The Crown S5 E1 real history: ‘Queen Victoria Syndrome’ and a second honeymoon
In episode one of season five of The Crown, the Queen is accused of being “out of touch” with the public; Prince Charles and Diana jet off on a “second honeymoon” in Italy; and we’re introduced to new prime minister, Conservative politician John Major…
“Irrelevant, expensive, old and out of touch.” This is how the ageing Queen (played by Imelda Staunton in this new season) is described in the opening scenes of The Crown season five. The year is 1991 and she is feeling the effects of her senior years creeping in; her waistline is expanding – a fact that worries her somewhat – and she is also experiencing pain in her feet. Her doctor advises her to spend less time on them – but she quickly rebuffs him. “Occupational hazard, I’m afraid,” she dryly replies.
We soon learn that the damning criticism is the consensus of a Sunday Times poll about the monarchy, a detail that historian Sarah Gristwood writes for HistoryExtra was “not invented – but the presentation of it was skewed”. In The Crown’s presentation of the poll, 47 per cent of the public “believe the Queen should hand over the throne to Prince Charles”. What is more, “88 per cent believe Charles would make a good king” – an “emphatic vote of confidence in the 42-year-old prince”.
But were there really calls at that time for Elizabeth II to abdicate? It was a key idea in the tabloids of the time that Charles was getting increasingly restless as he sought a meaningful role as a monarch-in-waiting, and talk of the Queen’s abdication was a preoccupying factor. In a 1991 issue of the New York Times, Christopher Hitchens wrote that “each week brings rumors of marital stress, of tension over the succession, even of abdication.”
This episode of The Crown portrays the Queen’s heir – Prince Charles (played by Dominic West) – as unable to contain his delight in hearing that almost half of the newspaper’s readers would support an abdication of his mother in his favour. He is informed that readers think of him as “young, energetic and empathetic”. Public support for the Queen’s abdication did peak in 1990 when, according to Ipsos MORI stats, almost half of the country were keen to see her pass on the reins of power.
In 1991, Prince Charles was often regarded as searching for a purpose. “Publicly,” wrote Charles’s unofficial biographer Anthony Holden in 1988, the prince’s role was “that of a caring and thoughtful man in search of good to do – not merely a prince in search of a role, but a crusader in search of a crusade.” Yet, The Crown’s depiction of Charles’s popularity at that time contrasts with other factors; his passions of farming and architecture were often mocked, his stances or speeches on issues including the environment and education led some critics to believe he overstepped his constitutional role, and endless speculation about his marriage to Diana, Princess of Wales was a key feature of any coverage about the prince. Their subsequent marital breakdown in 1992 is often cited as influencing the significant decline in public enthusiasm for the Queen’s early abdication.
What was Queen Victoria’s syndrome?
The Crown’s choice to reinterpret the poll and accompanying newspaper article make explicit reference to the episode’s title, “Queen Victoria Syndrome”. It’s a phrase used to describe what happens when – according to the show – “the public begins to perceive a long-reigning monarch to be out of touch with her people.” This is a recurring theme in the episode, and the phrase is indeed a real one used at the time. “Questions of Elizabeth II’s retirement were being mooted as early as 1980,” explained historian Sarah Gristwood in a 2015 article for Huffington Post. “By the end of the decade, courtiers had begun to talk about QVS or Queen Victoria Syndrome, whereby a nation could become tired of an ageing monarch and a parasitic royal family.”
There are many similarities between Elizabeth II and her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria. Both were never intended for the crown; Victoria only became heir because the three uncles ahead of her in the succession had no surviving legitimate children; while Elizabeth became queen after the unexpected abdication of her uncle, Edward VIII, and premature death of her father, George VI.
Both queens also reigned longer than all of their predecessors, with Elizabeth overtaking Victoria’s 63-year rule on 9 September 2015. In season five of The Crown, Elizabeth rebukes the QVS criticism by saying that she is pleased to have been compared to Queen Victoria. “It could only ever be taken as a compliment,” she remarks.
What’s more certain is the Queen’s own feelings about calls for abdication, which she made clear in her Christmas broadcast in 1991. “Next February will see the fortieth anniversary of my father's death and of my Accession. Over the years I have tried to follow my father's example and to serve you as best I can,” she told the Commonwealth. “I feel the same obligation to you that I felt in 1952. With your prayers, and your help, and with the love and support of my family, I shall try to serve you in the years to come.”
Is The Crown’s choice, then, to centre a public opinion poll simply attempting to capture the ebbs and flows of anti-monarchy sentiment? As royal historian Philip Ziegler told Hitchens in 1991: “There's always been a problem with irresponsible behaviour on the part of fringe members of the royal family,” he said. “And I suppose there always will be. But it's a mistake to confuse public alarm at this with resentment of the monarchy itself.”
What did prime minister John Major think of the royal family?
The new season also introduces a new prime minister, John Major (Jonny Lee Miller). A key scene shows him reluctantly admonishing the Queen for requesting public funds to pay for the refurbishment of her beloved royal yacht Britannia – reinforcing the sentiment that she is, indeed, out of touch with public mood and the realities of everyday life in Britain during an economic downturn. (Britannia would indeed be decommissioned as a royal yacht in 1994, with the Queen’s final use of the vessel in 1997.)
