Princess Anne’s public image in 2020 comprises many of the tensions and contradictions that have defined the monarchy’s complex evolution over the past 100 years. Today she projects an image of a workaholic who is perhaps more committed than any other member of the House of Windsor to public duty. And yet it would seem she is simultaneously a happy wife, mother, and grandmother, who finds solace and joy in the ordinary pleasures of home life.
But who is the real Anne and how does she reconcile her different roles? How has her image changed over the past 70 years? And what is her significance to a royal family undergoing a dramatic transformation, not only after the fallout of ‘Megxit’, but also in readiness for the eventual succession of a new king?
Princess Anne: a biography
Born: 15 August 1950, Clarence House, London
Married to: Admiral Timothy Lawrence (m. 1992–present); Captain Mark Phillips (m. 1973–92)
Children: Peter Mark Phillips (born 1977) and Zara Tindall, née Phillips (born 1981)
Grandchildren: Savannah Phillips (born 2010), Isla Phillips (born 2012), Mia Tindall (born 2014) and Lena Tindall (born 2018)
Princess Anne’s early life
When Anne Elizabeth Alice Louise was born at Clarence House in central London on 15 August 1950, the royal family was once again experimenting with its self-presentation. Against a backdrop of rising divorce rates and public concerns about the figure of the ‘single mother’ in British society, the royal family tried with renewed vigour to set a good (Christian) example to the rest of the nation.
Anne completed the image of the idyllic nuclear family group and was cast in the role of energetic and fun-loving playmate to her quieter and shyer brother, Charles, two years her senior. The royal children were also integral to public perceptions of their mother, Queen Elizabeth, who projected a loving maternal image, particularly after she became queen in February 1952.
As she grew up, Anne’s enthusiasm to go to school, rather than be educated at home, worked with the grain of a royal public relations strategy which has, since the 1920s, aimed to convince media audiences (with some success) that the royal family are ‘just like us’. Aged 13, she took up a place at Benenden, an independent girls’ school near Cranbrook in Kent. Notwithstanding the lurking paparazzi at the school gates, those who knew her then have suggested she enjoyed a relatively normal education. Despite her high station, Anne was not accorded additional privileges but instead treated the same as her classmates. She even had to sit exams, leaving school with six O-levels and two A-levels.
Much was made of Anne’s ‘normal’ adolescence. For example, she was the first royal to wear a miniskirt, aping the style of many other young women of her generation. However, behind the façade of ‘royal ordinariness’, the princess was anything but ‘normal’. Her competitive and determined spirit found its main outlet in that most elite of sports, equestrianism. A keen horsewoman who had ridden since childhood, Anne would go on to excel in this field, winning gold aged 21 for the British team at the 1971 European Eventing Championships aboard ‘Doublet’, a horse given to her by her mother. And, having won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award in 1971, Anne competed at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games – a feat bested by her daughter, Zara, who won silver for her performance at the London Olympics in 2012. Indeed, Zara received her medal from her mother, who is now president of the British Olympic Association.
Today, Anne is perhaps best known for her commitment to her public work. Her great grandfather George V, who pioneered a new kind of royal PR based on active engagement with the ‘common people’ and royal patronage of charities and organisations, would be proud.
The princess’s activities have for many years ranged far and wide. She accompanied her mother and father on a royal tour of Australia in 1970 and helped to forge a more intimate relationship with the public there by personally greeting the waiting crowds. This experiment became known as the ‘walkabout’ and it has been successfully repeated by Anne (and other members of her family) on many royal tours since.
A year before this, in 1969, the princess was made colonel-in-chief of the King’s Royal Hussars and is, in 2020, the regiment’s longest-serving member. She continues to be involved in more than 60 military organisations and was recently promoted to the ranks of general and air chief marshal by the army and RAF, in celebration of her 70th birthday in August 2020. She is affiliated with 300 charities, including Save the Children.
She first became involved with the organisation as its president back in 1970 and in 1990 was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the Zambian leader Kenneth Kaunda for her philanthropic work overseas.
Back in the UK, Anne is also chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, playing a symbolic role in linking the union, as is also the case when she is seen supporting the Scottish national team from the side-lines of the rugby pitch.
