World·Royal Fascinator

A no-fuss royal: Why Princess Anne's profile could be on the rise

Often described as one of the hardest-working royals, there is a sense that Princess Anne's profile is rising as King Charles shapes the monarchy going forward from the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth, in September.

King's sister to be added to list of those who can stand in for him for some official duties

A smiling person.
There is a sense that the profile of Princess Anne, often described as one of the hardest-working members of the Royal Family, is on the rise as King Charles shapes the monarchy going forward from the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth, in September. (Kirsty O'Connor/Getty Images)

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The rain was pouring down, but Princess Anne carried on, making a speech and waving off the offer of an umbrella to shield her from the elements.

Watching that unfold, as Anne visited Canadian Forces Base Borden north of Toronto during a private visit a few years ago, Col. Andrew Downes was struck by her fortitude.

"She stood there in the rain and gave her speech. And I thought, wow, that's pretty stoic and rather dedicated," Downes recalled in an interview this week.

Such sentiments are often attached to Anne, the 72-year-old younger sister of King Charles, who has long been known for her no-fuss, down-to-royal-business attitude.

Often described as one of — if not the — hardest-working royals, there is a sense her profile is rising as Charles shapes the monarchy going forward from the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth, in September.

Princess Anne greets representatives of the Opportunity Bank in Nakivale Refugee Settlement in Uganda on Oct. 26. (Opportunity International UK/Reuters)

Charles has long been thought to favour a slimmed-down core of working royals. Fate has also contributed to a shrinking roster of senior royals available for public duties, with Prince Harry stepping back from the upper echelons of the family and Prince Andrew out of the public picture after his reputation sank like a stone over his friendship with the late convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

Indeed, that whole scenario left something of a conundrum over just which senior royals might be available and allowed to stand in for Charles if needed for official duties.

That is being resolved right now, as legislation allowing Anne and her younger brother, Prince Edward, to be added to the list of those who can act as counsellors of state is working its way through the U.K. Parliament (more on that below).

"I think she will be someone who very much can represent the King, and I think people would be happy for her to come and visit because such is her status," Craig Prescott, a constitutional expert at Bangor University in Wales, said in an interview.

"I think the counsellor of state [situation] shows again as the Royal Family has become smaller, someone like Anne ends up with perhaps a little bit more to do and shows her status within the family."

Princess Anne has visited Canada more than 20 times. The first trip came in 1970, when she accompanied Charles and their parents, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, as they visited the Northwest Territories and Manitoba. One particularly high-profile visit came in 1976, when Anne competed for the British equestrian team at the Montreal Olympics.

Princess Anne mingles with the crowd on May 4, 1971, as she officially opened the new Pacific Rim National Park on Vancouver Island's west coast. (Bill Croke/The Canadian Press)

While some of Anne's visits have been official and involved more public events, many have been private and involved organizations or regiments for which she is patron or colonel-in-chief.

In that 2013 visit to Base Borden, she met Royal Canadian Medical Service (RCMS) personnel at the Canadian Forces Health Services Training Centre and presented the Princess Royal's banner in recognition of the service of RCMS members in Afghanistan over the previous 11 years.

Downes, now a retired major general, thought it was very "humble" of Anne to stay in the barracks during her time there. "I think she's a practical person, and I don't think she's pretentious," he said. 

Downes also recalled a reception held for her. 

"She went around and spoke to everybody there, and I just can't imagine how tiring that must have been," Downes said. "I came away ... with a lot of respect for her and her style."

Several peopel attend a flag-raising ceremony.
Princess Anne attends the British flag-raising ceremony held at the athletes village ahead of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver on Feb. 11, 2010. (Getty Images)

Fast forward to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, and Downes — by then the head of the RCMS, in addition to his role as surgeon general and commander of the Health Services Group — was hearing from Anne again.

"She contacted me actually just to see what was happening," Downes said. "At that time in the U.K., the British military were establishing field hospitals at various places in London and so on, and she was curious to know if we were doing something similar here."

Anne also sent a note on Buckingham Palace letterhead to the RCMS and members of the Canadian Health Services Group extending her gratitude for their "enduring commitment, professionalism and courage."

Downes sees such actions as a morale booster.

"I think oftentimes people do their job without much recognition or they don't stop to ... have somebody give words of encouragement and things like that," he said. 

