Remarkable milestone for royal couple
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip spend more time apart as they settle into a new rhythm of married life
HOW hard it must have been for Queen Elizabeth to tear herself away. With the workmen finally gone, there was the shiny new kitchen – the first for 30 years – in the house where she and Prince Philip feel, and behave, like normal people.
They had spent a few days together last week at Wood Farm, the cottage on the Sandringham estate that for years has been their bolt-hole from palace formality.
But the queen – at 91 – had to return to her duties in London. The Duke of Edinburgh, 96, went with her on the helicopter flight. But then he flew on to Windsor Castle where he is staying until after the weekend.
Then it is back to Wood Farm. Now retired from his official life, it was he who organised the new kitchen, one of the subtle changes their lives have undergone lately. He loves it there and has made it his retirement base: reading, painting watercolours, writing letters and having friends to stay.
An old friend says: “He is enjoying reading things he’s always wanted to read and gets up to what he wants without an equerry telling him he has to be elsewhere, or a camera following him.”
This is all with his wife’s blessing. For more than ever as they approach their 70th wedding anniversary on November 20, does the queen feel a need to show her love and gratitude to the man that she emotionally described on their 50th anniversary as her “strength and stay”.
One has to say it is surprising for a couple who have been together for so long to be spending more time apart as they reach such a remarkable landmark in their lives.
But as a courtier explains: “The queen feels the duke has earned a proper retirement. Being at Wood Farm means he’s not too far away, but far enough to be able to relax.”
Their weekend together was the first for several weeks. And they still know how to have fun. A few weeks ago at Balmoral, they judged the staff fancy dress competition.
It is always a jolly evening when footmen, housemaids, cooks and gamekeepers compete to wear the most original costume. They still chuckle over the time that Philip had to explain to the queen that Oompa-loompas were characters in a Roald Dahl story.
This time, the choice came down to two finalists, one dressed as Wonder Woman, the other as a winner’s envelope from the Oscars awards ceremony. Wonder Woman won.
What is plain to those who surround this elderly couple is that the queen and Philip have settled comfortably into a new rhythm of married life.
She does miss him, though, especially at the breakfast table. Now, she sits alone and is rarely seen before the daily 11am meeting with her private secretary.
The younger royals, particularly Princess Anne and the Countess of Wessex, have been spending more time with the queen since Philip’s retirement. There is also a “granny rota” for the grandchildren.
Of course, this marriage has had ups and downs like any other.
Long ago, when still Princess Elizabeth and giving a talk to a local Women’s Institute, the queen described divorce as “awful”, little knowing it would strike at all but one of her own four children.
Yet here they are now, at the head of a family whose members, for once, seem at peace with one another. And, having welcomed the great-granddaughter of a Geordie coalminer into the family, they are on the brink of embracing a young lady born in Los Angeles whose maternal greatgreat-great-great grandfather was a slave.
Who would have expected Elizabeth and Philip, when they married at Westminster Abbey in 1947 in a glitter of post-war excitement and extravagance, to preside so effortlessly over such an extraordinary period of social change?
No one really knew how well this marriage would work. Navy man Philip was an odd mix of Greek royal family privilege (albeit penniless) and the common touch, blunt-speaking with spiky opinions. He was also so rakishly good-looking that fears were expressed that he could not possibly be faithful.
This allegation has always dogged the marriage and is the theme of the next series of The Crown, the Netflix blockbuster that returns next month.
He is probably the only person on Earth who treats her as a normal human being. More than once he has been overheard calling her “a bloody fool”.
How revealing of the young queen, already a mother of three children (Charles, Anne and Andrew) to be squealing and shrieking, “Stop it, Philip, stop it”, as he hurried her up the stairs pinching her bottom on a weekend at Broadlands, home of “Uncle Dickie” Earl Mountbatten.
Giggling could still be heard as they reached their room and the door closed. Then silence. At the time, they had been married for 15 years.
For his part, walking one pace behind his wife on official occasions has never really bothered Philip.
“He’s seen it as a consideration for those who want an unobstructed view of the queen without him getting in the way,” says a friend.
But while the queen is head of state, Philip is the acknowledged head of the family.
It was his hand, not hers, who penned those warm letters to Princess Diana during the most turbulent months in the crisis of her marriage to Charles, asking her to recognise there were faults on both sides while reassuring her of how fond he and the queen were of her.
Those familiar words: “I cannot imagine anyone in their right mind leaving you for Camilla”, in a letter which he signed “Fondest, Pa”, were a comfort to Diana.
He and the queen wanted the marriage to survive, but she left it to Philip to write the letters because he, just like Diana, had been an outsider marrying into the royal family.
As for another who married into “the Firm”, Sarah, the Duchess of York, here was someone over whom Philip and the queen have never seen eye to eye.
Infuriated at the embarrassment heaped on Prince Andrew and the House of Windsor by Fergie’s toe-sucking adventures with American John Bryan, Philip refused to have anything more to do with her. When she walked into a room, he would walk out. All these years later the queen still takes a different line from Philip, firmly maintaining a wifely independence in seeing her former daughter-in-law fairly Who would have expected Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, when they married at Westminster Abbey in 1947 in a glitter of post-war excitement and extravagance, to preside so effortlessly over such an extraordinary period of social change? regularly. She does it because she dotes on Andrew, her favourite son, who – 21 years after their divorce – still shares his home, Royal Lodge, with his ex-wife.
