UPDATE 2pm: Prince Philip has offered the clearest explanation yet as to the motives behind his decision to stand down, dryly telling a well-wisher he “can’t stand up much longer”.
On Wednesday, Prince Philip had come perilously close to stopping the world in its tracks – no small achievement for a man who is 95 years old, increasingly frail and prone to heavy colds and bladder infections.
And all he did was sit peacefully in Buckingham Palace while news bulletins, tweets, Facebook posts and water-cooler conversations echoed around the globe, all them repeating the entirely false rumour that Queen Elizabeth’s husband of 69 years had died.
But it was business as usual once the fanfare died down, with a meeting of the members of the Order of Merit at St James’s Palace on Thursday proving his trademark wit had not deteriorated.
When mathematician Sir Michael Atiyah told him he was sorry he was standing down, Prince Philip smiled, and replied:
“Well, I can’t stand up much longer.”
The Duke of Edinburgh is renowned for a mischievous, all-too-often tactless, sense of humour, so the wildly premature reports of his demise no doubt lit up a huge smile beneath those craggy eyebrows.
And for once not a syllable of the globe-girdling chatter had to do with yet another ill-advised comment about Africans throwing spears, Indian electricians, Chinese diets, deaf children, Scottish drunks, Jamaican steel bands or the scores of other politically incorrect quips that have had royals watchers rolling their eyes for decades.
No, this time it was all the unintended work of Buckingham Palace flunkies, who sent out an email in the wee hours summoning staffers to what was described as “an emergency meeting”.
Palace protocol specifies that, in the event of a royal dying, no announcement will be made until 8am, when the BBC will have had a chance to pull together its coverage and tributes.
There was no explanation in the announcement so, naturally, speculation soared that the Queen’s consort had died. According to Rupert Murdoch’s Sun website he had died – a story that was soon retracted, but not before a French newspaper repeated it.
One US radio broadcaster was slightly more cautious, briefly asserting Philip was merely close to death.
The non-fake news, which emerged as the worldwide frenzy of speculation and premature eulogies was reaching a critical mass, was that the Duke would be largely withdrawing from public life as of the northern hemisphere autumn.
“Prince Philip will attend previously scheduled engagements between now and August, both individually and accompanying the Queen,” the Palace’s statement began.
“Thereafter, the Duke will not be accepting new invitations for visits and engagements, although he may still choose to attend certain public events from time to time.”
By that stage the pavement outside Buckingham Palace was a forest of TV broadcast dishes, news trucks, talking heads and reporters interviewing each other because there was nobody in the know to talk to.
Still, you can understand the fuss.
The Queen, 91, was obliged to miss the traditional Christmas Service because of a heavy cold, while her husband has been hospitalised a number of times in recent years with a series of bladder infections and bronchial trouble.
No one of Philip’s venerable age – he turns 96 next month – is going to get a sweet deal on a life insurance policy, but the gale of unsubstantiated rumours was still at odds with the flesh and blood evidence of less than 24 hours earlier, when the cricket lover stopped by Lord’s to open a new grandstand.
Hale, hearty, and entirely in command of his faculties, he struck MCC members and other observers as being still quite a few overs from the end of his innings.
If anyone enjoyed the faux fatality and the spectacle of news organisations blathering loudly with nothing concrete to report, it would have been Philip himself.
Once, while visiting a Caribbean hospital, he told the matron: “You have mosquitoes. I have the press.”
And yesterday he had them buzzing about absolutely nothing.
— JR (@Bald_Monkey) May 4, 2017
All that fuss just for them to say Prince Phillip is retiring from occasionally waving to people & handling scissors #BuckinghamPalace
— Major Tom (@feral611) May 4, 2017