Inside Princess Anne's Unique Royal World

Princess Anne, the only daughter of Queen Elizabeth II, remains one of the Firm's most tireless, stoic employees, but has managed to live life on her terms—and keep a sense of humor about it.

By Natalie Finn May 06, 2023 9:00 AMTags
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On March 20, 1974, Princess Anne was almost kidnapped.

The only daughter of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip was on her way to Buckingham Palace with her then-husband Mark Phillips after a film screening when their maroon Rolls Royce was waylaid on the Mall by a white Ford Escort.

Anne's Scotland Yard-issued bodyguard, Inspector James Beaton, got out of the car and was shot in the shoulder by Ian Ball, a 26-year-old unemployed laborer from north London. Beaton fired back once but then his gun jammed. Ball approached the Rolls and ordered Anne to get out—or he'd shoot.

"Bloody likely," the 23-year-old princess retorted.

Ball ended up shooting chauffeur Alexander Callendar in the chest and Beaton, who managed to get back into the car to shield the royal couple, was hit again in the hand. Ball grabbed Anne by the arm and Phillips—"I was frightened, I won't mind admitting it," he later said—held onto her by the waist. Her dress was ripped down the back in the struggle. 

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"That was his most dangerous moment," Anne quipped about her would-be kidnapper in an interview years later.

Ball also shot Police Constable Michael Hills and Daily Mail journalist John Brian McConnell. Another passerby, Ronald Russell, a 6-foot-4 former boxer, not realizing this was any more than a dust-up over a car accident, approached Ball from behind and clocked him in the head. Anne took the opportunity to open the opposite rear door and do almost a backward somersault out of the car. 

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She craftily thought that might get Ball to abandon his position and as he ran toward the other side of the car, she got back in and closed the door. Russell managed to land a punch to Ball's face, after which he took off running. Detective Constable Peter Edmonds caught up to Ball and tackled him in St. James' Park.

Days later, the Marxist-Leninist Activist Revolutionary Movement sent a letter to authorities taking credit for Ball's brazen actions, but Scotland Yard determined he acted alone. Which was disturbing enough.

In the Escort he'd rented under an assumed name, Ball had stashed Valium, two pairs of handcuffs and a ransom note addressed to the queen demanding £2 million. Ball pleaded guilty to attempted murder and kidnapping and was remanded to a mental health facility. 

All of the wounded men survived and each was honored by the Queen that September. Russell recalled getting the George Medal from Her Majesty, telling the Eastern Daily Press in 2006 that the monarch told him, "'The medal is from the queen of England, the thank you is from Anne's mother.'"

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Recalling her exchange with Ball, Anne told Michael Parkinson later in the 1980s, "We had a sort of discussion about where or where not we were going to go. Well, he said I had to go with him—I can't remember why...I said I didn't think I wanted to go. I was scrupulously polite, 'cause I thought, silly to be too rude at that stage."

The audience was in stitches.

"And we had a fairly low-key discussion about the fact that I wasn't going to go anywhere, and wouldn't it be much better if he went away and we'd all forget about it," Anne continued, before asking Phillips, "It got slightly rougher, didn't it, at one stage?"

"I mean, public figures have always been in danger to some degree..." the ever-unflappable Anne continued. Though myriad threats were directed at the royal family over the years, she mused, "perhaps your greatest danger is still the lone nut case who has just got enough to put it together. But it would be fair to say that if anybody was seriously intent on wiping one out, it would be very easy to do."

The party line shortly after the attack was that the royal family "had no intention of living in bullet proof cages," least of all Anne, who resumed her usual routine the next day.

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Britain's world-renowned slogan "keep calm and carry on" has certainly seemed to be the now 72-year-old's motto throughout her life, handling everything from her own dangerous encounter to the deaths of her parents, Philip in 2021 and the queen last September, with a characteristic stoicism.

"We've been very lucky," Anne told CBC News in a rare interview ahead of her brother King Charles III's coronation. "My mother was the queen for a very long time. And although you kind of know that this might happen, you don't really think about it very much—not least of all because the monarchy is about continuity. But I think for my brother, you know this is something he's been waiting for, and he's probably spent more time thinking about it. For the rest of us, it's more a question of, OK, we have to shift the way we support, and that's what we need to do."

Rest assured, Anne will be the first to admit when she thinks a certain tradition is fine the way it is, but she also has evolved with the times.

