Sister King: How Princess Anne Became Her Brother's Closest Confidante

princess anne
Sister King: Princess AnneAnwar Hussein


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On the day the Duke of Sussex, now a resident of Santa Barbara, revealed the cover of his memoir last October, another royal “spare” was in Uganda, meeting families at a settlement for refugees fleeing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the following day’s newspapers, there was no mention of Princess Anne visiting the camp with Save the Children, the charity she has championed for more than half a century. But, had anybody noticed it, the juxtaposition of “spares”—that perennially fraught role in any dynasty—was illuminating.

In her youth Anne, who was once third in line to the throne, resented intense media interest in her private life. She too had a reputation for being prickly. She endured trauma, not least an armed kidnapping attempt in 1974. And she lacked the clearly defined destiny of her older brother. Yet somehow Anne sailed through it all, applying a stoicism and work ethic that have been as unshakable as her signature bouffant. Owing to the archaic laws of primogeniture, Anne, who is now 72, has tumbled to 16th in line to the throne. But such a lowly rank obscures her contribution, her popularity—and a likely new prominence. “There are plenty in palace circles who believe she is the best king we will never have,” Tina Brown writes in her book The Palace Papers.

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Princess Anne at Queen ElizabethJoe Maher - Getty Images

Dressed in military uniform for the queen’s funeral, only weeks before her Uganda trip, Princess Anne was the only woman to join the solemn march behind the coffin for the procession to Westminster Abbey. At one point, as Charles’s eyes glistened and his jaw clenched shut, a composed Anne turned to look at him with a silent message of support.

“It probably brought her to a worldwide audience that hadn’t really noticed her much before,” Phil Dampier, a veteran royal correspondent, says of the funeral. “And I’m sure that Charles will be relying on her a lot in the coming years, and that she will play a much greater role.”

Humility has become perhaps Anne’s greatest asset. “That was Harry and Meghan’s downfall: There was too much ego,” says Valentine Low, the royal correspondent for the Times of London and author of the new book Courtiers: Intrigue, Ambition, and the Power Players Behind the House of Windsor. “Anne has no ego. She recognizes that this is the job, and you just get on with it.”

Princess Anne was born in the summer of 1950. She was not yet three when she was told to wave to the crowds at her mother’s coronation. It was the first engagement in a life of duty from which there could be no escape. “The idea of opting out is a nonstarter,” she would later say.

Like much of her character, Anne’s equanimity is thought to have been inherited from Prince Philip, who perhaps also passed down lessons in serving in the shadows. “She is very much her father’s daughter—in a way that Charles could never be his father’s son,” writes Ingrid Seward, a veteran royal biographer, in her book Royal Children.

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Queen Elizabeth with Princess Anne and then-Prince Charles in 1952.Lisa Sheridan - Getty Images

Anne and Charles, who were born less than two years apart, would later form a close bond that is said to have deepened following the loss of their parents. Yet, in the early years, paternal favoritism perhaps encouraged Anne’s refusal to bow to the heir. She “would take command of things” as a little girl, Seward was told by Eileen Parker, a close family friend. “If she saw a toy she wanted, she would grab it. She also grabbed everything that Charles wanted.”

During a childhood in London, Windsor, and Balmoral, Anne learned to ride and sail more proficiently than her more delicate brother. She was smarter and more confident in the classroom, under a governess until she was 13 and then at Benenden, a girls boarding school near London. (She declined the chance to go to university.)

Long before the press agreed to leave royal children alone at school, the spotlight on Anne was fierce. As a young woman she was known for her glamour and fashion sense. She didn’t look out of place when she appeared on the cover of Vogue at age 21. According to Brian Hoey, who wrote an authorized biography of Anne, she would be escorted to London nightclubs by eligible young aristocrats, and she once climbed onstage to dance with the cast after a performance of the musical Hair.

