Visitors to the Princess Royal’s house, Gatcombe Park, are often surprised to be greeted with antique-display cases groaning with ornaments, bookshelves overflowing with hardbacks and piles of magazines dating back to the 1970s. According to one friend, the 18th-century Grade II-listed Gloucestershire stately has a ‘homely’ feel, thanks to the frugal Princess’s reluctance to throw anything out.
‘It’s quite a nice thing really,’ they said. ‘There’s barely a place you can sit down in her house. Every time the staff go in there they try to take something away.’ A surprising revelation, perhaps, about the Royal family’s resident stickler, whose decadesold ‘updo’ and penchant for wearing white gloves on royal engagements suggest a somewhat starchier outlook. But as the Queen’s only daughter prepares to celebrate her 70th birthday this month, it seems that appearances can be rather deceiving.
Now more valuable than ever to an institution not only trying to reposition itself in the wake of a global pandemic, but still smarting from the fallout of Megxit and the Duke of York’s association with Jeffrey Epstein, Anne’s old-school approach has never been more in demand. Despite describing herself as ‘the boring old fuddy-duddy at the back’, who keeps reminding the younger royals not to forgo ‘the basics’, the Princess Royal, who has always put duty first, is finally getting the recognition she deserves.
Her appearance in June alongside the 94-year-old monarch for Her Majesty’s first ever video call shows how much the Queen is coming to rely on the Princess. And the public response to her appearing to snub Donald Trump during a Nato leaders’ reception at Buckingham Palace last December suggests the nation is finally warming to her modus operandi.
Where once Anne was regarded as haughty and standoffish, she is now hailed as one of the great English eccentrics whose unparalleled royal work ethic, carrying out more than 500 engagements a year, has rightly earned her national treasure status.
And having allowed a film crew to shadow her for the past year, the Princess, who is usually reluctant to blow her own trumpet, has never appeared more at ease with herself. She was persuaded to take part in last week’s ITV documentary Princess Royal: Anne at 70 because its makers, Oxford Films, had successfully produced Our Queen and Our Queen at 90 about her mother. Shadowing Anne on her dusk-to-dawn engagements – and featuring interviews with her children Peter, 42, and Zara, 39 – the documentary revealed just how much the Princess is cut from the Queen’s ‘keep calm and carry on’ cloth.
Having been regarded as a bit of a royal renegade as a teenager – and chosen to forgo titles for her own children, despite her own HRH pedigree as a ‘spare to the heir’ – Anne’s life story is a contradiction of both protocol taskmaster and occasional rule-breaker. As one insider who knows the Princess well put it: ‘She can turn from laughing and joking one minute to being an absolute stickler for the rules the next. She’s extremely dutiful and would hate to be regarded as being on the wrong side of protocol. You’d never dream of asking her a political question and she’s not at all gossipy.’
Erin Doherty’s portrayal of Anne in The Crown, as the deadpan princess with the permanently raised eyebrow, certainly sums up her teenage years when the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were apparently so concerned about their daughter’s lack of direction, they asked the late Dame Vera Lynn for advice. Prince Philip, who famously joked of his daughter, ‘If it doesn’t fart or eat hay then she isn’t interested,’ allegedly confided in the Forces’ sweetheart: ‘We are concerned about Anne at the moment, trying to get her to make up her mind about what she wants to do.’
According to her school friend, Sandra de Laszlo, who boarded with Anne at Benenden: ‘She was a very normal teenager – sensible and fun.’ Leaving school with six O levels and two A levels in 1968, Anne had already resolved to follow in her parents’ duteous footsteps. Less than a year later, she made her official debut on 1 March – St David’s Day – when she handed out leeks to the Welsh Guards at Pirbright Camp in Surrey. It was to be the start of one of the most industrious royal careers in modern memory – with more than 20,000 engagements clocked up since.
Soon after she started work, she began dating – and in 1970, Anne’s first boyfriend was Andrew Parker Bowles, the dashing young adjutant of the Blues and Royals, who went on to marry Camilla Shand – later to become her sister-in-law, the Duchess of Cornwall. The Princess and the brigadier – described as her ‘horsey husband’ – remain close and accompany each other to Royal Ascot and other race meetings every year.
