Royal historian Tracy Borman on the real events behind The Crown season 5
The penultimate season of Netflix’s smash-hit drama about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II is back, with a new cast and set in a new decade: the 1990s. Given that it is the first season since the death of the Queen, more attention than ever is on the debate of The Crown's historical accuracy. Tracy Borman offers her impressions, and explores the events of 1992, the Queen’s annus horribilis
On 24 November 1992, Elizabeth II gave a speech at London’s Guildhall, where a reception was held to mark her 40th year on the throne. “1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure,” she reflected. “It has turned out to be an annus horribilis.” For a Queen renowned for keeping a typically British stiff upper lip, no matter the storms that swirled around her, it offered a rare glimpse into the private distress that she, and the Royal Family, had suffered during what was arguably the worst year of her long reign.
Just four days earlier, a devastating fire ripped through Windsor Castle, one of the Queen’s beloved childhood homes, and caused such extensive damage that it would cost £36.5 million in restoration works. But the damage to the Crown’s public standing wreaked by the collapsed marriages of three of the Queen’s four children during the same year had been greater still. All the salacious details – from intimate recorded conversations to prying paparazzi photos – had provided endless fodder for the tabloid press. This same scandalous material has supplied a rich seam of storylines for season 5 of Netflix drama, The Crown.
The unravelling of the marriages of Charles and Diana, then Prince and Princess of Wales, Andrew and Sarah (‘Fergie’), Duke and Duchess of York, and Anne, the Princess Royal, and Captain Mark Phillips, are played out by an all-new cast in the penultimate series of the blockbuster biopic, penned by Peter Morgan.
But how much of it is true? As a historian of the monarchy, I should be well-placed to sift the fact from the fiction. Yet, such is the level of impeccably researched period detail in the screen portrayal that I found myself revisiting many of the original sources with which I have spent so much time over the past three decades. So, and without giving away too many spoilers, read on if you want to find out the truth behind those scandals behind the Queen’s ‘horrible year’.
Read more about the history behind each episode of The Crown season 5:
- The Crown S5 E1: ‘Queen Victoria Syndrome’ and a second honeymoon
- The Crown S5 E2: Prince Philip’s ‘keeper of secrets’ and Andrew Norton’s book on Princess Diana
- The Crown S5 E3: exiled royals and the al-Fayeds
- The Crown S5 E4: the Queen’s “annus horribilis” and Princess Margaret’s relationship with Peter Townsend
- The Crown S5 E5 real history: ‘Camillagate’ tapes and a “war council” for the monarchy’s survival
- The Crown S5 E6 real history: the Romanovs’ murder, and Philip’s “spiritual companionship”
- The Crown S5 E7 real history: the introduction of Martin Bashir, and a royal education
- The Crown S5 E8 real history: Diana’s Panorama interview causes fireworks
- The Crown S5 E9 real history: the divorce settlement between Charles and Diana
Princess Anne and Mark Phillips
Princess Anne (played by Claudia Harrison) was the first of the Queen’s children to set off down the aisle. Her choice of husband had come of something of a surprise, since Lieutenant Mark Phillips of the Queen’s Dragoon Guards was a complete unknown. A keen horseman and show-jumper, he moved in the same circles as Anne, but had kept a low profile during their courtship, meaning that the announcement of their engagement came as a shock even to their friends. The couple were married in Westminster Abbey on 14 November 1973 – the 25th birthday of Anne’s elder brother, Prince Charles. Although the marriage produced two children (Peter and Zara) and gave a much-needed boost to the monarchy’s public image after the disastrous 1969 fly-on-the-wall BBC documentary, The Royal Family, behind the scenes all was not well.
As hinted at in an earlier season of The Crown, Anne and her husband had little more than their love of horses in common and they soon grew apart. Then, as the latest season accurately depicts, Anne met Timothy Laurence, a commander in the Royal Navy and an equerry to her mother, while he was serving on the Royal Yacht Britannia. News of their relationship broke when The Sun newspaper revealed private letters from Laurence to the princess in 1989.