Much of the interest surrounded potential suitors. Anne was just 14 when Prince Carl Gustav of Sweden emerged as a front-runner, at least in the imaginations of newspaper editors. Among her early paramours was Andrew Parker Bowles, who would later marry Camilla Shand, now Queen Consort. But away from the fevered speculation, Anne was becoming close to Mark Phillips, an army officer and champion equestrian she had been introduced to by the Queen Mother at a party after the 1968 Olympics.

It wasn’t until 1973, after months of speculation—and angry denials by the princess—that the couple were engaged. The Firm was reportedly lukewarm about her pick. Charles is said to have nicknamed Phillips “Fog” because he considered him wet and thick. Regardless, the wedding was the first blockbuster royal broadcast of the color television era, eight years before Charles and Diana’s nuptials.

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Captain Mark Phillips and Princess Anne on their wedding day, 1973.Evening Standard - Getty Images

The 23-year-old bride had discovered the two things that would give her adult life structure: horses and charities (and, where possible, horse charities). She was 19 when she became president of Save the Children, the most prominent in a list of patronages that has grown to include more than 300 organizations.

The princess might have kept engagements to a respectable minimum while leading a life of privilege at Gatcombe Park, the Gloucestershire estate the queen bought for her in 1976, and where she still lives. Both women had other ideas. “As I understand it, the queen had asked the chairman of Save the Children to provide a role for her that would get her involved,” says Mark Bowden, who joined the charity in 1979.

Bowden, who traveled with Anne more than a dozen times, remembers that in the early 1980s the princess ignored government warnings against visiting Somalia. “I think her private secretary was more concerned that she would have to use the pit latrine in the team house in Borama,” Bowden says. He describes a well-read princess without airs, someone who was happy rattling along dirt roads in hot Land Rovers and even cooking breakfast. “She’s got an extremely good recipe for scrambled eggs that I still use,” Bowden says. “Basically, it involves lots of butter.”

While keen to muck in, the Princess Royal, as she has been styled since 1987, became notorious for displaying a glacial reserve in the face of suffering. During a 1993 trip to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, she visited an austere hospital for children with cerebral palsy. Penny Junor, a contemporary of Anne’s at Benenden and later a royal correspondent and biographer, remembers Anne pointing at children “as if they were exhibits on a trestle table at a Women’s Institute fete. She seemed quite unmoved by the sight of their twisted limbs, bright, brave little faces, and liquid brown eyes. She didn’t reach out to one of them. She didn’t smile. She didn’t even make eye contact.”

the visit of princess anne in uzbekistan on july 17, 1993
Princess Anne on a visit to Uzbekistan in 1993.Chip HIRES - Getty Images

With her granite-stiff upper lip, Anne began to suffer in comparison to Princess Diana, who, in the same week as the Uzbekistan trip, was being photographed in Africa spoon feeding gruel to children and hugging emaciated babies. Yet, as Junor herself points out in her book The Firm, Anne’s focus on details rather than niceties and photo opportunities has made her indispensable to hundreds of causes. “What journalists wanted her to do was just hold a baby and burst into tears, but she said, quite rightly, ‘That’s not me,’” Bowden says. “What she did do was get us access to heads of state. In Uganda she challenged President Museveni on child soldiers, and she was very forthright. In Somalia she challenged the president on female genital mutilation. In terms of high-level advocacy, that was very important.”

Anne had a reputation for brusqueness at home, famously telling photographers to “naff off,” among other turns of phrase. “She is one of the rudest people I have ever come across,” Junor said in 2001. Yet her froideur served her well in 1974, when a man pulled up in front of her and her husband’s Rolls-Royce and ordered her to get out. “Not bloody likely,” she is rumored to have said. The incident has become an almost humorous footnote, thanks in part to Anne’s coolness in recounting it, but it must have been terrifying. The would-be kidnapper, who carried two guns and a ransom note demanding $2.5 million from the queen, tried to drag the 23-year-old princess out of the car. Phillips won a royal tug of war, but four men were shot in the melee.

