The real history behind ‘The Crown’ with Robert Lacey

Ahead of the release of season two of hit Netflix drama The Crown on 8 December, History Extra spoke to Robert Lacey, royal historian and author of new book The Crown: The Inside History.

The Crown. (Image © Robert Viglasky / Netflix)

Season One of hit Netflix series The Crown dramatised the personal and political challenges that faced Queen Elizabeth II’s reign in the mid-20th century. Set across ten stylish episodes, the drama spanned from Elizabeth’s marriage to Philip Mountbatten in 1947 and the last years of her father King George VI’s rule, to the final days of Winston Churchill’s premiership and the growing tensions over the Suez Canal. Elsewhere, many viewers were absorbed by Princess Margaret’s divisive relationship with divorcee Peter Townsend, while in another episode, a great smog descended on London and led to catastrophe. But how much of the series is drawn from real events?

Here, royal historian Robert Lacey takes us through the history that informed The Crown, and previews the coming seasons of the award-winning drama… 

 

Q: The popularity of the British monarchy has ebbed and flowed throughout history. Why do you think that the family continues to hold such fascination in the new century?

A: We’ve had part of the answer in this autumn of 2017 – exactly one hundred years from the foundation of the house of Windsor – as the news that Kate was pregnant was ranked up on the front pages of websites alongside news of nuclear tests in North Korea. And now Harry and Meghan have taken over the headlines.

It’s dodging the issue to blame the media for this, to suggest their priorities are commercial and misplaced. Why shouldn’t they be commercial? Interest in the royal family reflects human interest – it’s human nature. When America elects a president – if you look at the Kennedys or the Bushes or the Clintons, for example – a royal family is created around that figure. If you’re cynical, you can talk about the political machinery of this, but the political machines are only responding to a very basic human impulse. We want to see humanity at the heart of history and the British royal family has, with great skill, fulfilled this function over the years.


Queen Elizabeth II is played by actress Claire Foy in the award-winning drama. (© Robert Viglasky/Netflix)
 

 

Q: How do you go about advising on a show that dramatises the lives of the royals, some of whom are still living?

A: I gained great inspiration this summer from reading Hilary Mantel’s 2017 Reith Lectures [in which the author considered, in part, the role of historical fiction in portraying the past]. I’m paraphrasing Mantel, but she pointed out that the past (the trillions of lives, loves and hates that real people actually lived out) and ‘history’ (the relatively elite, written records and evidence that survive today) are two very different things: she argued that 95 per cent of what we know about the past – what ordinary people actually said to each other, what they felt in their hearts – has vanished. What’s left is just a few stones and clods of evidence that have been caught in the sieve, and that’s what historians turn into a whole elaborate structure. History is actually our method of dealing with what we do not know about the past – and she also pointed out the power of empathy and the imagination to capture past realities and bring them vividly to life.

For instance, in his great play Maria Stewart, Friedrich Schiller depicts a dramatic 16th-century encounter between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. Gaetano Donizetti based his famous opera upon it and the play is regularly revived, and the critics remark respectfully on how marvellously the drama captures the conflict between Elizabeth and Mary. And it does. We understand the issues and the characters of the two women better thanks to Schiller – and to Donizetti. But as all historians know, Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I never actually met. They wrote letters. They sent messages. But they never confronted each other face to face. So that’s the leap of imagination that dramatists make.

It’s also important to remember that The Crown is not just based on events inside Buckingham Palace. It’s equally based what was happening in Downing Street in those years – and the seasons are actually based on political milestones, rather than the royal family. The first season ends in 1955 with the departure of Churchill; season two explores 1955-64 – the Conservative and post-Suez years; while the third season, on which we’re now working, covers 1964-76, the Harold Wilson years (with Ted Heath in the middle).


The Crown also dramatises events at Downing Street and season two will consider the Conservative and post-Suez years in government. (© Alex Bailey / Netflix)

 

Q: What can you tell us about moments that might have been embellished or imagined in the series? 

A: There’s a whole research team of ten working full time on the series so that every single episode can be based on solid history. Peter Morgan [the writer of The Crown] takes his inspiration from that, then checks the scripts with people like me, as well as with the people who were actually involved in the real events – the best sources of all.

