She has more stamina than many people half her age, going about her business with the trademark steely resolve that’s seen her become the world’s longest-reigning monarch.
But at 95 Queen Elizabeth is no spring chicken and sometimes she and the rest of the planet are forced to acknowledge that she is indeed an elderly woman. Since the death of her husband, Prince Philip, in April and the easing of lockdown measures in the UK, Her Majesty has thrown herself into her royal duties with renewed vigour. Yet it appears the pace has caught up with her.
She was recently admitted to London’s King Edward VII hospital, the first time she’s been hospitalised since 2013 when she was treated for a tummy bug.
Thankfully her recent visit wasn’t because of anything serious – more a check-up by her doctors who’d been concerned about her punishing pace.
“Following medical advice to rest for a few days, the queen attended hospital on Wednesday afternoon for some preliminary investigations,” Buckingham Palace said.
She stayed overnight and then returned to Windsor Castle. However, she was forced to cancel her much-anticipated trip to Northern Ireland, her first visit since a 2016 visit with the Duke of Edinburgh, to mark the 100th anniversary of the partition of the island. The palace said she was “disappointed” but was “looking forward to visiting in the future”.
READ MORE | Queen Elizabeth unable to ride horses or walk her beloved dogs
She's also had to cancel her upcoming trip to Scotland where she was set to attend the Cop26 climate change summit along with Prince Charles and Prince William.
However she has since resumed light duties. In her first virtual engagement since returning home to Windsor she welcomed the ambassador of South Korea, Gunn Kim, to Buckingham Palace, as well as the ambassador of Switzerland, Markus Leitner and his wife.
A few days later she did another virtual appearance, congratulating the 2020 winner of The Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, David Constantine.
Her return to duty was met with much praise with her former press secretary, Dickie Arbiter, tweeting, “It's so good to see the Queen back at work and in such good spirits.”
Since returning to Windsor Castle at the start of October from her Balmoral Estate in Scotland where she spent her summer break, the queen has embarked on a taxing schedule of duties that has seen her holding 13 separate audiences, attending seven major events and travelling over 1 600km.
She also still reads her reams of government papers, delivered to her every day in her famous red box. In fact, shortly after her discharge from hospital she was back at her trusty desk going over her correspondence.
The palace described her as being in good spirits but the queen’s courtiers have come under fire for failing to be transparent about the monarch’s health.
They initially said she was resting at Windsor Castle and only acknowledged her hospital stay after the news was leaked to The Sun newspaper, which splashed it across their front page.
The controversy has shone a spotlight on the growing challenge facing the palace: balancing the queen’s desire to be an active head of state with the need to protect her health.
“They have to find some kind of balance,” says Sally Bedell Smith, who’s written a bestselling biography on the queen. “I hope they’ve learnt from the pretty punishing pace she’s kept over the course of a month that that is maybe just too much.”
READ MORE | The queen's helpers: how these senior royals are gearing up to do more as the monarch prepares to slow down
The queen has accepted a few changes in recent years.
In 2013 she stepped back from overseas travel and she’s handed over certain duties, such as giving out knighthoods and other honours, to senior members of The Firm.But critics are adamant her royal diary needs to be scaled back more.
“She doesn’t want to end up in hospital because she’s exhausted,” royal commentator Ingrid Seward says. “She will have to go to all the big events – it’s the smaller events she can hand over.”
Ingrid believes Prince Charles (72) needs to step up more. “The palace can divide the duties between other members of the family, but Charles has to take a stand and tell his mother, ‘Enough is enough’.”
Dickie Arbiter says the private secretaries also need to be “proactive and ruthless”.
There have been a few signs that the queen is accepting her advanced years.
She was recently spotted with a walking stick during an official engagement at Westminster Abbey – the first time she’s been seen with one since 2003 when she underwent knee surgery.
READ MORE | The queen steps out for the first time with a walking stick
A royal source was quick to point out that it was “more for comfort” than medical necessity and to help her navigate the old church’s cobbled surfaces.
Doctors have also reportedly ordered her to quit alcohol, except for special occasions.
“The queen has been told to give up her evening drink which is usually a martini,” a family friend told royal expert Katie Nicholl. “It's not really a big deal for her – she’s not a big drinker – but it does seem a trifle unfair that at this stage in her life she's having to give up one of very few pleasures.”
Yet while there’s no denying her already tiny frame is getting frailer her mind remains as razor-sharp as ever. She was quick to dismiss an attempt by British magazine The Oldie to award her the title of Oldie of the Year recently.
“Her Majesty believes you are as old as you feel,” Tom Laing-Baker, her assistant private secretary, said. “As such, the queen does not believe she meets the relevant criteria to be able to accept and hopes you will find a more worthy recipient.”
Ironically Philip, who died age 99, was given the award in 2011. In a tongue-in-cheek response he told the publication, “There’s nothing like it for morale to be reminded that the years are passing ever more quickly, and that bits are beginning to drop off the ancient frame. But it is nice to be remembered at all.”
