A rare level of panic descended on British newsrooms late on Wednesday night, after the Daily Mail scored a brilliant Royal scoop—the entire staff of the Royal Household had been summoned to London for an emergency meeting at 10am the following morning.
Appointments were cancelled and staff as far afield as the Queen’s Scottish palace, Balmoral, rushed to airfields. The world’s media, meanwhile, raced to the railings at Buckingham Palace as rumors of abdication, an imminent, or actual death swirled.
Media organizations have been planning for royal deaths for so many years that it is perhaps inevitable that events like this set news editors on edge. Britain’s Sun newspaper had the worst of it, accidentally publishing a half-written obituary of Prince Philip with the not particularly reverent working headline, “Prince Philip dead at 95, how did the Duke of Edinburgh die etc etc.”
It is testament to the efficiency with which the actual news—that Prince Philip was, as opposed to being dead, merely planning to stand down from public life in the Autumn—was protected, that, when it came, it was still something of a surprise.
The grand old man of British public life, famed for his politically incorrect and sometimes inappropriate comments (when asked in 1967 if he would like to visit the Soviet Union, he said, “I would like to go to Russia very much, although the bastards murdered half my family”) will turn 96 in June, and is surely due a respite from a punishing schedule which has seen him continually top the list of hardest working and most visible royals, despite his advancing years.
However, there is no sign that he has not been enjoying his work, and this is where the plot thickens. Yes, he’s about to turn 96, but some cynics are now quietly airing theories that Prince Philip may have been gently encouraged to retire for reasons other than his age.
The most intriguing of these is that Philip’s retirement may in fact be a dry run for a similar announcement on behalf of the Queen, no spring chicken herself at 91.
While most observers think the Queen will never abdicate because of the unfortunate reminders such a move would bring to the constitutional crisis of 1936— and palace sources have repeatedly told the Daily Beast that this is the case—this position itself begs the question of what will happen if she is so old that she is physically incapable of carrying out royal duties.
Philip’s example may be seen as charting a new course for the twilight years of extremely elderly royals.
Christopher Andersen, author of the best-selling royal biography Game of Thrones, has always maintained, however, that the Queen will indeed abdicate.
“The announcement of Philip’s retirement does foreshadow changes that are inevitable,” he says, “What we are witnessing are the first steps in the final stage of a plan that will culminate in the end of an era, and the beginning of a new and radically different reign.
“It is a process, carefully drawn up by the mysterious “Men in Grey” (that’s what Diana called them) who actually pull the strings at Buckingham Palace, and a series of events that I have been predicting for years,” he tells the Daily Beast.
“Philip steps aside, the Queen begins curtailing her own royal duties, and when her husband dies Elizabeth II announces her own “retirement”, the word chosen to soften what will be her formal abdication.
“She will then live out her remaining years as Dowager Queen at her beloved Balmoral Castle in Scotland. This will allow her son, who by then will likely be in his 70s, to at long last rule as King Charles III, by far the oldest person in history to assume the monarchy.”
Andersen dismisses the repeated assertions by courtiers that the Queen will never abdicate.
“The Queen has never denied that she will abdicate or ever spoken about it,” he says, “Never. And there has never seen an official statement, speaking for the monarch, expressing an opinion on abdication one way or the other. This is one of those myths that the public has really bought hook, line, and sinker. I am so tired of hearing people saying the Queen will never abdicate, because they are unaware that abdication has been discussed behind palace walls for years, by Christopher Geidt [the Queen’s private secretary] and his predecessors.
“There is no question in my mind that is a trial run, as it were, for the Queen’s abdication. Having them both disappear from public view at the same time would be to jarring. That’s why it is being done incrementally, baby steps toward the Queen’s abdication and the crowning of a new king.”
Few other observers are prepared to pin their colors as definitively to the mast as Andersen.
One well-briefed royal writer told the Daily Beast that while Philip’s retirement was fundamentally “about his health and facing up finally to the fact that he is 95 and works like a man forty years younger and has done forever, it can’t have helped in PR terms that it was endlessly pointed out how much harder he worked than the younger generation.
“So, there is a clear PR opportunity for some of them—be it Andrew or Harry or Kate or whoever—to become patron of lots of his charities and for the Queen to assuage various hurt feelings or problematic reputations, but no one will be admitting that out loud.
“But he is a tough act to live up to. Most of them don’t have any of his wit or charisma. So, if they think they can take his place they may well be wrong.”
Indeed, the decision to retire Philip couldn’t come at a more opportune time for William and Kate, who are moving back to London to take on more royal duties.
But Richard Palmer, the experienced royal correspondent at the Daily Express, tells the Daily Beast: “Royal sources say this isn’t directly linked to William and Kate’s decision to move back to London, although obviously they decided to do that because William’s grandparents were slowing down.
“This does mean the younger generation will have to step up and eventually some of those 785 patronages will be passed on, but it’s by no means clear how many and when.”
Does he believe the move has been planned a long time?
“Palace officials point to the Duke’s interview with Fiona Bruce in which he clearly signaled that it was time for him to put his feet up. But then other events—the Jubilee, the Coronation anniversary, the Queen becoming the longest reigning monarch etcetera—intervened, and it never quite happened to the extent that some thought and his family hoped, I think,” says Palmer.
“It seems that he really started thinking about this seriously again around the start of this year and came to his decision fairly recently. He wanted to announce it now because aides and his patronages needed to put together his autumn program.”
At 95, few indeed would question that Prince Philip has the entire right to take a well-earned and permanent leave of absence from royal duties and pressing the flesh.
But, as with so many things at the palace, the complex motivations behind Prince Philip’s retirement from public life may not be quite as straightforward as they at first seem.