The Crown S5 E6 real history: the Romanovs’ murder, and Philip’s “spiritual companionship”
Episode six, ‘Ipatiev House’, brings decades-old global tensions to the surface once more, with the Queen grappling with the gruesome fate of her Romanov relatives as current-day relations with Moscow start to thaw. Elsewhere, Prince Philip admits his need for “companionship”, outside of the Queen…
Episode six begins by transporting us back to 1917, when Britain was still in the grip of the First World War. A government official interrupts a cosy royal breakfast, passing King George V (played by Richard Dillane) an official letter from No 10 Downing Street. Scanning it, he asks his son, Edward (Adam Buchanan) to pass it to his wife, Queen Mary (Candida Benson), as “her judgement is unfailingly better than mine”.
The royals were debating whether to send aid to their beleaguered Russian relatives, the Romanovs, who were being held by the radical Bolsheviks. In the drama, Prime Minister David Lloyd George promised to send a ship to rescue them – if George agreed to it.
But agreement was not forthcoming, and in the following scenes the Romanovs are butchered by the Bolsheviks. Kept prisoner in the crumbling Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, they are herded into the house’s basement – under the guise of taking photographs before being moved to safety – when Russian soldiers flood in and open fire.
The Crown’s brutal depiction of events is sadly very close to reality. On the evening of 16 July 1918, the Romanovs were coerced down into the basement, lined up against the wall and, in the early hours of 17 July, were massacred. In an article for HistoryExtra, historian Helen Rappaport describes the family’s fate: “Professional marksmen would have completed their gruesome task in seconds, but it took a 20-minute frenzy of shooting, screaming, acrid smoke and fumes, blood and gore before ferocious bayonetting finally finished off those victims still alive”.
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
Were George V and Mary responsible for the Romanovs’ deaths?
Rapaport also considers the idea that the British royals were responsible for the tragic events – although tellingly, she says it’s commonly claimed that George had the power to save them, rather than Mary, as The Crown suggests.
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She reveals the situation was far more complex than George simply being able to click his fingers and rescue the Romanovs. These events transpired in the midst of world war, and Russia was wracked by two revolutions in 1917. In the face of these developments, Rapaport argues “the Allied governments’ primary concern was keeping a demoralised and exhausted Russia in the First World War. Getting the former imperial family out of Russia to safety came a very poor second.”
Later in the episode, back in the 1990s, the Queen (Imelda Staunton) and Penny Knatchbull (Natascha McElhone) debate what could have motivated Mary to refuse to send aid to Russia. Whereas Penny claims Mary was jealous of the “prettier, grander” Tsarina Alexandra and didn’t want her to “upstage” her in Britain, the Queen argues: “Giving asylum to the Romanovs presented a much greater threat. There was widespread opposition to the tsarina in England, as she was seen as pro-German at the very time we were at war with them.”
The theory the Queen shares in the show might well be rooted in historical fact. Rappaport writes: “George V worried that to bring the controversial tsar and tsaritsa to England might cause unrest among the working classes sympathetic to the new revolutionary regime in Russia.” Moreover, she says, Alexandra was German, and “hostility towards Germany was at an all-time high, so much so that the British royal family changed its name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor that July”.
What happened during the Queen’s first state visit to Moscow?
Back in the 1990s, controversies surrounding the Romanovs’ demise are stirred up in The Crown, during Russian president Boris Yeltsin’s (Anatoly Kotenev) lunch at Buckingham Palace. When asked if she would come to Moscow on a state visit, the Queen makes it clear that the Romanovs’ fate – and Yeltsin’s own involvement in the story, as a minor official who ordered Ipatiev House should be demolished in the 1970s – is a major sticking point. The Queen also seems aware of Yeltsin’s reputation as a heavy drinker.
The Crown does show some bumps in their relationship – notably when Yeltsin says in front of the Queen, in Russian: “She [the Queen] should be careful, or she will end up with a bayonet up her arse too,” which historian Sarah Gristwood calls “pretty damned unlikely”. But later in the episode the Queen and Philip do travel to Moscow for a state visit.
Such a visit did take place, in 1994. According to The Guardian, “the visit to Moscow put an end to more than seven decades of estrangement between the Kremlin and Europe’s royalty”. Yeltsin was suitably aware of the magnitude of the moment, planning a lavish trip that featured a trip to the Bolshoi ballet.
The Queen also discussed the visit in her Christmas speech that year, proclaiming: “I never thought it would be possible in my lifetime to join with the Patriarch of Moscow and his congregation in a service in that wonderful cathedral in the heart of the Moscow Kremlin.”
Did Prince Philip’s DNA help identify the Romanovs’ remains?
Another key plot point of the episode is Philip’s involvement in positively identifying the Romanovs’ remains. After acid-damaged bones are unearthed in the forests close to Ipatiev House, experts turn to DNA testing to confirm that they belonged to the Romanovs. And Philip, being the tsarina’s great-nephew, helps the process by providing a blood sample, later revealing the match was “98.5 per cent” certain.
Although it might sound far-fetched, the Duke of Edinburgh actually did offer up some of his DNA to help scientifically determine whether the bones belonged to the Romanovs. As reported by the BBC in 1998, Philip gave a DNA sample, and the remains of the tsar’s brother, Georgy, was also disinterred as part of the research effort.
Although the bones were confirmed to belong the Romanovs, arranging a burial for them proved difficult. As well as the Orthodox Church refusing to acknowledge that the bones did in fact belong to the Romanovs, various Russian cities competed for the honour of being the Romanovs’ final resting place. The burial finally went ahead in 1998, with Tsar Nicholas II, his wife and three of his children being laid to rest at the St Peter and Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg.
Was Prince Philip pursuing Penny Knatchbull?
Throughout the episode, there’s an undercurrent of tension in the royal marriage, which boils to the surface when the Queen and Philip are in Moscow. Sarah Gristwood told HistoryExtra: “[This conversation] is a big piece of psychodrama. The episode is set up on the premise that the relationship between Britain and Russia is a long marriage, in which there has been a blip – represented by communism and the Cold War. And the idea is that their marriage had a similar blip.”
This particular conversation in Moscow sees Philip rail against the Queen for the “atrocities” her relatives had historically unleashed upon his – with the British royals’ supposed link to the Romanovs’ deaths. Gristwood says: “I think that’s fiction rather than facts. We can’t know the conversations Prince Philip and the Queen had behind closed doors, and in the course of a marriage as long as theirs, there was bound to be moments of less than total agreement. But I do think that incident was very much set up for the purposes of drama.”
The conversation continues, with Philip eventually revealing his loneliness and that he’s “had to seek companionship elsewhere”. Although clarifying that this companionship is of an intellectual and spiritual nature, the Queen appears displeased when he reveals Penny Knatchbull is one person whom he has grown particularly close to.
- Read more | The Crown S5 E2 real history: Prince Philip’s ‘keeper of secrets’ and Andrew Norton’s book on Princess Diana
However, according to royal historian Tracy Borman, this doesn’t seem to match reality. She told HistoryExtra:“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.
While Penny and Philip were close friends, attending carriage-riding competitions together, Tracy says “any hint of a more intimate relationship between them is purely speculative”. And of course, Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage continued well beyond the 1990s, with the pair remaining together until the Duke’s death in 2021.
A former BBC History Magazine section editor, Rhiannon has long been fascinated by history and continues to write for HistoryExtra.com. She has appeared on the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast, interviewing experts on a variety of subjects, from Lucy Worsley discussing Agatha Christie to Sir Ranulph Fiennes on the perils of polar exploration