Netflix’s The Crown: the real history behind the series
Netflix’s The Crown: the real history behind the series
Netflix’s sumptuous royal drama The Crown has explored many hidden intricacies of the British royal family over two series, providing an engrossing portrait of the mid-20th century monarchy. Here, we recap the real history behind the story so far, and what’s covered in series three…
Note: this article contains spoilers for seasons 1–3 of The Crown
What happened in the first series of The Crown?
Season one of the hit Netflix series dramatises the personal and political challenges facing Queen Elizabeth II’s reign in the mid-20th century. Set across ten stylish episodes, the show explores events ranging from the wedding of Princess Elizabeth (played by Claire Foy) to Philip Mountbatten (Matt Smith) in 1947, to the final days of Winston Churchill’s (John Lithgow) premiership and the growing tensions over the Suez Canal.
Obvious from the opening frames of the show is an intent to dramatize the humanity and fallibility of often inaccessible royal figures, as viewers meet Elizabeth’s father King George VI (Jared Harris) coughing blood into a toilet bowl, foreshadowing his premature death later in the series.
The real history behind The Crown
Want to know even more about the real events from history that inspired the drama? Read more from the experts…
Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham Palace after their wedding. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Throughout the series, the drama is preoccupied with the balance between love and duty that has challenged so many royal couples – Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, the Queen and Philip, Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend – and it’s a theme that looks set to continue in the third series, as Prince Charles and Camilla Shand’s early relationship is explored.
Robert Lacey, consultant historian to the series, has explained writer Peter Morgan’s process when dramatizing real historical events: “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 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 Lacey also allows that the history in the series is sometimes tailored, as “Peter pushes his imagination to outright invention – what you could call dramatic license, or as I would prefer to put it, dramatic underlining”.
Josh O’Connor plays Prince Charles in the new series. (Image by Colin Hutton / Netflix)
We see such license at play in series one in the creation of Venetia Scott – a favoured secretary of Prime Minister Winston Churchill – who never existed. Fictional characters are brought in to illustrate wider themes, says Lacey. Scott features prominently in the story of the Great Smog, a week or so in December 1952 when thick air pollution 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.
“The way that The Crown deals with that event dramatically,” says Lacey, “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.”
London during the Great Smog, a week or so in December 1952 when thick air pollution descended across the city. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)
Elsewhere, series one follows the nascent affair between Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) and Group Captain Peter Townsend (Ben Miles), a divorced father of two. It is not clear when they started their romance in reality; Townsend divorced in 1952, and some sources suggest that he didn’t become close to Margaret until after the death of her father, King George VI, on 6 February 1952. As depicted in the drama, Margaret’s relationship with Townsend was revealed to the public when an eagle-eyed journalist spotted the princess affectionately plucking a piece of lint from Townsend’s jacket during the Queen’s coronation at Westminster Abbey in 1953.
Margaret’s relationship with Townsend was revealed when a journalist spotted the princess affectionately plucking a piece of lint from Townsend’s jacket
We see the royal sisters coming into conflict when Elizabeth refuses to permit Margaret’s marriage to Townsend, on the basis that the Church of England did not permit remarriage after divorce. This plotline is based on a real incident from the early 1950s. Despite the public showing support for the couple, in 1955 Margaret eventually gave Peter up in order to maintain her royal privileges. Although in a public statement Margaret asserted that she had “reached this decision entirely alone”, in The Crown we see the devastated princess bitterly blame the Queen for her heartbreak and begin to descend into a spiral of self-destructive behaviour.
In reality, we cannot be certain of the extent to which events caused a rift between the Windsor sisters who, despite everything, remained in close contact until Margaret’s death in 2002. Whether or not what we see on screen is an accurate reflection of what happened behind closed doors, it’s certainly a neat illustration of Elizabeth’s continued struggle to balance royal duty with family loyalty.
The royal family’s relationship with the press is also addressed in series one, and viewers witness two moments in which great respect is shown for the monarchy’s privacy. The first takes place when the Queen is in Africa, shortly after she had become Queen. Knowing that she had just lost her father, “photographers bowed their head and put their cameras on the ground, not taking photographs. We know that happened – chapter and verse,” explains Lacey.
Later in the series, tensions rise in Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage and journalists catch a row between the two on camera. Yet at the Queen’s solemn request, they hand the footage over to her – although this didn’t necessarily happen in real life (instead, says Lacey, the journalists opened the camera themselves to expose the film and ruin the footage). It’s a dynamic that changes in series two and surely will seem all the more stark as the show approaches the ‘Diana years’, to be covered in series four.
Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh in Kenya, days before the death of her father, King George VI. (Photo by Chris Ware/Keystone/Getty Images)
Also in the series Philip is shown as a driving influence in the modernisation of the monarchy: he’s quick to renovate Clarence House into a modern family home and, in his position at the head of the Queen’s coronation committee, is firm in pushing against tradition to create a ceremony more in keeping with the times. He succeeds in allowing the ceremony to be televised, a defining moment for many in 20th-century history across Britain and the Commonwealth.