And, of course, she does it for her granddaughters, the princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, who often pop in to see her.
Philip did get on with life, too much so, in the eyes of some. They saw in his travels – on one occasion with friends sailing the world aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia, he was away for four months – a consort near to being “off the rails”.
One cleric close to the royal family believes none of this would have happened had George VI lived a few years more. His death at the age of 56, catapulting the queen on to the throne at 25, ended the blissful, virtually private family life she and Philip hoped to enjoy for longer.
“Prince Philip needed more time to get used to what was ahead,” says the cleric. “Suddenly jobless by having to give up his life at sea, then to be bound by all the royal conventions, he found it hard to cope and simply had to get away.”
It does seem hardly credible today that Philip’s wanderings were seen as such a potential crisis back in the 1950s that the palace had to issue its one and only statement about the state of the marriage.
It declared that it was “quite untrue there is any rift between the queen and the duke”.
The queen always viewed the gossip about her husband and women – none of it accompanied by hard evidence – with a sophistication surprising for a woman who, as one friend puts it plainly, “has only ever herself had an intimate relationship with one man”.
Although wounded by the talk, the queen had long accepted she had married a man who “takes a lot of amusing”, and resigned herself to the fact that women simply found him very attractive.
As for the “affairs”, another friend has recalled advice given to the queen in the early days by Lord Mountbatten: “Some men have certain needs, which doesn’t mean they love their wives any less”.
Philip’s free spirit has always been at the forefront of the queen’s mind. In the early days of her reign, he found himself without a proper role.
For a time he thought of making himself useful by involving himself in public matters rather as the last consort, Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert, had done almost a century earlier.
But when, just 20 days after the death of George VI, he watched a Commons debate from the Peers’ Gallery – just as Albert did – object ions were raised with the-then prime minister, Winston Churchill.
Churchill said he saw no harm in it, but Philip never went again.
As things turned out, he found much to do, from establishing his Duke of Edinburgh award scheme and co-founding the WWF (now the World Wide Fund for Nature), to involvement in hundreds of charities and the Armed Forces.
And he always had one key role alongside the queen – as her “ice-breaker”. The smile she has taken into thousands of rooms full of people, all of whom are looking at her expectantly, would not have been nearly so steady over the decades but for Philip. Even after all these years, the queen still has to gather herself on such occasions.
As the distinguished artist Michael Noakes, who has painted her several times, says: “When Philip has seen that happening, he has taken over in a subtle way and made sure everything was okay. He says he can make people laugh within 15 seconds.”
Now, things have changed. The queen’s public engagements have been cut back; they are shorter and with line-ups, rather than her having to mingle in rooms full of guests.
Life has become just that bit tougher for the queen than for Philip, but as a former lady-in-waiting explains: “I’m sure the queen doesn’t mind that in the least. She fell in love with him at 13 when they first met and she is still in love with him. She’s always had a special look in her eyes when she looks at him, and still has it. She believes he’s earned some peace and quiet.”
For the past 20 years she has been well aware of the chronic arthritis which made Philip’s public duties harder. But the duke is, according to former lady-inwaiting Jean Woodroffe, “much kinder (to the queen) than he used to be. He was never unkind, of course, but became more protective”.
This has extended to jovially castigating family members failing his punctuality test at informal gatherings when the queen had already arrived.
At a recent birthday party, he grabbed one of the younger royal women by the wrist as she walked in, tapped her watch meaningfully and, amid laughter, rasped: “It seems to be bloody working.”
Nothing illustrates the queen’s devotion more than her marking his 90th birthday by bestowing on him one of her own titles, that of Lord High Admiral. Friends describe him as being “almost in tears” at the gesture.
On Remembrance Sunday, when Philip decided that he would not participate in the Cenotaph service, but watch from the sidelines – a Foreign Office balcony – it didn’t take the queen long to decide that her place was with him there.
A courtier explains: “Had she asked him to lay a wreath as usual, he would have done so. But she didn’t want to press him because she knew he would say ‘Yes’, and she thought of his arthritis. She didn’t want to do it on her own. It’s a testament to their bond.”
Philip has marvelled at his wife’s grit at the Cenotaph. To ease the burden of standing for close to half an hour in the November chill and to make it less hazardous as she laid her wreath before gingerly stepping down backwards, the heels on her shoes were lowered and broadened.
Her wreath, now to be laid by Charles, was also made lighter.
At Wood Farm, with its simple furnishings and open fires, Philip does have help. There is a page, housekeeper, chef and footman, but unlike the liveried palace staff, he prefers that they wear ordinary clothes.
As for their 70th anniversary, once such a milestone would have heralded a major gathering of friends and family. But with great age inevitably comes great loss, especially of friends, which is one reason why the dinner at Windsor Castle will be relatively low key.
It’s hard to think now that in their courtship days when Philip began to understand the restrictions he would be expected to live under as the queen’s husband, he briefly toyed with the idea of “throwing in the towel” and returning to Greece. How often since then has he – and his wife – been thankful that he didn’t. – Daily Mail