When the royal family posted a picture on social media on 6 February of the Princess Royal watching the rugby, it was intended to show her support as patron of the Scottish Rugby Union. But within minutes, Twitter and Instagram were flooded with comments; not about the game, but about the decor of her Gatcombe Park living room. Filled to the brim with books, ornaments and pictures, the homely scene sparked scores of stories and even found itself caught up in a Bernie Sanders meme.
It’s highly possible that Princess Anne was unaware of the current trend for dissecting the background of Zoom calls before releasing the image. However, it’s probable that, even if she had known, there was no chance she was going to start running around shoving the clutter out of sight. “I think that really wouldn’t matter to Anne, what people thought of her, she wouldn’t give a damn,” Joe Little, managing editor of Majesty Magazine tells The Independent. “She’s down to earth in so many ways and very matter of fact.”
Indeed, Anne’s no-nonsense style, coupled with a touch of mischief and charm, has caught the public’s imagination as she has recently found herself enjoying something of a popularity renaissance. Her milestone 70th birthday in August 2020 saw decades of, often unsung, dedication to royal duty highlighted. A YouGov poll earlier this month found Anne was not only most liked royal following the youthful “Fab Four” (Harry, Meghan, William and Kate) and Her Majesty herself, but perhaps – more notably – had the joint lowest disapproval rating of any of the royals. And in the UK, a similar poll shows she is currently the fourth most popular royal.
It was actress Erin Doherty’s portrayal of the Princess Royal’s youth on the Netflix drama The Crown that has arguably led to a new generation becoming invested in the story of the Queen’s only daughter. From the character’s deadpan one-liners (“I hope that wasn’t too emotional for you all”) to her nonchalant approach to her status, so popular is Doherty’s representation that there have even been calls for a spinoff.
The real-life Anne has remained tight-lipped over her thoughts on the programme, only once saying she found the earlier episodes “quite interesting”. But the Princess has been far less sparing on her thoughts about growing up in the spotlight. “A 19-year-old suddenly being dropped in the middle of the street and being told to go and pick on someone and talk to them – fun? No, I don’t think so,” she told the BBC in 2002 about an early royal walkabout.
She doesn’t suffer fools gladly
She declared the 1969 BBC Royal Family fly-on-the-wall documentary a “rotten idea” and famously told photographers in the 1970s to “naff off” (one has since said the word naff was actually something ruder). In the 1980s, she recalled once hiding in a horse box to escape the media, saying “I’ve been a much better driver of horses ever since”. And she even donned a wig to pick up her first husband Mark Phillips from the airport unnoticed.
“For quite a long time she had a bad press. She was surly and wouldn’t play ball in the way the press thought she should”, remembers Little. In contrast, today anecdotes about Anne being blunt or mischievous are usually received with delight. “She doesn’t suffer fools gladly”, athlete Sebastian Coe told ITV in 2020, recounting how the Princess once described someone as “probably the most stupid person in world sport” without realising she was still wearing a microphone.
In the same documentary, a boarding school friend remembered Anne as “sensible and fun” and recalled how they would try to evade her assigned detective and break out to the fish and chip shop. Perhaps Anne’s most infamous comment is her retort of “not bloody likely!” about getting out of the car when when Ian Ball tried to kidnap her at gunpoint in 1974.
It is likely that Anne’s approach to life was shaped in part from knowing that, like other royal ‘spares‘ Princess Margaret and Prince Harry, she was never destined to be sovereign. Indeed, as the line of succession historically favoured male heirs, Anne was pushed down the pecking order by the birth of her two younger brothers.
Her children Peter and Zara were not entitled to HRH status because this is only automatically given to male-line grandchildren of the monarch. They could have been a Lord and Lady if their father Mark Phillips had accepted a peerage, but the supposition remains that this was offered and refused.
She is no-nonsense but you are still left in no doubt as to her status or position
“I’m very lucky that both my parents decided to not use the title and we grew up and did all the things that gave us the opportunity to do”, Zara told The Times in 2015. From Anne’s well-worn sofa to Zara’s choice of an NHS hospital to give birth, this branch of the royal family remains uniquely relatable.
Anne also stands out within the world of hereditary privilege due to the significant achievements she has earned as an equestrian competitor. “If it doesn’t fart and eat hay, she’s not interested”, Prince Philip famously once said. But Anne’s passion for horses saw her become the first royal to compete at the Olympic Games, in Montreal in 1976. “People expect me to neigh, grind my teeth, paw the ground and swish my tail,” she once quipped. That might not quite be the case, with Little noting that “she is no-nonsense but you are still left in no doubt as to her status or position”.
However, there is no doubt that Anne has ridden a heavy goods vehicle (yes, she has a license for one) through the old-fashioned stereotype of a meek and helpless princess. She is also the only senior royal to have been convicted of a criminal offence after she pled guilty to a charge under the Dangerous Dogs Act in 2002, when her terrier bit two children.
The Princess Royal has applied vigour and stamina to her royal duties, with a schedule of approximately 500 engagements annually (she has been dubbed the “hardest-working royal”). She is involved with more than 300 organisations and has been patron of Save the Children for 50 years. Like her elder brother, she shows no sign of slowing down. “I don’t think retirement is quite the same [for me],” she told Vanity Fair last year.
Many saw it as a sign of the high regard in which the Queen holds her daughter that she released an image with just the two of them for her 90th birthday. Publicly defending the Queen over accusations of being a distant mother, Anne told the BBC in 2002 that the suggestion “just beggars belief”.
Much like her mother, Anne’s style is timeless, although by her own admission she had never been particularly interested in fashion. “They’re part of the working side of my life more than anything else”, she said in 1985 about her clothes. In the same way, her bouffant hairstyle has been a staple for decades. “Actually I read an article the other day about The Crown, the actress was talking about how long it took them to do their hair like I did”, Anne told ITV in 2020. “And I’m thinking, ‘How could you possibly take that long?’ I mean it takes me 10 or 15 minutes.” Even when it comes to her hair, The Princess Royal takes no prisoners.
At a time when senior royals are under increasing scrutiny over how they manage their lives in the spotlight, Anne’s steady popularity is notable. Her combination of dedication to her work and no-nonsense commentary has ensured that although she does not enjoy as much of an adoring fandom as some of the younger royals, she is a consistent and respected presence in the upper ranks of The Firm.