Anne and Phillips divorced in April 1992 and she married Laurence before the year was out. Whether, as The Crown has it, Anne had to overcome the Queen’s objections in order for the marriage to take place is less certain. It is telling, though, that they chose to be wed at Crathie Kirk near Balmoral Castle. Unlike the Church of England at the time, the Church of Scotland permitted the remarriage of divorced persons, which enabled Anne to avoid the turmoil faced by her great-uncle, Edward VIII, and her aunt, Princess Margaret – both of whom fell in love with divorcees, the former resulting in a constitutional crisis that led to the abdication in 1936.
Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson
A month before Anne’s divorce, her younger brother Prince Andrew (played by James Murray) formally separated from Sarah Ferguson, his wife since July 1986. Nicknamed ‘Fergie’ by the press, she was not noble by birth, but her family could trace their descent to King James VI and I and had long moved in royal circles. She and Andrew had known each other since childhood and, with her informal, gregarious nature, she seemed a breath of fresh air for an institution steeped in tradition and protocol.
The newly-created Duke and Duchess of York had two daughters, Beatrice and Eugenie, and enjoyed considerable popularity for a time. But their marriage, like Anne’s, ended with adultery. First there were the rumours surrounding the Duchess’s close friendship with Texan millionaire Steve Wyatt, who was pictured with one of her young daughters. Then, shortly after the Duke and Duchess separated, the paparazzi secured a much saucier shot when Sarah was snapped having her toes sucked by her ‘financial adviser’, Johnny Bryan, as she sunbathed topless. As depicted in The Crown, the tawdry media coverage caused the Royal Family considerable embarrassment.
Prince Charles and Princess Diana
In the Netflix series, as in real life, the collapse of both Anne’s and Andrew’s marriages proved to be a mere sideshow compared to the far more sensational and high-profile split between the Queen’s eldest son and his first wife. Dominic West and Elizabeth Debicki are the on-screen Prince Charles and Princess Diana, each putting in a performance that is exceptionally well-observed and utterly compelling.
From the beginning, Charles and Diana’s relationship had been played out in the glare of the media. As the heir to the throne, Charles was one of the most eligible bachelors in the world and Lady Diana Spencer (‘Shy Di’, as the press nicknamed her) was a beautiful, virginal bride of just 20 years old. “Here is the stuff of which fairy tales are made”, pronounced the archbishop of Canterbury in his address at the wedding, which took place in St Paul’s Cathedral on 29 July 1981.
It is no small irony that in this age of mass communication, we know fewer of the Queen’s personal opinions and feelings than those of her predecessors
The reality was nothing like a fairy tale. At the time of their wedding, the couple barely knew each other; Diana later claimed that they had only met 13 times before the engagement, fewer than the number of dress fittings she had prior to the wedding. Cracks soon began to appear, although only those within Charles and Diana’s most intimate circles knew that there was any cause for concern.
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The public’s fascination with the royal couple by no means abated after the furore of their wedding had died down. Within a year, Diana had fulfilled her duty by producing a son and heir, William, and two years later Prince Henry (known as ‘Harry’) was born. If anything, the press interest grew ever more intense, particularly in the princess, whose popularity far exceeded that of her husband. Compassionate, accessible and tactile, Diana had the common touch that Charles seemed to lack.
But other, graver sources of tension in the marriage grew strained, not least the 12-year age gap and their wildly different characters and interests. Most damaging of all, there was infidelity on both sides. It was later claimed that even before his marriage to Diana, the prince had renewed his relationship with a former girlfriend, Camilla Parker Bowles, whom he had first met in the early 1970s. It would be revealed that he had told Diana on the eve of their wedding that he was not in love with her, prompting her to confide to a friend: “I felt I was the lamb to the slaughter.”
Charles and Diana: “The War of the Waleses”
The marriage collapsed like a house of cards. Every detail was subject to insatiable scrutiny by the press, who coined it “The War of the Waleses”. In June 1992, journalist Andrew Morton published a book entitled Diana: Her True Story, which named Camilla as Charles’s lover and detailed Diana’s struggles with mental health and bulimia. As The Crown depicts, the princess had secretly cooperated with Morton, providing him with taped recordings via an intermediary, her friend Dr James Colthurst.