Late in the episode, the new prime minister is also portrayed discussing with Prince Charles the possibility of the Queen’s abdication – something that the real former prime minister has since come out and refuted.
“Sir John has not co-operated in any way with The Crown. Nor has he ever been approached by them to fact-check any script material in this or any other series,” a spokesperson for Major said. “There was never any discussion between Sir John and the then Prince of Wales about any possible abdication of the late Queen Elizabeth II.” Major has also since written in a letter to the Daily Telegraph that the season’s portrayal of the Queen “will be profoundly hurtful to a family who are still grieving for the very person on whose life the entire drama was founded.”
So what do we know about the real relationship between John Major and the Queen? It is true that Major took the decision that Britain could no longer afford the royal yacht Britannia (a decision often wrongly attributed to Tony Blair). However, he is also on record as having described the real Elizabeth II as “compassionate, shrewd, well-informed, pragmatic and wise, with an unshakeable commitment to duty”. He has also said that “any prime minister would be foolish not to consider [her counsel] with care. All of them soon learn that the Queen, far from being cut off from her people, is very much aware of the shifting tides of public opinion – indeed often ahead of it.”
And did he ever express anti-monarchy sentiments, as alluded to in The Crown? Historian Richard Toye describes Major as “a convinced monarchist”, who in 2022 “appears to be a sincere admirer of Britain’s new king.” When presenting Charles with the 2013 Sir Winston Churchill Award, Major commented: “Our recipient tonight has – over the years – faced his own criticism, his own setbacks, yet held firm to his own beliefs. That is the first of many reasons he is truly worthy of the award made to him.”
Diana and Charles: did they go on a ‘second honeymoon’?
The breakdown of Charles and Diana’s marriage was well on its way to decline in season four of The Crown – and it suffers further blows in the opening episode of season five. The couple initially put on a dazzling public display of affection as they arrive for their ‘second honeymoon’ in Italy. In August 1991, the royal couple did take a boat trip with their sons, Princes William and Harry, when they stayed on the naval yacht Alexandra off Naples.
As the crowds welcome them to the country, Charles leans in to kiss Diana before they both deliver beaming smiles to waiting paparazzi cameras. “Charles and Di cruise back to happiness,” is the headline of a fictional Daily Express later delivered to the Queen.
But appearances are deceptive, and in The Crown their marriage is not the same behind closed doors. The Crown chooses to make their differences are all too apparent during a dinner party with friends; when Charles speaks eagerly about wanting to visit various historical sites in Italy, Diana (played by Elizabeth Debicki) states that she would prefer to go shopping. “Show of hands – would anyone apart from Diana like to go shopping?” Charles demands. There is a brief awkward silence – but then the couple’s eldest son, Prince William, pipes up: “I’d like to go shopping.” “Me, too,” adds his brother, Harry. At bedtime later, Diana later thanks both of her children for “defending” her.
It’s a touching moment between Diana and her children, and we know that she was incredibly close with her sons in real life too. Photographs taken in October 1991, just months after the Naples holiday showed Diana greeting her sons on the deck of Britannia with delighted and emotional hugs, and cemented the princess in the public’s image as a loving and warm royal mother.
Harry and William have always spoken incredibly fondly of their mother in public interviews. Interviewed for a 2017 TV documentary, marking the 20th anniversary of his mother’s death, William remembered that “she was very informal and really enjoyed the laughter and the fun… She understood that there was a real life outside of palace walls.”
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We also know that Diana was – according to this HistoryExtra article – an incredibly hands-on mother. “The first sign that this was not to be a traditional royal motherhood came early in William’s life, with Diana’s first official overseas visit in 1983,” writes BBC History Magazine deputy editor Matt Elton. “Historically, other royals would have left their offspring with a nanny, but the prince’s parents brought him with them for a tour of Australia and New Zealand.”
Did Charles really leave Diana on their second honeymoon in Italy?
It is impossible to know whether a private dinner scene like the one in episode one of The Crown really unfolded, as many details are speculative. The scene does, however, highlight the increasingly difficult nature of Diana and Charles’s relationship – and their glaringly obvious incompatibilities – as they approached their separation in 1992.
In the show's version of events, Charles actually leaves the Italy trip early. While this particular departure is uncertain, much was made in the coverage of the time that Charles and Diana were leading increasingly separate lives. In May 1991, it was widely reported that during an official visit to Czechoslovakia, Charles and Diana occupied separate suites on different floors of their Prague residence. It had also been noted in the press that, when the prince had broken his arm following a polo accident the previous year, he had stayed in a separate royal residence to the princess and the princes for a month.
Much like in season four, Charles’s friendship with Camilla is ever present in their marriage. In The Crown, she is seen blowing a kiss to Charles ahead of his departure for the second honeymoon. Charles also chooses to invite two of his relatives – “Cousin Norton and his wife Penny” – to join the royal couple on their holiday (more on the Knatchbulls next episode).
“These two are so much part of the Highgrove furniture, Camilla might as well be here herself,” Diana remarks, a reference to Charles’s Highgrove home, where Camilla was a frequent visitor. This tallies with what we know about the real Diana, who once famously called Camilla the “third person” in her marriage to Charles.