The Queen

How the Queen and Prince Philip's relationship began after 'quirk of fate' meeting at naval college

How a relationship that was to define decades of the British Royal Family started.

Queen Elizabeth II, Britain's longest-reigning monarch, has died aged 96.

The Queen's relationship with her husband Prince Philip, a key part of her reign, lasted more than 70 years and began after a "quirk of fate" meeting at a Royal Navy college.

It was the future couple's first proper meeting, having only crossed paths before at a wedding and coronation when the then-Princess Elizabeth was young. 

But in July 1939, still only a teenager at 13 years old, the future monarch and her sister Princess Margaret were escorted around Britannia Royal Naval College (BRNC) Dartmouth in Devon by Philip, then an exiled Prince of Greece and Denmark who was beginning his Navy career. 

However, the future Duke of Edinburgh, 18, was never meant to be at the college.

"He was a special entry cadet, he shouldn't have come here at all," said Dr Richard Porter, honorary curator at the Britannia Museum, Britannia Royal Naval College, in 2021.

"At the time, this [BRNC Dartmouth] was a public school for 13-year-old children that were not in the Navy but would hope to get a commission after graduating from here.

"He should have been at sea in HMS Shropshire, but HMS Shropshire was in refit and they didn't know what to do with these special entry cadets. They were 18 years old, so five years older than the rest of them, and so they came to Dartmouth.

"They didn't spend very much time in the actual college, they were mostly down in, sort of, temporary accommodation down on the river, doing things, seamanship and training, mostly.

"So he shouldn't really have been here. It was a quirk of fate that he was actually to meet the Queen here."

The future couple played croquet at the college (Picture: Crown Copyright).
The future couple played croquet at the college, with Princess Margaret, the Queen Mother and King George VI also there (Picture: Crown Copyright).

Princess Elizabeth's mother and father, King George VI, were also part of the Royal visit to BRNC Dartmouth.

It came just before the outbreak of the Second World War – a conflict Philip would see combat in.

According to the biography, 'Elizabeth The Queen: The real story behind the Crown' by Sally Bedell Smith, Princess Elizabeth's nanny, Marion 'Crawfie' Crawford, wrote that the future Queen "never took her eyes off him".

The meeting was the start of a relationship that lasted more than 70 years, becoming the backbone of British society and making Prince Philip the longest-serving Royal consort ever.

"I think the significance of their meeting here at Dartmouth and the beginning of their relationship certainly [started] here at Dartmouth," said Dr Jane Harrold, curator at the Britannia Museum. 

"After all, this is the point from which Elizabeth will maintain regular correspondence with Philip throughout the war, that will escalate to increasing number of visits by Philip to the Royal Family at Windsor Castle.

"But, at the end of the day, it all really started here."

During the visit, Prince Philip escorted Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret around the college, playing with a train set inside before famously playing croquet on the lawn, which was captured by photographers.

Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip speak in private in the garden of Britannia Royal Naval College Dartmouth in July 1939 (Picture: Crown Copyright).
Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip speak in private in the garden of Britannia Royal Naval College Dartmouth in July 1939 (Picture: Crown Copyright).

"We know this is really the first time Elizabeth remembers meeting Philip and it was certainly the first time that they would've had the opportunity to play croquet, not something one would have been able to do at a Royal wedding or coronation," Dr Harrold said.

"So this was definitely the first time, I would say, they had some quality time together and got to know each other more personally from a more friendship base as opposed to a formal presentation."

Dr Porter added: "They had been present [together] on two occasions before but I like to think that this is where Princess Elizabeth first noticed him. And perhaps that was the first noticing of Prince Philip to Princess Elizabeth as well."

Crawfie also wrote that Philip "did not pay her [Princess Elizabeth] any special attention" during the visit, according to the biography by Bedell Smith.

However, in the years following, romance began to blossom.

The future couple began to exchange letters as Philip was deployed with the Royal Navy around the Meditteranean, where his actions in the Battle of Cape Matapan in 1942 were mentioned in dispatches, as well as deployments to the Pacific and home waters.

Bedell Smith writes that friends and relatives detected "a flutter of romance" between Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip by December 1943 when he was on leave at Windsor for Christmas and watched the princess, 17, perform in the 'Aladdin' pantomime.

Prince Philip with the crew of HMS Whelp - the ship from which he saw Japan's surrender in 1945 (Picture: Crown Copyright).
Prince Philip (front, second from the left) with the crew of HMS Whelp – the ship from which he saw Japan's surrender in 1945 (Picture: Crown Copyright).

Queen Mary wrote to her friend Mabell, the Countess of Airlie, shortly afterwards that the pair, who were third cousins, had "been in love for the past 18 months. In fact longer, I think".

Philip had also impressed King George VI, who told his mother the young man was "intelligent" with a "good sense of humour" who "thinks about things in the right way".

However, both the King and Queen believed Elizabeth was too young to consider a serious marriage suitor, Bedell Smith writes. 

Although there may have been a degree of fortune that Prince Philip was at Dartmouth when the Royal party arrived, it seems it was not much of a coincidence that he was chosen to escort the princesses around. 

The King's aide-de-camp (ADC), who helped organise the visit, was Lord Louis Mountbatten – Prince Philip's uncle.

Dr Harrold said: "Prince Philip had been chosen to look after the two princesses [Elizabeth and Margaret], partly because it was an obvious choice, you've got Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark here as a cadet, why wouldn't you choose him?

The Queen and Prince Philip hold hands as they leave St Paul's Cathedral in 2015 (Picture: MOD).
The Queen and Prince Philip hold hands as they leave St Paul's Cathedral in 2015 (Picture: MOD).

"And, of course, we all know Louis Mountbatten, who happened to be the King's ADC for the visit, probably had a hand in certainly putting forward Philip as a suggested host, thinking this could be a useful liaison that could perhaps flourish and be a good dynastic relationship which could be hugely beneficial in the future."

And Lord Mountbatten was correct.

Soon after the war ended, Philip asked King George VI for his daughter's hand.

In February 1947, Philip abandoned his Greek and Danish royal titles, took the surname Mountbatten from his mother's family, and became a British subject.

On 20 November of that year, the couple married at Westminster Abbey and, in 1948, they had their first of four children, Prince Charles.

The relationship, which really started at BRNC Dartmouth, became a symbol of love and dedication and remained strong for the decades to come until the Duke's death in April 2021.

Article cover image and cover video thumbnail: © KEYSTONE Pictures USA/Keystone Press/Alamy Stock Photo.