The first series draws to a close in 1955–6 as Philip is banished to Australia for a five-month tour in a bid to settle strife in the royal marriage; the Queen grows into her role while the influence of senior statesmen such as Churchill wane, seemingly feeling out-of-step in a rapidly changing world. Anthony Eden succeeds the wartime hero as prime minister, and becomes increasingly consumed by the rising Suez Crisis.
Series two pulls no punches in putting the royal marriage at the centre of the drama right from the start. The action opens on the Royal Yacht Britannia in 1957, following Philip’s royal tour. The balance of power in the relationship between the Queen and her husband is tested as Philip grows resentful over his position in the family, outranked by his young son Charles.
One of the trickiest topics addressed is Prince Philip’s rumoured marital infidelity. Throughout its second series, The Crown grapples with the question of whether the Queen’s husband – eager to escape the suffocating constraints of royal duty – was ever tempted to stray away from his wife.
Although writer Peter Morgan remains pointedly ambiguous over whether or not stories of Philip’s indiscretions are true, we see the prince flirting with an attractive female journalist, attending a raucous yet secretive gentlemen’s lunch club, and using a men-only royal tour on the Britannia yacht as a chance to let his hair down.
Tobias Menzies plays Prince Philip in the third series of The Crown. (Image by Des Willie / Netflix)
In one of the series’ most poignant moments, Elizabeth discovers a photograph of the Russian ballerina Galina Ulanova in her husband’s suitcase. A star dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet, Ulanova was generally considered to be one of the greatest ballerinas of her time. Yet while she really did visit London in 1956, there is no evidence that she and Philip were involved in any sort of extra-marital affair.
While a relationship with Galina Ulanova seems distinctly unlikely, Philip’s name was linked to several other women in the late 1950s and 1960s. Rumours of his infidelity served as a means of criticising his playboy antics and carefree lifestyle. However, with a distinct lack of any concrete evidence, they remain simply rumours, nothing more.
Rumours of Philip's infidelity served as a means of criticising his playboy antics and carefree lifestyle
Series two also considers Elizabeth II’s role on the world stage. The Queen has met nearly a quarter of all the US presidents, but it is her encounter with the 35th president that is explored in The Crown’s second season. It’s June 1961 and Britain is buzzing as John F Kennedy and his wife Jackie are expected in London, with an invitation to dine at Buckingham Palace. Writer Peter Morgan imagines that the visiting couple’s popularity and glamour, particularly that of the First Lady, might have caused the Queen to feel old fashioned or out-of-touch. Indeed, we see Elizabeth learn of criticism uttered by Jackie Kennedy during a dinner party, in which she branded the monarchy “outdated” and the Queen “incurious”.
Although there is no evidence that the Queen was aware of such comments, there are sources that suggest the First Lady was critical of the Queen: in a 1995 memoir, American writer Gore Vidal wrote that Mrs Kennedy had reported the Queen to be “pretty heavy going”.
The Crown goes on to link the Kennedys’ visit with the Queen’s 1961 visit to Ghana, suggesting that Elizabeth went to the newly independent country partly in order to prove her worth to the presidential couple. Though the Queen did go to Ghana in 1961 (and did dance the foxtrot with Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah), her visit was more likely a diplomatic bid to maintain good relationships with the country rather than an attempt to counter Jackie’s disparaging comments.
The Queen dances with Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, in 1961. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
Elsewhere in the series, still recovering from her failed relationship with Peter Townsend, Princess Margaret meets her future husband, Antony ‘Tony’ Armstrong-Jones (Ben Daniels). In reality, the couple first met at a small dinner party given by the princess’s lady-in-waiting, Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, in 1958, but they did not ‘click’ until a few months later when one of the princess’s admirers asked for a photograph of her and arranged for Armstrong-Jones to take it. “His easy flow of chat, wit and animal high spirits intrigued Margaret and it was not long before he became part of her circle,” wrote Lord Snowdon biographer Anne de Courcy in an article for HistoryExtra.
Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones at Badminton horse trials. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Their engagement, says de Courcy, was the best-kept royal secret of the last century. Very few, knew of it – certainly not the women with whom Armstrong-Jones was involved at the time, including (as shown in the series) the actress Jacqui Chan and Camilla Grinling – who was by then married to Armstrong-Jones’s best friend, Jeremy Fry. (Armstrong-Jones had also conceived a child with Grinling, born while he and Princess Margaret were on honeymoon). Though their union begins with glamour, romance and a wedding at Westminster Abbey, by the end of the series, cracks in their relationship are beginning to show.
Though their union begins with glamour and romance, by the end of the series, cracks are beginning to show
In a departure from the main thrust of marital tensions that continue through the series, another episode – ‘Vergangenheit’ – revisits the Duke of York (former Edward VIII, played by Alex Jennings). The episode focuses on the duke’s Nazi sympathies, revealing that he did have a relationship with Nazi high command. The duke later admitted that he had been foolish and naïve about Adolf Hitler (in an interview with an American newspaper in 1966).