But yes, from time to time, Peter also pushes his imagination to outright invention – what you could call dramatic license, or as I would prefer to put it, dramatic underlining. For instance, Venetia Scott, the character who is Churchill’s favourite secretary in episode four, the story of the Great Smog of December 1952, was invented, because there was no single real figure that could represent all of the things Peter wanted to show. ‘Act of God’, the story of the Great Smog, covers the week or so in December 1952 when thick smog descended across London. It is estimated that 6,000 people died of breathing-related diseases in London that month – more than were killed in any single month of bombing during the Blitz in the Second World War – and the way that The Crown deals with that event dramatically is to have Venetia Scott die, which obviously never happened because she never existed. But her death under a bus symbolises the jarring reality which shook Churchill out of his complacency and galvanised him to help campaign, alongside Clement Attlee on a cross-party basis, for the reforms that led to Britain’s Clean Air Act of 1956. Some people might not realise that Britain was a pioneer in clean air legislation in the 1950s, and this was largely due to the Great Smog of 1952, and the consensus that emerged from it. 


Prime minister Winston Churchill, portrayed by John Lithgow in The Crown, visits a hospital during the Great Smog of 1952. (© Alex Bailey / Netflix)

In episode seven, Professor Hodge is introduced – a fictitious teacher who visits the palace to help the adult Queen plug the gaps that she feels she has in her learning. Hodge is a totally imaginary figure who is there to symbolise the Queen’s very well-documented feeling that she wasn’t educated properly, and that she needed to improve things. But Hodge also helps dramatise the Queen’s eventual realisation that education and wisdom are two very different things. The professor feels she has wisdom in ample supply – and tells her so.

 

Q: You write about the well-documented comments from King George VI that Princess Elizabeth was his pride, while Princess Margaret was his joy. How might this have affected their relationship?

A: Yes, indeed. In the book, I quote courtiers saying after the abdication – when it was realised that one of George VI’s children would be a future monarch: “Thank goodness Margaret is the younger one”. But this raises the question of whether Margaret’s rebellious behaviour reflected the fact that she knew she was destined for lesser responsibilities.

You can also argue that the romance between Margaret and Peter Townsend was not a wilful act of rebellion, but a totally legitimate relationship which exposed the hypocrisy of the government at the time with regard to divorce. The prime minister, Anthony Eden, was divorced and remarried himself, but his cabinet denied that same opportunity to a relatively junior member of the royal family.


Princess Margaret and Group Captain Peter Townsend's relationship is portrayed in The Crown. (© Alex Bailey / Netflix)

During my research, I found that the Daily Mirror had polled its readers to find out how many were in favour of Margaret and Townsend’s union – and tens of thousands were. It’s fascinating to read why people voted the way they did: most talked about their own lives and empathised with the couple, while the people who opposed it talked about putting duty and respectability before personal inclination. So, we can see that much of the historical drama in the story goes back to ordinary people’s preoccupations and values, and how they look at the royal family to see how they might reflect that.

It’s also fascinating to speculate about the degree to which the Queen’s stiff upper lip is natural. I think that anyone who’s studied the Queen would agree that one of the strengths and reasons for her success has been her ability to detach and her sense of duty. But at what emotional cost has this been to her, and to those around her? 


Tens of thousands of people were in favour of a union between Princess Margaret and Group Captain Peter Townsend, royal historian Robert Lacey found. The two are pictured here during a royal tour of South Africa in 1947. (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

 

Q: The balance between duty and choice seems to be a theme that features across the series. How does the show approach this idea, and the depictions of the pressures and duties that come with royal and political roles?

A: There’s a lovely example with regard to Prince Philip and the Mountbatten family name – because it’s not often realised that Queen Elizabeth II actually came to the throne as a Mountbatten, not a Windsor. She had been Elizabeth Mountbatten ever since she married Philip in November 1947 and took his surname, having consulted the government and Lord Chancellor of the time who checked all the precedents, including the act of 1917 that had changed the royal family’s name to Windsor. So, Louis Mountbatten, Philip’s uncle, was quite right when he stood up at a dinner party at Broadlands early in 1952 and said that “the House of Mountbatten now reigns”. The description of his comment and the dinner party is based on a historical account by Ernst August of Hanover who was present and took the news to Queen Mary [widow of King George V and the Queen’s grandmother]. 

But as we see on the screen, Elizabeth’s grandmother Queen Mary, one of the surviving co-founders of the house of Windsor (with her husband George V), was having none of this. She went to Winston Churchill, who put the question of the royal family surname to the top of the agenda for the Cabinet, and the House of Windsor was restored on 7 April 1952 – two months into the reign. So, here’s an example of the TV series actually teaching people some history they may not have known existed.

 

Q: A key concern of The Crown is the relationships between the Queen and her prime ministers. Can you talk a little about that? 