Anne is also on good terms with her first husband, Captain Mark Phillips. A Sandhurst graduate with an equestrian streak, like Parker Bowles, Phillips met the Princess at a party for horse lovers in 1968 and reconnected at the Munich Olympics four years later, when he won team Olympic gold in the three-day eventing. They married in 1973. He was at the then 23-year-old Anne’s side a year later when she was threatened at gunpoint in an attempted kidnapping. The couple were returning to Buckingham Palace following a charity event when their limousine was forced to stop on the Mall by another car. When the driver, Ian Ball, jumped out and began shooting, Anne’s bodyguard, Inspector James Beaton, was injured, along with her chauffeur Alex Callender, and journalist Brian McConnell and Michael Hills, a police constable, who happened upon the scene.
But the attempt to hold Anne to ransom for at least £2 million is even more memorable thanks to the impervious Princess’s refusal to obey Ball’s order to get out of the car, replying with a trademark: ‘Not bloody likely!’ Eventually, she exited the other side of the limousine, as had her lady-in-waiting, Rowena Brassey (who is still with her to this day). A passing pedestrian, a former boxer named Ron Russell, punched Ball in the back of the head and led Anne away from the scene. Anne later told officers: ‘It was all so infuriating; I kept saying I didn’t want to get out of the car, and I was not going to get out of the car,’ according to files later released by the National Archives. ‘I nearly lost my temper with him, but I knew that if I did, I should hit him and he would shoot me.’
She was similarly sanguine about becoming the first member of the Royal family to have a criminal conviction after one of her dogs, a three-year-old English bull terrier called Dotty, attacked two children in Windsor Great Park in 2002. Pleading guilty to being in charge of a dog that was out of control in a public area, she insisted on no special treatment and took the £500 fine and £500 compensation on the chin.
The incident followed a number of brushes with the law for motoring offences, with Anne having twice been caught speeding on the M1 in the 1970s. She was also fined £100 and banned for one month in 1990 for two speeding offences and fined another £400 in 2000. On both occasions she pleaded guilty immediately, insisting she was late for an engagement.
As she said in the documentary, mistakes do happen when there is no ‘training’ for the job of being royal. ‘It’s just learning by experience. But hardly ever does anything go quite according to plan. You have to learn that.’ It wasn’t as if she didn’t feel the pressure of being the sovereign’s second-born, either – once describing the fly-on-the-wall Royal Family film, which followed the Windsors for a year in the late 1960s, as ‘a rotten idea’.
‘The attention that had been brought on one ever since one was a child, you just didn’t want any more. The last thing you needed was greater access.’
Famed for telling reporters to ‘naff orf ’, much of Anne’s mistrust of the media appears to stem from its rather uncomfortable coverage of Phillips fathering a love child, Felicity, with New Zealand art teacher Heather Tonkin in 1985. The Princess didn’t emerge unblemished either, having been revealed by The Sun to have received love letters from Tim Laurence, then the Queen’s equerry, in 1989, when she was separated – although still married to Phillips.
Anne and Mark finally divorced in 1992 and the Princess remarried eight months later, choosing Crathie Kirk in Scotland, as the Church of England did not at that time allow divorced persons whose former spouses were still living to remarry in its churches. The Prince of Wales had nicknamed Phillips ‘Fog’ on the grounds that he was ‘thick and wet’; but with his Royal Navy pedigree and impeccable manners, ‘quiet man’ Laurence fitted into the Royal family perfectly. One friend described the vice admiral as ‘a thoroughly decent man who never forgets a face’, before adding that ‘some may regard him as a little bit boring, but he’s a much safer bet than Mark ever was.’
Ever the pragmatist, Anne allowed Phillips to remain living on the Gatcombe estate, even after he married Sandy Pflueger, an American Olympic dressage rider, with whom he has a daughter, Stephanie, 22. As one equestrian insider put it: ‘The horsey set has always been very incestuous. Yes, Mark was serially unfaithful but there’s a lot of that going on – Anne just turned a blind eye.’
Now divorced from Pflueger, Phillips, 71, has vacated Aston Farm on the 730-acre estate, to make way for Zara, her rugbyplayer husband Mike Tindall, 41, and their daughters Mia, six, and Lena, two.
Peter also lives on the estate with his estranged wife Autumn, 42, and their daughters Savannah, nine, and Isla, eight. The couple are still living together despite announcing their divorce in January – an unexpected development that has left the Princess ‘sad and disappointed’, according to insiders.
One source said: ‘One thing about the Royal family is they are incredibly close. They are the most dysfunctional family there is, but the Princess and her children and grandchildren are as tight as anything.’