It is this sense of responsibility that led Elizabeth II to give her daughter the title of ‘Princess Royal’ in 1987 in recognition of her service.
Marriages, the public eye, and an infamous kidnap attempt
It was through sport that Anne would encounter her first love interests. After a brief relationship with horseman Andrew Parker Bowles (who went on to marry Camilla Shand, the now Duchess of Cornwall), she would meet Captain Mark Phillips, a British army officer and another Olympic star. As with all of the big Windsor weddings that were staged in London in the 20th century, their marriage in 1973 was presented by the media as a love story around which the nation gathered in emotional communion. The wedding day on 14 November 1973 at Westminster Abbey was a sumptuous spectacle for the television age, and it would be the first royal marriage ceremony broadcast live in colour.
Four months into the marriage, the couple’s names made headlines again when they were attacked by a would-be kidnapper who had planned to ransom the princess. Anne and her husband had been returning to Buckingham Palace from a charity event on 20 March 1974 when their car was forced to stop on the Mall by gunman Ian Ball, who shot and injured the couple’s protection officer and chauffeur. Ball demanded that Anne get out of the car and leave with him, but she calmly refused, reportedly replying: “Not bloody likely!’”
When he tried to drag her from the vehicle she was pulled back in by her husband. Fortunately for the couple, a former boxer named Ronnie Russell was passing by and intervened, punching Ball to the floor. Ball was subsequently arrested and sent to a psychiatric hospital. Meanwhile, hero of the hour, Russell, was awarded the George Medal by a very grateful Queen Elizabeth II.
Recalling the event as part of a TV interview with Michael Parkinson several years later, the princess played down her role in deterring her armed attacker. In part, her nonchalance can be put down to a terse, no-nonsense manner that she has inherited from her father, Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. But it is also part of a cool personality that simply refuses to divulge too much publicly. The princess’s coyness, particularly when it comes to discussing her private life (or airing personal grievances), and her disdain for social media as a publicity channel, distinguish her from a younger generation of royals – most notably Harry and Meghan. Indeed, Anne has recently expressed her concern about the way the younger royals have sought to do things differently.
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True to form, the princess is today reluctant to publicly discuss the breakdown of her marriage to Mark Phillips. The couple had two children, Peter (born 1977), and younger sister Zara (born 1981), but the 19-year marriage was dissolved in 1992 and media revelations pointed to mutual infidelity. In this respect, Anne was the first of the queen’s children to divorce and, along with the monarch’s sister Princess Margaret, helped elevate a more realistic, less idealistic, model of family life that was in keeping with the changing social norms and realities of late 20th-century Britain. Indeed, it is the royal family’s domestic discord that members of the public have tended to identify with in recent decades, as much as it is the romance of the weddings and births.
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A happy ending?
That is not to say divorce signalled the end of Anne’s fairytale. In navy commander Timothy Lawrence, who she met in 1986 while he was serving as equerry [officer of the British household] to her mother, the princess found a second husband whose discretion and devotion to duty matched her own such qualities. Today, the couple live together at Gatcombe Park – an 18th-century country house on a 730-acre estate in Gloucestershire. According to a recent television documentary, this is Anne’s ‘haven’ away from public life where she likes to tend to her chickens and lambs on the farm and play with her granddaughters.
These personal pleasures are something the princess prefers to keep carefully hidden. Indeed, the aforementioned documentary instead emphatically highlighted her image as a royal workhorse who is ready to take on more duties. In the wake of ‘Megxit’, Anne has notably stood in for Harry as the ceremonial head of the Royal Marines.
Today, alongside her brother, the Prince of Wales, Anne is among the most active members of the royal family, undertaking more than 500 public engagements each year and regularly standing in for her mother at investitures and state events. Her example is regularly invoked by monarchists to fend off challenges that the Windsor family are poor value for money. And it is for this reason that, despite recently turning 70, Anne, like her mother before her, shows little sign of slowing down.
Dr Edward Owens is a historian of the modern British monarchy. He has published and broadcast widely on aspects of the monarchy in the 20th and 21st centuries. His latest book is The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and the British Public, 1932–53 (University of London Press, 2019)