Looking Past Netflix: The Real-Life Riding Career Of The Princess Royal

Dec 3, 2020 - 8:03 AM

During Season 4’s first episode of “The Crown,” Prince Philip (played by Tobias Menzies) approaches a young Princess Anne (Erin Doherty) in a hallway at Balmoral Castle. “Obviously your life is your own business,” he says to his daughter, “and your career as a show jumper is your own business too, but I heard you’re thinking of withdrawing from competition. Is that true?”

“Yes.” Anne responds, “I’ve had such a bad run lately.”

“With Badminton coming up and a chance for Olympic competition?” he asks, adding later, “We were all so proud having an actual Olympian in the family.”

“An Olympian who’s spent much of the past year on her backside,” she snipes back.

While “The Crown” is clearly not a documentary—with Netflix taking creative liberties as it shows the lives of the British royal family members throughout many decades—it seems possible some version of this conversation could have occurred.

In 1979, the year Episode 1 of Season 4 is set, Princess Anne, who won gold at 21 in the 1971 European Eventing Championships (England), was fresh off a rough few years of competition—falling and getting a concussion at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, taking time off to have her first child in 1977, and then earning no notable placings for a few years.

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But later in 1979, whether a version of the fictionalized pep talk with her father occurred or not, Princess Anne staged a comeback by finishing sixth at that year’s Badminton Horse Trials on Goodwill, with her nail-biting show jumping round depicted in “The Crown” near the end of the same episode, and then qualifying for contention at the 1980 Olympics, which were boycotted by Great Britain and many other countries.

(The Badminton scene was filmed at Hickstead, which resembles the real Badminton arena, though the horse in the television show is a chestnut, and the real Goodwill was a very dark bay.)  

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Though “The Crown” fictionalizes many details—or just gets them wrong, including the above reference to eventer Anne’s career in “show jumping”—Netflix shows the Princess Royal as one of the more down-to-earth members of her family, enjoying parlor games and treks through the countryside, and being capable of joking around with a dry wit. And, at least according to an article published in a 2017 The Chronicle of the Horse about the Ledyard Horse Trials, that portrayal seems true. The princess came to the United States to compete at the Massachusetts event in 1975 with her then-husband Mark Phillips.

“The appearance of Princess Anne with Phillips in 1975 drew nearly 50,000 spectators to Ledyard. The princess, who finished 10th aboard Arthur Of Troy, had emphasized in a press conference that she wanted to be treated ‘just like any other competitor.’ And—despite their celebrity, entourage of bodyguards and some frosty moments with reporters—the royals were friendly and down-to-earth, competitors remembered,” wrote Micky Rathbun in “Ledyard: The Dawn Of A New Eventing Era.”

“Rider Laurie Penfield recalled sitting with Princess Anne on the back of a flatbed truck while touring the roads and tracks course. ‘We were all just hanging out together,’ she said. ‘There was such a nice and relaxed atmosphere and a lot of laughter.’

“Competitors parties for eventers in the 1970s were notoriously rowdy, and Ledyard was no exception. In his memoir, ‘Wind Over Willowdale,’ Neil [Rice Ayer] recalled a clambake at which Phillips started a fight by throwing boiled onions. ‘The next thing we knew, the fight had escalated into a Champagne-squirting spree,’ Neil wrote. ‘Finally, our announcer, Bob Heath, a friend of mine, pushed somebody into the swimming pool. It wasn’t long before everybody, including Princess Anne, was in the pool,’ ” the article continued.  

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After her top-level eventing career slowed, Princess Anne went on to ride in flat races and steeplechases, and she served as president of the Fédération Equestre Internationale from 1986-1994. Now 70, she reportedly still rides on occasion.

And though Princess Anne was the first, she wouldn’t be the last Olympian for the royal family. Her daughter, Zara Tindall, rode for Great Britain at the 2012 London Olympic Games, earning team silver on High Kingdom. Tindall’s mother presented her with the medal in the podium ceremony.

“Whatever you do, don’t ask me what it was like to have my mother present me with the medal,” Tindall joked at the press conference. “Obviously it was amazing.”  

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