As ever, horse riding remains the tie that binds, with Anne – a former European eventing champion, BBC Sports Personality of the Year and competitor at the 1976 Montreal Olympics – passing on her enthusiasm for the sport to Zara. In recent years, Peter has taken over the running of the Festival of British Eventing at Gatcombe.
By her own admission, breaking with royal tradition by insisting that her children were called Mr and Miss ‘probably’ made life ‘easier for them’. ‘I think most people would argue that there are downsides to having titles,’ Anne said recently. Having initially been brought up, Downton Abbey-style, on the ‘nursery floor’, with her parents often away for months on end on royal tours, it was Anne who insisted she go to a ‘proper’ school – the first daughter of a monarch to do so – rather than be home-taught.
Both Peter and Zara were sent to Port Regis, a co-educational prep school in Dorset, before following in their uncle Charles’s footsteps to board at Gordonstoun in Scotland. Unlike the heir to the throne, who described it as ‘Colditz in kilts’, they thrived in the outdoorsiness of it all, excelled at sport and both ended up at Exeter University – Peter to study sports science and Zara, physiotherapy – despite university having eluded both their parents.
Zara also surpassed her mother’s equestrian achievements by winning the Eventing World Championships in 2006 and a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics – all while Anne was watching proudly from the sidelines.
One friend recalls how the Princess would think nothing of queuing up for the Portaloos at competitions like any other parent, much to the horror of Zara, who would tell her: ‘Mum, you can’t do that!’
Inconspicuous in her trademark Barbour jacket, tweed hat and sunglasses, Anne would regularly be stopped at events on her own estate by police not realising who she was. ‘I remember it happening a couple of times,’ said one source. ‘She was very good about it – she said: “Don’t worry, you weren’t to know.”’
After Zara collected individual and team gold medals at the 2005 European Eventing Championship in Blenheim, Anne invited the entire team, grooms and all, back to Gatcombe to celebrate, serving up ‘sandwiches and scampi in a basket’, in the courtyard. Very much a hands-on mother and grandmother, the Princess has a number of long-serving aides – but no large entourage. Along with Rowena Brassey (now Feilden), Lady Carew Pole has also been the Princess’s lady-in-waiting since 1970.
Unfussy Anne still insists on doing her own make-up and hair – which hasn’t been let down publicly in decades. Although according to one source who once witnessed the rare sight of her unclipping her bun and redoing it during an equestrian event: ‘It really is quite something. It’s still as long as it was when she was in her 20s.’
Part of Anne’s agelessness is down to genes. ‘She always says she doesn’t have very good role models for slowing down,’ Peter told the documentary. As Countryfile presenter John Craven found out when he dared to ask if Anne still rode, only to be rebuked: ‘Her Majesty is still riding, so come on!’ But as well as inheriting her mother’s DNA she shares HM’s strict adherence to style codes – and her aversion to profligacy.
Guests at the 2008 wedding of Lady Rose Windsor, the daughter of the Duke of Gloucester, were astonished when Anne arrived in the outfit she had worn to her brother’s wedding to Lady Diana Spencer, 27 years earlier. The size-10 Maureen Baker floral-print frock still fitted perfectly.
Quite what Anne must have made of Diana and Fergie’s wardrobe expenditure in the 1980s has never been disclosed – although it has long been reported that the Princess never thought too highly of either sister-in-law, regarding Diana particularly as ‘hogging the limelight’.
There were even reports that she viewed the pair as ‘lessening the stature’ of the Royal family, describing them behind the scenes as ‘those girls’. As royal biographer Penny Junor put it: ‘There was Diana on the one hand, who was incredibly touchy-feely, who hugged children, who put children on her lap, who even kissed people in public. And there was Anne, not touching anyone, not playing up to the cameras at all.’
As far removed from the suburban housewife as you can get, when Anne was once spotted mending fences at Gatcombe, she apparently retorted: ‘Somebody’s got to do it!’ ‘She’s never shirked anything in her life,’ said a friend. ‘She’s a real grafter.’
Weekends will invariably be spent with her four grandchildren. Revealing a surprising knowledge of popular culture – despite her dislike of indoor pursuits – the Princess revealed her familiarity with Catherine Tate’s stroppy schoolgirl character Lauren when she commented that Mia’s attitude to equestrianism was, ‘Am I bovvered?’
‘She’s superb with the kids,’ said a friend. ‘She’ll often be in the stables with the grandchildren. She’s got a tremendous sense of humour and is very likeable and kind. She loves Mike [Tindall, Zara’s husband]. He makes them all laugh.
