The real reasons the Queen doesn't want to stop working

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Queen Elizabeth II attends the opening ceremony of the sixth session of The Senedd - Chris Jackson/Getty Images
Queen Elizabeth II attends the opening ceremony of the sixth session of The Senedd - Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Some years ago, in South Africa, the Spice Girls were invited to meet Nelson Mandela at his official residence in Pretoria. Prince Charles was there too, but he hardly got a look in.

Posing for the cameras, Geri Halliwell, wearing a racy red mini-dress, linked arms with the elderly president.

“Oh,” he said, “you make me feel so old“.

“Don’t be daft,” she laughed. “You’re only as old as the girl you’re cuddling!”

Halliwell had a point. Age is merely a number, as the Queen noted herself, when gracefully declining an award for “Oldie of the Year” last week. The Palace responded to the nomination with a wry turn of phrase: “Her Majesty believes you are only as old as you feel, and therefore does not think she meets the relevant criteria.”

If the Queen is not feeling her age, her unplanned night in hospital for “preliminary“ investigations is certainly uncharacteristic. However, the fact that she was in sparkling form at a reception the night before and was back at her desk working on “light duties” within 24 hours suggests it may not be too serious.

The Queen had showed no sign of being unwell at a Windsor Castle reception for business leaders - Alastair Grant/Pool via REUTERS
The Queen had showed no sign of being unwell at a Windsor Castle reception for business leaders - Alastair Grant/Pool via REUTERS

Of course, Prince Philip was 96 when he decided to hang up his royal duty boots. At a reception shortly after the announcement, someone told him they were very sorry he was stepping down.

“Stepping down?” retorted the Duke. “I can hardly stand up any more!”

The Prince thought it was important to quit before going past, as he put it, his sell-by date, but he would surely be the first to declare that his wife still has a spring in her step. After a short period of mourning following the Duke’s death, she has recently been in dazzling form, criss-crossing the country on an astonishing number of engagements for someone who is 95 and a half.

And the Queen is remarkably good at her job, as even Republicans might concede. To my mind, she seems to have the time to engage even more with people these days than in the past, genuinely listening to their stories and being interested in their lives. And when you’re good at your job and you still enjoy it, there seems no earthly reason to give it up.

Look at Sir David Attenborough, still broadcasting, still campaigning and just a fortnight younger than the Queen. Perhaps there is something indomitable about this wartime generation. Or maybe it’s the steely Scottish blood from her mother’s side of the family.

The Queen Mother similarly resisted surrendering to the frailties of old age. She relished the bracing fresh air at her remote Castle of Mey in Caithness on the north coast of Scotland. Coughs and colds, she believed, could be blown away by a brisk walk to see her cattle and other livestock.

In the end, she conceded that a walking stick would be wise – as the Queen now has – and eventually she used two. I remember being astounded when it was announced that, at the age of 101, the Queen Mother was going to visit HMS Ark Royal in Portsmouth. It was a windy November day and we were all feeling chilled as we waited for her to arrive. An aircraft carrier is not an easy place to get around, but the Queen Mother was the very embodiment of the spirit being willing even if the flesh is a little weak. She stumbled once but, dressed in royal blue with diamonds and pearls, she raised a laugh as she commanded the captain to “splice the main brace”.

Like her mother, the Queen is a firm believer in exercise and loves to go out riding whenever possible – certainly until quite recently. That in itself is an incredible feat for someone in their 90s. And she has also taken on a workload that would tax many a much younger person. In June she was dining with world leaders at the G-7 Summit in Cornwall one evening, and by 11 o’clock the next morning she was back on duty at Windsor taking the salute at Trooping the Colour. And already this month she has opened both the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments, alongside more than a dozen other engagements.

She holds fast to the concept that a monarch must be seen to be believed. During the long weeks of lockdown she got a taste of what life would be like in retirement – even though she still had her red boxes of Cabinet papers to go through – and it would seem she was unimpressed. She believes that personal contact is important not only for the monarchy, but it’s also interesting and stimulating for her.

