it doesn’t take long in The Crown’s second season before Prince Philip’s1956 tour aboard the Britannia—a royal yacht that, according to the Netflix series, doubled during those debauched months as a beer-swilling bachelor party —combusts. It isn’t Philip’s fault, though. It is the doing of his best friend and equerry Michael Parker (played on the series by Daniel Ings), who couldn’t help but boast about all of the extramarital carousing going on in letters sent to Philip and Michael’s Thursday Club. (These letters seem to be a fictional flourish by The Crown creator Peter Morgan).
A few episodes in, Parker’s fed-up wife Eileen (played by Chloe Pirrie) 86-es the marriage—in spite of pleas by the royal family’s fixers—giving way to a scandal spectaculaire that required Michael to resign and inspired the Palace to issue a rare statement on the queen’s marriage: “It is quite untrue that there is any rift between the queen and the Duke.”
Michael and Philip’s friendship dates back to 1942 when the two were young lieutenants on destroyers in World War II. Five years later, in 1947, after marrying Elizabeth and moving into Clarence House, Philip appointed the Australian-born Michael to be his equerry. Michael, being a vital link back to Philip’s navy days, helped ease Philip’s transition into life as a public figure. Ironically, though, according to a February 1957 report by The Sydney Morning Herald, Michael could not do the same for his own wife—who had a hard time adjusting to being palace-adjacent.
“[Eileen] is a ‘twin-set-and-tweed-skirt’— girl. She likes ballet, the opera, and horce-racing. She never took advantage of all the opportunities she had for being on the fringe of the Court. Not so her husband. For him everything was back to the happy days he had spent in the Service. . .with a difference. Now he was on familiar terms with the most famous and entertaining people in the land.”
“Not that he always escaped unscathed. He and the Duke spent much time leaping on rugs and skidding down the highly polished Palace corridors. This went on until one day they crashed into the door of the King’s study. For this they were sternly rebuked. ” […]
The Duke took him completely under his wing. He introduced him to all his friends. He made him a member of the Thursday club, a very exclusive luncheon part of men with bright ideas. Sometimes at night the pair would slip out of the Palace for an evening with other royal acquaintances. The Royal staff soon got used to these expeditions. “Murgatroyd and Winterbottom,” they would say, “have popped out for a stroll.”
This became a catchphrase.
(The Sydney Morning Herald noted that Michael had sent at least one missive from Africa—a postcard to one of his friends showing “a collection of Africans running.” In reference to the Palace’s press officer, Parker wrote on the back of the postcard: “They’ve just seen Colville.”)
It was February of 1957, a decade after becoming Philip’s equerry, when Michael resigned aboard the Britannia, as is recreated on The Crown’s second season.
“Parker resigned as the Prince’s private secretary last February 4, just 24 hours after word leaked out that he and his wife had separated,” reported the A.P. in 1957. “His resignation rocked Palace court circles. Parker was aboard the royal yacht Britannia with the Queen’s husband when Parker’s lawyer announced his resignation.”
“Parker’s marital troubles set off rumors early this year of a rift between Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth II. Buckingham Palace denied the rumors,” the report continued. “A leading British newspaper said early this week Buckingham Palace officials were worried about ‘detailed evidence’ that might emerge in a Parker divorce case.”
Just two weeks after Parker’s resignation, as is shown in the very first scene of The Crown’s second season, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip reunited in Portugal during a stormy evening aboard the Britannia. According to the A.P.:
Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh came ashore smiling for social rounds today after a rock ‘n’ roll night aboard the gale-tossed yacht Britannia.
Reunited after a separation of more than four months, they had been pitched about as high winds whistled over the yacht and waves sank a dozen small fishing boats of the villagers. […] Elizabeth was smiling but pale upon landing. The duke was his swaggering self.
Their 20 hours together after a reunion yesterday, the duke having returned from a 35,000 mile tour, gave them their first opportunity to discuss events that led to reports of a royal rift.
Buckingham Palace had quickly and positively denied there was trouble between the Queen and the man she married nine years ago. Gossip persisted, however, and the royal couple must be aware of it. The privacy of their royal cabins last night would have given them a chance to talk about it.
In the very same paper, it was also announced that The People, a leading Sunday newspaper, advised Elisabeth to essentially give her husband a promotion, making him her prince consort “as one way of keeping him busy at home.” The paper argued that otherwise, the Duke was “a man without a real job. . . Until he is given one, he will always be tempted to seek out for himself a real job of work and go off on extended good will trips around the Commonwealth.”
The following month, in March of 1957, the New York News-Chicago Tribune Dispatch reported that Philip had been promoted to prince, but for less gallant reasons.
The duke of Edinburgh’s promotion to prince of the realm was rushed through last month to prevent him from being subpenaed to testify in a divorce trial.
Queen Elizabeth’s ultra-conservative advisers, who had previously urged caution on the promotion, suddenly swung behind the move after learning of the danger.
They had learned that Eileen Parker, 34, plans to divorce her estranged husband Lt. Comdr. Michael Parker, 36, who was forced to resign last month as the duke of Edinburgh’s private secretary.
Despite his title as duke and first gentleman in the land, Philip could have been subpoenaed to testify for Mrs. Parker until his elevation to prince on February 22 lifted him beyond the range of a subpoena.
The same paper alleges that, even before news of the Parkers’ separation, “the queen’s advisers had been gunning for [Michael] anyway as a means of curbing Philip’s fondness for bachelor parties and bohemian nights.”
As Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were navigating their own P.R. nightmare, the International News Service reported in February 1957 that “Mrs. Eileen Parker has received a flood of poison pen letters” which “accuse her of timing the news of her separation as a vindictive act against her husband.”
The following year, in March 1958, Eileen Parker was finally granted her divorce. The Morning News reported that Eileen took the stand herself during the 15-minute trial, as well as “a housekeeper in the bachelor apartment kept by Parker in Bohemian Chelsea” who provided a witness account. “The judge’s verdict was that Parker committed adultery with Mrs. Thompson there last July, six months after he resigned his royal job,” the paper reported.
Reuters additionally name-checked “the other woman”—Mrs. Mary Alexandra Thompson—and reported that “the custody of the Parker children, Michael, 13, and Julie, 9, was awarded to Mrs. Parker.”
The Sydney Morning Herald added that Parker, who had filed for divorce five months before, attended the hearing in “a heather mixture suit and black accessories and a pearl rose brooch.” Upon leaving, she said, ‘I am very glad it’s all over. I now hope to disappear from the public eye and live quietly.’”
In spite of that statement, Eileen Parker went on to publish a 1982 tell-all memoir titled Step Aside for Royalty. Although it is out of print, two rare copies can be found on Amazon—for approximately $530 and over $2,700.