Active duke enjoyed good health

Laura Elston, PA Court Reporter
·15-min read

The Duke of Edinburgh was an incredibly active man, who enjoyed good health well into his later years.

But as his age advanced beyond 90, concerns for his well-being increased after he faced a number of scares.

Abdominal surgery, bladder infections, a blocked coronary artery and a hip replacement saw him admitted to hospital on a number of occasions.

The “Iron Duke”, as he was dubbed, underwent heart surgery just three months before what would have been his 100th birthday and he was hospitalised for a month before returning to Windsor Castle.

In October 2013, despite having to spend two months convalescing following an operation on his abdomen, the duke appeared sprightly and walked unaided on an official visit to a care home when, at 92, he was older than many of the residents.

A car crash while driving at the age of 97 left him shocked and shaken but miraculously uninjured.

He surrendered his driving licence three weeks later.

The Duke of Edinburgh drives a carriage (Andrew Matthews/PA)
The Duke of Edinburgh drives a carriage (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Royal life agreed with him.

He kept his lean figure throughout, although his tall stature did diminish as he became more stooped in old age.

He shunned the pursuits of typical pensioners and even when he was an octogenarian continued to compete in demanding carriage driving competitions.

Most of his ailments and injuries throughout his life were sports-related.

He suffered arthritis in his right wrist from playing polo and tried to dull the pain with Butazolidin, a drug more usually given to lame horses and recommended by his head groom.

It was reported that he later stopped taking it because of the side-effects.

In 1961, he broke a bone in his left ankle in a collision on the polo field and in 1963, again playing polo, he suffered a gash to his left arm which needed three stitches.

The Duke of Edinburgh in action during a polo match at Smith’s Lawn in Windsor Great Park (PA)
The Duke of Edinburgh in action during a polo match at Smith’s Lawn in Windsor Great Park (PA)

The duke was X-rayed in 1964 after a fall from his polo pony when he pulled a ligament in his left shoulder.

He also developed synovitis, a rheumatic condition of the tendon in the hand, after a polo fall.

Early in the Queen’s reign, in 1952, Philip, who was almost never ill, fell sick with jaundice.

He was treated in hospital on a few occasions and underwent operations in 1967 to remove a cyst from his right wrist, in 1987 to repair a hernia and in 1996 to erase a small benign growth on his nose.

His arthritic wrist eventually forced him to give up polo in 1971 – the year of his 50th birthday – after which he decided to take up carriage driving.

Shaking many thousands of hands at official functions worsened the arthritis and caused him to change his once firm grip to a “limp-wristed” style.

The duke tried a copper bracelet and various homeopathic remedies to help ease the problem.

He did not smoke. He stubbed out his last cigarette shortly before his wedding to the Queen, having the willpower to give up almost overnight.

The duke was also an advocate of healthy eating combined with exercise.

As he entered his 70s, one of the Queen’s former physicians described him as “astonishingly fit for a man of his age”.

He continued to exercise while in his 80s, swimming regularly and taking part in fast-paced carriage driving competitions, which required both stamina and strength.

He once said that he more or less followed the Atkins diet and he drank only moderately.

Philip, seen with the Queen, attended Trooping the Colour on horseback until he was 82 (Archive/PA)
Philip, seen with the Queen, attended Trooping the Colour on horseback until he was 82 (Archive/PA)

When he was 82, Philip decided for the first time not to take part in the Trooping the Colour ceremony on horseback.

Instead, he travelled in a carriage with the Queen.

He was said to have found previous ceremonies so painful that he had to lie on the floor afterwards to recover.

The same year, the Palace was forced to deny claims that the duke was suffering from prostate cancer.

Those who suggested he was in poor health were given short shrift. “Do I look bloody ill?” he shouted at one estate worker at Sandringham.

Accidental mishaps sometimes left the duke looking the worse for wear.

In 2005, he was seen sporting dark glasses and a badly bruised left eye after slipping in the bath and catching the side of his eye with his thumb.

In May 2006, he pulled out of a royal engagement after suffering a trapped nerve in his neck.

After a weekend recovering, he attended the Chelsea Flower Show, appearing no worse for wear.

A chest infection laid him low for a number of days in April 2008 and he was eventually admitted to hospital for treatment.

But, even with the respiratory problem, he walked into the hospital and walked out three days later and went on to make a full recovery.

In August 2008, Buckingham Palace took the unusual step of speaking out to deny a report that the duke had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

The newspaper involved later apologised, saying it accepted the story was untrue.

The Duke of Edinburgh waves to the crowd after presenting campaign medals to members of 40 Commando (Tim Ireland/PA)
The Duke of Edinburgh waves to the crowd after presenting campaign medals to members of 40 Commando (Tim Ireland/PA)

In January 2009, 87-year-old Philip missed a string of engagements after suffering from a bad back when he pulled a muscle carriage driving.

Soon afterwards, it emerged that the Queen had cancelled a state visit – due to take place in spring 2009.

Buckingham Palace insisted this was due to “other commitments”, not the monarch’s age nor the Duke of Edinburgh’s health.

