Prince Philip, 96, and Queen Elizabeth II, 91, have a storied history: the third cousins met in 1939 when they were just 18 and 13 and began corresponding via mail five years later. In July 1947, they announced their engagement; they married that November. The following fall, they welcomed their son Prince Charles, followed by their daughter, Princess Anne, in August 1950 – before Elizabeth took the crown from her late father in February 1952.
More recently, weeks after the royal couple celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary, the second season of The Crown, which depicts a fictional account of the royal couple’s early years, stirred old rumours of Prince Philip’s infidelity. Although there’s no concrete evidence that he was unfaithful with the ballerina implicated by Crown writers, Philip may have had “full-blown affairs” with women who were “younger than him, usually beautiful and highly aristocratic,” according to biographer Sarah Bradford, author of Queen Elizabeth II: Her Life in Our Times. The palace has denied it, as have several of the Prince’s alleged mistresses, according to a 2004 investigative report published in The Telegraph. And their marriage has endured.
It’s tough to get a read on what really goes on behind the palace gates — and it’s not just because the couple’s public appearances are carefully orchestrated. “They’re not just royals who have to follow different rules regarding etiquette,” says North Carolina-based body-language expert Blanca Cobb of the queen and her partner. “They were raised in a different generation when the kind of PDA you see today might have been less socially acceptable.”
With that in mind, Cobb examines the couple’s interactions over the past seven decades:
“This isn’t an intimate moment,” Cobb says of this wedding photo, noting the couple’s lack of eye contact and mismatched expressions: She displays a polite smile while he keeps a straight face.
Although it’s tough to tell whether Philip is holding a petal in his bride’s bouquet or her palm, touch is one way to maintain a connection, according to Cobb. Because the queen (then a princess) keeps her left elbow close to her body, rather than jutting it out to distance herself physically (and psychologically), it’s clear she’s welcoming the contact. “She’s letting him in,” Cobb says.
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Gesturing as he speaks, Philip turns his head toward his wife to make sure he’s got her ear, according to Cobb. Despite Elizabeth’s serious face, she drops her left shoulder ever so slightly to angle her upper body toward her husband and looks him in the eye to show she’s paying attention — a good sign, since you don’t engage this way with people you don’t care about, Cobb says.
Meanwhile, Philip plants a hand in his pocket, which could signal discomfort, according to Cobb, who acknowledges that he could simply be cold. After all, it’s it’s November in England, and context is key.
Elizabeth clenches both hands, which could signal tension or — once again — chilly temperatures, according to Cobb. Either way, there’s not necessarily a problem with their relationship, she says: The couple’s proximity speaks to their emotional closeness, while their stride — both lead with the right foot, knees bent at almost identical angles — suggests they’re on the same page in this moment. “They’re not overly affectionate and more formal in their expression of love for each other,” Cobb says.
When you position a child between your body and your partner’s, you create physical distance that could be rooted in a psychological desire for space, Cobb says. While Elizabeth could have held her daughter on the opposite hip, and gotten closer to her husband, she may have opted for the right hip to let the baby touch her father’s face, says Cobb. While he’s engaging with his child, which shows love, he doesn’t interact with or appear to touch Elizabeth whatsoever. The same goes for the then-princess: “She’s distracted,” Cobb says, speaking to Elizabeth’s far-off gaze — a sign the couple is disconnected from each other in this moment.
See the way Philip stands a bit behind his wife? “Symbolically, it says, ‘I support you, and I’m happy to give you the limelight,’ ” Cobb says, noting that reflects Elizabeth’s recent status change to Queen. At the same time, standing erect separates Philip from his family members, all of whom all lean forward.
Still, both parents’ expressions are similar, with cheek engagement in their smiles; neither is bursting with joy. “You don’t have to be overly happy or angry to be in sync,” Cobb says. “The expression gives you a sense of what’s going on in the moment, but the mirroring shows they’re emotionally on the same wavelength.”
