Infamous for her breezy attitude toward her birthright, Princess Anne is having a new moment in the sun – just when her family needs her the most. As she turns 70, Queen Elizabeth’s only daughter opens up about family, duty, and a life lived in the Firm
The polished black Bentley parked outside the drab-looking concrete Camden Carers Centre stands out. You don’t often see a chauffeured limo parked in this particular neighborhood of North London, nor is it commonplace to see a royal. But as Princess Anne steps out of the car in a vibrant turquoise wool dress and navy blazer, her hair pinned up in her trademark chignon, curious passersby seem more interested in the police motorcade than the queen’s daughter.
Her entourage, consisting only of her lady-in-waiting and a close protection officer (CPO), is surprisingly small. Inside the center, the princess is received by the chair of the Carers Trust, of which she is president, and whisked off for a quick luncheon that she skips. “I think during the day, eating’s not an issue,” she tells me. Her priority is to press on with a packed schedule and meet the caregivers at the center’s new art club, which gives carers some much-needed time out from their work.
She keeps her gloves on (even though the coronavirus hadn’t, by this point, reached the UK) yet she is not, despite what is often said about her, standoffish or cold. She has a reputation for having inherited her father’s famously sharp tongue and waspish wit, once telling photographers to “’naff off ” when they got in her way.
Her frank talk served her during a failed kidnapping attempt in 1974. A man named Ian Ball shot at Anne’s Rolls-Royce as she and her then husband, Captain Mark Phillips, were returning to Buckingham Palace from a reception. Ball, who had hoped for a ransom of millions of dollars, commanded Anne to get out of the car during the tussle. “Not bloody likely” was her response, legend has it.
It is this relatable nature that Erin Doherty captures so well as Princess Anne in the third season of The Crown, giving Anne’s real-life profile a breakout fandom. Her stoic nature and occasional defiance have earned her worldwide respect. Not that Princess Anne would know. She hasn’t seen the show, and, according to someone who would know, “has no interest in watching her life acted out onscreen.”
True to that depiction, the Princess Royal is warm, engaging, and funny, with an impressive ability of disarming people. She is relaxed when it comes to protocol and greets people with a firm handshake and a “Hello, pleased to meet you.” “She’s a gem. Truly one of the nicest and most hardworking of them all,” says a CPO who has worked for the royal family for many years.
The day we tour the center together happens to be the day that Anne’s son Peter Phillips announces his divorce from his wife, Autumn, so there is the potential for awkwardness or discomfort. But the princess appears relaxed and in good spirits. Having divorced Captain Mark Phillips, her first husband and father of her children – Peter, 42, and Zara Tindall, 38 – after 20 years of matrimony, the princess knows better than most people that marriages (perhaps particularly royal ones) aren’t always forever. A tabloid newspaper splashed the story of the impending divorce on its front page that morning, and I have been warned in advance by the press officer that the princess won’t discuss the separation.
The princess’s prickly relationship with the press is perhaps to be expected. Anne’s private life came under scrutiny when the same tabloid obtained the princess’s personal letters from the man who would become her husband of more than 25 years, Commander Timothy Laurence. In her youth she had a reputation for being a royal rebel. She is the only royal to have a criminal conviction (one of her dogs, a three-year-old English bull terrier called Dotty, attacked two children in a park in 2002 – the princess pleaded guilty to being in charge of a dog that was out of control in a public area), and she was banned from driving for a month after repeatedly speeding, a trait her daughter, Zara (who was also recently banned from driving), appears to have inherited. Even now the princess generates headlines – not all positive – in the media.
Last year she became an internet sensation after she was caught on camera seeming to snub President Trump during a Nato leaders reception at Buckingham Palace. Footage from the event appears to show the queen beckoning her daughter to join the royal lineup. Instead, Anne shrugs her shoulders. Cue a thousand memes. According to sources who were in the room where it happened, Princess Anne had in fact thought she was being asked to see if anyone else was still waiting to meet the queen; she shrugged her shoulders because it was only her. She’s not on Twitter (her aides post on her behalf ), so she was unaware of the commotion her casual shoulder shrug had caused. She was, however, made aware of another clip in which she was seen mingling with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, French president Emmanuel Macron, and British prime minister Boris Johnson. According to news outlets, the world leaders were laughing at Trump and his lengthy press conference earlier that day.