Anne also doesn't suffer fools or overextend herself beyond the still-impressive level of grace and courtesy that was bred into her before she was old enough to notice. Long ago dubbed "her royal rudeness" by the finicky and sometimes fragile local press, she isn't one to lose sleep over her Twitter mentions.

Erin Doherty, who played 1960s-era Anne on the third season of The Crown, became quite enamored with the acerbic royal while researching the role.

"I don't think she's trying to be mean," the British actress told Vanity Fair. "She's just kind of like, 'No, I'm going to tell you what I really think of this and you're going to have to handle it. Because I'm not going to lie.' I love that about her."

Season three picked up the Windsors' story in 1964, with teenage Anne already needing to develop the suit of armor she would need to march into the existential battle that was (and still is) her daily life as a senior royal.

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"What fascinated me and shocked me the most about Anne is that she was put under so much scrutiny—in particular about her physically when she was a teenager," Doherty said. "Because she's in the royal family, everyone just thinks they're allowed to comment. She would've been this really young, fragile teenager and people would write things in the newspaper about her being frumpy. That surprised me—that she managed to go through that at such a young age and still come out really determined to be honest and open with people."


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Speaking about Anne's guarded nature, Doherty explained, "I think that's where the armor came from—because she was subject to this pressurized environment of people commenting on her."

The steely resolve that has defined the monarchy for generations positively courses through the Princess Royal, who despite having her fortunes inextricably tied to her storied heritage has managed to live life largely on her own terms, lone nut cases—or public opinion—be damned.

So it's no wonder she's always been one of the most popular members of the family. (And quite often the busiest, having logged a field-crushing 214 official events in 2022.)

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Anne was born on Aug. 15, 1950, joining then 21-month-old Charles in the family fold. That November, then-Princess Elizabeth returned to Malta to be with her husband, Philip, who was still stationed there with the Royal Navy, while the children remained in England with their grandparents King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

Anne and Charles remained especially close to their maternal grandmother, the Queen Mother (her moniker after her daughter Elizabeth was crowned), till her death in 2002 at the age of 101.

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Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1952 when George VI died at the age of 56. After her June 2, 1953, coronation, the queen and Philip embarked on a nearly seven-month-long tour of the commonwealth, again without their children—who were famously greeted with handshakes upon their parents' return.

Charles, then the Prince of Wales, enjoyed a special bond with his bold, confident sister, who was eight years older than their next-youngest brother, Prince Andrew. Prince Edward, the baby of the family, was born in 1964, when their eldest brother was already off at boarding school. As a child, the sensitive, artistically inclined Charles felt the weight of his parents' frequent absences, but if Anne ever felt similarly, we're unlikely to ever know.

"Her predecessors had traveled enormously, that was the expectation," Anne pragmatically summed up her mother's commitment to the crown in an interview for the BBC's 2018 special The Queen: Her Commonwealth Story. "And they'd been away for very long times and that again was part of the expectation...And of course it was made worse by her father dying so early on in her career that she didn't have the option really to spend more time at home."

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The stoic princess, who was quick to defend their mother when Charles told an interviewer in the 1990s that the queen was a distant parent—it "just beggars belief," Anne fired back—was more like their father than Charles was, and Philip appreciated his daughter's athleticism, fearlessness and dry wit.

But while their temperaments differed, Anne was supportive of Charles, attending his plays at boarding school and, once they were older, hitting the international circuit with him to represent Britain, including a trip to Washington, D.C., in 1970 (during which President Richard Nixon tried to set the prince up with his daughter Tricia Nixon). Anne also gave her big brother riding lessons when, as an adult, he wanted to get over his fear of jumping so he could join in traditional foxhunts.

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Anne shared a particular love of horses with the queen, a love that she later passed on to her own daughter, Zara Tindall. The Princess Royal forewent university in favor of pursuing her equestrian career and won the European Eventing Championship in 1971, after which she was named BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

Anne met champion rider Mark Phillips, then a lieutenant in the British Army, during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico and they bonded instantly, traveling to events together all over England. He won a gold medal in three-day eventing at the Munich Games in 1972 and they got engaged in April 1973, after both competing in the horse trials at Badminton. Their betrothal was formally announced on May 29, 1973, and Anne's parents were said to be "delighted."

But not everyone was thrilled.

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"I can see I shall have to find myself a wife pretty rapidly, otherwise I shall get left behind and feel very miserable," Charles wrote to a friend upon hearing the news, per Sally Bedell Smith's 2017 biography Prince Charles.

