LONDON — Although he’d had “a good innings,” as Britain’s cricketers would say about those who’ve had a long and successful career, Prince Philip’s decision to retire from public life still took some by surprise.
On Thursday morning Buckingham Palace said in a brief statement that the Duke of Edinburgh, as he’s known here, would no longer carry out public engagements from the fall. The duke, who will turn 96 on June 10, may still chose to attend certain public events “from time to time,” the palace added.
It was the prince’s personal decision, and he had full support of the 91-year-old Queen Elizabeth II, who will continue to carry out a full program of official engagements.
“It was a surprise — I’d thought he’d go on and on, and he’d certainly bumped up his number of appointments over the past month,” said Ingrid Seward, editor in chief of Majesty magazine and author of “My Husband and I,” (Simon and Schuster), about the marriage of the Queen and Prince Philip, which will be released later this year.
Seward said the prince’s decision was understandable given his age. She said the duke has to make a “supreme effort to get up in the morning and get dressed. He’s up at 5 a.m. for a 10 a.m. appointment and while he’s cosseted and has a lot of help, it still takes a lot of mental effort” to get going.
Although Buckingham Palace has insisted that both the prince and the Queen are in good health, the royal couple made headlines over the Christmas holiday when they were suffering from heavy colds.
They were forced to delay their trip from London to their Sandringham estate in Norfolk by 24 hours, and the Queen even missed the Christmas Day service on the estate. (The prince recovered, though, and was well enough to attend church on the day).
Seward said his retirement will be a loss. “He will be sorely missed — he has contributed so much to the world,” she said, adding that he was one of the first public figures to warn about climate change and overpopulation, and to talk about the importance of environmental conservation. “He was way ahead of his time.”
The prince was a patron, president or a member of more than 780 organizations, and while he’ll continue to support them, he’ll no longer attend related engagements.
Prince Philip, forever the naval man he once was with a posture still ramrod straight as if he is always standing at attention, is renowned for being tough, but also is often charming and sharp-witted and is known for his decidedly un-P.C. quips and indiscretions. He once asked native Australians if they “still throw spears,” and jokingly warned British students they’d get “slitty eyes” if they remained too long in China.
He’s also has a very British talent for making fun of himself. Last week he attended Lord’s Cricket Ground in London to open a new stand and, according to the BBC, was heard making a joke that he was the “world’s most experienced plaque unveiler.”
During a royal lunch on Thursday following the announcement, a guest told the prince: “I’m sorry to hear you’re standing down.” The prince replied: “Well, I can’t stand up much,” the BBC reported.
Peter York, the social commentator, author and consultant, said the perception of the duke has evolved enormously in the public consciousness over the decades.
“He’s always been a very interesting and complex figure — and a rather glamorous one, too,” said York, whose books include “The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook,” and its sequel “Cooler, Faster, More Expensive: The Return of the Sloane Ranger.”
Before he married his wife, then Princess Elizabeth, in 1947 (the couple will mark their 70th wedding anniversary in November) he was considered, “The Catch, the handsome, well-connected young man,” among aristocratic and society ladies, according to York.
York also pointed out that the public views of the prince were “distorted” for a while during the Princess Diana years (Philip — a master of discretion — didn’t get on well with the publicity-seeking Diana, who was beloved by the public), but now he’s seen as “clever old granddad.”
“His decision to retire is very reasonable — time off for good behavior,” said York.
While he may be remembered for his silly quips, the prince always knows how to behave — and to hang back — with the sort of poise and grace befitting of a monarch’s consort.
A British Royal Navy officer in his youth, the prince learned early about discipline, restraint — and how to wear a uniform to best effect. His daytime uniform has long featured spread-collar shirts — mostly white; a colored, striped or subtly patterned tie, and a jacket with a natural shoulder. The crease in his trousers is always pronounced and his pocket square white and straight like a piece of cardboard.
“One does not see him indulging in the sartorial high jinks of a Duke of Windsor, and he resolutely avoids fuss and unnecessary detail,” James Sherwood, author of “Savile Row: The Master Tailors of British Bespoke,” told WWD in a 2012 interview.
“You do not see clouds of silk exploding from his breast pocket. You will not see extravagant tie knots in rich patterns. The duke necessarily chooses sober and robust British cloths. Like the Queen, his choices are practical.”
His longtime tailor is John Kent, of Kent & Haste on London’s Sackville Street, off Savile Row. But while he may have a tailor on tap, the prince is known — like so many of the royals — for recycling his wardrobe. In August 2008, just as the world was melting into the great financial crisis, he famously asked Kent — who was then working at Norton & Sons — to restyle a favorite pair of baggy herringbone trousers from the Fifties, making them narrower and more contemporary looking.
At military events, the prince often wears the same naval uniform he donned for his wedding to Princess Elizabeth in 1947. For new military attire, he turns to Kashket & Partners, who outfitted Prince William and the page boys at the young royal’s wedding.
“His style is very English and classic — and it hasn’t changed for years. And he’s amazingly fit and slender,” said Seward.
He can also work a sporty weekend look with ease: He prefers cords to jeans, and is never without his waterproof gear, tweeds and flat caps for those blustery weekends at Balmoral in Scotland or sunny strolls on the grounds of Windsor Castle.
The prince’s retirement comes at a time when many TV viewers are just getting to know him — well, at least his younger self — in the Netflix Original series “The Crown.” It centers on Queen Elizabeth’s life, beginning in the Forties, when the Prince’s long and colorful royal career began.
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