In August this year, at the grand old age of 96, and amidst mounting concerns for his health, Prince Philip officially retired from the frontline of public life, with his office announcing he would no longer be performing public engagements.
Since then, sightings of the outspoken Prince Consort have been as rare as hen’s teeth. Like many other retirees before him, Philip, 96, has hunkered down and squared up to the myriad challenges of constructing a new life for himself no longer filled by incessant work obligations.
One of his first decisions was to move completely move out of Buckingham Palace, the official primary residence of the Monarch and her spouse, where he has only spent a handful of nights since stepping back from public life.
Philip has never made any secret of his dislike for Buckingham Palace (as the Netflix series The Crown dramatized so vividly) and has been known to compare its architecture to a hospital.
Over the past few months, Philip has been dividing his time between Windsor Castle (which he and his wife adore) and, intriguingly, a modestly proportioned and very cozy former farm manager’s cottage on the Sandringham estate, Wood Farm.
The demands of duty mean that Philip and the queen have become accustomed to living geographically separate lives. Indeed, even when they are together they do not sleep in the same bedroom. So it’s safe to say the new living arrangements are not indicative of any marital discord
On the contrary, the move to Wood Farm in fact represents the first steps in fulfilling a long held joint fantasy of Philip and the queen; the dream of quietly living out their days as “normal” people in the Shires.
That may be the ultimate purpose of Wood Farm, where Philip now fills his days with reading, painting (which he has always enjoyed when time allowed) and letter writing on behalf the 780 organizations of which he is still patron.
Living full time in the countryside has also allowed Philip to indulge one of the great passions of his life which is carriage driving. The mild and dry fall has been kind to Philip in this respect, often providing the perfect conditions for him to ride out with a four-in-hand.
Indeed, just this week, Philip was photographed driving a carriage laden with esteemed guests—including the Margrave (Count) of Baden, who is the nephew of Philip through his mother and Prince Ludwig of Baden—through Windsor Great Park during the celebrations for his 70th wedding anniversary.
Photographs showing the apparently hale and hearty duke were particularly welcome as one source said he had looked “almost dead” the weekend before in London.
Philip’s health—he has had numerous health scares and hospitalizations in recent years—hangs silently over everything the royal couple do, of course.
Wood Farm has no on-site medical facility like Buckingham Palace, but the local hospital, Papworth, has previously demonstrated its ability to cope with their VIP local resident after Philip was rushed there by helicopter for emergency surgery after a heart attack in 2011.
The queen’s visits to Wood Farm are said to be marked by informality, with the two role playing a distinctly middle class vision of domesticity, a game they have enjoyed for many years, particularly in Scotland, at Craigowan Lodge on the Balmoral estate, where the queen dons her Marigolds to do the washing up following Philip’s legendary barbecues.
Penny Junor, the author of the forthcoming biography of Camilla Parker Bowles, The Duchess: Camilla Parker Bowles and the Love Affair That Rocked the Crown, told The Daily Beast that for several years the couple have chosen to stay at Wood Farm rather than opening up the big house if it is “just them” at Sandringham.
“They are very modest. They like being in a smaller cosier house, and not having to have all the staff. We may dream of living in palace surrounded by flunkies, but they dream of being like us. Just a few weeks ago David Linley (son of Princess Margaret) was given a day’s shooting at Balmoral for a birthday present, and the Queen and the Duke were waiting on the guests.”
Junor says it is also unsurprising that the duke continues, despite his official retirement, to write, lobby and fundraise on behalf of the 700-plus organizations of which he is still patron.
“When Diana bowed out of public life she gave up hundreds of roles just like that. Philip was very disapproving of what she had done because she let so many people down.”
The writer Lady Colin Campbell told The Daily Beast that she believes the royal couples love of playing the part of ordinary folk can be attributed to their breeding.
“Both the queen and the Duke of Edinburgh are the great-great grandchildren of King Christian IX of Denmark, who was promoted from being an ordinary ducal prince to the throne. A strong line of very middle class domesticity runs in all his descendants. His children, who married into many of the royal families of Europe and included Queen Alexandra [Edward VII’s wife], were all brought up in relative penury, with little money, even after he was promoted.
“They lived a very frugal, upper middle class life. The children had to repair their own clothes and do housework, and their mother did the cooking, and this really is the key to the domesticity bred through all the great royal families of Europe.”
Indeed, it may not be so long before the queen retreats in full from her own public appearance schedule and joins her husband at Wood Farm or Windsor more frequently than the odd weekend she can currently spare.
Her decision to ask Charles to lay a wreath on her behalf at the Cenotaph on Veteran’s Day this year was likely a harbinger of things to come.
As the writer Christopher Andersen told The Daily Beast: “Philip has never made any attempt to conceal his utter disdain for the ceremonial duties that have gone with his position. Now he is blissfully free of them and making the most of that freedom. Without Philip, the queen is feeling somewhat unmoored, and in her heart of hearts would love to join him in retirement.”