Princess Anne Thinks the Younger Royals Have a Lot to Learn. Is She Right?
She disapproves of the young royals’ new ways of doing things. But, as Harry and Meghan deliver food in L.A., is Anne right that royals should reject modernity?
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Princess Anne, Queen Elizabeth’s daughter, has never been noted for her subtlety or tact, and neither were on display in an interview with Vanity Fair, published this week, in which she launched one of her famous verbal broadsides at the young royals.
Their crime? Having the temerity to seek to do things differently.
In the interview, she described herself as “the boring old fuddy-duddy at the back” who spends their time admonishing the young, advising them: “Don’t forget the basics.”
Anne added: “I don’t think this younger generation probably understands what I was doing in the past… 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.’”
Anne’s advice to the young royals is, predictably enough, that they should forget such pretensions: “Please do not reinvent that particular wheel. We’ve been there, done that. Some of these things don’t work. You may need to go back to basics.”
Although the princess did not detail which younger members of the family she had in mind, the remarks have been widely interpreted as thinly veiled criticism of the personality-driven style of both the Cambridges and the Sussexes (although, now Harry and Meghan have officially departed royal life, they might argue that Anne could, in her own immortal words, “naff off.”)
The timing was unintentionally masterful. On Thursday, it emerged that Harry and Meghan have twice donned masks and delivered food to chronically ill people quarantined in Los Angeles as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Was this irrelevant virtue-signaling or a simple expression of human concern?
It’s not hard to imagine what Anne’s response to that question would be, because her VF interview was not the first time she has had a pop at the young royals for their more touchy-feely way of carrying out their royal duties. In a documentary in September she said, on camera, that she never shakes hands when meeting the public, a habit she learned from her parents (she gets along rather well with her dad, even though he once said of her, “If it doesn't fart or eat hay, she isn’t interested.”)
“The theory was that you couldn’t shake hands with everybody, so don’t start,” she said, “I kind of stick with that, but I noticed others don’t. It’s become a shaking-hands exercise rather than a walkabout.”
It is a decidedly curious moment for Princess Anne to attack other members of the family. With the coronavirus pandemic killing thousands and decimating jobs and economies around the globe, one has to wonder if this was the right moment to chastise the young for attempting to modernize the monarchy and make it more relevant.
Like many institutions, the monarchy was initially caught on the back foot by the disease, but its response has subsequently been rather impressive—and a winning blend of the old and the new.
From William and Kate’s Instagram of their kids applauding the NHS, to the Queen promising us “we’ll meet again” in an emotional televised speech, to Charles’ selfie-style video from his library in Scotland in which he praised shelf-stackers as an “emergency service,” the royal family have rarely been more publicly and authentically in touch with their emotions—and have hit the right notes with the public.
If anything, thus far, it has been an impressively inter-generational effort, showing the strengths and qualities of all family members.
Anne’s criticism of the young royals comes as little surprise to the writer Penny Junor, who was at school with the future Princess Royal.
She recalled to The Daily Beast an incident when, as a journalist, she joined a royal tour by Anne being undertaken in Uzbekistan.
Junor recalled that one of the engagements was to visit a hospital treating very young children with cerebral palsy.
“She was being shown around the ward by a doctor in a white coat and they stopped at one of the beds with a child in it and she literally pulled her hand from behind her back, pointed at the child and said, ‘So, what’s the situation with this one?’”
Junor says she was, initially, “pretty appalled”: “I thought to myself, ‘How could you not want to touch the child, smile at the child or do something to just acknowledge the child.’”
Over time, however, Junor came to reconsider her initial judgement: “Anne, I think, felt the most useful thing she could do in that situation was not to offer her sympathy, but to understand from the doctor, who worked with the children, what exactly the problems were, so that she could tell other people who might help to fix it. She couldn’t have cared less about a lovely photo appearing in the British press.”
As one might expect, Anne never got on well with Princess Diana.
Diana’s friend, the journalist Richard Kay once said, “I remember Diana saying, ‘If Anne's there I’m off,’ because Anne would usually say something rather cutting to her.”
Anne’s froideur to Diana was born of her mistrust of the layering of ephemeral celebrity on the timelessness of royalty.
“She didn’t like the way she went about her duty and the way she used the cameras and the media to promote herself in her eyes,” commented Kay.
The author of the New York Times bestselling book Diana’s Boys, Christopher Andersen, says that while Anne may be having a moment because of her sympathetic depiction in the Netflix series The Crown, that “flies in the face of the reputation she has built for herself over a half-century in the public eye—that of a dyspeptic, decidedly uptight, unrepentant snob.”
While Andersen concedes that the staff at Buckingham Palace are “quite fond” of Anne and praise her “for being very down-to-earth” he argues that “it hardly matters when the public image you project is so rigid and, frankly, so terribly off-putting.”
Anne, he said, works hard, “But then so do washing machines. It doesn’t matter how many tree plantings or hospital walkabouts you do each year if you're basically just going through the motions. That’s why, along with other senior royals, she was so dismissive of Diana, and deeply resented her ability to connect with people as a fellow human being.
“Anne jokingly describes herself as an ‘old fuddy-duddy’ who is ‘quite mean’—hardly endearing qualities, but to a great extent they defined the image of the monarchy pre-Diana,” Andersen noted.
While Anne’s critics see an increasingly out-of-touch dinosaur, her fans argue that she is simply rejecting the temptation to see royal life as a popularity contest and never shirks her duty.
“Anne’s pretty unconcerned about what people do or don’t think of her,” said one neighbor. “I remember arriving at a horse show once and she was doing the parking. You can’t imagine Meghan or Kate doing that.”
While Anne is undoubtedly correct in her belief that the young royals are much more touchy-feely than the previous generation, Robert Lacey, the Daily Beast contributor and royal historian who acts as historical consultant for The Crown, says it would be wrong to accuse them of not pulling their weight.
“The new generation actually work much harder than the old-time royals, with the exception of the princess, who has always been a rule unto herself, and has very much helped set the modern, professional hard-working style,” Lacey said. “Old-time royals had languid equerries who liked the quiet life. Modern royals have young professional staff with lots of charitable contacts and consider it their duty to keep their bosses busy.”
But, as the COVID-19 crisis has shown, the choice may not be between old and new, young and old; what the latest crisis has so far shown is how well all the generations of the royal family can work together. Maybe that will have surprised Princess Anne most of all.