In June 2010, Philip had minor surgery on his left hand just before his 89th birthday to cure carpal tunnel syndrome – a common condition that causes pain, numbness and a burning sensation in the hand and fingers.

The operation forced him to cancel an official trip with the Queen to Crewe.

The first public acknowledgement of his advancing years came as he was preparing to turn 90.

The Palace announced that the duke planned to step down as president or patron of more than a dozen organisations ahead of his milestone birthday.

A spokeswoman said: “He feels he should ease down on his commitments.

“He will still be associated with over 800 organisations.”

In October 2011, Philip pulled out of an overnight stay in Italy for the launch of the ARC Green Pilgrimage Network because of a cold.

He had just completed a busy 11-day official royal tour to Australia which saw the nonagenarian accompany the Queen to Perth, Melbourne, Canberra and Brisbane.

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh ride on an Australian Navy barge during a trip on Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra (Arthur Edwards/The Sun/PA)
The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh ride on an Australian Navy barge during a trip on Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra (Arthur Edwards/The Sun/PA)

Commentators billed the long-haul trip as a couple’s last to the continent because of their age, but the Palace dismissed speculation that it was a “farewell” visit.

Yet just weeks later, the duke, at the age of 90, was rushed to hospital by helicopter from Sandringham as the royal family were preparing for Christmas, after suffering chest pains.

In the serious health scare, he was treated for a blocked coronary artery at Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire and underwent a minimally invasive procedure of coronary stenting.

The Queen, their children and grandchildren visited during his four-night stay, which saw him spend Christmas and Boxing Day in hospital.

A few days after his release, the duke appeared in good health as he attended the annual New Year’s Day church service at Sandringham, making the 400m trip from the main house on foot.

As his age advanced, concerns for his well-being increased as cancellations of engagements and hospital stays became more frequent.

In the midst of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in June 2012, he was forced to miss the majority of the festivities after falling ill.

He was in hospital for several days with a bladder infection and absent from the Jubilee concert and service of thanksgiving.

He had taken part in the Jubilee river pageant in extremely wet and windy conditions the day before, joining a flotilla of 1,000 boats along the Thames.

The Royal Party during the Diamond Jubilee Pageant on the River Thames (Paul Grover/Daily Telegraph/PA)
The Royal Party during the Diamond Jubilee Pageant on the River Thames (Paul Grover/Daily Telegraph/PA)

Doctors suggested the pageant might have exacerbated his condition if he did not make enough visits to the toilet.

The duke was released from hospital the day before his 91st birthday.

Asked if he was feeling better as he was leaving, he quipped: “Well, I wouldn’t be coming out if I wasn’t.”

In August 2012, he spent five nights at the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary – again for a bladder infection.

He was rushed to hospital during the royals’ annual summer break at Balmoral in Aberdeenshire and missed the opening ceremony of Paralympic Games in London.

In April 2013, he was pictured with a black eye while on a trip to Canada. But it was said that he woke up with the discoloration, rather than having a fall.

On June 3 2013, on the eve of a service to mark the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s Coronation, Philip pulled out of a gala reception for the Royal National Institute of Blind People after feeling unwell.

It emerged that he had missed an engagement at Windsor a few days earlier, but had been well enough to join the Queen at the Epsom Derby the next day.

He was by the the Queen’s side for the 60th anniversary of the coronation service at Westminster Abbey.

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh on the balcony of Buckingham Palace after her coronation (PA)
The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh on the balcony of Buckingham Palace after her coronation (PA)

Then two days later, on June 6 2013, Buckingham Palace announced that he had been admitted to hospital for an exploratory operation on his abdomen and was expected to stay in the London Clinic for up to two weeks.

He underwent surgery under general anaesthetic the next day and the Palace said he was progressing satisfactorily and that the results would be analysed.

Philip spent his 92nd birthday in hospital, when he was visited by his youngest son, the Earl of Wessex, and then the Queen.

The Palace said the duke was progressing according to plans and was in good spirits, but would spend around two months convalescing after leaving hospital.

He left hospital waving and smiling on June 17 2013 – 11 days after he was first admitted.

The duke recuperated at Sandringham in Norfolk and it was nearly two months before he was next seen in public, carrying out his first official engagement since his surgery by travelling to Scotland on August 12 2013 to hand out medals at the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Philip finally met his new great-grandson, Prince George, in mid September after the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge headed to Balmoral for a private holiday when George was eight weeks old.

In May 2014, the duke had a “minor procedure” carried out on his right hand at Buckingham Palace and was seen wearing a bandage to protect it.

His engagements continued as planned.

He was seen wearing hearing aids for the first time at a Buckingham Palace reception on October 28 2014, when he was 93.

The Duke of Edinburgh, wearing hearing aids for the first time (John Stillwell/PA)
The Duke of Edinburgh, wearing hearing aids for the first time (John Stillwell/PA)

Just ahead of his 95th birthday in June 2016, he pulled out of the Battle of Jutland anniversary events following medical advice, with his son-in-law, Vice-Admiral Sir Tim Laurence, saying he had a “minor ailment”.