And his sister's engagement wasn't the only one plaguing the bachelor.

Four months before Anne got married on Nov. 14, 1974 (Charles' 26th birthday), his former girlfriend Camilla Shand married Andrew Parker-Bowles. The dashing British Army officer had previously dated Anne and, remaining friends, Anne was in the front row along with the Queen Mother at Andrew and Camilla's July 4 wedding.

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A record 500 million people watched on TV as Anne married Mark in front of roughly 2,000 guests at Westminster Abbey.

The bride wore a Tudor-style gown by Maureen Baker. To go with her sapphire and diamond engagement ring, her wedding band was crafted from the same nugget of Welsh gold that supplied rings for the Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret and, later, would do the same for Princess Diana, Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle.

More than 10,000 spectators camped out along the procession route to get a glimpse of the newlyweds on their way to Buckingham Palace, chanting "We want Anne!" and singing "Happy Birthday" for Charles.

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The queen gifted the couple Gatcombe Park, a country estate in Gloucester that remains Anne's main residence to this day, and they divided their time between that home, an apartment at Buckingham Palace and Mark's military posting at Sandhurst.

Meanwhile, Anne's riding career remained a priority. Anne won silver medals in both individual and team disciplines at the 1975 European Eventing Championship atop her horse Doublet, and she became the first member of Britain's royal family to compete in the Olympics when she rode in the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal.

She recalled seeing a "sea of hats" at the Opening Ceremony.

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On the second day of three-day eventing, Anne fell off her horse—Goodwill, from the queen's stable—and suffered a concussion. She got up again to jump the next day, but she matter-of-factly said later that she didn't remember much of it, which, she called "irritating." 

"My father went back to look afterward and he found four huge holes about three strides out from the fence," she recalled to the BBC in 2011. "What [the horse had] done is got bogged, basically...At least we landed the right way up, because that's the sort of fall that does a lot of damage."

Anne insisted that finishing the event, let alone being an Olympian at all, was perfectly satisfying.

Son Peter Phillips, was born on Nov. 15, 1977, and daughter Zara arrived on May 15, 1981—another busy year for the royal family. 

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Charles married Princess Diana on July 29, 1981, after a fairly whirlwind courtship. After a months-long honeymoon, they installed themselves at Kensington Palace.

In the tapes she made in 1991 for biographer Andrew Morton, Diana said she admired her sister-in-law "enormously" but kept her distance. "I wouldn't ring her up if I had a problem," she said, "nor would I go and have lunch with her. But when I see her it's very nice to see her."

Any media narrative that they didn't get along was untrue, the late princess also noted. "We get on incredibly well, but in our own way."

She and Anne did, suffice it to say, have different ways of doing things. Diana had been a dancer and could hold her own on a pair of skis, but Anne was a no-nonsense outdoorswoman who didn't care about clothes (ahead of her time, she's been known to recycle decades-old ensembles) or the frou-frou trappings of royal life, keeping a spare staff and not fretting over mud tracks in the kitchen.

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Anne's favorite dish as a teenager was traditional fish and chips and later in life she's been partial to deviled pheasant. She reads Horse and Hound religiously. She drinks coffee all day and enjoys a martini at night.

Having skipped a luncheon that was on her itinerary during a packed day of engagements, Anne told Vanity Fair's Katie Nicholl for a 2020 cover story ahead of her 70th birthday, "I think during the day, eating's not really an issue."

Or as Prince Philip once quipped about his daughter, "If it doesn't fart or eat hay, then she isn't interested."

Indeed, when Anne talks about riding, she doesn't bother to hide her enthusiasm. "Good question and how long have you got?" she replied when a BBC interviewer asked about the magic of three-day eventing, which entails dressage, a cross-country ride and show-jumping.


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"It was based on a historical military perspective that was based on having a horse that was obedient, well-trained, brave enough to cross any piece of country that they were asked to cross," Anne explained, "but also fit enough to fight the next day."

Sounds like an event she was bred for.

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Anne loaned Charles the Shetland pony that Prince William used for his first riding lessons and one of her ladies-in-waiting, Alexandra "Tiggy" Legge-Bourke, became a nanny for William and Prince Harry (and is now godmother to Harry's son, Archie).

But when Anne didn't attend Harry's christening, it was rumored that she was miffed at not being named a godmother to her younger nephew.

