Royal Reflection: When Prince Philip Retired From His Official Duties at the Age of 96
The Duke of Edinburgh raises his hat in his role as Captain General, Royal Marines, making his final individual public engagement at a parade to mark the finale of the 1664 Global Challenge on the Buckingham Palace Forecourt on August 2, 2017. Photo: Yui Mok/WPA Pool/Getty Images
Just two months shy of his 100th birthday, His Royal Highness Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, died peacefully at home on April 9. As the world mourns the loss of the Royal Family’s patriarch, we look back at a story from our Sept. 2017 issue of Zoomer magazine recognizing the duke’s retirement from official royal duties at the age of 96, after sixty-five years of public service.
A Royal Retirement: An Appreciation of Prince Philip
The announcement came quietly from the Palace on May 4 in the form of a press release sent out to media outlets and posted on the official website of Her Majesty the Queen. “His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh has decided that he will no longer carry out public engagements from the autumn of this year. In taking this decision, the Duke has the full support of the Queen.”
Was Prince Philip ill? He was about to turn 96 in June and he had been in and out of hospitals over the past few years but almost always for what was described as minor infections. The answer was a resounding no. The duke had merely decided that he wanted to retire gracefully before his sell-by date had passed. As the announcement explained, it would be a gradual roll-out or in this case roll-in: “Prince Philip will attend previously scheduled engagements between now and August, both individually and accompanying the Queen. Thereafter, the Duke will not be accepting new invitations for visits and engagements, although he may still choose to attend certain public events from time to time.”
After the news broke there was Prince Philip, dutifully attending a luncheon at St. James Palace when one of the guests apparently told him, “I’m sorry to hear you’re standing down,” Philip was quick to quip, “Well, I can’t stand up much longer.” That wry wit is a trademark of his. And few people in modern times have beguiled and bewildered quite as much as the Duke has over the course of his seven decades in the public eye. The self-professed “world’s most experienced plaque unveiler” has turned up at 22,191 solo engagements, given 5,493 speeches and is patron, president or a member of more than 780 organizations. He was the first member of the Royal Family to give a TV interview and in 1957 presented his own television show, Round the World in Forty Minutes, about his four-and-a-half-month world tour.
Given the fevered pace, one or two or perhaps one- or two-dozen foot-in-mouth situations are bound to arise and even alarm. To wit, from two different official visits to Canada, the first in 1969: “I declare this thing open, whatever it is.” And then in 1976, “We don’t come here for our health – we can think of other ways of enjoying ourselves.” Come on, armchair critics, he does open a lot of things, and many of us feel the same about our day jobs.
Philip’s unwavering sense of duty has kept him at the Queen’s side through nearly 70 years of marriage. He’s always been there in the background, and that has been his raison d’être – to know his place, which has been two paces behind Her Majesty. On the occasion of his 90th birthday, he gave a rare interview to the BBC. The reporter talked about how Prince Philip was a child of divorce at the age of 10, with his father moving to Monte Carlo, his mother gone to live in a sanatorium, his four sisters married and moved to Germany, and him, penniless, sent to his grandmother in England. The press have long tried to use this lonely upbringing as a way to explain his irascible character. When asked about his peripatetic childhood, he seemed aghast. “I just lived my life. I haven’t been trying to psychoanalyze myself the whole time.”
Many in the United Kingdom consider Prince Philip’s greatest achievement to be The Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards, which he set up in 1956 and are now the world’s leading youth achievement awards and presented across 141 countries. When told that the public perception is he’s made a huge success of his role as the Duke of Edinburgh, he is abrupt. “Who cares what I think about it.”
Actually, Prince Philip, we can think of at least one person who cares a great deal what you think.
“All too often, I fear that Prince Philip has had to listen to me speaking, frequently we have discussed my intended speech beforehand and, as you can imagine, his views have been expressed in a forthright manner,” said Her Majesty the Queen during a speech in 1997. “He is someone who doesn’t take easily to compliments, but he has quite simply been my strength all these years.”
Happy retirement, Prince Philip. You’ve earned it.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2017 issue with the headline, “A Royal Retirement,” p. 48-49.