Mrs Timothy Laurence is the Queen’s second child and only daughter. The equine features of HRH the Princess Royal stand out cruelly in a family which produced people as attractive as Princess Margaret and Prince William.
She has never courted the media. Whatever pain she felt because of her first husband’s infidelity, she kept to herself. In the 1970s she famously told a bunch of photographers to “naff off”, though in retrospect it seems much more likely that the word she used began with an f rather than ending with two of them.
The Princess Royal is the only member of the Royal Family in recent times to have achieved national standing for reasons other than her birth. In 1971 she one the individual European Three Day Event, and in 1976 she represented Britain in the Three Day Event at the Montreal Olympics.
You have the feeling that she leads exactly the life she would have led if she had not been royal. She lives on a working farm, admittedly one with a large house and good views. She does practical things for practical charities. She is simply at one end of a scale which has along it all the countless women who deliver meals on wheels, rattle tins for the Red Cross and staff the WRVS shops in hospitals.
Her visits to third world countries are unphotogenic and unphotographed. This quiet pragmatism makes her seem ruthlessly unsentimental:
“The very idea that all children want to be cuddled by a complete stranger I find utterly amazing”.
She does have a point. She may not respond physically or with gushing emotion, but she is fully engaged intellectually with the charities she supports. She has been President of Save the Children since 1970, and Mike Aaronson the charity’s Director General describes her contribution like this:
“In her readiness to think laterally and to question conventional wisdom – often through vigorous debate – she has always displayed great courage and intellectual integrity.”
Integrity is a good word to describe the Princess Royal. She is the most egalitarian of the Royals. Her husbands and children have not been granted titles. Her children are 10th and 11th in succession to the throne; they are Mr Peter Phillips and Miss Zara Phillips, and their commoners’ names stand out sharply among those of their cousins who are princes and princesses.
She is modest, but she is also frequently the most hard-working of the Royals. League tables are suprisingly hard to find, but the 2001 table of royal engagements published in the Guardian shows her public engagements outstripping those of Prince Charles 5 to 4, and those of her mother by almost 5 to 3.
The Princess Royal has passed on on this hard-working and practical modesty to her children. Zara is pretty and blonde but she also wins European Three Day Eventing Championships. Peter works for the Royal Bank of Scotland managing their relationship with the Williams Formula One team. The Princess Royal herself was ridiculed for saying that if she had not been a royal she would have liked to have been an HGV driver, but in fact she has an HGV licence and uses it to drive horse-boxes around the country.
Perhaps the story which sums the Princess Royal up the best is the one that Jackie Stewart used to tell about meeting her at one of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year functions in the early 1970s when he was winning Formula One races and she was winning Three Day Events. He was expecting a la-di-da aristo who’d had everything given her on a plate. Then he shook her hand. It was the hand of someone used to manual work.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the one royal who’d survive a revolution, the one who would have preferred to be a commoner, the hard-working one: I give you HRH the Princess Royal.