It’s an evening in spring and a princess and her new husband are making their way back to the palace by car when a gunman successfully hijacks their vehicle, shooting four men in an effort to capture, drug and eventually ransom the young royal for millions of pounds.
During the frenzied nighttime attack, the princess’ bodyguard - along with several police officers and a former boxer - come to her aid, but it’s the 23-year-old herself who bravely out-smarts her would-be kidnapper, leading to his arrest at the scene.
It reads like the plot to a blockbuster film, except that it’s not. This actually happened just decades ago to a member of the British royal family, the Queen’s only daughter, Princess Anne.
Kidnapping Princess Anne
Princess Anne was about 30 when she, along with her first husband Captain Mark Phillips, described the events of March 20, 1974 in a newly-resurfaced interview with Michael ‘Parky’ Parkinson on Parkinson in Australia in the early ‘80s.
A lively and quick-witted Anne recalled the night the pair, along with a lady-in-waiting, a bodyguard and a chauffeur, were returning to Buckingham Palace via the Mall after attending a charity film screening.
At about 8 pm, she said, ‘a car overtook us and stopped’ on the dimly lit and empty Mall - a road that runs between Trafalgar Square and the palace - less than 200 metres from the gates.
The driver of the car, a white Ford Escort, was Ian Ball, a 26-year-old unemployed and mentally unwell labourer from north London.
Anne’s bodyguard, Inspector James Wallace Beaton of SO14 - Scotland Yard’s special operations branch charged with royalty protection - suspected Ball was a disgruntled driver and got out of the passenger seat to speak to him.
Ball opens fire
Before he could get more than six feet of the man, Ball shot Inspector Beaton, 31, in his right shoulder with one of the two pistols he was carrying.
According to Anne, Beaton ‘got off one shot’ using his own gun however his wound affected his aim and the shot smashed the rear window of the maroon Rolls-Royce limousine, shattering glass all over her head.
“Unbeknownst to us [Beaton’s] gun jammed so he became quite useless and also he was quite seriously wounded at that stage,” the princess told Parky.
‘Open, or I’ll shoot!’
With Beaton lying wounded, Ball attempted to open the door to the backseat in order to get to Anne, prompting chauffeur Alexander Callendar, one of the Queen’s drivers, to also get out and confront Ball.
Callendar was promptly shot in the chest and fell back into the car, as was a nearby journalist, Brian McConnell, who tried to intervene, leaving Anne effectively a sitting duck.
What followed was, as Anne described, a ‘tedious discussion’ between the kidnapper who was leaning through the open rear door and the princess seated within.
“Please, come out,” Ball reportedly pleaded. “You’ve got to come”.
“He said I had to go with him, I can't remember why,” Anne breezily told Parky, prompting her husband to pipe up.
“I don’t think he gave a reason why but you were quite obstinate,” Captain Phillips said with a small smile on his face.
“I said I didn’t think I wanted to go,” Anne went on, dryly adding that she was ‘scrupulously polite’ to Ball.
“I thought it’s silly to be too rude at that stage, and we had a fairly low-key discussion about the fact that I wasn’t going to go anywhere. And wouldn’t it be much better if he went away and we’d all forget about it? Which turns out was wishful thinking,” the princess said with a twinkle in her eye.
The princess loses her cool
Eyewitness accounts, however, claim that in response to one of Ball’s incessant begging to come with him, Anne snapped back, ‘Bloody likely!’
The princess recalled that her interaction with Ball was ‘interspersed with occasional bursts of activity’ including the moment a nearby police officer Constable Michael Hills, 22, ‘wandered over and literally tapped [Ball] on the shoulder’.
For his troubles, Constable Hills received a bullet to the stomach but still managed to radio for help, again leaving Anne, the Captain and Ball alone.
Anne’s lady-in-waiting, Rowena Brassey, had fled at the princess’ insistence after Inspector Beaton was shot but, in a flash of heroism attempted to pick up Beaton’s pistol.
“But some bossy lady standing by the side told her not to touch it,” Anne recalled with a smirk.
At this point, she admitted the situation ‘got slightly rougher’ with Ball managing to wrench open the door once more and grab the princess’ arm.
“He grabbed my arm and pulled and fortunately [pointing to her husband], well I’m not sure if it was me holding on to him or him holding on to me but we maintained the status quo for a bit because I wasn’t going anywhere, put it that way,” she said.
