s occasional frustration with royal protocol and restrictions. Their affection, however, by all accounts is real, and together they have been successful royal team for over 70 years. The secret of their long, stable marriage has perhaps been a fair division of duties. They both reportedly agreed early on that while Elizabeth, as Queen, was Head of the Country, Philip would be Head of the Family. Quite how this worked in practice, given the sovereign’s authority in the Royal Family, is still a bit of a mystery. In the years ahead, as their marriage becomes part of history, we will doubtlessly learn much more on how this team actually worked. But the importance of their stable marriage and their shared vision for the continuing health of the British monarchy cannot be overestimated. As Elizabeth herself said about Prince Philip in 1997, on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary: “He is someone who doesn't take easily to compliments but he has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years, and I, and his whole family, and this and many other countries, owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim, or we shall ever know.”