How Prince Philip spent his retirement – painting, driving, and finally relaxing

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Hugo Vickers
·8 min read
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The Duke refused to live the quiet life - Pete Maclaine/Parsons Media
The Duke refused to live the quiet life - Pete Maclaine/Parsons Media

Prince Philip was interviewed on television, somewhat reluctantly, when he turned 90, in June 2011. He said he wanted to enjoy himself – yet he did not retire. He continued to serve for another six years, finally stepping down at the end of the summer of 2017, aged 96.

He did this with the full approval of the Queen, who was more than aware that he had done his bit and wanted him to have time to himself. After the annual summer holiday in Balmoral, the new arrangement kicked in. The Queen returned to London, while the Duke settled at Wood Farm, on the Sandringham estate, best known historically as the home where Prince John, the epileptic youngest son of George V and Queen Mary, lived in quiet seclusion with his devoted nurse, Lala Bill. Prince John died there in 1919, aged 13.

It was at Wood Farm that the Duke was able to enjoy his carriage driving, painting in watercolours and reading; he far preferred history to novels (which he somewhat mistrusted) and exchanged book suggestions with a friend.

Had he returned to Buckingham Palace, he would inevitably have got caught up in Royal engagements – but at Wood Farm, he had peace and quiet. It provided a modest alternative to Sandringham and, for years, had been rented out.

During a few days’ stay at Sandringham some years earlier, he had been was horrified to see a busload of cooks, telephonists and others evidently needed even for his short visit. Since then, the Royal Family had often stayed at Wood Farm, rather than open ‘the Big House’.

Wood Farm is not a tiny house, but it is manageable, with minimal staff. Its furnishings are undistinguished, but a new kitchen was put in for the Duke’s benefit. With the Duke was his much-liked page, William Henderson, originally a cleaner when he joined his service in the 1980s and worked his way up.

Although the Duke living at Wood Farm meant he and the Queen spending long periods apart, they spoke every day on the telephone. We have been accustomed to seeing photographs of the Queen departing by train for Sandringham before Christmas. Yet she and other members of the family frequently travelled that way, without publicity, to spend time with him. Penny Mountbatten, with whom he shared a love of carriage driving, was also often with him.

For the Duke, retirement simply meant that nothing was expected of him, though he could appear at engagements if the mood took him. Just months into retirement, he attended the 2017 Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall, and on the Home Office balcony with the Queen to witness wreaths being laid at the Cenotaph, the last time he was seen in his heavy Naval great coat.

The Duke went on to make memorable appearances at three Royal weddings at St George’s Chapel – Prince Harry’s in May 2018, Princess Eugenie’s in October the same year, and Lady Gabriella Windsor’s the following May – and, more privately, at Princess Beatrice’s in the church at Royal Lodge last July.

A hazard of living a long life is losing those around you. The Duke had a loyal triumvirate in his household, and he lost all three in quick succession. Sir Brian McGrath, his former Private Secretary, a regular weekend companion attending equestrian driving events, and the link to the Duke’s many German relations spread across the globe, had died aged 90 in June 2016; Dame Anne Griffiths, his long-serving archivist for 65 years, aged 84, in March 2017; and Brigadier Sir Miles Hunt-Davis, who had stepped down as Private Secretary in 2010, aged 79, in May 2018.

The day after he went into Edward VII's Hospital in central London in February 2021, Chris Marlow, who had served him as valet for 40 years, died.

He retained Brigadier Archie Miller-Bakewell as his Private Secretary, and Alex McCreery, who had run the office, stepped in as archivist. The Duke still received correspondence, and was kept in touch with the outside world. He was glad to hear of an exhibition at Wolfsgarten in connection with the 80th anniversary of the death of Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse, and his own sister Cecile and her husband, George Donatus, both in 1937, and contributed a note for

He wrote: “I have the happiest memories of Wolfsgarten in the 1930s, when the house was always full of relations and friends, and conversations ranged over every conceivable subject. It was a ‘golden age’, in spite of many reminders of the First Great War. I hope that this collection of postcards and photographs will convey some idea of the life of a happy and united family during those years.”

