The Tindalls at 10 years: How Zara and Mike rewrote the royal rulebook

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Resetting the rulebook: Zara and Mike Tindall (Getty Images)
Resetting the rulebook: Zara and Mike Tindall (Getty Images)

Lagers on the sofa. Cheeky public displays of affection. Jokes about naming their new child Covi in a nod to the pandemic. It’s not what many would expect from a royal romance – then again, not many ever expected the Queen’s granddaughter Zara Phillips to marry former England rugby captain Mike Tindall when they two met in a bar in Sydney in 2003.

Since the couple tied the knot 10 years ago, theirs has been a very down-to-earth love story compared to her royal cousins’. According to insiders who know the Tindalls, their married life in Gloucestershire is made up of muddy dog walks, mucking out horses and mucking around at formal events - no wonder the Queen regards them as the most “normal” of her grandchildren, or so says one royal source.

Her Majesty clearly knows a solid team when she sees one. Outside their countryside idyll, the Tindalls have consistently proven themselves to be the most relatable of all the royals, continuing their careers as working parents and not shying away from the realities of family life and home births.

That public honesty has been trailblazing. The Duchess of Sussex bravely spoke about her miscarriage last year but the Tindalls no doubt paved the way back in 2016.

“It’s been a horrible road,” Zara told BBC Breakfast that year, on suffering a miscarriage. Two years later, they suffered a second, telling the Sunday Times that miscarriage is often not talked about “because it’s too raw”.

Happily, the couple now have three children: Mia Grace, Lena Elizabeth, and Lucas Philip, born on the bathroom floor in a surprise home birth and named for Mike’s father and Zara’s late grandfather, the Duke of Edinburgh.

So how did their love story begin and what’s their relationship like with the Queen today? Today, as they celebrate ten years of marriage, this is the story of the relatable royal couple.

Athletic beginnings

For two people so high up in their respective sports, the Tindalls meet-cute was fitting. They met in a bar in Sydney during the 2003 Rugby World Cup; him on tour with the England rugby team, her on a gap year.

 (PA)
(PA)

According to Zara, they were introduced by her cousin Prince Harry while Mike was drowning his sorrows at the bar after a match. “We got introduced but didn’t speak that much,” he once told the Daily Mail. “Later on, [fellow rugby player] Austin Healey gave me her number and said, ‘She wants you to text her, to say where you’re all going out after the final so she can come along.’”

Clearly, the text must have worked. The couple reportedly started dating back in the UK the following year, when Zara invited him to the North Cotswold Ball. “I think it was April 27 - that would be the official date we said we were going to go out with each other,” Mike has said since. Images at the Gatcombe Horse Trials in August that year show them being publicly affectionate as a couple.

Queen hosts reception for year’s top achievers (PA Archive)
Queen hosts reception for year’s top achievers (PA Archive)

Despite their separate successful sporting careers – Zara competed in the Olympics in 2008 and 2012 and Mike played professional rugby until 2014 – they made the relationship work. They dated for the next six years before Buckingham Palace announced their engagement in December 2010. The following year they married in an understated ceremony in Edinburgh.

A low-key love story

According to reports, Mike proposed at home while Zara was watching TV, in a reflection of what was and has continued to be a low-key relationship, compared to that of Zara’s royal cousins.

Indeed, life at their home, Gatcombe Park in Gloucestershire where Zara grew up, is far from the glamour of the Sussexes’ £11 million mansion in California. The family live close to Zara’s relatives (her brother Peter Phillips and his family live a stone’s throw away) and according to one royal source: “She and Mike relax in their dog-strewn home with a box set, a good curry and some lagers to assist the evening.” Princess Anne is believed to babysit when they enjoy the odd weekend date night at the local pub.

Mike Tindall and the Duchess of Gloucester mark Parkinson’s Awareness Month (PA Wire)
Mike Tindall and the Duchess of Gloucester mark Parkinson’s Awareness Month (PA Wire)

The source added: “Guests at Gatcombe are treated to ‘Muck in and be merry’. There are no formalities, what you see is what you get.”

Since welcoming daughters Mia Grace in 2014 and Lena Elizabeth in 2018, the pair have continued putting on public displays of affection at events like the Cheltenham Festival, holding hairs and kissing in front of cameras. Mike’s rugby-focused Instagram is a window into their informal relationship: posts show him and Zara homeschooling in face paint, dressed up for the polo and days out clay pigeon shooting, and, during the first lockdown, dressed up in rainbow t-shirts and clapping for carers.

