Oration honouring Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal
Friday, April 23, 10 a.m.
In the old fairy tales it is very common for a princess to be visited at her birth by a malevolent figure. That figure delivers a malediction, a curse which will blight the child’s life until it can be removed by some mode of magic. In the world of Disney (which now channels all fables through its bank accounts), that magic is generally the kiss of a prince. In that the Princess Royal did suffer the malediction of an uninvited guest and was cured by a kiss, she has been a quite traditional princess.
But, Vice-Chancellor, for those of you who know her personality and her history, the form these fables take in her life is quite different from the form they take in the old tales. First, the curse was not placed at her birth but later. Second, the curse came in the form of an ancient creature, Argus the hundred-eyed who was sent to watch over her. The Argus of Greek legend guarded Io, the beloved of Zeus.
In the case of the Princess Royal her Argus was that hideous monster, the press who, once she came of age, descended upon her with their clawed words and pestilential tongues.
Never one to quail in the face of adversity – do note, Vice-Chancellor, that this is a woman who is a good shot with a tank cannon, a woman who has fended off an armed kidnapper – she has had to deal with comments that spoke of her as “The Royal Sourpuss” and “Her Royal Haughtiness” and was described by one of her more venomous observers as someone “whose poisonous spittle could stop a camel in its tracks … and blind a press photographer for life.”
That comment is a complete and absolute slander. The Princess Royal would never contemplate such maltreatment of an animal she might ride, indeed, has ridden. On the other hand, she might well have wished – but never acted upon that wish – to have so justifiably treated some photographers.
So she set herself two goals – to be involved and to do well in anything in which she was involved. This is best demonstrated in her accomplishments as an equestrian and in her contributions to charitable organizations. Representing Britain at European riding events, she won a gold medal in 1971 and silver for both team and individual performance in 1975. In 1976 she rode for Britain at the Montreal Olympic Games and was later President of the British Olympic Association as well as a member of the International Olympic Committee. No other member of the Royal Family has competed in the Olympics nor achieved such distinction in sport.
Involved in numerous organizations as patron, she has been a particularly hard-working figure in Save the Children of which she has been president since 1970. For this group she has put in long, draining and, occasionally, dangerous hours. During an African tour in 1982 she insisted, despite Foreign Office cautions about a border dispute, on visiting Somali refugee camps. On her way home she stopped in Beirut, then ravaged by a vicious civil war, to see her organization’s workers and their working conditions. That she is prepared to visit troubled sites in troubled countries often opens the eyes of local politicians and, more importantly, opens their treasuries to alleviate those troubles.
These achievements and this level of commitment led to some very high public regard: in 1986 she was voted Woman of the Year, getting more votes than all other candidates combined. And, being a terribly democratic Royal, she did equally well in another election: that for the Chancellorship of the University of London where she ran against a leading trades unionist and, mirabile dictu, no less than Nelson Mandela – and won.
These accolades were rather like the kiss of the prince in our fairy tale for they had a very salutary affect on Argus, on her persecutors in the press, and one of them remarked that she had “emerge[d] as a cross between Mother Theresa and Grace Kelly” – no slight tribute from that cynical crew. Somewhat later she received an even odder tribute. While visiting the King’s Royal Hussars in Germany she had, after a long day, settled down to a cup of tea with the Colonel’s wife. They were joined by the family dog who kept coming in to present Her Royal Highness with a series of single socks – never a pair – eventually building up quite a pile beside the royal chair. She received these with due regard to the kindly animal. At another time the tribute, this time from an innocent child, was even more striking. The excited little girl to whom Her Royal Highness had just presented a commemorative badge, exclaimed “Oh God!” to which the Princess replied with her characteristic wry humour, “Not quite.”
Today she stands before us as Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, that regiment upon whose sacrifice this university is founded. Let us pay tribute to her for that role and also for her great public service and her very considerable achievements. Vice-Chancellor, I present to you for the degree of doctor of laws (honoris causa), Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal.