The Queen and Prince Philip: Bells ring again for wedding that lit up Britain

IT was just before 11.30am on November 20, 1947, that the bells of St Margaret's Church at Westminster Abbey rang out to hail the arrival of the Irish State Coach containing the Princess Elizabeth, heir presumptive to the throne, and her father, George VI.

Inside the abbey, 2,000 heads turned.

Little more than two years after the cessation of hostilities, the pomp and ceremony stood as a symbol not only of Britain’s past but also its future in a post-war world.

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This anniversary day, the bells will sound again in celebration of a marriage that has stood as a rock through seven turbulent decades of social change.

Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh by British photographer Matt Holyoak, taken in the White Drawing Room at Windsor Castle in early November, in celebration of their platinum wedding anniversary on November 20. Matt Holyoak/CameraPress/PA Wire

At 1pm, the abbey’s Company of Ringers will begin a peal of 5,070 sequences, the final 70 added to mark the platinum anniversary.

It will take a team of ten three hours and 20 minutes to complete.

Yet the wedding itself almost did not happen.

Though no-one doubted the suitability of the dashing Greek and Danish prince for the 21 year-old princess, the scale of the event was intensely debated, and but for the intervention of the Duke of Leeds, it may all have happened behind closed doors.

Photo issued by Camera Press of Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh by British photographer Matt Holyoak, taken in the White Drawing Room at Windsor Castle in early November, pictured against a platinum-textured backdrop, in celebration of their platinum wedding anniversary on November 20. The Queen is wearing a cream day dress by Angela Kelly and a 'Scarab' brooch in yellow gold, carved ruby and diamond, designed by Andrew Grima, and given as a personal gift from the Duke to The Queen in 1966. Matt Holyoak/CameraPress/PA Wire

Prince Philip himself, newly ennobled as Baron Greenwich, Earl of Merioneth and Duke of Edinburgh but used to living frugally, believed that in a time of austerity, the public would accept nothing more than a private wedding at Windsor.

But the 11th Duke of Leeds, the thrice-married John Francis Godolphin Osborne, inset, buoyed by a newspaper poll in which 86 per cent of readers had said that the wedding day should be the first post-war occasion on which to restore to Britain “the traditional gaiety of a gala public event”, dashed off a letter to the bride’s mother, Queen Elizabeth.

In a choice between austerity and traditional pageantry, he wrote, most people would prefer the latter.

Shortly thereafter, the designer Norman Hartnell was asked to submit sketches for a wedding dress. The one selected cost £1,200 and required 3,000 clothes coupons. Speculation about the design, he recalled, “became wild and almost hysterical”.

Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh by British photographer Matt Holyoak, taken in the White Drawing Room at Windsor Castle in early November, in celebration of their platinum wedding anniversary on November 20. Matt Holyoak/CameraPress/PA Wire

Rumours circulated that the silkworms used for the gown were of Italian or Japanese origin and therefore provided by “enemy” territories. In fact, they were from the Scottish firm of Winterthur in Dunfermline and came from Chinese silkworms at Lullingstone Castle.

Today, the dress, hand-embroidered with more than 10,000 pearls and crystals, and comprising a fitted bodice, heart-shaped neckline with a scalloped edge and an intricate 13ft star-patterned train, is considered as “fresh and timeless” as when the princess walked up the aisle.

Jenny Swire, contributing fashion director at Wedding Venues Magazine, said: “She looked absolutely beautiful on her wedding day. I can’t imagine that it could have been improved upon.

“She looked incredibly regal. She wasn’t Queen yet but she looked like a queen.”

Photo issued by Camera Press of Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh by British photographer Matt Holyoak, taken in the White Drawing Room at Windsor Castle in early November, pictured against a platinum-textured backdrop, in celebration of their platinum wedding anniversary on November 20. The Queen is wearing a cream day dress by Angela Kelly and a 'Scarab' brooch in yellow gold, carved ruby and diamond, designed by Andrew Grima, and given as a personal gift from the Duke to The Queen in 1966. Matt Holyoak/CameraPress/PA Wire

The dress would later go on tour, attracting vast crowds in the textile centres of Bradford, Leeds and Huddersfield.

In 2007, it went on show again, for the summer opening of Buckingham Palace, and at a preview, the Queen saw it for what was believed to be the first time in years. Sir Hugh Roberts, the director of the Royal Collection at the time, said: “It must bring back many extraordinary memories of that day.” The ceremony itself, relayed via cinema newsreels to the public several days later, was a triumph. Winston Churchill summed it up as “a flash of colour on the hard road we travel”.

The anniversary is being marked today with an official range of souvenirs. The Royal Collection chinaware pieces, commissioned by Buckingham Palace, feature the Queen and Philip’s entwined monograms.