Both have also chosen to keep up their separate sporting careers as working parents. Photos of the former world champion event rider riding while pregnant sparked public debate but supporters have said there is no reason she should give up her career, and her children have been spotted cheering her on – a picture taken at a dressage event a few years back shows the couple travelling in a buggy with Mia across their knees.

Insiders say they split parental responsibilities evenly, with Zara “up early, mucking out and riding out with her horses” in the mornings while Mike attends to their daughters.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Family favourites

Clearly, it’s the Tindalls relaxed, down-to-earth attitude that places them as firm favourites in the royal family. The couple are often the “first invited to a dinner party”, according to royal sources, and, says another, “Christmas at Sandringham is enhanced by the upbeat Tindalls, who diffuse any royal falling-outs and pecking order disruptions as soon as possible.”

Like her cousin Eugenie, Zara has seemingly forged a peacekeeping role. Sources say she was “the first choice” to be godmother to Prince George and takes the job seriously, encouraging “fun, new skill learning, a bit of riding, mini rugby and outward bound pursuits” when the Cambridges come to stay.

 (PA)
(PA)

“Mia and George are inseparable chums, egged on by Savannah and Isla. Muddy clothes, wet dogs, shrieking giggles, play fights are all to be expected by the Tindalls,” says one royal source.

This light-hearted approach has seems to have earned her a close relationship with the Queen. Zara says she often gets the “good look” as opposed to a stern one from her grandmother (“We are okay, I think we are alright,” she has said) and royal experts claim Her Majesty has a “tighter bond with [the Tindalls] than she does with Kate and William”. According to Ingrid Seward, editor-in-chief of Majesty Magazine, the Queen likes to be around them because they seem more “normal” than the Cambridges and she and Zara are close because neither of them are “intellectuals”.

“The Queen has always adored Zara and is so proud of her riding success,” Seward continues. “They have a lot in common as they talk horses and the Queen has invested in several horses for her.”

 (PA)
(PA)

Relatable royalty

Clearly, this closeness with the Queen has stayed strong throughout the couple’s highs and lows. When they suffered a miscarriage in 2016, Mike spoke of how Her Majesty offered much-needed comfort and support, staying with them for a private service during the traditional Christmas Day service at Sandringham.

“Two years ago, she wasn’t feeling very well and so she didn’t go to church and we’d obviously been what we’d been through with our pregnancy that we lost, so we did our own little private one - just as a three,” he told the House of Rugby podcast in 2019. No doubt, they’ll have returned that support for the Queen since the death of her husband Prince Philip.

Zara Tindall and her daughter Lena (PA Wire)
Zara Tindall and her daughter Lena (PA Wire)

This isn’t the only time the couple have been open about their struggles with miscarriage. “I think that’s the hardest thing in our situation, is that everyone knew,” Zara told BBC Breakfast presenter Sally Nugent in 2018. “When things like that happen, normally it’s just your family and friends, but unfortunately everyone knew about it.”

The silver lining, she says, was the support she received from the public. “Actually I had so many letters saying ‘I’m so sorry, we’ve been through the same thing’, which was incredible - and thank you to all those people,” Zara continued. “But it just showed how often it does happen and I have a very supportive family, Mike’s incredible.

“And it’s hard for the guys too.”

 (PA)
(PA)

She continued: “It’s very different for us because we’re carrying the child, but for guys I guess it’s kind of that helpless feeling, which must be incredibly high and horrible for them. At the end of the day they’ve still lost a child too.” She rounded off by adding that the “horrible road” they’ve been on has made them a “stronger family”.

Elsewhere, the pair have spoken candidly on a number of subjects, from the devastating impact of Parkinson’s disease on Mike’s father to the Queen’s “bravery” during the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral, held under pandemic restrictions in April.

The Queen is not believed to have met her great-grandson Lucas yet but Her Majesty was said to be “delighted” by the news in March and there are suggestions she could meet him soon . After Her Majesty’s support during one of their lowest moments four years ago, perhaps it’ll be the Tindalls’ chance to return the favour.

Watch: How the line of succession to the throne works

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