As the world mourns the passing of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, a heart-warming story has emerged of how he first met the love of his life, Queen Elizabeth II, on a tennis court, 81 years ago. The prince’s sporting prowess as an 18-year-old first caught the teenage princess’s eye, according to royal biographers.
The world’s longest-serving consort died on 9th April, at the age of 99, after being married to Queen Elizabeth for an amazing 73 years. His passing marked the end of one of the greatest love stories of the 20th century.
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When Philip met Elizabeth
The year was 1939, when the dashing young naval officer captured the fun-loving princess’s heart as he demonstrated his skills on the tennis court. Philip was completing his training at Dartmouth Britannia Royal Naval College at the time.
Europe was on the brink of war, as Adolf Hitler was planning his devastating invasion of Poland. A 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth and younger sister Princess Margaret enjoyed a family visit to the college during a period that turned out to be the calm before the storm.
The two princesses accompanied their parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, for a service at the college chapel. The royal family also went to the home of the college captain, Admiral Sir Frederick Dalrymple-Hamilton. Philip was chosen to accompany them on their visit and suggested a walk to the tennis courts.
A love story begins
In her memoirs, the princesses’ former governess, Marion Crawford, described how the 6ft tall naval cadet resembled a “Viking” with his blue eyes and fair hair. He impressed Princess Elizabeth when he leapt energetically over the net, as a player would sometimes do on winning a tennis match!
As Philip continued “larking about”, Princess Elizabeth was reportedly smitten. While the governess said he was “showing off” a little, the awestruck princess commented, “How good he is! How high he can jump!”
At the conclusion of the visit, Philip accompanied the royal family to a dinner party on board the King’s yacht, when Elizabeth was blushing slightly as she giggled with Philip, according to her governess.
Philip’s uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten, noticed how popular the young man had been, later writing in his diary what a “great success” he was with the two princesses. Elizabeth’s cousin, Margaret Rhodes, reportedly said that the young princess was “truly in love” from the moment she saw Philip.
Wartime naval hero
Many years later, Prince Philip admitted his future wife’s feelings weren’t reciprocated initially. At 18, he perhaps felt the 13-year-old princess was a little young to be viewed romantically, although she carried a torch for him. He enjoyed their meeting, describing it as “a very amusing experience”.
At the outbreak of WW2, he served in the Royal Navy, including on the battleship HMS Valiant in the Mediterranean Fleet. He was involved in the battle of Crete and was mentioned in dispatches for his bravery during the Battle of Cape Matapan. At the age of 21, he was promoted to become one of the Royal Navy’s youngest ever first lieutenants.
During the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, he went on to save his ship, HMS Wallace, from a night bomber attack. Devising a plan to distract the bombers by launching a decoy raft with smoke floats, he successfully enabled the ship to slip away unnoticed under cover of darkness.
He and Princess Elizabeth wrote to each other during the war, but Philip reportedly thought of it as a friendship at first. However, when the princess was 17 and Philip was 22, they met each other again at Windsor Castle in 1943.
After this meeting, it was said that Philip began carrying her photo with him for the rest of the war. He also made his formal request to the King to be considered as a suitor. Although his request was met with approval, Elizabeth’s parents reportedly felt she was too young for marriage at 17. The press began speculating about a royal romance before the end of the war and Philip later admitted he was thinking seriously about marriage when he went to Balmoral soon after.
In 1946, he proposed to Elizabeth and they married on 20th November 1947 at Westminster Abbey. Their first child, Prince Charles, was born just under a year later. Prince Philip gave up the naval career he loved to support the Queen in every aspect of their day-to-day life and remained by her side for 73 years.
Love of tennis
It was fitting that the royal couple shared a love of tennis throughout their married life and they would often spend time on the court together.
It should perhaps come as no surprise that the Queen grew up to become a tennis fan: in 1926, her father, King George VI, actually competed at Wimbledon before he was the monarch. Just months after Princess Elizabeth was born, he played in the men’s doubles tournament during the Jubilee Championships of King George V and Queen Mary, who presented the medals and trophies.
In 1954, when the young Queen and Prince Philip toured Australia, eagle-eyed newspaper photographers camped out nearby spotted they had a tennis racket and tennis shoes among their luggage.
In 2007, the Queen was delighted to be given a signed tennis racket from the British Davis Cup team when she opened the new National Tennis Centre in Roehampton, London.
Prince Philip remained a keen tennis player – in fact, he was a great all-rounder, who also excelled at cricket. His sporting prowess had been developed as a schoolboy at Gordonstoun.
At the royal couple’s former royal residence, Windlesham Moor, the tennis courts reportedly doubled as a cricket pitch, where Philip would play with the servants.
Royal links to Wimbledon
Wimbledon tennis tournament has always been linked to the royals, with family members often attending as spectators. The queen has attended Wimbledon as patron of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, while Prince Philip has presented the winner’s trophy.
Most notably, he attended Wimbledon during the Centenary Championship of 1977, when British player Virginia Wade enjoyed a historic victory in the women’s singles final. Club officials have conveyed their deepest sympathy to the royal family on Prince Philip’s passing.
Windsor Castle was one of the first royal residences to have a tennis court. King Henry VII had one constructed at the base of the Round Tower in around 1510, near today’s State Apartments, although the original court is no longer in existence.
The final goodbye
On 17th April, the ceremonial royal funeral of Prince Philip at St George’s Chapel will celebrate and reflect his life of service, not only as a key member of the royal family but also as a Royal Navy veteran and war hero.
His naval cap and sword will be laid on the coffin; as well as the flag of the Royal Standard of Prince Philip, representing his family and heritage; and a flag of Edinburgh Castle, representing his title.