Most nonagenarians are happy to mark their birthday with a small family get-together, perhaps a cake with a single candle and a good snooze. Not the Duke of Edinburgh. His idea of commemorating his 93rd last week was work in the run-up, work on the day and more work after the event.
As one courtier says, “Most people half his age would struggle with his workload. But to the duke, it’s business as usual. He’s always worked. He always will. We think that when it’s his time to go, he’ll go in harness.”
Or, as royal author Ashley Walton puts it, “He hates being idle. He would rather die in action than sit around doing nothing.”
But death seems a remote prospect for Prince Philip. He was the centre of attention at an 8000-strong royal garden party in Buckingham Palace’s 16 hectares of gardens on the birthday itself – even the Queen and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge took second and third places in the crowd’s appreciation.
It was just one of seven official, and many more unofficial, engagements in his birthday week, including a trip to Germany, several more out of London and a Trooping the Colour ceremony. The week prior was equally busy, with D-Day commemorations in France.
A royal aide explains, “He never wants any fuss around his birthday. Duty always comes first for him.”
Guests were advised against wishing the duke a happy birthday at the garden party, but Kiwi Samantha Webster took it upon herself to mark the occasion by gifting him a merino scarf.
“He said, ‘Can you hand that to someone as I don’t want to lug it round the garden?’” Samantha recalls.
Philip’s current good health is a far cry from this time last year, when he spent his birthday in hospital after an abdominal operation, then took two months to convalesce.
While the Queen publicly expressed no fears, she quietly awarded him New Zealand’s highest honour, making him an additional member of the Order of New Zealand.
A royal watcher notes, “She would never express a personal concern but the citation reads, ‘His time supporting The Queen as royal consort exceeds that of any other consort in British history.’ It was her way of paying tribute to her husband and dealing with her worries.”
The year before, he had also been in hospital, with a bladder infection caught during the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, and came out the day before his 91st birthday.
Little wonder that he said in an interview at the time, “I reckon I’ve done my bit. I want to enjoy myself now, with less responsibility, less frantic rushing, less preparation, less trying to think of something to say.”
Majesty magazine’s royal watcher, Joe Little, was not taken in. “I’m convinced it’s being active that has kept him so young at heart,” he says.
The Queen, on the other hand, would like him to take things easier. After last year’s operation, she had a lift installed at Sandringham, so Philip would not have to climb the stairs.
He refuses to use it and his look of horror when he saw a walking frame on a visit to a retirement home last October spoke volumes.
Ordered by doctors to walk or do gentle stretches to work off his daily fried breakfast, he instead does a minimum of 50 press-ups or sit-ups and still excels at carriage driving.
“He is convinced maintaining his fitness allows him to keep up his workload and the proof is in the pudding,” says an aide. “For most, standing all afternoon at a royal garden party would be draining. He takes it in his stride.”
No wonder he was in a good mood at a family party held the night before his birthday. It is believed he laughed when the cake was brought in. And yes – it had one candle on it.