Sporting Royals

London Hotel Magazine (& New York) – 00-06-1987

Britain's Royal Family includes a number of sportsmen and a lot of competitive talent. Christopher Long explains.

By Christopher Long

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Mention the sport of kings and most people will think of thoroughbreds pounding round Ascot racecourse on a sunny summer day in June while the Queen settles into the Royal Box having driven in procession from Windsor Castle to join the blue-blooded British, placing bets, winning, losing and having a lot of fun.

All of that is quite true but among the thousands who gather at race meetings all over Britain, very few indeed are quite so knowledgeable or quite so experienced as the Queen herself. Lord Porchester, who manages her horses and racing, is the first to admit that she's a very formidable horsewoman in all senses – perhaps the most acute and respected owner in the country.

The Queen, of course, has never actually ridden a race herself, though her daughter Princess Anne has and still does. Nevertheless she demonstrates a sporting characteristic that can be found among most members of the Royal Family – whatever they do they do it well. They may not all be brilliant but they are certainly triers. None of them is satisfied with a half-hearted approach and between them they cover an impressive range of sporting activities.

There's no great sporting heritage in the British Royal Family – at least in modern times. Queen Victoria was no sportswoman and Edward Vll, her son and heir, confined himself largely to a lot of shooting, fishing and horse-racing without being anything like as good at any of them as his descendants. His son, King George V, was one of England's premier shots but it took the present Queen Mother to demonstrate real ability with a rod on the river Spey, and her daughter, Queen Elizabeth 11, to demonstrate that real racing involves a lot more than standing around in the paddock puffing a large cigar.

Today most of the Royal Family have some sporting expertise or an interest at least. The Queen Mother, thanks to her daughter, acquired a late but passionate interest in horse-racing, probably because she felt that if she couldn't beat them she'd better join them. Nowadays her animals are indeed quite capable of beating the best of them.

Not surprisingly Princess Anne and Prince Charles became heavily horse-influenced too.

In Princess Anne's case it has shaped and coloured her entire life. As a child she showed early, girlish talent and did well at school at Benenden in Kent. Later she went on to become one of the half-dozen best competitive riders in Britain, earning herself a place in British Olympic teams, even if the resulting press attention often put her off her stride.

In fact, during the Seventies, it's true to say that she became one of the least popular members of the Royal Family thanks to her clearly stated irritation with journalists and photographers who delighted in watching her fall. The more she swore at them the more they pestered her and the more they pestered her the more often she ended up mud-spattered in a ditch. It culminated in her telling the lot of them, in a celebrated phrase, to 'Naff Off'.

Perhaps these experiences led her increasingly to seek the company, support and understanding of a certain Captain Mark Phillips, himself a successful and gifted competitive eventer and show-jumper. Their subsequent marriage led to an almost exclusively horse-oriented life at their Gatcombe Park home in Gloucestershire where they now breed, train and ride horses and host major events in the grounds.

Horses too have led Princess Anne to new-found popularity and respect. For years she has devoted much time to organising a national scheme of Riding for The Disabled. The campaign has been very successful, bringing untold delight to thousands of youngsters and it benefits from the fact that its patron is not merely 'a Royal': she's a highly knowledgeable and experienced horsewoman as well.

Prince Charles has proved far more adventurous in his sporting interests. He rides too, of course, and is described as a 'strong' player for his polo team 'Les Diables Bleus', managed by Major Ronald Ferguson, the Duchess of York's father. Apart from polo, however, and years ago, he earned himself the nickname Action Man. This was probably well-deserved. If he wasn't learning to fly he was deep-sea diving. If he wasn't piloting his own helicopters, he was water-skiing, snow-skiing, shooting, hunting, abseiling, parachuting or fishing.

Perhaps this wasn't surprising. Like his father, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles was educated at Gordonstone, the rough, tough, macho creation of the great educationist Kurt Hahn. At Gordonstone it mattered most that you were fit, active and physically and mentally stretched to the limit in order to acquire confidence, powers of leadership and all-round development.

