The Scandalous Divorce That Nearly Brought Down Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip's Marriage
The divorce of the Duke of Edinburgh’s best friend and personal secretary, Lieutenant Commander Michael Parker is believed to have nearly brought down the royal marriage. But how much of that is true? Here’s who Mike Parker was and how his separation and divorce from his wife Eileen Parker affected the Queen’s own relationship with her husband.
Born in Melbourne, Australia in 1920, John Michael Avison Parker joined the Royal Navy just as World War II broke out. He chose it over the Royal Australian Navy—in which his father served as a captain—so that he wouldn’t be accused of nepotism.
Philip Mountbatten and Parker became friends in the navy in June 1942, and the two young officers served again together in 1944 on sister ships of the 27th Destroyer Flotilla in the Far East. Their friendship grew when they took shore leave together in Australia.
When the war ended and Philip Mountbatten married then-Princess Elizabeth in 1947, Philip brought on Parker as equerry and eventually his private secretary. During this time, Parker frequently butted heads with other members of the royal staff and even Winston Churchill himself, who did not approve of him arranging helicopters—which he saw as new-fangled and dangerous—to take Philip to meet Commonwealth troops in the lead up to the Queen's coronation.
While Parker’s main role in the royal household was to help Philip adjust to life in the spotlight as the Queen’s consort, it appears that he wasn’t able to do the same for his wife Eileen, whom he married in 1943 and with whom he had a son and a daughter.
In February 1957 The Sydney Morning Herald reported that, “[Eileen] is a ‘twin-set-and-tweed-skirt’— girl. She likes ballet, the opera, and horse-racing. She never took advantage of all the opportunities she had for being on the fringe of the Court. Not so her husband. For
Parker did accompany the Duke of Edinburgh on his 1956 trip on the Royal Yacht Britannia to help his boss and friend open the Melbourne Olympics and visit remote outposts of the Commonwealth around the world. It was during this trip that Eileen sued her husband for divorce.
While Parker did, in fact, belong to the Thursday Club with Philip, there is no evidence that he had an affair with a waitress there or sent any letters to the club boasting of his infidelity.
Prince Philip with private secretary Lieutenant Commander Michael Parker in Gibraltar, after resigning on February 6, 1957.
A divorce was still a major scandal in 1956 and one so close to the Royal family caused an uproar. On the show, Philip is seen demanding Parker’s resignation. In reality, according to Parker's obituary in the Independent, he “quixotically decided to fall on his sword.” After resigning his position aboard the Britannia, Parker left Philip in Gibraltar to return to London where he was greeted by reporters eager to find out more about the scandal.
Parker’s resignation “rocked Palace court circles,” sparking rumors of a rift between the Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen, according to AP reports in 1957.
Queen Elizabeth II with Prince Philip after their reunion at Lisbon on the royal visit to Portugal in February 1957.
Two weeks after Parker’s resignation, Philip and Queen Elizabeth did, in fact, reunite in Portugal during a particularly stormy night on board the Britannia, the AP reported.
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
Shortly thereafter, the Queen promoted Philip to Prince so that he wouldn’t have to testify in Mike Parker’s divorce trial. “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
Eileen Parker after obtaining her divorce from Mike Parker in London on February 28, 1958.
Eileen Parker was eventually granted a divorce in 1958 on the grounds of adultery. Reuters even named the other woman in their reports as Mrs. Mary Alexandra Thompson. Custody of the Parkers’ children Michael, 13, and Julie, 9, was awarded to Eileen.
Even after Parker resigned his position as Prince Philip’s personal secretary, he remained close friends with the royal consort through regular correspondence, even visiting Buckingham Palace on occasion. He eventually moved back to Australia in the late 1960s.
Prince Philip remained friends with Mike Parker after his divorce scandal. Here, the two are seen at Tate Gallery, London on July 5, 1960.
Parker got married again in 1962 to Carol Thompson. After having another daughter and son with Thompson, they divorced as well. He was married a third time in 1976 to Jean Ramsay.
Parker died in Melbourne at the age of 81 on December 29, 2001.
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.