And still, worse was to come. Transcripts of two deeply intimate phone conversations, were published. The first, appearing in The Enquirer in August 1992, was between Diana and her close friend James Gilbey, who called her “darling” and “squidgy”, while she complained about “all I’ve done for this f***ing family”. Royal watchers across the globe were still reeling from this when, in early the following year, a private conversation between Charles and Camilla was published. It soon got dubbed “Tampongate” after an especially intimate remark made by the prince. Both transcripts have been incorporated into the script of The Crown, which also portrays the personal impact that they had on the Prince and Princess of Wales, and the Royal Family. Those details are, necessarily, speculative.
- Read more | Charles and Camilla: a history of their romance
While Charles and Diana formally separated in December 1992, there were still several more chapters of their scandalous story, from the now-notorious Panorama interview between the princess and Martin Bashir in 1995 to Diana’s growing relationship with Dodi Fayed (the origins of which are traced in the third episode of season 5 of The Crown – one of the best in the whole series). Of course, then ultimately there is Diana’s tragic death in a car crash in Paris in 1997.
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip
There is, though, one more troubled marriage that the new season portrays: that of the late Queen herself. Elizabeth II and Prince Philip had their ups and downs over the previous seasons, but by the end of the last one they had emerged a stronger, more united couple. This new season, however, sees them growing ever further apart thanks to the disparity of their interests and intellects. Despite being in his eighth decade, Philip (brilliantly portrayed by Jonathan Pryce) is as full of restless energy and intellectual curiosity as ever.
Frustrated with his seemingly placid, plodding wife, he develops a close relationship with the beautiful and clever wife of the Queen’s cousin, Penelope Knatchbull, Lady Romsey (played by Natascha McElhone) and helps her to rediscover meaning in her life after the death of her young daughter. It is true that the pair became close and took part in carriage-riding competitions, and Lady Romsey was one of only 30 mourners at Philip’s funeral in 2021. But any hint of a more intimate relationship between them is purely speculative.
Neither is there anything to suggest that the Queen’s relationship with her husband grew more distant from the 1990s. In fact, the opposite seems to have been the case. By some considerable distance, theirs was the longest marriage in royal history. Elizabeth famously described Philip as her “strength and stay”, and his death in April 2021 seemed to spark a steady decline in her own health, from which she never recovered.
The Crown, season 5: an assessment
Imelda Staunton is – appropriately enough – on magisterial form as the Queen. In a sense, she has the most challenging role of all. It is no small irony that in this age of mass communication, we know fewer of the Queen’s personal opinions and feelings than those of her predecessors. We know she liked horseracing and corgis, spent her summers at Balmoral and Christmases at Sandringham, but nearly all of her spoken words were the work of others and there are precious few private remarks on record.
Her on-screen dialogue is therefore almost entirely a work of fiction, such as when she reflects: “Being happily married is a preference rather than a requirement.” The skill and nuance of Staunton’s portrayal in presenting a woman who feels so much more than she is able to convey, even to those closest to her, commands admiration and respect from the viewer, much like the Queen did from the public.
As well as assembling what, in my view, is the strongest, most convincing cast yet, the new season of The Crown delivers everything that viewers have come to expect from this lavish production, from painstakingly-researched costumes and period detail to original film footage, cleverly adapted to include the actors rather than the real people. And, thanks to the year 1992 offering up such a rich source of royal scandals, the storylines are more compelling than ever.
Watching historical dramas, I have become used to separating my professional knowledge from my private enjoyment. With season 5 of The Crown, such a separation was, for the most part, unnecessary.
Tracy Borman is a royal historian and author of numerous books, including Crown & Sceptre: A New History of the British Monarchy from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth II (Hodder & Stoughton, 2021) and The Ring and the Crown: A History of Royal Weddings, 1066-2011 (Hutchinson, 2011)