Princess Anne: One does not hug. One does one's duty

She can't be doing with all that People's Princessing. She aims to serve, but not to please

Sholto Byrnes
Sunday 08 July 2001 00:00
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When the Queen was giving birth to Princess Anne, hundreds waited outside Clarence House to hear the news. At a time when deference held sway, some were there for days. Some 50 years later and in a more egalitarian age, the Princess Royal is the most successful of the Queen's children – certainly the most admired, if not the best liked. Only last week she was invested into the Order of the Thistle in recognition not of her famed prickliness but of her charity work, in St Giles's Cathedral, Edinburgh. But the occasion was marred by rumours that her marriage to Commodore Tim Laurence is in trouble. Could the hard-working, aloof Princess be the first royal to be divorced twice, they hint.

Such speculation remains ill-informed. For less is known, and written, about this former Olympic horsewoman and tireless charity worker than almost any other member of the Royal Family. Not for Princess Anne the nightclub frivolities beloved of Prince Andrew, or the Earl of Wessex's cringe-making commercial ventures. President or patron of 222 organisations, she attends about 500 functions a year, most famously as president of Save the Children Fund. But she is no Diana, dispensing hugs and empathy. When she visited children with cerebral palsy in Tashkent a journalist described her observing "these children with their twisted limbs and bright, brave little faces as though they were rows of pork pies in a processing plant". In her defence, she has declared "one does not have to like children to want to give them a decent start".

But in a day when charitable gestures are worn like stigmata by every blubbing D-list celebrity who performs for half-a-minute on Comic Relief, Princess Anne's comments seem anachronistic. Her glacial reserve may be typical of an upper-class woman of her generation, but it raises suspicions about her motives. Does she actually believe in any of these charities? "It's not a matter of whether she believes in these things or not. That doesn't even arise," says one who has worked with her. "She simply regards this as her role in life and that's what she has to do. It is her duty."

In this, as in so many other ways, she resembles her father. The Duke of Edinburgh's public life has been ruled by the duties of being a royal consort. It is only in private that he becomes the head of the family. Anne observes a similar division between the public and the personal. She does all that she thinks is required of her, and doesn't care if this displeases anyone else. "Take her or leave her" is a phrase on the lips of many that know her. "She works harder than the rest of them," says royal author Theo Aronson, "but she's not prepared to put on a show. Both Prince Philip and the Queen admire her tremendously for what she does." For Anne, that is approval enough.

The boundaries between the public and the private have caused Anne problems in the past, inevitably when her marriage to Captain Mark Phillips broke up. With Commodore Laurence, the problems are of a different kind. "Once you've been an equerry it's difficult to get out of the mould," says Aronson. When the Queen visited the couple at their Dolphin Square flat in the early days, Laurence mixed martinis while mother and daughter chatted – just as he had when he was a mere courtier. Aronson thinks this typified the relationship. "I suspect he was an equerry in public, at home, and in the bedroom." In private she is said to be warm, funny, even sexy. "She's much better-looking in person than in photographs," says one who has basked in the charm she is capable of exerting. "She has a clear complexion and a toned figure. She knows how to flirt." Friends speak of her loyalty, but even those who have known her for years are expected to call her "Your Royal Highness" or "Ma'am". As a guest, she can be as demanding as her aunt, Princess Margaret. While visiting one house she not only sent ahead a list of what she did and didn't like to eat, but also suitable subjects of conversation, which on this occasion did not include horses.

Royal biographer Penny Junor, her contemporary at Benenden school in Kent, says she is only too aware of her position. Junor describes how at a lunch to celebrate the school's 75th anniversary Princess Anne put on a pair of gloves before she would shake the hands of those honoured that day. "She is one of the rudest people I have ever come across," says Junor, who thinks the incident when she greeted a gift of flowers from a pensioner with the words "what a ridiculous thing to do" showed her true character. "Because she is the Princess Royal she can behave as she likes and no one can answer back."

Princess Anne did, however, get a dose of her own medicine days after she upset the pensioner when a five-year-old refused to hand over a bunch of flowers, saying: "I don't want to give it to her. She's horrible." Her imperious ways are not always tolerated by friends, either. The story is told that at one dinner she dominated the neighbour on her left with a discussion on matters equine, ignoring the man placed on her right. When coffee was served, she was obliged to ask the guest on her right for the sugar. He proffered her a lump on the palm of his hand, as one would to a horse.

This side to her character has long been known, not least from when she told photographers to "naff off" at the height of her horse-riding days. But like Prince Philip, many of whose comments would not disgrace the mouth of a London taxi driver, her bluntness and frugality have a no-nonsense appeal. At school she was the only child to have any of her £2 pocket money left at the end of term, and in 1994 appeared at a ceremony in a dress first seen in 1979. The holder of a heavy goods vehicle licence, she was once voted one of the people with whom lorry drivers would most like to share a journey.

She has won plaudits for raising two well-adjusted children, who bear no titles and are making their own way in the world. Zara Phillips's tongue stud (if not the Ann Summers party she held at Gatcombe Park, her mother's country residence) will have struck a chord with many a parent struggling to cope with wilful teenagers.

What does the future hold for the Princess Royal? For this stoic product of her background, the only one of her siblings not to have disappointed her bluff father, and whose motto is "you just get on with it", it's probably more of the same. She has found a niche that will never gain her the public affection accorded Diana, Princess of Wales, or the Queen Mother. Crucially, however, she has earned respect. She may be part of a family whose relevance to the nation diminishes every year, as well as being out of touch with today's informal, confessional spirit. But she has stood by her watchword – duty – and is admired for standing firmly for so old-fashioned and underrated a virtue.

Against her gaffe-prone father and confused brothers she emerges as the most impressive member of her family after her mother. The Windsors are not helped by rumours of marriage troubles, or indeed by a recent story that a school spent hundreds of pounds installing a loo with gold taps so that Princess Anne could have a royal tinkle in appropriate style. They expect to be judged by different standards from ordinary mortals, a situation that may not be tolerated indefinitely by their no-longer-cowering subjects. But if the Royal Family is ever abolished it will not be because of the Princess Royal. She has done her duty.

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