One aspect of retirement that Prince Philip most enjoys is being answerable to no one. For the best part of 70 years his comings and goings were co-ordinated, planned, minuted.
If he was due to be somewhere at 10.15, there would be an official bulletin to confirm it and he’d duly arrive precisely at the appointed time. But the clock is no longer Philip’s master. Ever since standing down from his official engagements, he comes and goes just as he pleases.
It has been a liberating experience, allowing him to feel and behave like a normal person. In the 18 months since retiring, he has discovered a freedom he has not known since before becoming married.
Getting behind the wheel of a car has added to this sense of independence. Thursday’s accident at Sandringham suddenly and ominously compromises all that.
But while police attempt to determine who was responsible for the collision which saw Philip miraculously escape unscathed from his upturned car, there are other questions which will ultimately affect whether the 97-year-old Prince ever drives on public roads again.
In the 18 months since retiring, Philip (pictured with the Queen in King’s Lynn) has discovered a freedom he has not known since before becoming married
The most critical is just why Philip was apparently driving alone. Despite retirement, one detail of his life has not changed — the need for round-the-clock police protection. Strict rules govern the movement of royals and it is extremely unusual for senior members of the Queen’s family to go anywhere in public without a bodyguard.
At home, or on the royal estates, the protection is largely withdrawn. It has been this way for decades and by and large the royals accept the system. But from time to time Philip, who has put up with it longer than anyone apart from the Queen, has attempted to rebel.
On one occasion at Balmoral when the Queen and the Prince were due to travel separately to visit friends on a neighbouring estate, Philip insisted on driving on his own.
He REFUSED to allow an officer to get into his car, only to find that the policeman had the keys. When the Queen rolled down her window to ask what the delay was, the Prince replied he couldn’t find the keys.
The bodyguard then piped up that he had them and Philip relented, commanding the hapless officer to ‘just get in’. ‘The Duke liked to try it on occasionally, especially if his personal protection officer was not familiar to him,’ says an ex-royal bodyguard. ‘But he usually accepted the situation.
‘Of course, it is up to the officer to insist that they go with him and that can be quite tough bearing in mind the stature of the Duke of Edinburgh.’
Friends say that Philip has been profoundly shaken by the accident and that, despite his obstinacy, will be preparing to give up driving. ‘Of course it will be a nuisance if he can’t drive himself,’ says one figure who has been a passenger in the Prince’s car, ‘but he has a lot of common sense and is likely to say to himself that the game is up.
‘I would expect him to take the same approach that he did to flying, when he stopped even though he was quite capable of continuing for several years. He took the view that if something had gone wrong, his age would be used to criticise him.’
According to his old friend and biographer Gyles Brandreth, he will adopt a pragmatic approach. He won’t welcome being told he can’t drive, says Brandreth.
‘But if you can’t do it any more, you can’t do it any more. He’s a pragmatist and a realist and I’m sure he’ll accept that while possibly muttering under his breath.’ The Prince had similarly unsentimental thoughts when the time came for him to announce his retirement.
Buckingham Palace is under pressure to intervene over Prince Philip’s determination to keep driving despite a horror smash near Sandringham (pictured)
The arthritis from which he has suffered for more than 20 years had worsened, compromising his mobility and he did not wish to become a liability.
Nor as someone who has taken pleasure in his supreme fitness — a hostess once told me that he had brought a chest expander and dumb-bells when he came to stay — would he wish to be seen physically struggling with the demands of carrying out engagements.
‘He has his pride,’ says a courtier, ‘he would not want to be seen in a wheelchair.’
With his grandsons William and Harry taking on more official duties, he grasped the opportunity to stand down. What has puzzled observers however is that rather than spending more time together, Philip and the Queen see less of one another than before. Philip’s life now centres on Windsor and Wood Farm, the spacious but modestly furnished cottage on the Sandringham estate that for years has been their bolthole from the formality of Buckingham Palace.
He loves it there and has made it his retirement base, reading, painting watercolours, writing letters and having friends to stay. An old acquaintance says: ‘He is enjoying reading things he’s always wanted to read and gets up to what he wants without an equerry telling him he has to be elsewhere, or a camera following him.’
This has all come with his wife’s blessing. After more than 71 years of happy marriage, the Queen still feels a need to show her love and gratitude to the man who she emotionally described on their 50th anniversary as her ‘strength and stay’.
All the same, it is surprising for a couple who have been together for so long to be spending more time apart as they reach such a remarkable landmark in their lives.
But as a courtier explains: ‘The Queen feels the Duke has earned a proper retirement. She knows him too well — if he was still at the centre of royal life he’d feel he had to be involved.
‘Being at Wood Farm means that he’s not too far away, but far enough to be able to relax.’
One of his first tasks was to install a new kitchen, the first for 30 years.
What is plain to those who surround this elderly couple is that the Queen and Philip have settled comfortably into a new rhythm of married life. She misses him, though, especially at the breakfast table, which they always shared.
Now, the Queen sits alone and is rarely seen before the daily 11am meeting with her private secretary. The younger royals, particularly Prince Andrew and the Countess of Wessex, have been spending more time with the Queen since Philip’s retirement.
For a while there has been a ‘granny rota’ for the grandchildren, who make sure they are around more, especially at teatime.
The Queen at the wheel of her Range Rover. She and Philip have settled into a new rhythm of married life since her husband retired from official duties
A similar rota is in place for Prince Philip — he loves to see his oldest grandson, Peter Phillips, and his daughter Princess Anne. But he enjoys his own company, too.
Always a voracious reader — he is the only royal with his own library at Buckingham Palace — he especially likes history and military books. (One friend spotted a copy of one of the historian Antony Beevor’s books about World War II on a recent visit.)
‘He reads to learn — that’s why he doesn’t particularly like novels,’ says a friend.
Philip also still paints and — when the weather is good — likes to set his easel and watercolours in the garden.
He has even developed some new pastimes; the truffle plantation he established as an experiment back in 2006 is finally yielding its rich fruit and he likes to follow its progress. Of course, he is never truly alone. Even at Wood Farm, he is attended by one of his two pages, a footman, chef, housekeeper, valet and his police protectors. But unlike at the Palace, where they would be in liveried costume, Philip insists they dress casually in ‘civvies’.
From time to time a private secretary will come up from London and the two will work through the considerable correspondence that still arrives for him.
And he loves to have visitors. His carriage-driving friend Countess Mountbatten is a regular house guest.
When Philip is at Windsor, it means that he and the Queen see much more of each other.
For a man in his tenth decade, he is also remarkably considerate in not dragging people such as his hairdresser to Windsor, instead driving to London to see him.
Retirement has removed many of the restrictions of royal life that Philip found so chafing. Losing the ability to drive himself would certainly be a blow, but he would not see it as the end of the world.
As long as he can still clamber onto a carriage and take the reins of his ponies, Philip will continue to live life to the full.