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I don’t know about you, but I’m a huge fan of The Crown.
I came to it very late, just a few months ago actually, when we took a one-month Netflix trial – and ended up on a paid Netflix plan, just so that we could finish watching this fabulous, edge-of-your-seat drama.
Of course we know that it’s entirely fictional, but I like the way that the script has been written to highlight tensions and situations that are very believable.
I can easily believe, for example, that Prince Philip felt pushed aside when his wife ascended the throne, or that Elizabeth believed her outgoing younger sister Margaret would have made a more natural queen.
We don’t know that these things were the case, but the possibility is there, and the scriptwriters explore all these difficult relationships really sensitively, I think.
One thing I particularly like is the way Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s marriage is portrayed, warts and all, so I thought it would be fun to outline a few things we can learn from the screen version of this relationship.
An obvious disclaimer, before I kick off, is that when I refer to Elizabeth or Philip, I’m referring to the fictionalised Netflix versions and not the real people. (Although, from an outsider’s perspective, a marriage which has lasted over 60 years is a huge inspiration full stop!)
Also, while I’ve tried not to give away major spoilers, there will be a few scenes described here…don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Marriage involves mutual sacrifice
In Season 1, episode 2, Princess Elizabeth and her husband Philip are on a tour of the Commonwealth, King George VI being too ill to travel.
One evening, Elizabeth suggests to Philip that when the tour is over, she should speak to her father about whether the couple and their young family can return to Malta, so that Philip can resume his naval career.
His face lights up – he’s missed his career since his royal commitments have taken over. The irony is that King George is on the brink of death, and Elizabeth will be Queen within hours, rendering any chance of normal family life impossible – and, from here on, we see the enormous sacrifices Philip makes in order to support and uphold his wife in her new role. But it is here, in this short fragment of conversation in episode 2, that we observe Elizabeth making a sacrifice.
Marriage needs two people with this attitude. One person cannot always be bending for the other: it needs to be a joint effort of loving your spouse and putting their needs before your own: mutual sacrifice.
In the famous marriage passage 1 Corinthians 13, often read at weddings, we read that ‘love is not self-seeking’ (v5). Too often in life, we are encouraged to put ourselves first – including our careers, our personal goals, our happiness – but true happiness comes from giving ourselves to others in relationship, not least of all in marriage.
Marriage is a challenge
I think we all know this – but often we kid ourselves that our marriage would be better if we had more money/more help with the kids/a bigger house/better jobs.
Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage doesn’t want for money, staff, space or jobs – and yet it still comes under attack.
Towards the end of a particularly gruelling world tour (Season 1, Episode 8) – which is a triumph in diplomatic terms, but a disaster for the couple’s marriage – the couple have a big fight which becomes physical and gets spotted by a camera crew. Elizabeth, realising this won’t do the monarchy any favours, calms down, puts on her hat and gloves and walks outside to greet the crew.
“I’m sorry for that little interlude,” she begins, “which I’m sure must happen in every marriage”.
She looks a little unsure as she says this last bit, as if she is questioning herself about whether other couples do in fact argue as she and Philip have just done. (BTW I’m a huge fan of Claire Foy and the myriad subtle messages her facial expressions portray!)
But she’s right – it does happen in every marriage. Not necessarily always with fisticuffs, but disagreements are certainly not the domain of only some marriages.
Perhaps this encourages you if you’re in a difficult season of marriage right now: whilst your situation is unique, there is nothing you’re facing that other couples haven’t faced before. Your marriage is not the only one to experience pressure. You are not alone.
As Christians, we believe the reason that all marriages will go through difficulties is because we’re all humans who make mistakes, marrying other humans who make mistakes – none of us are perfect.
But there’s another reason why Christians believe marriages are under attack: marriage was created by God. It is the means by which our hard edges are softened. It is how we learn to relate to others and serve our community. It is the basis for raising children to be happy, healthy, community-minded citizens of this world. Break up marriages, and you risk breaking up all the good which comes from them.
Who wants to do this? Satan. He loves to see marriages destroyed, because of the huge repercussions it causes to society. None of us are immune to the strains and stresses of marital conflict, and I think The Crown portrays this so sensitively.