A: The Queen’s relationship with Winston Churchill is particularly fascinating to explore for a couple of reasons. One is Churchill’s enormous sentimentality and the wonderful speech he made after the death of King George VI, which reminded the public of what lay ahead. He caught the poignancy of a whole generation that had grown up saying ‘God save the King’ having to change and say ‘Queen’. There’s also the romantic concept of the old warrior and statesman teaching government to the new, ingénue Queen. This is absolutely historical because Churchill recorded having these thoughts. 

There’s a very specific incident in June 1953 when Churchill, Salisbury [Robert Cecil, the 5th Marquess of Salisbury], Anthony Eden and the whole Conservative hierarchy concealed from the Queen the fact that Churchill was virtually incapacitated by a stroke. In history, this fact wasn’t revealed until 1985, when Jock Colville [who served as Churchill’s private secretary] published his memoirs. But Peter Morgan imagines that the Queen discovered this at the time and tells the culprits what she thinks of them. 

In the next season, we’re going to see Anthony Eden concealing the Suez conspiracy from the monarch and the issues that arise from that. There’s real political meat there.


The Queen shakes Anthony Eden's hand at a gala in 1956. Season two of 'The Crown' will cover Eden's premiership and how the prime minister concealed the Suez conspiracy from the monarch. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

 

 

Q: The series and book show the ways in which the monarchy was not afraid to adapt to changing times and new technologies. How did television and the media shape perceptions of the monarchy?

A: That’s one of the great themes that emerges, particularly around the coronation of 1953 – and it has special meaning for me. The first time I watched television, apart from seeing TV sets in shop windows, was in Westbury-on-Trym in Bristol, when I went next door to my neighbours on 2 June and sat down on the dining room chairs that had been turned into a little cinema and watched the coronation. I was seven years old.

We know the personal issues that worried the Queen about her coronation: that the cameras would intrude on private moments – when her upper breast was anointed, for example, or when she took communion. She didn’t want television to intrude on these especially sacred rituals. 

What’s particularly enjoyable historically about dealing with these early TV seasons is that we’ve got such solid documentation, thanks to the 50-Year rule making so many official papers available. We can look at the minutes of the coronation committee; we can see what the committee members commented on and argued about; and we can also read the letters coming to and from Churchill.

 

Q: There’s a scene in the series in which a camera crew records a quarrel in Australia in 1954 between the Queen and Prince Philip, but hands the footage over to the Queen. This might seem starkly different from the relationship between the press and the monarchy today. Did the episode really happen?

A: Yes, it did. Our evidence for the incident comes from a PhD thesis on the tour researched by an Australian scholar who tracked down the camera crew. They confirmed they had filmed it – and I phoned the scholar to check all the details. One difference between what happened and what we see on the screen is that the crew themselves decided to open to back of the camera and expose the film, without any pressure from the royal family or from Commander Richard Colville [the Queen’s then press officer]. 

There’s also an instance when Elizabeth was in Africa just after she’d become Queen, and the photographers bowed their head and put their cameras on the ground, not taking photographs. We know that happened – chapter and verse.


Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, photographed during a royal tour of Australia in 1954. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

One of the arcs of the show in season two will be how this power shifts. We look at Lord Altrincham, who overtly criticised the style of the Queen and her speaking voice, and later series (4 and 5) will move on to the ‘Diana years’. We’ll look at paparazzi and celebrity intrusion and the two-way complexities of that, which Diana represented. Diana is often seen as a victim of press intrusion, but in some ways of course, she also encouraged and welcomed press attention.

 

Q: What else do the seasons ahead hold for viewers? 

A: We’re looking ahead now to season three and to the great social reforms of the Wilson administration. This included the legalisation of homosexuality, the end of theatre censorship, and the relaxation of divorce laws, and I am just studying the extent to which the feeling in the 1960s that the divorce laws needed changing derived from the furore over how the royal divorce laws affected Princess Margaret in the 1950s.

The show allows us to compare the ‘fantasy’ of the monarchy on the one hand with real life on the other. The Crown doesn’t pretend to reflect everyday life in Britain, because we are looking at the two elite pinnacles of British life, Buckingham Palace and Downing Street – but there is a creative interaction between the two. While Buckingham Palace reflects people’s dreams as played out through the royal family, it’s through Downing Street that one starts to touch on the changing life of the nation and the political issues of the time.

Robert Lacey is a historical advisor to The Crown and author of new book The Crown: The Inside History, on sale now (BLINK Publishing, 2017). Season two of Netflix series The Crown is released in full on 8 December 2017, while series one is available now. 

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