The Sunday Telegraph
‘I’ve done my bit, I want to enjoy myself now’
Retirement for the Duke meant reading, painting and carriage driving, with less ‘frantic rushing about’
HE HAD spent most of his adult life cosseted in palaces and castles, but craved modesty and simplicity, and in retirement the Duke of Edinburgh finally, briefly, got his own way.
His private nirvana was the quiet, peaceful home he made for himself at Wood Farm on the Sandringham Estate, where he could live out his years reading, painting, birdwatching, carriage driving and entertaining his closest friends.
“I reckon I’ve done my bit,” he said in an interview to mark his 90th birthday, “so I want to enjoy myself a bit now, with less responsibility, less frantic rushing about, less preparation, less trying to think of something to say.
“On top of that, your memory’s going, I can’t remember names and things,” he admitted.
“It’s better to get out before you reach the sell-by date.”
He was surely alone in believing he had reached his “sell-by date” even when he did finally retire in 2017, but no one, and certainly not the Queen, would dispute that he had “done his bit”.
By the time the Duke stepped down from his full-time role in August 2017, when he attended a rain-sodden parade in front of Buckingham Palace in his role as Captain General of the Royal Marines, he had completed 22,219 solo engagements, as well as countless others with the Queen.
When a guest told him he was sorry to hear he was standing down, the Duke, sharp as ever, joked: “I can’t stand up much.”
Sandringham was a personal favourite among royal residences, but the Duke, ever the spartan naval officer, loathed the idea of dozens of staff having to open up and maintain the “big house” just so he could stay there, and decided Wood Farm would suit his needs, together with a valet and a cook, his only helpers. The only modification the Duke required was a new kitchen to replace one that had seen better days.
The Queen would stay with him when she was not in London performing official duties, and the Duke would entertain guests including Countess Mountbatten, formerly Lady Penny Romsey, one of his closest friends.
When the Queen was not staying with him they spoke on the phone every day.
For the first time in his adult life, the Duke was able to live as he pleased, without any demands on his time.
He could pick and choose the occasions when he appeared in public, usually to attend military-themed events such as the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall in 2017 and the Cenotaph ceremony the same year.
Retirement did not, however, mean a pipe and slippers for the Duke, who preferred not to make allowances for his age. He went out carriage driving whenever he could (a sport he took up in 1971 when he was finally forced to give up playing polo aged 50 due to arthritis in his wrists), though he would take two assistants in case he had any difficulties. He was still carriage driving in December 2019, aged 98.
The Duke consumed books at a terrific rate: in his personal library at Buckingham Palace he had 11,000 books, meaning that if he had read them all he would have averaged more than one book every three days of his adult life.
He preferred non-fiction to novels, owning hundreds of books on conservation and hundreds more on art, sport and history, but also enjoyed poetry (and wrote 14 books during his lifetime, on the environment, equestrianism and engineering).
Retirement also allowed him to continue his lifelong love of painting. For him, painting was very much a private pursuit – unlike his son, the Prince of Wales, he did not sell his works for charity and the few that he allowed to be photographed included a charming oil of the Queen at breakfast and a selfportrait at his easel.
An art expert once described his paintings as “exactly what you’d expect – totally direct, no hanging about”.
Wood Farm – once the home of the Queen’s uncle, Prince John, who lived there with his nurse until his death from a epileptic fit aged 13 – was also an ideal spot for ornithology, a hobby the Duke began during long voyages on the Royal Yacht Britannia in the Fifties. He owned 781 books on birds, according to Gyles Brandreth, his biographer.
Apart from his occasional attendance at official events, the Duke never missed a major family get-together. He attended the weddings in Windsor of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex in May 2018 (barely a week after having a hip replacement), Princess Eugenie in October 2018, Lady Gabriella Windsor in May 2019 and Princess Beatrice last July.
The Duke was able to carry on driving carriages for longer than he could drive cars. In February 2019, he finally gave up driving on public roads after a crash near Sandringham the previous month. Blinded by strong sunlight, as he later claimed, he pulled out on to the A149, where he collided with another car. His Land Rover Freelander ended up on its side, and although the Duke was uninjured, Emma Fairweather, a passenger in the other car, suffered a broken wrist.
The Duke admitted in a letter to Mrs Fairweather that he had been “somewhat shaken” by the smash, and was “deeply sorry” to hear of her injuries.
The Duke was back behind the wheel of a replacement Freelander within two days of the accident, without a seat belt, and received “words of advice” from police. Weeks later, Buckingham Palace announced that “after careful consideration” the Duke had decided “to voluntarily surrender his driving licence”, meaning he would no longer drive on public roads. In November of that year, the Duke and the Queen celebrated their 72nd wedding anniversary at Broadlands in Hampshire, the Mountbatten family home where they had begun their honeymoon in 1947.
The last time he was seen in public carrying out official duties was in July last year at Windsor Castle, where he passed on his role as Colonel-in-Chief of The Rifles to the Duchess of Cornwall.
He carried on writing letters to the charities and organisations of which he remained patron, and as recently as the start of this week he was reportedly still reading and writing letters.
In March last year, when Covid restrictions meant the Queen could not travel to see her husband, he moved back to Windsor Castle where they and their staff formed “HMS Bubble”.
Last summer, when restrictions were lifted, the Queen and the Duke moved to their summer quarters at Balmoral, but the Duke, with the Queen’s blessing, moved back to Norfolk after six weeks, where the couple spent three weeks together before returning to Windsor.
The Duke’s last Christmas was spent at Windsor, Covid restrictions meaning the Royal family’s traditional gettogether at Sandringham had to be cancelled. He also kept in touch with
He consumed books at a terrific rate: his personal library at Buckingham Palace had 11,000 books
family members by telephone and sometimes via Zoom.
When the Duke was admitted to the private King Edward VII’s Hospital in London on Feb 17, Buckingham Palace insisted it was a “precautionary measure” and he would stay there for “a few days of observation and rest”.
He was said to have walked into the hospital unaided. But concerns for his health grew as his hospital stay lengthened from days to weeks, and a fortnight after admission he was transferred to a cardiac unit at St Bartholomew’s Hospital where surgeons performed a procedure relating to a pre-existing heart condition.
He returned to King Edward VII’s to recuperate, and when he was discharged on Mar 16, he was wheeled to a waiting car, and was photographed in the back seat looking extremely frail.
The Duke spent his final days in his uncluttered bedroom looking out on to the East Terrace of Windsor Castle, linked via a dressing room to the Queen’s bedroom. His energy fading, he spent much of his time asleep, but when he felt well enough, and if it was warm enough, he would sit outside in the sunshine with a rug on his lap.
Time had finally caught up with the man they called the Iron Duke.