In the ensuing struggle, the princess’ evening gown was torn, which proved the last straw for Anne.
“The back of my dress split from the top and all the shoulders went out of it and that was [Ball’s] most dangerous moment. I lost my rag at that stage,” said Anne.
Anne’s dangerous plan
Meanwhile, Ronald Russell, a company cleaning executive and former boxer who was on his way home from work, had pulled over after seeing Ball fire at Constable Hills.
Russell approached Ball from behind and punched him in the back of the head, causing Ball to let go of Anne who tumbled back into the vehicle.
“I was lying flat on my back on the floor of the car and you [Captain Phillips] were basically on top, and that was just how we’d ended up after this tug of war,” Anne told Parky matter-of-factly.
With Ball distracted by Russell, quick-thinking Anne devised a daring plan: to use herself as a decoy to lure the gunman to the other side of the vehicle.
“I could reach the door handle behind my head and I opened the door and literally pulled my feet over my head and did a sort of backwards somersault on to the road,” Anne said.
“Then [I] waited because I thought if I was out of the car then he might move, and he did eventually. He went around the front of the car, then I got back in the car and shut the door,” she added.
At this point, about ten minutes had passed when the reinforcements Constable Halls had called - led by Peter Edmonds, a temporary detective constable - finally arrived.
“That was the most frightening part [...] it took 10 minutes or so before the police actually came and when they did come, the rescue was so near but so far…” a momentarily emotional Captain Phillips remarked.
Elsewhere in the interview, he revealed the experience was ‘a little bit of a shock’ and that he didn’t mind admitting he was ‘frightened’.
Indeed, with Ball still holding the couple at gunpoint, officers were unable to approach for fear he’d shoot.
Again, Anne showed her strategic side by suggesting Ball make a break for it, knowing that he’d be captured in the end and was ‘slowly running out of bullets’.
Parky asked if she was keeping count of Ball’s shots and Anne nodded and smugly said, ‘I’ve seen the movies’.
“I said ‘go on, now’s your chance’ and [Ball] then legged it off towards the park and was smothered by I think the local rugby team, the police rugby team,” Anne grinned.
Constable Edmonds chased Ball through nearby St. James Park, throwing his coat over his head before tackling him to the ground and making an arrest.
With Ball in custody, details around his kidnapping and ransom plan emerged.
It’s thought that Anne’s highly publicised appearance at the charity event informed Ball’s plan, although he wouldn’t have known the exact route the royal limo would take that night.
He had rented the Ford Escort under the pseudonym ‘John Williams’ and had packed it with two pairs of handcuffs, Valium tranquillizers and a rambling type-written letter addressed to the Queen.
In the note, Ball demanded the monarch pay a £2 million - nearly £11 million today - ransom in £5 sterling notes for the safe return of her daughter. He instructed the Queen herself to deliver the money in 20 unlocked suitcases to a plane bound for Switzerland.
Earlier that month, Ball had leased a property near Sandhurst Military Academy, Princess Anne and Captain Phillips’ home, although it’s not clear if he intended to hold the princess there.
Ball later pleaded guilty to attempted murder and kidnapping charges and was sentenced to a life term in a mental health facility. As of 2011, Ball reportedly remains at Broadmoor, a high-security psychiatric hospital in Berkshire.
During his trial, Ball said he was motivated to kidnap and ransom Anne to ‘draw attention to the lack of facilities for treating mental illness under the National Health Service’.
Scotland Yard slammed
An investigation into the incident was launched shortly after by the then-Home Secretary Roy Jenkins amid widespread criticism of Scotland Yard and SO14 which looks after the royal family’s security.
Inspector Beaton was the only SO14 member assigned to Princess Anne that evening, however at that time the Queen herself had just one bodyguard on such ‘unofficial trips’ to and from the palace.
Home Secretary Jenkins revealed that royal protection had been increased but remained tight-lipped about details. Conversely, the royal family ‘had no intention of living in bullet-proof cages’ according to a statement by Buckingham Palace.
Within the decade, Scotland Yard was under the spotlight once again when an unemployed man managed to climb the palace walls and sneak into the Queen’s bedroom where the pair talked for ten minutes before help arrived.