Sensitive observers might have detected that this was not necessarily the easiest régime for a quiet, contemplative, self-effacing, self-doubting and creative future monarch. Nevertheless, that period, plus a year of teaching at a similar establishment in Australia, produced a man who feels driven always to punish himself in order to succeed at everything he tackles. His father would expect no less, of course, just as Prince Albert would have expected no less from his disappointing son, the future Edward Vll.

But the result is that Prince Charles does indeed constitute a competent all-round sportsman even if he might secretly prefer to be writing, painting, gardening and pottering.

Strangely, none of the Royal princes has shown any great aptitude for ball-games or athletics. There's not a single cricketer or footballer among them. Even tennis is eschewed. Only the Duke and Duchess of Kent are keen spectators at Wimbledon where he is president and she quite clearly would love to make up a foursome on Centre Court. Other members of the Royal Family dutifully attend Test Matches (cricket), Cup Finals (football) and other sporting galas – but with little apparent enthusiasm. Clearly the British Royal Family is not a team-sports bunch, nor blessed with an eye for a ball. Fundamentally they're individualists who prefer to challenge themselves rather than others.

Which leaves a list of altogether non-sporting royals. Princess Margaret has no evident interest in sport whatever. Nor does Prince Edward who is contemplative and arts-oriented fellow – though he has developed into a promising Real Tennis player. Princess Diana has a well-known passion for dance and ballet but an early mishap with a horse put her off anything to do with them from then onwards.

Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, has a more naturally outgoing and adventurous character than his brothers which has made him a more obvious candidate for Action Man. He is commonly regarded as one of the Navy's best helicopter pilots and his naval career offers him activities that he clearly welcomes. This is an attitude he shares with his wife, the Duchess of York, who, under the codename Chatterbox One, impressed her instructors considerably when she recently completed her Private Pilot's Licence course. It can't now be long before she sets her sights on helicopter training too.

Which leaves us with the Duke of Edinburgh. His greatest accomplishment is undoubtedly as a driver – carriage driving. This was a pursuit which might easily have lapsed into the hands of a few mild eccentrics after the internal combustion engine drove horse-drawn vehicles off the road. Instead, he has become one of the most competent and enthusiastic members of a competitive sport that has quietly boomed under his patronage.

At Windsor Great Park he consistently takes the honours for his skill with two-in-hands, four-in-hands, two-wheelers and four-wheelers. It seems to be the perfect activity for an older man who once played well at polo and has all his life been intensely competitive and gutsy in everything he tackled. His attitude to the press has been much like his daughter's and they share a single-minded determination to 'do better' which reveals much about their personalities: 'This is my business and damn the lot of you'.

Indeed, it could fairly be said that if you really want to know what the Royal Family is like behind the formal exterior, watch them at play. In the heat of the moment, in the rough and tumble of effort, energy, triumph and disaster, the observant spectator will learn a lot.

The Yorks play for fun. The Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Anne really enjoy the challenge and get very angry with those who tread on their toes, interfere or watch to see them riding for a fall. The Queen is clearly a quiet, steady perfectionist, happy to wait for years if necessary in order to see the fruits of the breeding, training and management of her bloodstock. Patient and single-minded, she gets enormous private pleasure from her past-time.

Poor Prince Charles, already burdened by the prospect of ever-greater responsibilities, often gives the impression that he competes because he must and is haunted by the prospect of failure.

Prince Edward on the other hand is safely fourth in line to succession and has much more freedom to choose his own future and past-times. He, indeed, is the only member of the Royal Family to pursue the real sport of king, Real Tennis.

Real Tennis began in the reign of Henry Vlll in the 16th Century and the original court can be seen at Hampton Court Palace. There are only about a dozen of these bizarre courts in Britain with a few more in France and elsewhere. The rackets are spoon-shaped, the balls are hard and the courts themselves defy description. But they are the oldest surviving links with a Royal (hence Real) game four hundred years old.

By contrast is skiing: the universal modern sport of young kings. Charles, Diana, Andrew, Sarah, Edward and friends and relations all share this passion, along with the rest of Europe's young Royals. They courted on the piste and that's where they meet on common territory – among commoners, for fun, with considerable skill and far away from the pressures of 'court' life – real or imagined.

See The English at Play

This was commissioned by London Hotel Magazine to appeal to a largely North American tourist readership.

© (1987) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

Christopher Long

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