The Bloody Attempt to Kidnap a British Princess

Remembering the failed plot undertaken by a lone gunman

The aftermath of Ian Ball's attempt
The aftermath of Ian Ball's attempt to kidnap Princess Anne. Ball's white Ford Escort is parked blocking the path of the princess' limousine. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

There were seven men in total who tried to stop Ian Ball, an unemployed laborer from north London, from kidnapping Princess Anne, Queen Elizabeth’s only daughter. A tabloid journalist, a former boxer, two chauffeurs and three policemen all faced off against Ball, but it was the princess herself, a force to be reckoned with in her own right, who kept Ball distracted from his goal.

Around 8 p.m. on a March 20, 1974, Princess Anne and her husband of four months were heading towards Buckingham Palace after attending a charity film screening. Anne’s lady-in-waiting sat across from the couple in the back of a maroon Austin Princess Vanden Plas limousine marked with the royal insignia, and in the passenger seat rode her bodyguard: Inspector James Wallace Beaton, a member of SO14, Scotland Yard’s special operations branch charged with royalty protection. As the chauffeur drove down the Mall, a road that runs between London’s Trafalgar Square and Buckingham Palace, a white Ford Escort overtook and forced him to stop about 200 yards away from the palace. A bearded man with light red hair exited the car and, holding two handguns, charged towards the rear of the limo. Inspector Beaton, 31, assumed that the man was a disgruntled driver and stepped out to meet him. From six feet away, the assailant shot the officer in his right shoulder.

In aiming to kidnap Anne, Ian Ball was targeting the celebrity royal of Britain’s day. The previous November, the 23-year-old princess had married a commoner – Mark Phillips, a Captain in the British army. The two had met through equestrian circles: the talented horseman had won a team gold medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and in 1971, the BBC had named Anne, later an Olympian equestrian along with Phillips in the 1976 games, as its Sports Personality of the year. Their nuptials attracted 2,000 guests, and The New York Times said the televised audience of 500 million was “the most ever” for a wedding. In a piece that indicates that the media’s fascination with celebrity hasn’t changed all that much, NYT journalist John J. O’Connor wrote that “network television’s coverage blitz” was “lacking much substance” and “could only leave the average viewer puzzled and blinking.”

On the night of the kidnapping attempt, SO14 had only assigned one man to protect the princess, but then again only one bodyguard accompanied Queen Elizabeth on unofficial trips to and from her residence at the time. Although Ball would not have known the route that the limousine would take that night, the palace had publicized Princess Anne’s appearance at the event, potentially making it easy for someone to follow the maroon limousine as it escorted her from the theater that evening.

A 26-year-old victim of mental illness, Ball had rented a car under the name of John Williams, in which police would later find two pairs of handcuffs, Valium tranquilizers, and a ransom letter addressed to the Queen. He had typed a rambling note that criticized the royal family and demanded a £2 million ransom to be delivered in £5 sterling notes. Ball asked that the Queen have the money stored in 20 unlocked suitcases and put on a plane destined for Switzerland. Queen Elizabeth II herself, wrote Ball, need to appear on the plane to confirm the authenticity of her signatures on needed paperwork.

Although few of London’s Metropolitan police carried guns, those assigned to protect the royal family carried automatic weapons. Inspector Beaton tried to shoot Ian Ball, but his wounded shoulder hurt his aim. After firing once, his gun jammed.

Ball turned to the rear door behind the driver’s seat and started shaking it. Anne sat on the other side.

“Open, or I’ll shoot!” he yelled.

As the princess and Captain Phillips did their best to hold the door shut, Princess Anne’s lady-in-waiting crawled out of the door on the passenger side. Beaton took the opportunity to jump back in the limo. He placed himself between the couple and their assailant, who shot into the car. Beaton’s hand deflected the bullet. Ball then shot him a third time, causing a wound that forced Beaton out of the car and onto the ground. Chauffeur Alexander Callendar, one of the Queen’s drivers, stepped out to confront the gunman. Ball shot him in the chest and Callender fell back into the car. Pulling the back door open, Ball grabbed Anne’s forearm as Phillip held onto her waist.

