Wednesday 25 May 2011

Prince Philip and the long-lasting consorts

Last night, ITV broadcast a very interesting interview with His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, who turns ninety this year and who is now also the longest serving consort in the British monarchy's history. Born Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark in 1921, Prince Philip married Princess Elizabeth after serving in the British Navy during the Second World War. When she succeeded her father as Sovereign in February 1952, he thus became the first male consort in the Crown's history since the death of Prince Albert in 1861. With a consortial tenure of fifty-nine years, today Prince Philip is the patron of over eight hundred charitable organisations, as well as being the founder of the acclaimed Duke of Edinburgh Award, a three-tiered physical activities programme for young people aged between fourteen and twenty-four. After watching the interview, I thought I'd profile the other "top ten" longest serving consorts in British history.

1. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (59 years) The handsome Greek prince and former officer in the British Navy had many family ties to England when he fell in love with the heiress to the throne, Princess Elizabeth, during the Second World War. A keen supporter of modernising the monarchy, he has served as consort since 1952.

2. Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (57 years) A conservative and conscientious German princess who married King George III in 1761, the year after he became king. A pen-pal and admirer of Marie-Antoinette's, Queen Charlotte remained steadfast during the enormous pressures of her husband's kingship, including the American Revolution, the overthrow of the French monarchy, the 1798 rebellion in Ireland, the war with France and, of course, the King's long battle with mental illness.

3. Philippa of Hainault (41 years) An elegant and demure Dutch princess who married King Edward III in 1328, she deliberately set herself up to be a model of royal dignity and restraint, in contrast to the unhinged glamour of her mother-in-law, Isabella. When she died in 1369, her confessor wrote, "She gave up her spirit, which I firmly believe was caught by the Holy Angels and carried to glory in Heaven for she had never done anything by thought or deed which could endanger her losing it."

4. Eleanor of Provence (36 years) The notoriously extravagant younger sister of the Queen of France, Eleanor was blamed for crippling the medieval monarchy's financial and political credit by her lavish lifestyle and constant intriguing. However, she also showed herself to be a resilient and tenacious tactician when it came to defeating the rebellions against her husband, Henry III.

5. Eleanor of Aquitaine (35 years) Eleanor married the future King Henry II of England after having only recently divorced her first husband, the King of France, a few weeks earlier. The marriage was tempestuous and ended in a civil war. Beautiful, ruthless and courageous, she was already a legend by the time she died in her mid-eighties. (Her early life is profiled in my blog-post, Daughter of Riches.)

6. Anne of Denmark (30 years) Raised in great luxury at the court of her father in Copenhagen, Anne struggled to adjust to life in Presbyterian Scotland when she married King James VI in 1589. When he inherited the English and Irish thrones in 1603, she threw herself into an extravagant lifestyle to make up for the years of repression in Edinburgh. Some of the first ever performances of Shakespeare's play were staged in front of Anne and her family. 

7. Mary of Teck (26 years) A minor Anglo-German princess, Mary was entirely devoted to her husband, who became King George V in 1910. Like Queen Charlotte, she weathered considerable social unrest at her husband's side, including the trauma of the First World War, Russian Revolution, the Partition of Ireland, the General Strike and the Great Depression. She was left a widow when her husband died in 1936 and lived long enough to see her granddaughter become Queen Elizabeth II in 1952. The famous Cunard luxury liners, Queen Mary (1936) and Queen Mary 2 (2004) were named in her honour.

8. Katherine of Aragon (23 years) A Spanish princess who had the dubious honour of marrying into the Tudor dynasty twice, Katherine was the first wife of King Henry VIII. They married in 1509 and despite his frequent, if discreet, infidelities, the marriage was happy by royal standards for its first few years. Politically and socially, Katherine was being side-lined by its second decade. However, her courageous and controversial opposition to her husband's attempts to divorce her throughout the late 1520s and early 1530s were, if ultimately unsuccessful, still enough to win her many admirers, both in her own generation and subsequent ones. She died as a result of cancer in 1536, three years after the divorce.

9. Henrietta-Maria of France (23 years) The vivacious and passionate French princess who married King Charles I in 1625 did not initially take too well to life in England or to her new husband. Improbably however, given the screaming brawls that characterised their first few years together, the marriage eventually turned into one of the great royal romances of history. Unfairly demonised because of her Catholicism and foreign birth, Henrietta-Maria fought courageously to preserve the monarchy when it was engulfed during the Civil War of the 1640s. She was heartbroken by her husband's execution in 1649, but lived long enough to see the restoration of the monarchy under her son, Charles II, in 1660. The state of Maryland is named in her honour.

10. Catherine of Braganza (22 years) Married to Charles II, one of the great womanisers of British royal history, Catherine of Braganza was a gentle, quiet and charming Portuguese princess, who was tortured by her failure to produce a living child. Despite his frequent adulteries, Charles protected her from those who wanted a royal divorce so that he could marry a more fertile bride. Their marriage was an affectionate one and she returned to Portugal seven years after his death, where she took over the government following the nervous breakdown of her brother, King Pedro. She was widely mourned at the time of her death and legend has it that she popularised the drinking of tea in Britain.


  1. Thank you for that.

    I have a pretty good education in British history and I refresh my old notes often for lectures, but who was Philippa of Hainault and who was her unhinged mother in law, Isabella? You say an elegant and demure Dutch princess who married King Edward III in 1328. For someone who was there for 41 years, I don't even remember her name.

    Of course I am getting older myself, these days :(

  2. Thanks, Hels.

    Well! To fill you in on the oft-overlooked Philippa: don't worry too much, she's not particularly well-known. She turned being the perfect unobtrusive consort into an art form. Her father was the Count of Holland, amongst other things, which is why I felt confident enough to call her Dutch. Her mother-in-law, Isabella, was the wife of King Edward II and a legendary beauty who, rather unfortunately, orchestrated the deposition and murder of her husband and then ran the government in her young son's name with the help of her lover, the earl of March. When her son, Edward III, attained his majority he had the earl executed and Isabella was sent off to spend her final years living in a convent. I've always felt Philippa knew that there had been enough excitement for a few generations thanks to her mother-in-law and she was determined to turn the English court back into a centre of elegance and respectability.

  3. ohh...PRINCESS Eleanor of Provence LOOKS VERY VERY GREAT


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