The coming weekend of royal celebrations marking the Queen’s 90th birthday kicks off with a Service of Thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral on Friday 10 June, which happens to be the Duke of Edinburgh’s 95th birthday. I once attended a similar service with the royal couple at a High Anglican church that favoured the use of incense. And a good deal of it. As the Duke accompanied the Queen down the aisle through a haze of incense smoke, he waved his arms about and remarked loudly, “Is this a celebration or a cremation?”
The Duke of Edinburgh is a funny man. He is the fellow who said, “If ever you see a man opening the car door for his wife, it’s either a new car or a new wife.” He has been making the Queen laugh for more than 70 years.
Laughter isn’t just the best medicine: it’s also a firm foundation for a good marriage. And it is evident for all to see that the Queen and Prince Philip – who are cousins, both great-great grandchildren of Queen Victoria and who have known each other from childhood – have enjoyed a long and successful marriage, the longest, in fact, in royal history.
If we regard the Queen’s record-breaking reign as a success (and I think most of us do), Prince Philip is the co-author of that success. The Queen wears the crown, but her husband wears the trousers. He is the power behind the throne: shrewd, steadfast, never-failingly supportive. At her coronation in 1953 he swore to be the Queen’s “liege man of life and limb” and he has stuck by his oath across seven decades, through thick and thin, come shine or rain. And there has been some rain.
We all remember it bucketing down at the Diamond Jubilee river pageant on the Thames four years ago. On a day in June that felt more like November, from soon after 2pm until well past six o’clock, the Queen, then 86, and the Duke, who had had a heart operation only five months before, stood amidships on board the Spirit of Chartwell, waving and smiling in the driving rain. Huge red plush thrones had been provided for the royal couple to sit on, but not wanting to look like the Beckhams on their wedding day, they preferred to stand, non-stop, for four hours. Because the Queen did not go below decks, the Duke didn’t, either. Unsurprisingly, he ended up in hospital with a bladder infection.
In nearly 70 years as a royal consort (he married Princess Elizabeth in November 1947), he has missed very few days through sickness, which is why concerns were raised when he missed the recent Battle of Jutland commemorations on “doctor’s advice”. His commitment to duty is as great as hers, and he keeps himself fit. His father, Prince Andrew of Greece, who smoked and enjoyed a drink, died aged only 62, in exile in Monte Carlo in 1944. His mother, Princess Alice (Lord Mountbatten’s older sister), also a keen smoker, died at Buckingham Palace, aged 84. Prince Philip gave up smoking on his wedding day. He drinks and eats moderately. He follows a regular stretching regime and still goes carriage driving. He acknowledges that “bits are falling off ”, but says, “While you’re still alive you might as well keep moving, or try to.”
He certainly does keep moving. He walks without a stick and at a pace. During the Windsor walkabout on the Queen’s birthday in April, I watched him lift children over the police barriers so that they could deliver their posies to Her Majesty. Job done, he lifted them back again. I once told him that Myleene Klass, who met him at a Royal Variety Performance, thought he was “right fit”. He pretended not to know who she was or what it meant, but I think he was pleased.
I first got to know the Duke of Edinburgh 40 years ago when I became involved in the work of one of his pet charities, the National Playing Fields Association. Later I wrote a book about him and the Queen and was given privileged access to spend time with them as they went about their official duties. They are very differ- ent personalities. He is dynamic, outgoing, adventurous, challenging. She is conservative, placid, content to do things as they have been done before. He reads a good deal, where she doesn’t. She has infinite patience. He has rather less. (Photographers beware: you get your three minutes and your three shots and that’s it. “Now buzz off.” Or words to that effect.) As a couple they are allies, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their differences. Because she is the Queen, no one in the world treats Elizabeth II entirely normally – except for Prince Philip. Even Prince Harry acknowledged recently that Her Majesty is both “Granny” and “the Boss” and he probably thinks of her more as the boss than as granny. Conversely, the Queen is the only person in the world who can say to the Duke of Edinburgh, “Oh, Philip, do shut up.” And she does.
The French aviator and author of The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, said that “love consists not necessarily in looking into one another’s eyes, but in looking in the same direction”. Philip and Elizabeth share common values – the stoical values of their generation. They are not a lovey-dovey, touchy-feely couple. (Search the archives and you won’t find any pictures of them holding hands.) They are not sentimental. In the recent, fascinating TV programme featuring royal home movies and marking the Queen’s birthday, Princess Anne was asked if her mother was an optimist. To the surprise of some, she replied, “No, I wouldn’t say she is an optimist.” She is not a pessimist, either. She is a realist. Her Christian faith is the bedrock of her life and she knows that in the Book of Psalms life in this world is described as “a vale of tears”.
I once asked Prince Philip about the reported differences between him and his eldest son, Prince Charles. He acknowledged “one great difference” between them. “He’s a romantic,” he said, “and I’m a pragmatist. That means we do see things differently.” He paused before adding, with a shrug, “And because I don’t see things as a romantic would, I’m unfeeling.”
That was some years ago, before Charles married Camilla, and I sense the relationship between father and son is closer now. I know that the Duke was delighted with the private family birthday party Prince Charles arranged for the Queen at Windsor Castle on 21 April and went out of his way to congratulate and thank his son for making it all work so well.
The Duke of Edinburgh can be frightening. He can bark when irritated or provoked. But he is far from unfeeling and he cares about his family. Undoubtedly, William and Kate see him and the Queen as their role models and, intriguingly, Prince Charles accepts this with good grace. Edward VII, when he was Prince of Wales, famously remarked, “I don’t mind praying to the eternal Father, but I must be the only man in the country afflicted with an eternal mother.” Charles makes no such complaint. He knows that he has carved himself a unique niche as Prince of Wales and he does what he does very well. He is in no hurry to be king and his wife is certainly in no rush to be queen.
I am looking forward to this weekend’s royal celebrations. I know they will include an appearance on the balcony at Buckingham Palace. The photographers, apparently, are hoping we will be seeing little Princess Charlotte in the balcony line-up for the first time. I am looking forward to some- thing different and I am hopeful – the Duke’s health permitting – we will get it: a moment when there are just two people out there, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, aged 90 and 95. They won’t be holding hands, but they will be as one.
Gyles Brandreth will be part of the BBC team covering the royal birthday celebrations this weekend.