The queen’s dry wit remains intact too. In June she hosted a dinner at the G7 summit in Cornwall and had world leaders chortling when she joined them for a socially distanced photo. “Are you supposed to be looking as if you're enjoying yourself?” she quipped.
Those in the know say the queen rarely stops working, never takes sick leave, at no time complains and only takes off Good Friday and Christmas Day.
Yet the fact that a major engagement such as the Northern Ireland visit was cancelled shows those around her are taking no chances with her health, especially as she’s set to celebrate her Platinum Jubilee next year.
The historic event will see the whole of United Kingdom – and the Commonwealth – celebrating the queen’s 70 years on the throne.
“Everyone wants her to be in the best possible shape to deal with what will undoubtedly be an exciting but taxing schedule.”
The queen has devoted her life to duty and nothing is going to change, says Matthew Dennison, author of the book The Queen.
He says she told her cousin Margaret Rhodes she would only ever consider abdication if “I got Alzheimer’s or have a stroke”.
Royal expert Angela Levin says Charles knows his mother won’t leave the throne early “unless she feels her mind is not working sharply”. “This is what she promised in her early 20s when she became the monarch and she's very religious. She asked God to help her and I don't think she'll want to cross that path.
"But I also imagine she's got a lot of common sense and if she becomes ill or feels that her mind is not working sharply as it still is, she might do something.”
A royal source describes her dedication to duty as undiminished. “But senior officials and members of the family have long had an eye on ensuring she is more supported in the future,” he says. “And it seems sensible to start employing this now.”
However, British doctor Isabella Kent told Hello! magazine that the queen shouldn’t be underestimated.
"A person may be older in age, but not frail and therefore perfectly capable of doing activities that their younger selves were capable of.
"Age shouldn't be the sole factor determining someone's schedule and activities. Instead, we should think about how frail an older person is – that is, the amount of resilience and physical/mental reserve that they have to withstand external stressors."
Working hard without her strength and stay
The Duke of Edinburgh would have told his wife to slow down a little if he’d still been alive, royal biographer Angela Levin believes.
“He would’ve exercised a bit of control and told his wife, ‘Look, stop it, don’t go to so many engagements and relax a little,’” she says.
Prince Philip was the only person she really listened to, royal insiders say, and without him there’s no one to insist she puts on the brakes.
DID SHE OVERDO IT? HER MAJESTY'S JAM-PACKED MONTH
6 October: Meeting members of the Canadian Royal Regiment
In her first appearance since returning from her summer break in Balmoral, the queen met soldiers who have been performing guard duties at Windsor Castle.
7 October: the Commonwealth Games launch at Buckingham Palace
The queen was joined by her youngest son, Prince Edward – who’s vice-patron of the Commonwealth Games Federation – at an event to mark the launch of next year’s games. She caught everyone’s attention in a bright orange coat dress and matching hat as she handed over the baton to the baton bearer, Kadeena Cox.
The baton, which holds a signed personal message from the queen, will travel for around 294 days through the Commonwealth nations, including Australia, Canada, India and South Africa, before arriving in Birmingham, England, for the games next year.
12 October: service of Thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey
The monarch, walking stick in hand, attended the event which marked the centenary of the Royal British Legion with her daughter, Princess Anne. It was the first time the queen, who is patron of the charity which has supported millions of armed service personnel and their families, was seen using a walking stick at a major public event since 2003.
14 October: opens Senedd in Cardiff
Accompanied by Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, the queen headed to Wales for the first time in five years to formally open the Senedd, or the Welsh parliament, now in its sixth session.
During the special ceremony, which marked the start of the term for Wales’ first minister Mark Drakeford, she praised the spirit of the Welsh people.
"It is a spirit which I have personally encountered so many times,” she said.
16 October: attends races at Ascot
The queen wore a striking dark blue dress and hat to indulge one of her favourite pastimes: horse racing. The annual Ascot event is biggest event on the British racing calendar.
18 October: video call with the governor-general of New Zealand
Britain’s longest-reigning monarch chatted to Dame Cindy Kiro before she was sworn in as the first indigenous governor-general of New Zealand. “Ah! There you are,” she exclaimed on a screen as the two chatted on Zoom.
19 October: meets business leaders, presidential envoys and tech entrepreneurs at Windsor Castle reception
At the Global Investment Summit reception, an event studded with billionaires, Her Majesty welcomed attendees such as Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. The queen was accompanied by her two heirs – Prince Charles and Prince William – and looked her regal, perky self for the grand evening which saw business leaders and tech experts from across the globe descend on Windsor Castle.
Sources: dailymail.co.uk, telegraph.co.uk, washingtonpost.com, news.com.au, abc.net.au, express.co.uk, nypost.com, hellomagazine.com, standard.co.uk, bbc.com