THE Duke of Edinburgh’s move to St Bartholomew’s hospital in London at the start of the week was unexpected and unwelcome. Already he had been in medical care far longer than originally anticipated. In mid February, he walked unaided through the doors of King Edward VII hospital. After nearly a fortnight’s residence, during which we were told he was suffering an infection, it was widely assumed he would be returning to Buckingham Palace.

This was the assumption, not because of any leak from those looking after him, but because we have come to think of Prince Philip as nigh on indestructible. Only two years ago he was in a car collision, clambering from his overturned Land Rover. He might have been shaken, but he was neither confused nor harmed.

Now to learn that he is to come under the medical eye of cardiac specialists raises unwelcome questions about how seriously ill he has become. At St Barts he is, apparently, to undergo tests, and will be put under observation. Pundits have suggested he might also undergo some procedure, as in 2011, when he had stents inserted for a blocked coronary artery.

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This is starting to sound like a page in the Lancet. None of us knows what is going on, and it is fruitless to speculate without further information. Nevertheless, speculate we will, and endlessly. By now television camera crews are camped outside the hospital, awaiting scraps of news like seagulls in hope of vinegary chips. According to those in the royal loop, the mood of the palace has shifted, and there is great concern for the duke’s condition.

Certainly, the sight of a screen of umbrellas shielding him as he was taken by ambulance to St Barts, with only a top-hatted official visible above the brollies, felt like the start of the second act in this latest royal drama. By the time you have reached the duke’s venerable age – three months from his 100th birthday in June – talk of heart trouble or persistent infections is not to be lightly dismissed.

Some weeks ago, seeing him at his wife’s side in their limousine, signs of his great age were pronounced. In contrast to the Queen, whose wrinkles are hard to detect, Prince Philip’s increasingly hawkish features offer an unvarnished record of ever-advancing years. Seeing how lean and angular his face has grown was a reminder of his vintage.

It is hard to imagine how it will feel when he is no longer among us. Hopefully that day is a long way off, despite his present travails. Seeing how elderly he has become, however, was a chance to pause and consider. Prince Philip has been in the public eye all my life, and that of most of the country. Yet, rather than noticing the sand running through the hourglass, and despite heightened awareness of the vulnerability of the oldest generations during the pandemic, we instead take him, and the Queen, for granted. There’s no logic to it, but rather than recognising the finite nature of life, especially once a person is approaching their centenary, perhaps because the Windsors are so knitted into our picture of the world we blinker ourselves to their mortality.

While Harry and Meghan become fixtures of the celebrity circuit, Prince Philip remains an object lesson in avoiding the limelight. That he was a devotee of Gordonstoun School in Morayshire speaks to his stoical ethos. With its spartan regime of open windows, freezing showers and an emphasis on sporting prowess and endurance, it perfectly suited one of his capabilities and outlook.

While the younger royals have opened up about their anxieties and emotions, from an early age the duke set his upper lip in cement. His robust and rigorous attitude was born in the pre-war climate of mens sana in corpore sano, when it was believed there was no issue, personal, physical, political, that would not be improved or cured by strenuous exercise. His affinity with Gordonstoun – to which he consigned Prince Charles, thereby blighting his school years – and his love of field sports, made Scotland his preferred retreat. His tendency to speak his mind – occasionally causing offence – earned him a following among those who valued plain words and frank opinions.

In family matters, the duke’s manner could best be described as tough love. Entirely out of kilter with modern parenting, this no-nonsense, pull-yourself-together creed stemmed, perhaps, from his own childhood and youth, as an exiled aristocrat, packed off to boarding school far from home. Equally, of course, it might have arisen from his experience in the Royal Navy during wartime. Under extreme duress, he doubtless recognised the need to hold things together, in public at least, even when the entire house of cards seemed to be folding.

In this he was in tune with the Queen, whose reserve and composure in the face of personal difficulty, and abhorrence of self-pity, are legendary. It is not the only area in which they are well-matched. Despite the strains the marriage has allegedly surmounted down the years, Elizabeth and Philip have worked brilliantly as a team. They also seem devoted to one another, in so far as one can tell with a couple schooled in hiding their feelings. Historians might one day analyse the extent of the back-stage role the duke has played throughout his wife’s reign, and illuminate the ways in which she has been able to rely on him as confidante and advisor.

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As royalty of previous centuries knew very well, longevity and stability are their greatest assets. In Tudor times, part of Elizabeth I’s appeal was not her nation-building, or her judicious decisions and policies. Rather, it was that she sat on the throne for so many years, people began to think of her as an institution. Rather than a mere mortal, she became the embodiment of England.

I doubt any of us is likely to delude ourselves that the Duke of Edinburgh or the Queen will carry on forever. Nevertheless, Prince Philip’s illness has sent a tremor through the country, putting us on high alert. Of course, it is possible that one day soon he will walk out of hospital and wave curtly to the cameras, as if there’s been a great fuss over nothing.

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