Princess Anne: the softer side of the formidable royal
She appears in public as stern, stoic and sometimes a bit grumpy, but no one could question her dedication to duty, and in private she is an involved and adored grandma. William Langley reports on the life of Princess Anne today – and her passionate past.
Around Princess Anne, the Queen’s 66-year-old daughter, hangs a reassuring air of indestructibility. While much of the modern monarchy frets about its image, Anne ploughs on as she always has – with diligence, frugality, and an unstoppable gleam in her eyes.
So when, in September, Anne was rushed to hospital with chest pains, there was as much astonishment as worry. Seasoned royal hands struggled to remember the last time the redoubtable Princess Royal had cancelled an engagement. Tales are told of her limping down lines of dignitaries after falling off her horse, and – on one occasion – wearing a floral headscarf with a military uniform to disguise having set her hair on fire. Now, announced Buckingham Palace, she was pulling out of an entire scheduled tour of Botswana and Mozambique.
The problem was diagnosed as an infection, and Anne was ordered to put her feet up and rest – a constraint that never suits her well. While the spotlight tends to dwell on the younger, more glamorous royals, Anne shoulders a phenomenal annual workload, racking up over 600 engagements and serving as patron of 340 organisations.
“Princess Anne is the best thing we have,” says Ingrid Seward, editor of Majesty magazine. “She puts in more effort than anyone, makes no concessions to getting older, and does it all with the minimum of fuss.”
After a fortnight’s convalescence at Balmoral, the Queen’s remote Scottish castle, Princess Anne roared back to work with a vengeance – racking up five engagements on her first day, including a commemoration service for the crew of a lost World War II battleship, and a charity dinner to support mentally handicapped children. These are the kind of events that receive very little media attention, but earn huge gratitude from the people involved.
The Princess Royal moves fast between stops – usually driving herself in a supercharged 260kph Range Rover, writing her own speeches and communicating with her surprisingly small but devoted staff on the hoof. It no longer seems to bother her that she gets so little credit for her efforts. Anne remains defiantly old-school and anti-glam, with her hair pulled back governess style, and many of her outfits recycled from decades ago.
Not everyone appreciates the results. On Anne’s last visit to New Zealand six years ago, top fashion designer Denise L’Estrange-Corbet caused uproar by describing the royal guest’s look as: “Boring as bat****,” and scoffed: “You have the world’s top stylists at your beck and call, and your hair looks like a cottage loaf.”
Anne has heard it all before. She doesn’t dress or – as she would see it – perform to please a fickle public. For years she was known in the British press as “Princess Sourpuss” – an accolade earned by her refusal to smile to order, cuddle wide-eyed children, and her regular resort to
off-stage profanity. She barely attempted to disguise her disdain for the expensive tastes of Diana, Princess of Wales, and is likely to feel the same away about the Duchess of Cambridge. Away from work, her idea of happiness is squelching on horseback through the muddy expanses of Gatcombe Park, her country estate in Gloucestershire.
Behind Gatcombe’s old stone walls lives a different and less well understood Anne. She was the first of the Queen’s children to be divorced. Her first husband, Capt Mark Phillips, was an army officer and, like Anne, a star of the international equestrian circuit. The couple were married in Westminster Abbey, a year after
Mark won a gold medal in the 1972 Munich Olympics.
It wasn’t a happy union. Nor, to be fair, did they make much pretence that it was. Horses couldn’t keep them together. Neither could the two children they had, Peter, now 38, and Zara, 35. When it finally ended in 1989 there was sense of public relief. One royal columnist wrote: “After living a life that made a mockery of the whole idea of marriage, they have decided to tell us what we knew anyway; that there is no love between them and their marriage has been a sham.”
What few people have understood about Anne – then or now – is that behind that faintly forbidding façade beats a passionate heart. As a young woman she had a number of intense relationships, and fell desperately in love with Andrew Parker-Bowles, a handsome Guards officer, who later married Camilla Shand, now the Duchess of Cornwall – and Anne’s sisterin-law!
Andrew, who was fresh back with his regiment, having served as aide-de-camp to the Governor General in New Zealand, was described by one of his many society conquests at the time as “the finest lover in London”. He was also a Roman Catholic, which made marriage to the Queen’s daughter impossible. His affair with Anne was largely clandestine, and although it eventually petered out – ending definitively when he married Camilla – many believe Anne has never quite got over him. Intriguingly, the two remain close, and Andrew, now 76, is a regular visitor to Gatcombe.