The Palace denied that Anne's absence was due to anything other than a previous engagement. Years later, Diana explained to Morton that she and Charles didn't even think of asking family members who were already aunts or uncles to be godparents.

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Also unlike Diana, Anne didn't court attention or take any special pains to dazzle the media.

According to Diana biographer Tina Brown, when Anne was introduced to Prime Minister Tony Blair's wife, Cherie Blair told the princess to call her Cherie, to which Anne replied, "Actually, let's not go that way. Let's stick to Mrs. Blair, shall we?"

Anne very visibly (and sometimes audibly) had little patience for lengthy photo opportunities or other pomp amid the circumstance. She never stopped to shake hands, explaining in the ITV documentary Queen of the World that it was against protocol back in the day when the family started doing walkabouts (rather than just waving from passing cars) around 1970.

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"The theory was that you couldn't shake hands with everybody, so don't start," she said with a smile. "So I kind of stick with that, but I noticed others don't. It's not for me to say that it's wrong, but the initial concept was that it was patently absurd to start shaking hands."

And the walkabouts themselves were bothersome enough for her.

"We hated them," Anne—who in the 1970s was overheard lamenting "this bloody wind" (basically dropping an F-bomb) during one such outing in Australia—said in The Queen: Her Commonwealth Story. "I mean, can you imagine as teenagers? It's hardly the sort of thing you would volunteer to do. I mean it gets easier but, can you imagine? I mean how many people enjoy walking into a room full of people that you've never met before? And then try a street. I don't think many youngsters would actually volunteer to do that."

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Anne also has no problem with the no-selfie rule—and you better put your phone down if you want a few words with the princess.

"Phones are bad enough, but the iPads—you can't even see their heads," she chided the chronic picture-takers she inevitably sees at events in the 2018 HBO documentary Queen of the World. "No idea who you're talking to."

If someone approaches to talk with phone in hand, Anne says, "I either don't bother, or just say, 'Look, if you want to ask, I suggest you put that down. It is weird. People don't believe they've experienced the event unless they've taken a photograph."

But despite what can come off as a devil-may-care attitude, Anne has been ragingly consistent in her commitment to the crown. Asked by the BBC in 2010, when she turned 60, if she had any plans to slow down, she replied, "Look at the members of my family who are considerably older than me and tell me whether you think they have set an example which suggests that I might. Unlikely."

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The COVID-19 pandemic slowed the whole family down in 2020, but Anne made virtual appearances from home and as soon as in-person engagements were deemed safe again, out she went.

"It's not just about, Can I get a tick in the box for doing this?"  Anne explained to Vanity Fair. "No, it's about serving…It comes from an example from both my parents' way of working and where they saw their role being."

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She doesn't take the country estate she's called home for almost a half-century for granted, either. 

"It's really nice to come back and just be yourself in an area like this," she told Countryfile about Gatcombe, which is a working farm. "Being able to take on a place like this—for me, I've got to make it work. This is not something that comes free, this has got to pay its way, otherwise I can't stay here."

She is the patron of numerous charities and organizations, like the rest of the royals, but she has notably been president of Save the Children since 1970 and president of Riding for the Disabled since 1985.

Asked if becoming a mother had influenced her advocacy, Anne said in a 1983 interview, "Yes, but I would also remind you that I took on the fund long before I even thought about getting married...Having my own children I don't think has made that much difference. I may understand their problems a bit better than I did before." 

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She was also asked if, having seen deprivation in the developing world, did she worry about what sort of world her own children would grow up in?

"In the so-called developed world?" she replied wryly.

Her own children at least grew up in a fairly evolved world, for a couple of royals. Breaking with tradition, Anne—the first woman in the family to give birth in a hospital instead of at home—chose to not give son Peter and Zara royal titles, figuring they'd have a better shot at normality if they were just Peter and just Zara, no prince or princess, no HRH (or "HRR," for that matter).

"I think it was probably easier for them, and I think most people would argue that there are downsides to having titles," Anne told Vanity Fair. "So I think that was probably the right thing to do."

Like average kids, Peter and Zara would get grounded if they ran afoul of their parents, and allowances would be withheld. "I'm very lucky that both my parents decided to not use the title and we grew up and did all the things that gave us the opportunity to do," Zara told The Times in 2015.

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Meanwhile, Anne's determination to live an independent life eventually extended to her marriage. She and Mark spent a lot of time apart and in 1989 they announced that they had separated—following rumors that Anne had been exchanging amorous letters (which were stolen and leaked to the press) with Royal Navy Commanding Office Timothy Laurence.