Anne was brave on a horse, too, excelling on the dangerous eventing circuits of English country homes (which includes Gatcombe), as well as at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. “If it doesn’t fart or eat hay, she isn’t interested,” Prince Philip is said to have joked about his daughter’s mania. Yet such exploits did little to distract the media from Anne’s private life, including a rumored affair with her bodyguard, Peter Cross, who sold his story in 1985. (Buckingham Palace did not comment.)

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The Princess Royal at the Gatcombe Horse Trials, 2007.Max Mumby/Indigo - Getty Images

In 1989 Anne and Phillips announced their separation. By then the princess had become close to Timothy Laurence, a naval commander and equerry to the queen. She divorced Phillips and quietly married Laurence in 1992, the queen’s “annus horribilis.” Yet such was the scandal roiling the rest of the Firm that Anne began to enjoy a lower profile. Notwithstanding a criminal conviction in 2002—unprecedented for a royal—after her English bull terrier Dotty bit two children in Windsor Great Park, she earned growing public respect, bordering on affection, for her modesty, dry wit, and industry, often taking on hundreds of engagements a year.

Anne still dips into her 1980s wardrobe and has barely changed her hairstyle. She was stunned to hear that it had taken hours to create the royal bouffant in the early seasons of The Crown, which the princess has admitted to occasionally watching. “How could you possibly take that long?” she said of her updo, which is played by a wig in the latest season. “I mean, it takes me 10 or 15 minutes.”

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The Princess with her children, Peter and Zara, in 1985.Tim Graham - Getty Images

When Peter and Zara were born, in 1977 and 1981 respectively, Anne spared her children royal titles. “I think most people would argue that there are downsides to having titles,” she said in an interview in 2020. In 2012 it was expected that the whole royal family would assemble in their finery on the Buckingham Palace balcony for a climactic fly-by during the queen’s jubilee celebrations. But, in his first symbolic move toward a “slimmed-down” monarchy, Charles persuaded the queen to exclude her three younger children. Princes Andrew and Edward were apparently dismayed. “It was ‘like a dagger to his heart,’” a source told Valentine Low of Andrew. “Princess Anne, on the other hand, ‘couldn’t give a stuff.’”

More recently the crises engulfing princes Andrew and Harry have only served to highlight Anne’s dignified style, as well as her discretion—traits perhaps inherited from her mother, to whom she is said to have become increasingly close. “She’s the complete opposite to Harry,” Dampier says. “He’s all gong and no dinner and obsessed with the press, whereas she doesn’t give a damn and just gets on with it.”

In 2020 the princess reflected on the attitudes of the junior royals. “I don’t think this younger generation probably understands what I was doing in the past, and it’s often true, isn’t it?” she told Vanity Fair. “You don’t necessarily look at the previous generation and say, ‘Oh, you did that?’ Or, ‘You went there?’ Nowadays they’re much more looking for, ‘Oh let’s do it a new way.’ ” She added, “Please do not reinvent that particular wheel… You may need to go back to basics.”

Last November King Charles initiated a tweak to the law that would widen the pool of royals who can act as deputies for him. Heretofore the “counsellors of state” have automatically been the monarch’s spouse plus the four royals next in line. But that would include princes Andrew and Harry, who are no longer on the job, so Princess Anne and Prince Edward are being promoted. “I think she ought to be given as much power as Charles can give, but I don’t think it will change her fundamental style,” Dampier says of Anne.

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Princess Anne on a royal engagement in 2021.WPA Pool - Getty Images

There is no question she has popular support. Polling carried out during the period of succession placed Anne fourth in the royal popularity stakes, behind only the late queen and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge—and some way ahead of the king.

Regardless of her official role, one other thing is clear: Princess Anne is already doing the work. In 2020 she took part in a TV documentary to mark her 70th birthday. Zara Tindall, her daughter, who has supplied three of Anne’s five grandchildren, spoke about her mother’s inability to sit still. Asked if anyone ever tries to get the princess to slow down, Tindall, 41, said, “I mean, good luck. We would try and, you know, it would be a very short conversation.”

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Town & Country Magazine

This story appears in the February 2023 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW

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