Just eight months after her divorce from Mark, Anne quietly married royal equerry Tim Laurence, a Royal Navy lieutenant from a modest background, who almost no one beyond court circles had ever heard of. “Who is he?” people asked, and to some extent the question has never been answered.
Tim, now a 61-year-old vice admiral, who has retired from the Navy, has perhaps the lowest public profile of anyone in the senior royal order. He is rarely photographed, never gives interviews, performs no official duties and appears to spend a lot of time away from his wife. Royal
Intriguingly, Andrew is a regular visitor to Gatcombe.”
biographer Brian Hoey claims that the pair have grown weary of each other, and believes there are tensions between the admiral and his stepchildren (he and Anne have no children of their own), but the pair seem outwardly relaxed in each other’s company, and share regular holidays on board their 44-foot sailing boat, Ballochbuie.
Anne never speaks of such matters: “The attitude to people’s (private) lives is quite extraordinary,” she said in a TV interview, during which she made plain her misgivings about the royal family’s new tendency to make itself more accessible. “I don’t think that’s a good way to go,” she huffed, “and it can cause quite a lot of problems along the line.”
“As she has grown older,” says
Hoey, “she has become a little easier to talk to, but she can still be very prickly. The curtain will descend with chilling finality. You don’t get close to her. There are very few people she trusts. After two marriages and one divorce, and having seen the marriages of two siblings break up in spectacular fashion, she pulls the cloak of royalty more tightly around her.”
Fellow royal biographer Penny Junor, who was at boarding school with Anne, calls her “the rudest woman I’ve ever met”. Yet even these critics acknowledge her stamina and dedication to the cause, and salute her refusal to play the royal game by other people’s rules.
There is further redemption for Anne in the obvious relish with which she has embraced the role of grandmother. Peter and his Canadian wife, Autumn, have two daughters, Savannah, five, and Isla, four, while Zara, married to former England rugby captain, Mike Tindall, has two-year-old Mia and recently announced her second pregnancy. Apart from Anne herself, who became Princess Royal in 1987, none of the “Gatcombe Gang” has a title.
Anne’s relationship with Zara was strained for several years – when the headstrong blonde went through a rebellious phase – and it was widely rumoured that she disapproved of Tindall, a hulking Yorkshireman who was dropped from the England team and fined a record $50,000 for drunken misbehaviour during the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.
Now all appears to be sweetness and light, with the Tindalls installed in a seven-bedroomed farmhouse on the Gatcombe estate, and Peter and Autumn having their own weekend cottage nearby. By all accounts, Anne is a wildly hands-on grandmother, who encourages the children to “get muddy”, in the words of one aide, and cooks for both families. “Gatcombe,” says one regular visitor, “is like a strange, posh commune, with horses a part of the family.”
In a TV documentary to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday earlier this year, Anne spoke with unusual poignancy about how the changes in her once-strained relationship with the monarch echoed those she had experienced after Zara became a mother. “You can become much closer,” she said, “as for the first time you realise what other mothers have been doing.”
There is no doubt that Anne and the Queen are now exceptionally close, with both women perhaps realising the things that once kept them apart – independence, strong mindedness, a reluctance to compromise – are also what they have in common. The Queen, who was aghast at Anne’s refusal to let her children have royal titles, now understands that her daughter’s stand was a landmark in the evolution of the monarchy, and admires her all the more for it.
The admiration is spreading. Anne will never be everyone’s favourite royal auntie, never be the one who draws the big crowds or graces the gossip columns, but in the mature stage of her royal career, there is a recognition – inside and outside court – that the monarchy would have been far worse off without her.
She is easier to talk to but can still be very prickly.
FAR LEFT: Princess Anne and her first husband Mark Phillips share a laugh (and matching jackets) in happier times. TOP: The Princess Royal and second husband Tim Laurence in naval uniform at a 2005 commemorative service to mark the 200th anniversary of The Battle Of Trafalgar. LEFT: Former love Andrew Parker Bowles with Anne and Tim Laurence at the races in March 2016.
Anne defiantly eschews the glamour look in her private life.