Yet the Queen’s official birthday celebrations in June 2016 saw Philip, who turned 95 that weekend, join the monarch throughout a busy few days of festivities, from a service of thanksgiving to Trooping the Colour and a street party on The Mall.

Both the Queen and the duke fell ill with heavy colds before Christmas in 2016, forcing them to delay their trip to Sandringham by a day.

But while the Queen was not well enough to attend the Christmas Day church service nor the New Year’s Day one, Philip went to both.

In May 2017, when the duke was 95, Buckingham Palace announced that Philip had decided to retire from public duties.

However, it was not his health that prompted the move, but his desire to enjoy more leisure time.

Just a few days later, he was out and about carriage driving at the Royal Windsor Horse Show.

He turned 96 in June 2017 and a week later helped the Queen celebrate her official 91st birthday at the annual Trooping the Colour parade.

On June 20 2017, he spent the day at Royal Ascot, where temperatures were so sweltering that the dress code in the Royal Enclosure was relaxed for the first time.

But that evening he was admitted to King Edward VII’s Hospital in London as a precautionary measure, for treatment of an infection arising from a pre-existing condition.

President John Kennedy (right) with his wife (second left) Jacqueline, meeting the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh (PA)
President John Kennedy (right) with his wife (second left) Jacqueline, meeting the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh (PA)

He missed the State Opening of Parliament the next day, when the Prince of Wales stepped in to accompany the Queen.

On his final official engagement on August 2 2017 as he retired from public duties, the 96-year-old duke strode with ease around the forecourt of Buckingham Palace in the pouring rain, meeting Royal Marines.

He made an appearance at the Royal Albert Hall for the Festival of Remembrance in November 2017, and then the next day at the Cenotaph as the Queen watched from a balcony for the first time rather than laying a wreath.

Concerns were expressed for his health when he appeared to lean against a pillar for support while standing during the Whitehall service.

But a week later he was carriage driving at Windsor on the day of his platinum wedding anniversary, and he and the Queen celebrated in the evening with a party for more than 100 family and friends.

On March 22 2018, Philip was said to have pulled out of an official engagement with the Queen and Duke of York, marking Andrew’s new role as Colonel of the Grenadier Guards, because he was under the weather.

Then on March 29, he missed a Maundy service with the Queen because of a problem with his hip, and did not attend church on Easter Sunday on April 1.

The Duke of Edinburgh leaving King Edward VII Hospital in London on a previous visit (Philip Toscano/PA)
The Duke of Edinburgh leaving King Edward VII Hospital in London on a previous visit (Philip Toscano/PA)

On April 3 2018, the duke was admitted to King Edward VII hospital for a planned operation on his hip.

Buckingham Palace said on April 4 that the duke had undergone a successful hip replacement operation and was comfortable and in good spirits.

He left hospital nine days later, waving to the media as he was driven to Windsor Castle to recuperate, and in May 2018 attended the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s wedding, walking unaided.

He missed church on Christmas Day in 2018, but was said to be in good health.

Then on January 17, 2019, Philip was involved in a car crash when the Land Rover Freelander he was driving was hit by another car as he pulled out of a driveway near the Queen’s Sandringham Estate in Norfolk on to a busy A-road.

The 97-year-old duke was initially trapped and had to be helped through the sunroof or windscreen by a passing motorist after his car flipped over.

Philip escaped injury but was shocked and shaken by the accident which left two female passengers in the other vehicle requiring hospital treatment.

A nine-month-old baby boy in the other car was unhurt.

The aftermath of the Sandringham crash (Sam Russell/PA)
The aftermath of the Sandringham crash (Sam Russell/PA)

Buckingham Palace said the duke saw a doctor as a precaution but was not injured – although witnesses suggested Philip was bleeding after suffering a cut.

The duke was admitted to King Edward VII’s Hospital just before Christmas on December 20, 2019 for treatment relating to a “pre-existing condition”.

Buckingham Palace described his four night stay as a “precautionary measure”.

Ahead of lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic, the duke moved from the Sandringham estate to Windsor Castle to be with the Queen.

He celebrated his 99th birthday during his stay, and looked fit and well as he carried out a rare solo public engagement at a military ceremony with The Rifles in the castle grounds in July 2020.

Philip received his first coronavirus vaccine on January 9 2021.

Six weeks later on February 16, the duke was admitted to hospital for a precautionary stay after feeling unwell.

Four days later, he was visited by the Prince of Wales.

On February 23, seven days after he was admitted, the Palace said Philip was being treated for an infection and was “comfortable and responding to treatment”, but was not expected to leave hospital for several days.

His youngest son the Earl of Wessex said the duke was a lot better and looking forward to getting out.

But it ended up being his longest ever hospital stay.

On March 1 after nearly two weeks in King Edward VII’s Hospital, Philip was transferred to St Bartholomew’s Hospital by ambulance for treatment of an infection and testing and observation for a pre-existing heart condition.

On March 3, he had successful heart surgery, when he was just three months away from his 100th birthday.

Philip was finally discharged from hospital on March 16 – a month after he was first admitted – looking gaunt as he was driven back to Windsor Castle by car to be reunited with the Queen.