“Please, come out,” said Ball to Anne. “You’ve got to come.”

As the two men struggled over Anne, her dress ripped, splitting down the back. Instead of panicking, she had what she later called “a very irritating conversation” with her potential kidnapper.

“I kept saying I didn’t want to get out of the car, and I was not going to get out of the car,” she told police.

In response to one of Ball’s pleas, Princess Anne retorted, “Bloody likely.”

“I was frightened, I won’t mind admitting it,” Captain Phillips later said.  The scariest part, he remembered, was feeling like a caged animal when police officers started arriving. Then “the rescue was so near, but so far” as constables hesitated to advance on an armed man so near the princess.

Police Constable Michael Hills, 22, was first on the scene. Patrolling nearby when he heard the sounds of a struggle, he assumed the conflict was over a car accident. He approached Ball and touched his shoulder. The gunman turned and shot Hills in the stomach. Before collapsing, Hills maintained enough strength to radio his station.

Ronald Russell, a company cleaning executive, was driving home from work when he saw the scene on the side of the road. He approached on foot after seeing Ian Ball confront Officer Hills.

“He needs sorting,” Russell later remembered thinking. A 6’4” former boxer, Russell advanced to punish the shooter for hurting a policeman.

Another motorist, a chauffeur named Glenmore Martin, had parked his car in front of the white Ford to keep Ball from escaping. He also tried to distract Ball, but when the gunman aimed at him, Martin turned to help Officer Hills on the side of the road. Meanwhile, Daily Mail journalist John Brian McConnell came onto the scene. Recognizing the insignia on the limo, he knew a member of the royal family was in danger.

“Don’t be silly, old boy,” he said to Ball. “Put the gun down.” Ball shot him. McConnell fell to the road, now the third man bleeding onto the pavement.

After McConnell fell, Ball turned back to his struggle for Princess Anne. Ronald Russell approached from behind and punched Ball in the back of the head. While the former boxer distracted the gunman, Anne reached for the door handle on the opposite side of the backseat. She opened it and pushed her body backwards out of the car.

“I thought that if I was out of the car that he might move,” she said. She was right. As Ball ran around the car towards the princess, she jumped back in with Phillips, shutting the door. Ronald Russell then punched Ball in the face. More police officers were now witnessing the action.

Princess Anne noticed their presence made Ian Ball nervous. “Go on,” she said. “Now’s your chance.”

He took off running.

Peter Edmonds, a temporary detective constable, had heard Officer Hills’ call regarding the attack. As he pulled up to the scene in his own car, he saw a man take off with a gun through St. James Park. Edmonds chased Ball, threw his coat over Ball’s head, tackled him and made an arrest. Authorities found over £300 in £10 notes on his person. Later, they learned that earlier that month, Ball had rented a home on a dead-end road in Hampshire, five miles away from Sandhurst Military Academy, also the home of Princess Anne and Captain Phillips.

The next day, headlines around America reviewed the night’s events: “Princess Anne Escapes Assassin”; “Lone Gunman Charged in Royal Kidnap Plot”; “Security Increases Around Prince Charles;” “Witnesses Describe Panic on the Mall”; “Queen is Horrified at Attack on Princess.”

“If someone had tried to kidnap Julie Eisenhower Nixon on Park Avenue,” wrote The New York Times, the press would create “within a day or two” a “lavish portrait of that someone.” Because of British laws that limited pre-trial publicity, “just about all that Brits are likely to know for the next month or two they know already.”

Home Secretary Roy Jenkins ordered an investigative report for the Prime Minister and told the press that the investigation needed to remain “broadly confidential;” both Scotland Yard and Buckingham Palace refused to comment on specific details.