For her part, Princess Anne was of the opinion that being a royal in the late 20th century was no ‘riskier’ than in centuries past.
“I think... public figures have always been in danger to some degree, I mean Queen Victoria has several attempts, I think five attempts during her reign,” she stated.
She mused that the ‘greatest danger’ comes in the form of ‘a lone nutcase’ as opposed to a coordinated effort involving multiple people.
“It would be fair to say that if anyone was seriously intent on wiping one out it would be very easy to do,” she said.
A thank you from the Queen
The day after the attack it was business as usual for Princess Anne and Captain Phillips who returned to their normal routine at Sandhurst, with Anne looking after her horses and the Captain instructing cadets on the on-site rifle range.
That September, Queen Elizabeth II honoured the men who helped save her daughter’s life, bestowing each with a prestigious award.
Inspector Beaton was awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian award for courage while Constable Hills and Ronald Russell each received the George Medal, the second-highest civilian honour for bravery.
Constable Edmonds, chauffeur Alexander Callender and journalist John Brian McConnell were awarded the Queen’s Gallantry medals, the third-highest honour, while Glenmore Martin, a motorist who parked his car in front of Ball’s to prevent his escape, received the Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct.
During the ceremony, the Queen revealed a softer, maternal side according to Ronald Russell, who claimed in a 2006 interview that she quietly told him, “The medal is from the Queen of England, the thank you is from Anne’s mother”.
Anne, too, paid tribute to the men, visiting several of the wounded in the hospital to thank them for their help. She also sent a personal message of congratulations to Constable Hills on his wedding day later that year.
Who is Anne, Princess Royal?
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip welcomed their second child and only daughter, Princess Anne, on August 15, 1950. She was almost three years old when her mother - then Princess Elizabeth - was crowned queen.
Like her mother, Anne was both a keen equestrian and dedicated to her royal duties, stepping into her public role at age 18.
Beautiful, athletic, intelligent and bold - and also, at the time, the second in line to the throne - the teenage princess was extremely eligible, landing the equally sought-after Andrew Parker Bowles as her first boyfriend in 1970.
The sweethearts would soon part ways, however, with Parker Bowles marrying Camilla Shand who was also Anne’s brother Prince Charles’ mistress and, later, his second wife.
Anne wed Captain Mark Phillips in November 1973, and, just four months later, survived her own kidnapping attempt.
The princess and Captain Phillips went on to have two children, Peter Phillips and Zara Tindall, however they separated amid rumours of extramarital affairs and divorced in 1992.
That same year, Anne married the then-Commander (now Vice Admiral) Sir Timothy Laurence after meeting him when he worked as her mother's equerry or personal attendant in the late ‘80s.
Today, at age 69, Anne continues to serve as a working member of the royal family and, with over 300 charities and an estimated 180 days of engagements in 2018 alone, is one of the busiest.
Her dedication - as well as her refusal to fulfil the traditional concept of a ‘fairytale princess’ - has seen the press brand her stern, brusque and even haughty over the years, but it was those very qualities that, on one fateful night, helped save her life.
Will Princess Anne’s kidnapping attempt be in The Crown?
Sadly, by all reports that terrifying night in March 1974 isn’t featured in the highly-anticipated third season of Netflix’s royal drama, The Crown, so viewers won’t see the princess - played by actor Erin Doherty - do a backward roll out of a car while wearing an evening gown.
The demise of the princess’ first marriage and the Anne/Andrew/Camilla/Charles love square, however, did make the cut.
Joining Erin is Josh O’Connor who will portray the grown-up version of the Queen’s eldest child, Prince Charles with newcomer, Emerald Fennell, as the young Camilla Parker Bowles.
Oscar-winner, Olivia Colman, will take up the mantle from Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II, while Matt Smith will bow out to allow Outlander star, Tobias Menzies, to step into his shoes as Prince Philip.
Helena Bonham Carter will portray Princess Margaret, replacing Vanessa Kirby, who played the Queen’s sassy sister for the first two seasons.
Matthew Goode will step aside as Margaret’s lover, Antony Armstrong-Jones, who will be played by Ben Daniels, while Marion Bailey will portray the Queen Mother who was brought to life by Victoria Hamilton.
The Crown season three premieres on November 17 on Netflix.
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