Friday, 10 June 2011

‘My Husband and I’

- was a phrase often used by the Queen as a means of acknowledging the Duke of Edinburgh's contribution to her private and public life.

His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh is ninety years old today. Her Majesty the Queen has a few years to go before she becomes our longest reigning sovereign, but the Duke is already the longest serving consort. The second is Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. She became queen when she married George III in 1761 and lived until 1818. 

The Duke of Edinburgh was born a prince of Greece, but his ancestry is mostly German and Danish. He and the Queen are both descendants of Queen Victoria and of King Christian IX of Denmark.

Who to marry, and what official role a consort should play, has always been a difficult question for a reigning queen. It was considered inappropriate, and likely to cause faction and rivalry among the nobility, for a queen to marry a subject. Marrying a foreign prince, however, was likely to result in England being drawn into Continental  conflicts.

Mary Tudor chose to marry Philip II of Spain, who took the title of ‘king’, the only consort ever to do so. The match was unpopular in England from the start; there were armed protests against it. Philip took England into his war with France which cost money the country did not have and led to the loss of Calais, England’s last remaining territory in the French mainland. 

Following this, Elizabeth I’s decision not to marry was wise; but a childless sovereign leads to uncertainty over the succession.

Mary II reigned jointly with her husband William of Orange (William III), who was the nearest Protestant male claimant to the throne. After her death in 1694 William ruled alone. He was succeeded in 1702 by his wife's sister Anne. She had married Prince George of Denmark in 1683. Prince George was devoted to and supportive of his wife. He was given the title Duke of Cumberland and the office of Lord High Admiral. This is now a purely ceremonial office, but at this time the Lord High Admiral had overall responsibility for the Royal Navy. 

The last queen's consort before the Duke of Edinburgh was Prince Albert of Saxe Coburg, husband of Queen Victoria. Prince Albert did much to repair the reputation of the monarchy, which had been damaged in the later years of George III by the activities of his sons. Albert and Victoria, with their children, presented an image of happy family life. Albert was unpopular with some. The Queen's husband has no constitutional role and it was thought that the Queen should not involve him so closely in official business. However, his advice was usually good, and he helped to counterbalance the Queen's more impulsive nature. The Queen was devoted to him and inconsolable when he died in 1861.

Like Prince Albert,  the Duke of Edinburgh has not had a clearly defined role. However, he has had a wide range of interests, has worked to promote a number of causes, and has supported the Queen throughout the nearly sixty years of her reign.

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