So what can we do? Is there any hope?
Marriage requires active investment
If you sit back and expect marriage to just ‘happen’, to automatically work without any effort, the chances are that it will fall apart pretty quickly.
We led a couple in our church through some marriage preparation recently, and I described marriage to them as being like a bank account: don’t wait for the balance to get to zero before you start investing. Just as regular savings add up to an amount which can help you out if, say, your car breaks down or you need a new washing machine, so regular investment in your marriage will help carry you through the inevitable storms of life.
Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage suffers after the world tour, and Philip goes on his own tour for a month, during which rumours abound. When he returns, Elizabeth confronts him:
“The exit route which is open to everyone else…”
“Divorce,” Philip chips in.
“Yes…divorce. It’s not an option for us. Ever.
“No,” agrees Philip.
“So, what would make it easier on you? To be in, not out? What will it take?”The Crown, Season 2, Episode 1
They are in a unique position here, where they cannot simply divorce and move on, so they have to try and find a way of making the marriage work. Elizabeth takes the brave step of trying to find a way through, a compromise. With so much of their marriage outlined for them by others, she is hoping to find a gap in the protocol where she and Philip have some flexibility to make things work for them as a couple.
We don’t ever want our marriages to get to this stage, and regular investment is key: prevention is far better than cure. But, if things do come to breaking point, are we willing to keep investing? To keep saying, like Elizabeth, what would make it easier on you? Or are we concerned only for ourselves?
The whole definition of ‘investing’ is about something being put elsewhere. A piece of us moving over to another. A fragment of our soul taking root in someone else. A simple question, belying a huge act of self-sacrifice, being asked to our spouse.
Spoiler alert: they work things out! But it involves huge bravery of taking the first step to ask the question, and hard work to see through the answer, day in, day out, for weeks, months and years on end, until their marriage is restored.
Marriage requires transparency
One of my favourite moments of The Crown, which had me in proper floods of tears, was at the very end of Season 2 (episode 10).
Without giving too much away for those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure of watching The Crown, there has been a scandalous photo printed in the newspaper, featuring several high-profile individuals – except one of them can’t be identified (I think he’s turned away from the camera so it’s unclear). Journalists are trying to discover who this ‘mystery man’ is, and there are rumours that it could be Prince Philip.
Queen Elizabeth confronts her husband about this – but this time, with nearly 20 years of marriage under her belt, she has a deeper understanding of the struggles they face – and, in particular, which Philip faces as husband to the reigning monarch.
So her approach is courageous, but non-judgemental. She says:
“I can understand if sometimes, in order to let off steam, in order to stay ‘in’ [the marriage], you need to do what you need to do. I can look the other way“.
Woah…hold up! She can look the other way?Is she basically giving him free reign to go and have an affair? Is this the only way to keep a marriage going for decades? Where has her moral compass gone?!
I don’t believe, actually, that it’s gone anywhere. I don’t believe for one second that the writers want us to think Elizabeth is suddenly OK with her husband having an affair – I think it’s a bit more subtle than that.
Elizabeth has realised the importance of marriage – especially in their tricky situation, with all the pressures which come from their public duties – and, rather than affirming extra-marital relations, she’s actually showing a hugely forgiving attitude. She’s not saying, “It’s OK, go off and do this, I don’t mind”. She’s saying, “If you do this, I will understand, and I will forgive you. I can look the other way.”
But do you know how Philip responds?
“Yes, I know you can look the other way…I’m saying I don’t want you to. You can look this way.”
Wow! Philip is pledging his commitment and faithfulness to her. He’s saying there’s nothing going on which requires Elizabeth to avert her eyes. He wants her to look his way, at him, through him: he is being totally transparent.
This transparency, this honesty and integrity, is a foundational building-block for marriage. I can’t write how important it is. It means that all of us is on show to our spouse – and that includes our failings, our struggles, our temptations.
Lies and dishonesty build up and become serious – but transparency is the opposite. It diffuses situations before they become impossibly hard to deal with. It offers the chance to forgive, repair and restore. And it encourages us to press on to a marriage which is better than it was before.
The Crown Season 3 will be available on Netflix from this Sunday, 17 November – and I, for one, can’t wait!