The final episode of series two explores 1963–4 and the fall-out from the Profumo Affair, in which Secretary of State for War John Profumo admitted to having an improper relationship with 19-year-old model Christine Keeler. Keeler was also engaged in an affair with an attaché in the Soviet embassy in London, Commander Yevgeny Ivanov, which meant the affair was seen as a potential security breach as well as a sign of immorality. A key figure in the affair was an osteopath named Stephen Ward, who became embroiled under the accusation that he was procuring and providing young women for ‘entertainment’ in his society circle (he had introduced Profumo and Keeler).
Mandy Rice-Davies (left) and Christine Keeler, witnesses in the Profumo Scandal. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
There is evidence linking Ward and Prince Philip; the former had sketched the Duke of Edinburgh. However, the series draws a direct link between the two, speculating that Philip had attended a number of Ward’s society parties (indelibly linked in the public eye with immoral behaviour). Royal historian Christopher Wilson has since commented on the plotline as a sign of the show becoming “more elastic” with the truth. This speculation on Morgan’s part continues into series three, with royal art historian Sir Antony Blunt blackmailing Prince Philip with ‘knowledge’ of the royal’s role in the Profumo affair, after Blunt is unmasked as a Soviet Spy .
What real history features in series three of The Crown?
The first new element viewers will notice from series three is a change of cast, with the two lead royals now played by Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies. Helena Bonham Carter takes over the portrayal of ‘rebel royal’ Princess Margaret, and “if Bonham Carter can capture even a fraction of her extraordinary, world-class rudeness, then audiences are surely in for a treat,” wrote Dominic Sandbrook for HistoryExtra ahead of the series.
Helena Bonham Carter and Ben Daniels as Princess Margaret and her husband Lord Snowdon. (Image by Des Willie / Netflix)
A key plot line in series three explores the early relationship of Prince Charles and Camilla Shand (later Parker Bowles) – played by Josh O’Connor and Emerald Fennell respectively.
It was in the summer of 1971 when Charles, then 22, first met Camilla Rosemary Shand, writes royal expert Marlene Koening for HistoryExtra. “A legend has been fostered that the couple were introduced at a polo match at Smith’s Lawn in Windsor, but, according to Jonathan Dimbleby’s authorised biography, The Prince of Wales (1994), the introduction was in fact made by a mutual friend, Lucia Santa Cruz, daughter of the Chilean ambassador to the United Kingdom, whom Charles had met when he was a student at Cambridge.
“It was reportedly an “instant attraction” between Charles and Camilla. During an 18-month period their friendship blossomed into a love affair.”
The “instant attraction” between Charles and Camilla will be dramatized in series three of The Crown. (Image by Des Willie / Netflix)
Aside from new romances, the series also explores Charles’s relationships with his parents, particularly his mother, as he is invested as the Prince of Wales in 1969. Another storyline is the 1969 fly-on-the-wall documentary which followed the royal family, and hasn’t been broadcast in its entirety since the 1970s. Historian Sarah Gristwood suggests that the film might have been intended to combat late 1960s polls that indicated the public viewed the royals as an out-of-touch anachronism.
Princess Margaret, Princess Anne and the Queen Mother at the investiture of Prince Charles, Prince of Wales on July 1, 1969. (Photo by Anwar Hussein/Getty Images)
The Crown is set to depict Prince Charles’s investiture as the Prince of Wales. (Image by Des Willie / Netflix)
Early on in the series, viewers also bade farewell to John Lithgow’s Sir Winston Churchill, and The Crown features a few moments of the state funeral of Britain’s former prime minister and wartime hero. The 1965 event was a brilliant spectacle watched by more than 350 million people around the world. Upon Churchill’s death the Queen wrote to his widow, Clementine: “The whole world is poorer for the loss of this many-sided genius.” Contrary to myth, though, Churchill himself was not much involved in the planning of his own funeral.
Another episode considers at the Queen’s reaction to the Aberfan disaster in 1966, when a spoil tip collapsed onto the Welsh village of Aberfan, killing 116 children and 28 adults. Meanwhile, the series depicts yet another prime minister, Labour politician Harold Wilson (played by Jason Watkins), and also explores Prince Philip’s fascination with the 1969 moon landings.
The Crown will depict the Queen’s reaction to the Aberfan disaster in 1966. (Image by Des Willie / Netflix)
The Queen and Prince Philip visiting Aberfan. 29th October 1966. (Photo by Syndication/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)The Queen and Prince Philip visiting Aberfan.
There are some episodes from this period that don’t feature, as Sarah Gristwood explains, including the 1974 abduction attempt on Princess Anne. Inevitably, dramatisations will need to take certain liberties with invention, as we will never entirely see behind the curtain of royal family life – but, Gristwood says, “writer Peter Morgan’s great strength is using what is known in order to infer what is not”.
Elsewhere, the degeneration of Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon’s marriage is inevitably dramatised. Their divorce – an enormous international story – seemingly indicates one of the key themes of the series: their split was, as Dominic Sandbrook writes, “the first sign that the carefully manicured Victorian façade of the royal family was breaking apart under the pressures of the late 20th century”.
Series three of The Crown is available on Netflix now.
Elinor Evans is deputy digital editor of HistoryExtra. This article was first published in November 2019.