Just like any savvy celebrity, the princess wasn't in England when the news was announced, but instead in Puerto Rico for a meeting of the International Olympic Committee.

The initial statement from the Palace noted that she and Mark had no plans to divorce, but they eventually did in April 1992—part of the queen's notorious "annus horribilis," during which Andrew separated from his wife Sarah Ferguson, and Charles and Diana followed suit in December.

Anne had considered telling Charles—who resumed his affair with Camilla in around 1988—that he was behaving abominably toward his wife, according to Brown's The Diana Chronicles. Instead, Anne invited her old flame Andrew Parker-Bowles to be her guest at the Royal Ascot that year.

"You see them together at Royal Ascot every year and they are best friends," royals writer Phil Dampier told the IB Times UK in 2017. "He was her first love and their bond goes very deep. It was a weird royal set-up which Diana went into not realizing the depth of the relationships."

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The annus closed on an upswing, though, with Anne marrying Timothy on Dec. 12, three months after her divorce was finalized, in a small church ceremony in Scotland (where the church allowed divorced people to remarry).

Zara was her bridesmaid. The bride's parents were there, as was the Queen Mother. Prince Edward, still a bachelor at the time, was the only brother who attended, the wedding occurring days after Charles and Diana announced their separation. Diana sent her best wishes to the newlyweds.

Like Anne's first husband, Timothy didn't take a royal title, but he was knighted by the queen in 2011, and he's still mixing Anne's nightly martinis. (And it's not as if she pinches all her pennies. The couple sail the Scottish Isles every summer aboard their £500,000 yacht, Ballochbuie.)

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Peter played rugby at Exeter and has worked in sports management, hospitality and finance. He had a few relationships before marrying wife Autumn in 2008. (After announcing their divorce in February 2020, they continued to live at Gatcombe and share custody of their daughters, Savannah, 12, and Isla, 11. "We had a little conversation about it in the car, but she just rises above it," Anne's lady-in-waiting told Vanity Fair after the split.)

Zara also went to Exeter, where she studied physiotherapy, and in 2003 secured her first riding sponsorship.

Though Anne was often reported to be annoyed by Zara's rugby-playing husband Mike Tindall's headline-grabbing antics, usually involving his behavior at bars or on the pitch, the princess and her son-in-law have since looked thick as thieves out in public, particularly at sporting events.

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When Zara called her mother to tell her that Tindall had proposed, Anne asked if he was going to finally get his perennially broken nose fixed. 

"She's very knowledgeable about the game," Tindall, who captained England's rugby team, said about his then-future mother-in-law in 2011. "She probably knows more about it than me...We talk about rugby and the princess royal follows my club, Gloucester, as well. But she is passionate about Scottish rugby, so I'm sure she'll be delighted if they put one over us."

With both of her children and their families living at Gatcombe, Anne is now a hands-on grandmother to Savannah, Isla and Zara's kids Mia, 9Lena, 4, and Lucas, 2.

"I look at her and just think if I was going to be a mother, that's what I would want to be like," Zara said in a 2010 BBC special in honor of her mother's 60th birthday. "I would like to be as good a mother as she has been to us."

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Tindall also said of his mother-in-law, "Her advice generally about life has been invaluable. Whenever we may have got slightly above our station she'd be the first one to bring us back down to earth."

"When she's in an environment of people that she knows," he added, "whether it be her organizations or family, friends, she definitely relaxes a lot more and is great fun and is always the one laughing the loudest."

"She loves a good dance," Zara noted. "She is good on her feet."

Zara was named BBC Sports Competitor of the Year in 2006, 35 years after her mother was similarly honored, and competed in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, where she had the honor of accepting a silver medal in team eventing from the Princess Royal herself.

"Her father had been a successful equestrian and won a lot more medals [than I]," Anne told Vanity Fair, "so you do slightly wonder if having two parents who've been in that situation helped. Zara was always a natural and it was really a question of whether she felt that was something she really wanted to do, and she did and she was very thorough and applied herself to it. So she was quite rightly very successful."

All of the grandkids love horses, too, and Anne quipped, "Certainly when they started their riding lives I was the extra hand."

(Originally published Oct. 1, 2018, at 3 a.m. PT; updated Dec. 4, 2019, at 9:40 a.m. PT)

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