The friend also pointed to Anne’s ‘surprisingly fruity’ sense of humour, adding: ‘And the Princess can swear all right. I’ve heard her use some quite colourful language.’
If the Queen instilled in Anne a love of horses then it was her father who encouraged her other great passion in life: sailing. Anne would regularly accompany the former Royal Navy commander to Cowes Week, and it is a testament to Philip’s infectious love of seafaring that Anne and Tim have kept their yacht Ballochbuie on Loch Craignish in Argyll, since 2012. The couple enjoy nothing more than cruising around the Inner Hebrides, where Anne indulges her passion of visiting lighthouses. She is patron of the Northern Lighthouse Board and is understood to have ‘bagged’ more than half of the UK’s 206.
But it hasn’t always been so easy combining work and pleasure. Anne was put to the diplomatic test when she became the first member of the Royal family to visit the USSR, at the invitation of the then-leader Gorbachev in 1990. In typical style, the Princess didn’t shirk the responsibility – and stayed for two whole weeks. Visits to war zones including Sierra Leone, Mozambique and Bosnia have been similarly taxing – with Anne once insisting after a particularly gruelling tour of Africa: ‘I don’t come here looking for trouble. I come to see if I can help.’
Her association with Save the Children, which dates back to 1970, has seen her slum it on camp beds and visit disease-ravaged Mozambique refugee camps. Once urged by photographers to hug an emaciated child, she refused, saying, ‘I don’t do stunts.’ And in response to a comment on her supposed lack of the maternal instinct, she said: ‘You don’t have to like children particularly to want to give them a decent chance in life.’
Yet her reputation as one of the most diligent royals ever has also been honed by her dedication to little-known domestic causes, like the Wetwheels Foundation, which provides ‘barrier-free boating’ for the disabled. One of more than 300 charities the Princess is involved with, its founder Geoff Holt, a paraplegic who was the first disabled person to sail solo around Britain in 2007, and then across the Atlantic in 2010, has known Anne for over 30 years. ‘I’ve got photos of us going back decades. I’ve got older and older and she’s stayed the same,’ he joked.
‘She’s got to be one of the most hard-working people I know. I’ve never known anything like it – the amount of engagements she packs in. She doesn’t do sycophancy, though.
Michele Jennings, chief executive of Hearing Dogs for the Deaf, of which the Princess has been patron since 1992, also tells staff ‘not to fawn’ when the Princess visits. ‘She hates that,’ she said. ‘We’re a pretty down-to-earth charity and when she comes she’ll have dogs jumping at her shins and crawling all over her, but she doesn’t mind one bit. There’s no awkwardness.’
Another source revealed how during one royal visit, Anne had joked about missing out on all the posh canapés – royals are discouraged from eating in public. ‘I’ll just have to put up with Great Western’s finest,’ she quipped, referring to her train journey home.
Although a ‘daddy’s girl’ growing up, since the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret died in 2002, Anne has become ever more devoted to her mother. Having helped to counsel the Queen through many royal crises over the years, the Princess has been HM’s first port of call when discussing recent tumultuous royal events. Although one can only guess what stalwart Anne makes of Harry and Meghan’s behaviour, she has made no secret of her opposition to royals trying to modernise the institution, seemingly referring to the Sussexes when she remarked recently: ‘I don’t think this younger generation probably understands what I was doing in the past and it’s often true, isn’t it? You don’t necessarily look at the previous generation and say, “Oh, you did that?” Or, “You went there?” Nowadays, they’re much more looking for, “Oh, let’s do it a new way.” I’m already at the stage [of ], please do not reinvent that particular wheel. We’ve been there, done that. Some of these things don’t work. You may need to go back to basics.’
When she turned 60, the Queen elevated Anne to the Order of the Thistle and there was a joint birthday party with Andrew, who was 50 that year. But Covid-19 – not to mention Andrew’s fall from grace – mean this year’s celebrations will be more muted. Indeed, she is not thought to have had much contact with her brother, with whom she shares a love of country pursuits, but little else.
With the Queen having been self-isolating at Windsor Castle since March, it is thought Anne will be reunited with her parents at Balmoral this summer, where she and Tim will once again take in Scotland’s sights by sea.
At a time when the monarchy finds itself somewhat cast adrift, it is the indefatigable Princess Royal who is proving to be its trustiest anchor. As she prepares to turn 70, showing no sign of slowing down after half a century of engagements, lighthouse-lover Anne has become the Royal family’s beacon of good, old-fashioned public service.