The public consequences of Royals’ private struggles: Howard Chua-Eoan

Princess Anne, the hardest-working member of the House of Windsor, finally takes a much-needed break. With the king’s sister tirelessly filling in for family members facing illness and scandal, she epitomizes royal duty. Despite staffing shortages, Anne’s packed schedule demonstrates the monarchy’s enduring relevance, from ceremonial duties to visits promoting causes like renewable energy and historical preservation. As the royal saga unfolds, the Windsors remain a steadfast link to Britain’s past and present, bridging tradition and modernity.

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By Howard Chua-Eoan

The Princess Royal is getting some well-earned rest this week. The king’s sister, Anne, has been the hardest-working member of the House of Windsor, even before her sovereign sibling and then her nephew’s wife revealed they were dealing with cancer, which effectively put them (and the respective spouses tending to them) out of commission for the multitude of public appearances the royals put in around the UK and the world. Princess Anne is among the two handfuls of “working “ royals whose efforts (and the accompanying logistics) are paid for by the king. The aim is what his late mother said was the need “to be seen to be believed” by their subjects.

After a seven-day post-Easter respite, however, the royal schedule for the rest of April is once again practically all Anne all the time. Her tireless service is what helped prompt Queen Elizabeth II to name her Princess Royal, a title bestowed on only six previous daughters of British monarchs. Charles used to have a few more relatives to help do the job but he’s had to cut costs over security. Now, apparent feuds (the Sussexes), scandal (Andrew) and illness have further diminished the numbers. The staffing needs are so dire that British tabloids and other local media are suggesting that Harry and Meghan pitch in. Or Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, even if they are the daughters of the disgraced Andrew.

Anne will get some assistance from Edward, the youngest of her brothers, and his wife Sophie (the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh) and the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester (he’s a first cousin of the late queen). But that’s all the available hands for busy days that often involve multiple events in different parts of the country.

Does all this deliver any actual value? I believe it does. The most obvious benefits come from the show-the-flag voyages that radiate soft power, generate transnational good will and promote touristic interest in the remains of what was once an empire upon which the sun never set. Some of the royal drop-bys, however, often involve self-interest. Prince Edward, for example, often attends events that have to do with the dramatic arts. He once worked for Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Really Useful Theatre Company before founding his own shop, Ardent Productions.

Anne — who rode for the UK’s Olympic equestrian team — is the royal patron of several equine organizations. She breeds horses, as her mother did, at her low-key (in princely terms) mansion in the Cotswolds, Gatcombe House. Animals are a favorite cause. Her first assignment after the Easter break is likely to be a visit to a group that promotes the training and use of a breed of bird dog called the Clumber Spaniel; the society is celebrating its 40th anniversary and the Princess Royal is its president.

But there are also other kinds of visits. On March 27, just before her break, the Princess Royal was at Power Roll Ltd., a solar energy company in northern England that makes a lightweight “film” that can substitute for heavier photovoltaic solar panels. On the same day, she toured nearby Pragmatic Semiconductor, which is developing a technology for flexible integrated circuitry to substitute for silicon. Beyond visiting with the big-boned spaniels in April, Anne is down to open public park grounds that are part of the gigantic Tideway sewage project in London. She’s scheduled to check on the progress of a British navy ship being built in Scotland and, on the same day, visit a textile museum in Lancashire, more than 200 miles away, Later in the month, she’s expected at the Lord Mayor of London’s Big Curry Lunch charity fundraiser as well as a University of London graduation (she’s chancellor) and events for medical caregivers, cancer research and transportation for the disabled.

At the Power Roll event, the engineers unveiled a wall plaque as a memorial to her visit. It’s not unusual. There are such inscriptions all over London: There’s one at the Barbican Arts Centre, set up by Elizabeth and her husband Philip to mark their visit (which took place on their silver wedding anniversary); there’s one at Southwark Bridge marking its opening by her grandfather and grandmother, King George V and Queen Mary; there’s one at Smithfield Market — which has been a major meat purveyor in London for eight centuries — to a visit by her mother Elizabeth, to mark its reconstruction after German bombs wrecked it in World War II. 

As tedious as some of the visits can seem, they are all part of what ceremonial royalty can contribute to national identity — connecting the dots of history and society. That new navy ship in Scotland is the successor, in name, to a famous submarine lost in the world war. That textile museum? It’s in a town that was key to the industrial revolution that helped the British economy overtake the rest of the world.

Unlike political leaders, who come and go with elections, the Windsors have got genes in this game. They provide an intrinsic link to the country’s history. For all the royals’ faults — or perhaps even because of those gossipy peccadillos — they are the filament that threads the British present to the British past, at least as far back as 1066 when the Battle of Hastings brought William the Conqueror to the throne. The dynastic dioramas may not always be pretty or salubrious, but the family embodies a commonality — decked in elite fashion — that connects spaniel breeders to solar energy engineers to people digging an enormous sewer.

The Windsors are an anachronistic institution in the 21st century. While they provide sometimes salacious, sometimes inspiring domestic tableaux in this age of social media, they’re a mere subplot in the broader drama of contemporary British politics. However, their continual presence in small town ribbon-cuttings, dog shows, nerdy tech show-and-tells and glittery galas helps to give the big mess of the country the sense of a story — and make Britain itself seen and believed.

On Easter Sunday, the king attended church services and did a more vigorous walkabout to greet well-wishers than expected. Still, it’s just part of what The Telegraph called “gentle steps” toward eventually returning to public events. No one expects that soon.

You’ll have to get back to work, Anne.

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