Just before he stepped down, he went to Germany for the 80th birthday of his nephew, Prince Ludwig of Baden. In a short speech, he told him he wished him well, so long as he was enjoying life. We can therefore assume that, until very recently, despite many health issues, the Duke himself was indeed enjoying life. He hated fuss and attention directed at himself. The prospect of turning 100 in June held no appeal for him. He was permitting no national celebration, and the pandemic saved him from that. Most likely he would have gone to church as he did when 80 and 90.

In the privacy of Sandringham, he relished the freedom to go out carriage-driving, a pastime he took up when he could no longer play polo due to arthritis in his wrists. Miles Hunt-Davis described this as his form of relaxation, the courses he competed in requiring such intense concentration as to push all other thoughts aside. In old age, he could not control the horses as earlier, but he still went out in all winds and weathers. He last sent the horses back to Windsor from Norfolk before his pre-Christmas stay in the Edward VII in December 2019.

Driving a car gave him a sense of liberty. That had to cease – at least on public roads – after his serious accident in January 2019. His vision impaired by a low sun over the Wash, on the A149 near Sandringham, he overturned his Land Rover Freelander in a crash with another vehicle. From this, he emerged more or less unscathed, later apologising to the injured drivers: “I was somewhat shaken after the incident, but I was greatly relieved that none of you were seriously injured. As a crowd was beginning to gather, I was advised to return to Sandringham House by a local police officer. I have since learned that you suffered a broken arm. I am deeply sorry about this injury. I wish you a speedy recovery from a very distressing experience.”

He was not always at Wood Farm. He was usually at Windsor during the Easter court. He remained feisty, snapping enjoyably at a former private secretary lunching with the Queen in 2019 who expressed surprise that he was there: “I’m always here at this time.”

In November 2019, he and the Queen spent a weekend at Broadlands with Lady Mountbatten. He enjoyed Balmoral less latterly and, in both 2019 and 2020, curtailed his stay there, returning to Wood Farm. In 2020, the Queen went with him, and Prince Charles came over to see them from Sandringham House, a curious reversal of roles. As the years went by, the Duke remained remarkably fit and agile for his age, even if his short-term memory began to fail him.

As soon as lockdown was announced in March 2020, he joined the Queen at Windsor and they entered what was jokingly called ‘HMS Bubble’. He kept in touch with his family by Zoom. Prince Harry revealed, during his recent chat-show interview with James Corden, that when the Duke finished a call, he simply closed the laptop.

Prince Philip the man - Read more
Prince Philip the man - Read more

In April, a month into the lockdown, the Duke issued a message to key workers in food production and distribution, those who kept postal and delivery services going, and those who collected the rubbish. He thanked them for keeping the infrastructure of life going, “on behalf of those of us who remain safe and at home”. He was touched by the positive response to this.

The Duke was able to make a memorable final appearance before the cameras on July 22 2020, when he stepped out into the quadrangle in Windsor Castle to hand over his post as Colonel-in-Chief of the Rifles to the Duchess of Cornwall.

As recently as December, he sent a message to the Chartered College of Teaching, commending teachers and school staff for their “professional and resolute commitment throughout the past year to teaching our children and young people in the most challenging conditions”. He wished them “a well-deserved break” - which is what the Queen had granted him when he stepped down from public life.

In February 2021, after feeling unwell, he was admitted to King Edward VII hospital as a precautionary measure, but walked in unaided.

Following treatment for an infection and a successful heart procedure, the Duke was keen to get home, to Windsor. But there was a short delay because nursing staff had to be found who were completely Covid-free and could enter ‘HMS Bubble’.

He was not looking forward to being 100, and all the attendant fuss this could entail. While we mind him missing that significant anniversary by a margin of little more than 70 days, it would not have concerned him. It is comforting to know that he was able to be with the Queen for the last days of his life, and in a home he loved so well.

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