Princess Anne watches as the coffin of her mother, Queen Elizabeth, is taken to a hearse as it departs St. Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh on Sept. 13. (Jacob King/The Associated Press)

While there is no indication when Anne may return to Canada, she has made several trips in the past couple of months, including visits to New York City, Uganda and the Falklands. There, she and her husband, Tim Laurence, marked the 40th anniversary of the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina over the south Atlantic islands.

That Falklands trip points to the possibility she will be taking on more higher-profile activities. 

"Perhaps that might have been something that another member of the Royal Family might have done," Prescott said. "Had things been different, it might have been appropriate for Prince Andrew to have done it," he added, noting that Andrew served in the British Royal Navy during the 1982 conflict. 

Whatever profile Anne does have going forward, there is little to suggest she will waver from her no-fuss approach.

"When you think about the monarchy and you think about stability and continuity, really on a day-to-day basis, it is people like Princess Anne who ... provide that," Prescott said.

WATCH | Princess Anne talks about the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in 2016: 

Princess Anne

7 years ago
Duration 16:07
Princess Anne speaks with the CBC's Chris O'Neill Yates on the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel

More stand-ins for the King

Four people walk in line in for a remembrance ceremony.
King Charles, centre front, Prince Edward, rear left, Prince William, centre, and Princess Anne, right, attend the Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the Cenotaph on Whitehall in central London on Nov. 13. (Isabel Infantes/Reuters)

The same day King Charles marked his 74th birthday, he let it be known just how he wanted to resolve the constitutional conundrum that had arisen around who might stand in for him if he's not available to carry out some official duties.

As things stand under U.K. law, the counsellors of state who are eligible to stand in for the monarch if he's ill or abroad are the monarch's spouse and the next four family members in the line of succession who are older than 21 (except for the heir, who has to be 18).

Prince Harry and Prince Andrew are on that list. But Harry stepped back from official duties and is living in California. Andrew also stepped back from public duties in the fallout after his disastrous interview over his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein.

Charles sent a message to the House of Lords on Nov. 14 asking that the pool of counsellors of state be expanded to include his sister, Princess Anne, and his brother, Prince Edward, both of whom held the role years ago, before they were bumped down in the line of succession.

"They're trying to do this in the simplest way possible, in a way that causes as little controversy as possible," Prescott said.

Discussion about formally dropping Andrew and Harry as counsellors of state did not go anywhere — they will remain on the list, but with a wider pool, Charles will have others to choose from.

King Charles, left, and Princess Anne arrive at St. George's Chapel inside Windsor Castle in Windsor, England, on Sept. 19. (Justin Setteerfield/AFP/Getty Images)

The addition of Anne and Edward mirrors what happened in 1953, when Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, became a counsellor of state, Prescott said.

The legislation has been fast-tracked and made its way through the House of Lords. Remaining stages are due to take place on Dec. 1 in the House of Commons.

While adding Anne and Edward will remove the uncertainty that has hung over the issue, it doesn't fully resolve the question of ensuring there is a wide enough pool of family members who can stand in for the monarch in the long term.

"If the monarchy continues to slim down with members of the Royal Family no longer conducting public duties and them not being replaced by younger royals ... we [may] end up in a situation perhaps in 20 years' time where we just have King William and Queen Catherine and their three children and maybe their spouses," Prescott said.

"Princess Anne will be in her 90s by that point ... there won't be the Duke of Kent, there won't be the Duke of Gloucester, so we may have to revisit this at some point in the future."

A rare royal honour for a Canadian

The email landed in Margaret MacMillan's inbox a few weeks ago marked "high priority" and asked that she please call a number.

"I called this number and it said 'Buckingham Palace,' and I thought, what's this about?" the Canadian author and historian said over Zoom the other day from London.

"And they put me through to the King's private secretary, who told me about it and I sort of babbled. And he said, 'Well, are you going to accept it?' And I said, 'Yes.'"

That was "yes" to accepting an appointment to the Order of Merit, a personal gift from the monarch founded by King Edward VII in 1902. It honours those who have made "exceptionally meritorious service to the Crown, in armed services or towards the advancement of arts, literature and science."

MacMillan was at Buckingham Palace on Thursday to receive the award, and was among six new members of the Order who were named by Charles earlier this month. The Order is limited to 24 members, and the individuals appointed by Charles were chosen by Queen Elizabeth in early September, shortly before her death.

