Royal flashback: the Princess Anne kidnapping attempt that rocked Buckingham Palace, and how she somersaulted her way out of danger and a £2 million ransom

Princess Anne, seen on a royal visit to Canada in November 1974, some months after an attempted kidnapping in London. Photo: Toronto Star via Getty Images

At about 8pm on March 20, 1974, an Austin limo was travelling down the Mall in London headed towards Buckingham Palace when a white Ford pulled in front of them and stopped, blocking the limo. A man described as having a beard and light red hair got out. His name was Ian Ball, and he was there to kidnap a princess.

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Britain’s Queen Elizabeth with her daughter Princess Anne in June 2013. Photo: AP Photo

The scene

Inside the royal car was Princess Anne and her then-husband, Captain Mark Phillips, as well as a lady-in-waiting, Rowena Jane Brassey. The car was driven by Alex Callender, a royal chauffeur. In the front with him was Metropolitan Police inspector James Beaton, a member of SO14, the Royalty Protection Command. Beaton was the only officer assigned to protect the princess that night. At the time, there was no specific training afforded to royal protection officers, as there was little thought of a threat to members of the family. Even the queen was routinely assigned only one armed guard at the time when she was executing her official duties.
Princess Anne and Mark Phillips arrive in Sydney in October 1980. Photo: Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Beaton was, however, armed with a semi-automatic Walther PPK. As Callender drove down the Mall, the driver of the white Ford started behaving strangely. Callender was trying to drive around the vehicle, but to no avail. The Ford then bumped into the Austin and stopped in front of it, blocking its way.

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Beaton got out of the car, as did Ball, the driver of the Ford. He later told police: “I had thought about it for years. She [Anne] would have been the easiest. I had seen her riding with her husband.”

Ball had brought two handguns with him. As Beaton walked around the Austin, still thinking this was a traffic altercation, Ball shot him in the shoulder from around two metres away. The unemployed Ball had come anticipating violence, and was prepared to use his weapons. He told police: “Well, the police, that’s their job. They expect to be shot. I took a chance at getting shot, so why shouldn’t they?”

Ball then approached the Austin, pulling on the door. The princess and her husband held onto the handle tightly.

The kidnapping in March 1974, as reconstructed in the 2006 film To Kidnap A Princess. Photo: ITV

Beaton, wounded, got back into the car, putting his body between Ball and the royal couple. Ball shot a second time, hitting Beaton again, and then shot Beaton point blank in the chest. The driver, Callender, got out the car. Ball shot him and he fell back into the vehicle.

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A very British (and right royal) response

Ball then managed to wrestle open the door and grab Princess Anne by the arm. She said he told her: “Please come out, you’ve got to come”, to which she famously replied: “Not bloody likely!”

Ball tugged on the princess and Phillips tugged on her other arm, and the two men carried on what the princess went on to describe as “a very irritating conversation”, according to The Smithsonian, about whether they were or weren’t going to go with the assailant.

The attempted kidnapping of Princess Anne hit the headlines the day after. Photo: Daily Mail

On talk show Parkinson in the 1980s, she said: “I was scrupulously polite because I thought it would be silly to be rude at that stage.” She also said that she did not want to lose her temper for fear that she may hit him, and he may shoot her.

During the tug of war, the seam split on her floor length gown, about which she later joked: “That was his most dangerous moment. I lost my rag at that moment.”

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By this stage, the commotion had attracted police constable Michael Hills, 22 at the time, who had heard “popping noises”. He approached Ball, thinking it was a traffic altercation, and Ball shot him in the stomach. Hill fell back, but was able to radio his station that he had been shot.

As the princess described it on Parkinson: “[Hill] wandered over and tapped the man on the shoulder, and was shot. And then we went back to having this tedious discussion about not going anywhere.”

Princess Anne chats to her wounded bodyguard, Inspector James Beaton, at Westminster Hospital in 1974. Photo: PA Images via Getty Images

The cavalry arrives

A passing driver named Glenmore Martin pulled in front of the Ford, blocking it. He moved to distract Ball, but Ball pointed his gun at him, so he instead turned to offering help to the wounded Constable Hills.

Journalist John Brian McConnell then appeared on the scene, challenged the gunman, and was also shot.

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Another driver, Ron Russell, was heading home from work. He saw Ball shoot Hills and he said later to Eastern Daily Press: “I thought, ‘That’s a liberty! He needs sorting.’” A former heavyweight boxer, he joined the fray, and as Ball and Princess Anne were arguing, he walked up and punched Ball in the back of the head. Ball turned and fired at Russell, but missed.

The distraction gave the princess the opportunity to reach the door handle behind her and she somersaulted out the other side of the car. She reasoned that her getting out would force the attacker to move, and she was right. Ball tried to run around the car towards Anne, and she jumped back into the car, closing both doors. Russell punched Ball again, and he went down.

Regaining his feet, Ball took off across St James’ Park. Peter Edmonds, a detective constable, gave chase, and tossed his coat over Ball’s head, tackling him and making the arrest. The ordeal was over.

The entire event had taken 10 minutes.

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The aftermath

Inside Ball’s vehicle, police found handcuffs, tranquilisers and a ransom note demanding £2 million (US$2.77 million) in £5 notes to be placed in 20 suitcases, and a demand that he be sent on a plane to Switzerland. The note apparently included the words “Anne will be shot dead”.

Little is known about Ball and his motivation, but he said at his trial: “I would like to say that I did it to draw attention to the lack of facilities for treating mental health under the National Health Service.”

Former heavyweight boxer Ronnie Russell poses with the George Medal he was awarded for saving Princess Anne from a kidnap attempt in 1974, ahead of it being auctioned at Dix Noonan Webb in London. Photo: PA Images via Getty Images

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All who were shot that night went on to recover. Queen Elizabeth awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian award for courage to Inspector Beaton. She presented the George Medal to Hills and Ronald Russell, and Queen’s Gallantry Medals to Edmonds and Callender. Glenmore Martin received the Queen’s Commendation for brave conduct. According to the BBC, Russell recounted that, when the queen awarded his medal, she said: “The award comes from the queen, the ‘thank you’ comes from Anne’s mother.”

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  • Inside the Austin limo in 1974 was the princess, her then-husband Captain Mark Phillips, a lady-in-waiting, royal chauffeur and police inspector James Beaton
  • Queen Elizabeth awarded the George Cross to Beaton, and the George Medal, Queen’s Gallantry Medals and a Queen’s Commendation to others involved