“The princess was unhappy to be dragged into that particular story because she has always been careful not to be seen to be political in any way,” says a source. “She is also incredibly respectful, so any suggestion that she would laugh at anyone behind their backs was quite upsetting for her.” The royals are expected to be politically neutral and, like her mother, the princess has always been careful not to stray into the political arena.
When I meet her at 3pm the following afternoon at St James’s Palace, she has already opened a housing shelter and visited a rocking horse manufacturer in Kent before returning to Buckingham Palace via helicopter. She hasn’t paused for so much as a cup of tea – an aide says she never stops for refreshments until her schedule is over – and as she walks into the pale green sitting room overlooking Colour Court bathed in early spring sunshine, she extends a hand and smiles warmly.
She’s elegant in a blue and red floral dress and matching jacket, with just a hint of red lipstick and the lightest dusting of powder. A few wisps of gray fleck her chestnut hair, and her complexion is flawless like her mother the queen’s. In fact, the similarity between mother and daughter is striking. She’s also wearing sensible court shoes, but her coltish legs and slender frame are the physique of a former athlete.
In her youth, Anne was a champion sportswoman: the first member of the royal family to compete in the Olympics, in Montreal 1976, and the winner of three European Championship medals. Leapfrogged in succession by her younger brothers – Andrew, Duke of York, and Edward, Earl of Wessex – she was keen to make a name for herself as an equestrian. The Princess Royal won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1971, becoming the first royal to receive the title (her daughter, Zara, an Olympic equestrian, was also awarded the title in 2006). Though she has long been retired as a professional equestrian, the princess still rides for pleasure at her Gloucestershire home, Gatcombe Park, an 18th century manor set in 730 acres of park. The princess breeds horses there and helped teach her young grandchildren to ride in her own paddocks. Anne has four grandchildren: Peter and Autumn’s two girls – Savannah, nine, and Isla, eight – and Zara’s daughters with her husband, Mike Tindall – Mia, six, and one-year-old Lena. All of them share a love of horses with their grandmother.
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It’s when talking about the four young granddaughters that her eyes light up. She hasn’t yet hosted a sleepover “because they have so many friends in the area,” but she clearly enjoys being a hands-on grandmother, particularly spending time outdoors.
“I find it difficult to understand why anybody gets sucked into screens and devices. Life’s too short, frankly. There’s more entertaining things to be done,” she says, adding “I suppose that puts me in the real dinosaur range.”
Anne was neither antiquated nor rigid in her own childrearing. Keen for Peter and Zara to have ordinary childhoods, she broke with royal tradition by choosing not to give them HRH titles when they were born, a peerage she would have been offered from the queen. “I think it was probably easier for them, and I think most people would argue that there are downsides to having titles,” she says. “So I think that was probably the right thing to do.” In keeping with family tradition, however, she sent Peter and Zara to the prestigious Gordonstoun school in Scotland where her father, the Duke of Edinburgh, and brother Prince Charles were boarders. The princess is a firm believer in the benefits of boarding school, having herself boarded at Benenden School in Kent in 1963.
“My case was slightly different to my senior brother’s,” says Anne. (Charles is two years older than Anne, the queen’s second-born child, who was followed by Andrew, 10 years later, and Edward four years after that.) “I was ready to go to school. I had a governess and two friends and that was never going to be enough, so I was only too pleased to be sent off somewhere else.”
While Charles had a miserable time at school, the princess’s children had happier experiences at Gordonstoun and have gone on to carve out careers independent of the royal family. Peter runs a successful sports and entertainment agency and organized a party for the queen’s 90th birthday. More recently he came under fire for using his royal status to promote Jersey milk in China, something his mother refuses to be drawn on.
The Princess Royal is hugely proud of her daughter’s sporting achievements, particularly the memorable moment when she presented Zara with a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics. Anne is modest when I ask if talent runs down the tree.
“Zara was always a natural and it was a question of whether she felt that was something she wanted to do, and she did and she was thorough and applied herself to it. So she was quite rightly successful.”