Journalists scrambled to pull together theories on how a mentally ill, unemployed man could have masterminded a well-funded kidnapping attempt on his own. An office clerk told a reporter that the police had traced a typewriter that Ball had rented to write the ransom letter. Papers reported that one line of the letter read “Anne will be shot dead.” Days after the kidnapping attempt, a group calling themselves the Marxist-Leninist Activist Revolutionary Movement sent a letter claiming responsibility to The Times of London. Scotland Yard dismissed any connection between that group and Ian Ball. Others recognized a familiar theme in the reported content of the ransom letter, in which Ball had allegedly stated that he would donate the Queen’s ransom to the National Health Services. One month before, a group identifying as the Symbionese Liberation Army had kidnapped Patricia Hearst. In its communication with the Hearst family, the SLA said that they would return the young woman if her family donated what would amount to millions of dollars of food to hungry Californians.

“There is no present indication that this was other than an isolated act by an individual,” Jenkins told the House of Commons. It agreed with his request that the findings of the investigation remain confidential.

Secretary Jenkins told the papers that he ordered an increase in royal protection but refused to comment on the details. Buckingham Palace released a statement saying that the royal family “had no intention of living in bullet-proof cages.” Chief among them was Princess Anne, who valued her privacy even after recognizing fortune in escaping un-scathed.

“There was only one man,” she later said. “If there had been more than one it might have been a different story.” The princess recognized in an interview that one’s “greatest danger” is perhaps “the lone nutcases” that “have just got enough” resources to put a crime together. “If anybody was serious on wiping one out, it would be very easy to do.”

When Ian Ball appeared in court on April 4, his lawyer spoke about his history of mental illness, but Ball also gave a statement on what motivated his crime: “I would like to say that I did it because I wished to draw attention to the lack of facilities for treating mental illness under the National Health Service.”

Ian Ball pleaded guilty to attempted murder and kidnapping charges. Sentenced to a life term in a mental health facility, he has spent at least part of his internment at Broadmoor, a high-security psychiatric hospital. Even after Ian Ball’s sentencing, the public would know little else about him except for his birth date and birthplace, and eyewitness accounts of his appearance and actions. In 1983, Ball penned a letter to a member of Parliament in which he claimed that the attempted kidnapping was a hoax, and that he was framed.

(Scotland Yard’s investigation remained closed until January 1, 2005. The British National Archives released them in honor of “the thirty year rule,” which requires the release of cabinet papers 30 years after their filing.)

Less than ten years after the botched kidnapping, the press criticized Scotland Yard again for failing to protect the royal family when in July of 1982 an unemployed man scaled the palace walls and snuck into Queen Elizabeth’s bedroom. The two talked for ten minutes before the queen could summon help. The following year, Scotland Yard reorganized the Royalty Protection Branch and placed James Wallace Beaton as its superintendent.  

The day after the attack, Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips returned to routine at their home on the grounds of Sandhurst: he instructed cadets on the rifle range, and she tended to her horses. That September, Queen Elizabeth II awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian award for courage, to Inspector Beaton. She presented the George Medal, the second-highest civilian honor for bravery, to Police Constable Hills and Ronald Russell, and Queen’s Gallantry medals (the third-highest) to Police Constable Edmonds, John Brian McConnell and Alexander Callender. Glenmore Martin received the Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct.

While Scotland Yard refuses to release specifics on SO14, an internal police budget in 2010 revealed that it spent approximately 113.5 million pounds on royal security. By 2012, this number reportedly decreased to £50 million. As part of the revised budget, Scotland Yard slashed monies dedicated to protecting “non-working royals,” such as Prince Andrew’s daughters (and Anne’s nieces), Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice, except for when they are at official family events. Prince Andrew privately hired security to accompany his daughters, fearing for their safety as his mother feared for Anne’s 40 years ago.

In a 2006 interview, Ronald Russell recalled what Queen Elizabeth said as she presented his George Medal: “The medal is from the Queen of England, the thank you is from Anne’s mother.”

Editor's Note, September 20, 2022: This article previously stated that Princess Anne was riding in a Rolls-Royce during the kidnapping attempt. In fact, she was riding in an Austin Princess Vanden Plas limousine.

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