A large group of people in a room with a large chandelier hanging from the ceiling.
King Charles, front row centre, sits with members of the Order of Merit at Buckingham Palace in London on Thursday. Among the members are Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan, back row second from left, and former prime minister Jean Chrétien, front row second from left. (Aaron Chown/AFP/Getty Images)

MacMillan's first thought on learning of her appointment was "I don't believe it."

"It's quite something. And then I sort of thought, this is incredible. I never would have expected this. And I thought back to my childhood [in Toronto] ... which was a long time ago now. And I thought, you know, who would have thought?

"And then ... I went, of course, immediately to Wikipedia" and looked at the list of past and present members of the Order, she said. "And I had even a greater sense of disbelief, quite frankly, because, you know, there's been some amazing people over the years."

Among them are Florence Nightingale, composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, former British prime minister Winston Churchill, poet T.S. Eliot and, more recently, naturalist David Attenborough, industrial designer James Dyson and artist David Hockney.

MacMillan's great-grandfather, former British prime minister David Lloyd George, was also a member of the Order — something she did not know until she looked up the history of the Order after her nomination.

Four other Canadians have been or are members, including three former prime ministers. 

Two people shake hands.
Gov. Gen, Julie Payette, right, promotes MacMillan to Companion of the Order of Canada during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on May 10, 2018. (David Kawai/The Canadian Press)

"Of course, Jean Chrétien is a member," MacMillan said. "So it's an extraordinary group of people both in the past and present."

History has been at the heart of MacMillan's career — as a professor in Canada (University of Toronto and Toronto Metropolitan University) and in the U.K. (Oxford), and as an acclaimed author of titles including Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World. That book won the Governor General's Literary Award for non-fiction in 2003.

"I've always thought history is very important and ... inasmuch as history is being recognized here, I'm very pleased about it," she said. 

"The sort of questions we ask about the past are often affected by the present. How did we get here and why have we got a war in Europe again at a time when everyone thought that war was something that Europe wouldn't do again? Here we are, and I think history will help give us some perspective. It won't give us much comfort, maybe, but it will help give us some perspective and some hope."

Knowing that her appointment would have been one of the last decisions Queen Elizabeth made is "quite moving," MacMillan said.

"To think that she actually knew my name and approved my membership of the Order is rather humbling."

A person laughs while talking to another person in a large room with paintings on the walls.
King Charles, left, talks with artist David Hockney during a luncheon for members of the Order of Merit at Buckingham Palace in London on Thursday. (Aaron Chown/The Associated Press)

Media reports on the new appointees highlighted that the group joining the Order with MacMillan is more ethnically diverse, with four of the six members from ethnic minorities. 

"I think that's a very good thing. It should reflect British society and the different sorts of things that people in British society are doing," she said.

As much as MacMillan is humbled and honoured by her appointment, she also had a more prosaic consideration about her visit to Buckingham Palace: Would she need a hat?

The answer was yes. 

"I mean, the British have hats, which you can only buy here and you can only wear here, and you never wear them anywhere else in the world. But anyway, I've got my hat. I'm going to have to find another way of wearing it somewhere."

Royally quotable

"We must acknowledge the wrongs which have shaped our past if we are to unlock the power of our common future."

— King Charles, in a speech during the first state visit of his reign. Charles and Camilla, the Queen Consort, welcomed South African President Cyril Ramaphosa for the visit in London.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, left, speaks with King Charles during a state banquet at Buckingham Palace in London on Tuesday. (Aaron Chown/Getty Images)

Royal reads

  1. The Prince of Wales has addressed the controversy surrounding his World Cup allegiances after Welsh fans criticized his visit to the England team. [ITV]

  2. A man charged with breach of the peace after Prince Andrew was allegedly heckled as he walked behind the Queen's coffin will not face court, prosecutors have said. [The Guardian]

  3. Camilla, the Queen Consort, says it was "a pleasure" to rehome Paddington Bears with children at an east London nursery, after thousands were left in tribute to the late Queen Elizabeth. Camilla has also paid tribute to her "greatly missed" mother-in-law in her first speech in the role of Queen Consort. [BBC]

A person sits with a teddy bear on their lap as another person reads a story to children sitting in front of them.
Camilla, the Queen Consort, centre, attends a special teddy bears picnic at a Barnardo's Nursery in London on Thursday. Camilla delivered Paddington Bears and other cuddly toys that were left as tributes to Queen Elizabeth at royal residences to children supported by the charity. (Arthur Edwards/The Associated Press)

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Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.

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