‘Remembering the attempt to kidnap a British princess’

Mar 21, 2020
The aftermath of Ian Ball's attempted kidnapping of Princess Anne in March, 1974. Ball used the white Ford Escort to block the path of the princess's Rolls Royce limousine. Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It was on March 20, 1974 that an attempt to kidnap Queen Elizabeth II’s only daughter, Princess Anne, was foiled. The then 23-year-old princess was travelling back to Buckingham Palace after having attended a charity event with her first husband, Captain Mark Phillips, when their car was blocked by another vehicle. The driver, 26-year-old Ian Ball, pulled a handgun on the princess.

According to news reports of the day, Ball shot the princess’s chauffeur and a security officer as well as a nearby tabloid journalist who had bravely tried to intervene. Three policemen also faced off against Bally. However, it was only when a passing boxer came in and punched Ball in the head that the attack was finally stopped.

Princess Anne and Mark Phillips had only been married four months when the attempted kidnapping took place. They’d been at a charity film screening and were travelling in the back of a maroon Rolls Royce limousine marked with royal insignia. In the passenger seat was the princess’s bodyguard, Inspector James Wallace Beaton, who was a member of SO14 (Scotland Yard’s special operations branch in charge of protecting the royals).

The car was travelling down Pall Mall, which runs between Trafalgar Square and Buckingham Palace in London. They were overtaken by a white Ford Escort and just shy of 200 metres from the palace it forced the chauffeur to come to an abrupt stop.

When Ian Ball exited his car he was holding two handguns. He charged his way to the back of the limousine. Assuming the man was a disgruntled driver, Inspector Beaton stepped from the limo and went to meet him. Ball shot the officer in the right shoulder.

Ball’s target was the princess. Long before Prince William and Catherine or Prince Harry and Meghan, Princess Anne was Britain’s ‘celebrity royal’ of the day. She’d met her husband (a commoner no less!) through their mutual equestrian circles. In addition to being a Captain in the British Army, Mark Phillips was also a gold medal-winning horseman at the ’72 Munich Olympic Games.

Ball had rented the vehicle under a false name. He had with him two pairs of handcuffs, Valium and a ransom letter addressed to the Queen. Police later revealed that in the letter Ball had criticised the royal family and demanded they pay him £2 million (to be delivered in £5 sterling notes) if they wanted to see their princess again.

Princess Anne attempted kidnapping
Exhibits officer David Bowen shows the articles found in Ian Ball’s possession on the night he attempted to kidnap Princess Anne. Source: PA Images/Getty Images

After he was shot, Inspector Beaton tried to shoot Ball, but his wounded shoulder affected his aim. After he’d got the first shot out, his gun jammed.

Having reached the limo, Ball had hold of the car door and was shaking it, demanding Princess Anne come out. Princess Anne and Phillips held the door shut from the inside as best they could. Princess Anne’s lady-in-waiting was able to escape out the door on the passenger side and Beaton was able to get himself back into the car.

Ball had now shot into the car. Beaton was able to deflect the bullet using his hand. A third shot at Beaton wounded him so severely that he was forced from the limousine.

The chauffeur, Alexander Callendar (who was also one of the Queen’s drivers) tried to confront the gunman and was shot in the chest.

Ball pulled the back door open and grabbed hold of Princess Anne’s arm. Her husband held onto her waist. The tussle caused Princess Anne’s dress to rip.

Princess Anne, it is quoted, then had a firm conversation with her potential kidnapper. While he begged her to come with him she kept telling him that she would not.

The first police office on the scene was 22-year-old Constable Michael Hills. He’d been patrolling nearby when he heard the struggle. He had no idea what he was about to be confronted with when he arrived. When he approached Ball and attempted to grab him, Ball turned and shot him in the stomach.

A gent by the name of Ronald Russell was on his way home from work when he came across the unfolding scene. He’d seen Ball take down Officer Hills and approached the gunman on foot.

“He needs sorting,” Russell remembers thinking at the time. At 6’4″ and a with a background in boxing, Russell had one goal in mind …

John Brian MCConnell was a journalist for the Daily Mail. He instantly recognised the royal insignia and knew something was amiss. He approached Ball and tried to reason with him. Ball shot McConnell.

Ian Ball returned to his struggle with Princess Anne. Distracted, he did not see Ronald Russell approach from behind. Russell punched Ball in the back of the head, which was enough to draw Ball away from Princess Anne, if only momentarily. Russell was able to punch Ball in the face as more police officers arrived on the scene.

Nervous at the presence, Ian Ball made a run for it. He was chased by a temporary detective constable by the name of Peter Edmonds through St James Park. Edmonds was able to throw his coat over the assailant’s head and tackle him to the ground, making and arrest.

When Ian Ball faced court he revealed that his crime was motivated by the lack of facilities for treating mental illnesses under the National Health Service. He had a history of mental illness, according to his lawyer.

Princess Anne attempted kidnapping
Ian Ball is led in handcuffs from a police van to court. He was charged with attempted murder of Princess Anne’s bodyguard and an attempt to kidnap the princess. Source: Getty Images

He pleaded guilty to attempted murder and kidnapping. He was sentenced to life in a mental health facility. Almost 10 years later, Ball wrote a letter to Parliament to say that he’d been framed and that the kidnapping was a hoax.

Though there was lots of criticism about the failed protection of a member of the royal family and suggestions that such protections be increased, Buckingham Palace released a statement shortly after the attack to say the royal family “had no intention of living in bullet-proof cages”. In fact, Princess Anne and Captain Phillips returned to their routine and their home at Sandhurst the day after the attack.

Princess Anne attempted kidnapping
Ronald Russell (far right) joins Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Anne, Captain Mark Phillips and a group of guests involved in foiling the kidnapping attempt on Princess Anne. Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On March 4, Ronald Russell made the heart-breaking decision to sell his George Medal for bravery, something he vowed never to do. The medal fetched £50,000 at auction.

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