Like the queen, who still rides at 93, Princess Anne rides most days, which keeps her agile, mentally and physically. She still wears outfits she’s had since the 80s – she is famous for rewearing her wardrobe, claiming she recycles “because I’m quite mean. I still try and buy materials and have them made up because I just think that’s more fun. It also helps to support those who still manufacture in this country.”
While much of her work goes unreported, Princess Anne has steadfastly held onto the title of Britain’s most industrious royal until last year when her brother, the Prince of Wales, eclipsed her by 15 engagements, after his own 70th-birthday year. The princess, who carried out more than 500 engagements last year, will at times pack four or five engagements a day into her itinerary, which she concedes sometimes makes it hard for her aides and advisers. “I make their lives more difficult in terms of the logistics, I’m afraid, but if I’m going to be in London, I don’t want to be hanging about.”
While most people approaching their 70th birthday are retired, or at least considering it, that isn’t on Princess Anne’s agenda, which is just as well given that there is more pressure on the senior royals now that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have quit royal duties and Prince Andrew has been forced into an early retirement over his ill-fated friendship with the late pedophile Jeffrey Epstein.
“I don’t think retirement is quite the same for me,” she says, smiling wryly. At 93 the queen is still working, while the Duke of Edinburgh announced his retirement in May 2017. Anne cites both her parents as role models. One of her early royal appearances was standing on the palace balcony for her mother’s coronation in 1953, and although she has slipped to 14th in line to the throne – Anne falls behind her brothers, their children and grandchildren – she hasn’t let her commitment to the crown waver. Had she not been a royal, she says she would have been an engineer. “The practicalities of how things work, I think, was always interesting as far as I was concerned. But I think it was a little bit early in the sort of scheme of things to have gone down that route.” Instead she has made a point of championing women in her role as patron of Women into Science and Engineering. “I’ve certainly enjoyed being part of trying to encourage more girls to look at engineering as a realistic career.”
She declines to identify herself as a feminist; rather she says she wants to see every young person achieve their full potential. She became patron of Opportunity International UK (which helps young entrepreneurs in some of the poorest countries in Africa) in 1998 to do just that, but she also remains steadfastly loyal to her oldest charities and is deeply proud of her 50 years of work with Save the Children, for which she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
“It’s not just about, Can I get a tick in the box for doing this? No, it’s about serving.” Remarkably for someone who has always seemed so driven and confident, it took her time to find her voice on the world stage. “It took me probably 10 years before I felt confident enough to contribute to Save the Children’s public debates, because you needed to understand how it works on the ground.”
And she worries that the younger generation of royals may be in too much of a hurry to change the royal family’s tried and tested approach when it comes to philanthropy. Describing herself as “the boring old fuddy-duddy at the back saying, ‘Don’t forget the basics,’ ” she cautions. Over the years the princess has traveled extensively, clocking up visits to Bangladesh, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina with Save the Children, but she has reluctantly scaled back her overseas travel in part because of logistics and in part because the younger royals do the lion’s share of overseas work.
She has planned – pandemic permitting – to be in the US this fall to visit the New York branch of the English-Speaking Union, an educational charity of which she is president, and the National Lighthouse Museum in Staten Island, which has asked her to be its new patron. “It was kind of them to ask,” she says, adding that lighthouses have always fascinated her. “How Robert Stevenson built those lighthouses along the coast of Scotland is just phenomenal. They’re important and need to be maintained, and that’s a part of the maritime sector I’m interested in, and I like trying to raise that profile.”
Being at sea is a personal pleasure and on the rare occasions she does get time off, she enjoys sailing up the West Coast of Britain with her husband, Vice Admiral Laurence.
“It’s just my husband and I,” she smiles. This summer had been set to be a busy one, if travel and social restrictions are relaxed, so the high seas may have to wait. The queen is rumored to be planning a special birthday celebration for her daughter (who turns 70 on August 15) while courtiers are gathering representatives from her many charities and organizations for a special get-together at Buckingham Palace. And yet, the princess is just like anyone else reflecting on a milestone birthday. “Well, it would be nice if it were just another year passed,” she says, “but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Originally published on VanityFair.com