Once again, context is king — or rather, queen — in this photo: Compared to other couples, who stand close to one another and actually smile, Elizabeth and Philip stand with space between them, sourpuss expressions, and zero eye contact. “They’re totally disengaged — I get the impression something’s off,” Cobb says, although she stops short of determining whether they’re over each other or simply bored with the event. Their grasp loosely suggests the former: “It’s like she’s using him as a hand rest — it’s not intimate at all,” Cobb says.
There is, however, a ray of romance: “Her left side is coming toward his right shoulder just a little, and angling toward someone suggests a desire to be with that person,” she says. Still: “You can’t assume they act this way at home. There’s no way to extrapolate public behaviour to private lives when we’re talking about royals.”
Although their expressions aren’t overly content, with smiles to be seen, both Philip and Elizabeth lean on the fence with their right arms — a sign they’re emotionally synchronised, according to Cobb. From the way Philip sticks out his elbow, effectively taking up more space in what Cobb refers to as alpha positioning, you can tell he’s feeling confident. Elizabeth, meanwhile, appears to have her hand right in her pocket, a beta, more submissive move that contrasts with her role as Queen, Cobb says. As is the case in previous photos, Philip stands behind Elizabeth in a show of support. “It sends the message, ‘I got you, you can count on me,’ ” Cobb says.
Here, Elizabeth occupies Philip’s personal space — a sign of comfort — except this time, she props the alpha elbow. Turning toward Philip with her head tilted shows she’s listening. “They’ve been married 40 years, and she’s still paying attention to what her husband has to say,” Cobb says, adding that Elizabeth’s expression is stoic rather than tense. “She may not be agreeing with him,” Cobb guesses.
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“A cheek kiss is a sign of affection — not intimacy — or just a formality,” Cobb says, noting this may be why the Queen kept her eyes open. Generally reserved expressing emotion, the Queen receives the kiss without reciprocating, although she does extend the corners of her lip upward just a bit to suggest she welcomes her husband’s gesture, according to Cobb. Of course Philip’s face isn’t shown, but Cobb says initiating physical contact by leaning forward is sweet, since you move toward people you enjoy.
Ever stoic, both Elizabeth and Philip wear the same expression yet again. “Whether by training, or because it’s part of who they are, neither is outwardly expressive,” Cobb says. “I’d venture to guess that after all these years, it’s a combination of the two.”
Nonetheless, they walk in the same plane with legs and feet mirroring one another — and look: Philip drops his right shoulder toward his wife. “Your body subtly finds ways to get closer to your partner to express how you feel,” Cobb says.
“The meaning of body language changes a little as you get older,” Cobb says, pointing out the way Philip reaches for his wife to offer assistance. “Being chivalrous is part of who he is, but the interaction also speaks to their relationship.” See how the Queen appears to resist Philip’s help, opting to lean on the door handle instead? Looking straight ahead, she doesn’t even acknowledge her husband’s offer to help. “She’s very independent,” Cobb says. “They both could be distracted by their fans, or perhaps she doesn’t want his help, since people in a position of power usually don’t want to show signs of weakness.”
Here, Elizabeth takes Philips hand as a physical support. “He wants to make sure she’s OK physically and emotionally, but she’s not looking at him or showing any affection,” Cobb says, noting the way they hold hands with the tips of their fingers, rather than palm-to-palm, which maximises physical contact. Cobb wagers that the Queen has grown so used to Philip’s aid that she expects rather than appreciates it. “She doesn’t give him much attention, but again, it’s a different generation and they may be following and different rules as royalty.”
“Philip lets Elizabeth know how he feels by looking at her and being present physically to support and guide her, but they’re generally reserved in the way they show affection,” Cobb says. “She doesn’t give him much attention, but I do think they have a deep affection for one another. That’s probably as scandalous as it gets, but I would be interested to see what goes on when the cameras are off and they can be themselves without formality.”
This article originally appeared on Harper’s Bazaar UK.