There have, of course, been some concessions to her age. The Queen no longer carries out royal tours abroad and she has delegated many routine duties, such as investitures, to Prince Charles or Prince William. But perhaps the most surprisingly successful innovation, prompted by the Covid pandemic, is the use of modern technology.

The Zoom and Skype conversations we’ve seen the Queen conducting in the past year or so have given us an added insight into her personality. Sitting in her own home, she has looked refreshingly relaxed and chatty and we’ve had glimpses of her keen sense of humour. It heralds a more informal relationship with the monarch and makes the whole institution seem more approachable and in touch. It is a new way of working that the Queen will almost certainly continue to use as age takes its inevitable toll. For the time being though, the Palace is giving no indication that the Queen intends to cut back any further on her face-to-face encounters.

Not long ago I met a woman in her mid-80s who was living in a retirement home. We were talking about how staying active in old age can keep you switched on and healthy. She told me that a week earlier she’d done something for the first time: she’d been wing walking on a Forties’ bi-plane.

“It made me feel 50 years younger!” she said.

We are unlikely to see the Queen strapped to the wing of a plane any time soon but, provided that the current health scare permits, there’s little doubt that she’ll be out and about again being “seen and believed” before too long.

Six of the oldest working royals – past and present

Claudia Rowan

Princess Anne, Prince Philip, Queen Victoria
Princess Anne, Prince Philip, Queen Victoria

Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother

One of the Royal family’s longest-serving members, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother began her duties in December 1936, after her husband King George VI ascended the throne. As Queen consort until 1952, she undertook countless royal tours and visits, including morale-boosting appearances to see for herself the damage caused by enemy air raids during the Second World War.

Following the death of her husband in 1952, she resumed her royal duties, representing her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, on more than 30 official visits overseas.

Her final public engagement – attending the re-commissioning ceremony of the Ark Royal aircraft carrier in Hampshire – came in November 2001, when she was 101. She died in March 2002.

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh

The Duke of Edinburgh spent seven decades supporting the Queen in her – and his own – royal duties. The longest-serving British consort, his duties began on February 6, 1952, when Princess Elizabeth ascended the throne. He retired from public duties in August 2017, aged 96, by which time he had completed 22,219 solo engagements.

Queen Victoria

Having ascended the throne aged 18, in June 1837, the longest reigning British monarch at the time (63 years seven months) held the position until her death, aged 81, in 1901. After performing official duties for more than six decades, she completed her last public engagement – laying the foundation stone of the new wing of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum – in 1899, aged 80. Her record-beating reign was surpassed in 2015 by her great-great-granddaughter, Elizabeth II.

Charles, Prince of Wales

At 72, the longest-serving heir apparent in British history is a patron, president or member of more than 400 charities and organisations. To date, he has visited 45 of the 54 countries in the Commonwealth, and was appointed the organisation’s designated successor in 2018. He continues to support The Prince’s Trust, the youth charity he set up in 1976 to help young people into jobs, education and training.

Anne, Princess Royal

Having inherited her mother’s strong work ethic, Princess Anne, 71, is feted as one of the hardest working royals. Like the Prince of Wales, Princess Anne is part of the over-70 club – but her age hasn’t diminished her industriousness. As of last month, she had completed more than 100 public engagements – some of which took place online because of the pandemic. Princess Anne was recently named patron of the Remembrance Trust charity, which finds and restores military graves and memorials.

Prince Edward, Duke of Kent

The Queen’s first cousin, the 86-year-old Duke has performed royal engagements on her behalf for more than 50 years: as well as Commonwealth visits, he has undertaken more than 60 overseas trips to promote British trade. One of his most recent engagements was to accompany the Queen at this year’s Trooping the Colour celebration at Windsor Castle. He is also involved with more than 140 charities and organisations, including the Imperial War Museum and Opera North. Equally active is his 88-year-old wife, the Duchess of Kent, who is patron of several music charities and a keen supporter of Unicef.

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