The Crown S5 E10 real history: the HMY Britannia's final voyage, and a political landslide
Episode ten, ‘Decommissioned’, sees the defeat of prime minister John Major, and Queen Elizabeth bidding her beloved yacht, the HMY Britannia, goodbye. As this final episode rolls on, the monarchy faces questions of its place in a changing world…
The sound of birds chirping swells as episode ten begins, and we find ourselves with Dodi Al-Fayed (played by Khalid Abdalla) in Malibu, attempting to convince his father, businessman Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Dau), to provide a deposit for a new house.
Soon, we cut to Diana sitting in her living room (Elizabeth Debicki), as she repeatedly votes ‘no’ to a television programme questioning whether the monarchy should continue.
The theme of this episode of The Crown seems to be change – both current and on the horizon. But how much truth is behind this narrative on our screens?
John Major’s landslide defeat
In reality, the Labour party, led by Tony Blair, had roughly four million more votes than the Conservatives, in the 1997 general election.
This was largely due to the schisms and scandals within government at the time. Richard Toye told HistoryExtra that in the “chaos of 16 September 1992 – ‘Black Wednesday’ – Major’s government was compelled to announce that it was withdrawing from the system. The economy recovered; the Conservative’s reputation for economic competence did not.”
“Equally damaging for the Tories,” Toye continues, “was their division over the issue of Europe. At the time, the Maastricht Treaty, the foundational document of the European Union, signed in February 1992, looked like a negotiating triumph, as Britain secured important opt-outs on monetary and social policy. Still, a group of Conservative backbenchers, known as the Maastricht Rebels, could not be reconciled to any form of further European integration. They fought a bitter battle in the House of Commons against Major’s government, in which can be seen many of the origins of Brexit.”
These issues became so prevailing that, two years before the election, in 1995, the Conservative party was so divided that Major felt compelled to resign as prime minister to face a leadership challenge. Despite him being re-elected as prime minister, these rifts remained deep, and seemed to foreshadow the loss the party would experience in 1997, after 18 years of governing.
What was the nature of the relationship between Tony Blair and the royal family?
The real relationship Blair had with the royal family seems to have been rockier than the one they had with Major. It got off to a bad start when, during his formal visit in May 1997 to form a new government at Buckingham Palace, the Queen reminded Blair that “Winston Churchill was the first prime minister she dealt with, and that was before I was born. So I got a sense of my relative seniority, or lack of it.” The queen apparently declined his invitation to call him ‘Tony’.
And their relationship continued to be unsteady, with the Blairs’ dismissal of royal traditions. The prime minister’s wife, Cherie, refused to curtsey, and the couple also disliked visiting Balmoral – the Queen’s favourite holiday destination.
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The Telegraph noted in 2007 that whilst the Queen loved “the countryside, country sports, horses and dogs”, while the prime minister opted for “city life, holidays in Barbados, tennis and football”.
Did Diana take Princes William and Harry on holiday with Mohammed Al-Fayed and his wife?
The Crown depicts Mohamed Al-Fayed inviting Diana on a holiday. This holiday did happen, in July 1997. Diana stayed on the Al-Fayeds’ new luxury yacht, the Jonkial, in Saint Tropez. She also stayed in the family’s 30-bedroom estate Castle St Therese, with her sons William and Harry.
Photographers camped along the French Riviera for days in a bid to catch photos of Diana and Dodi together, following rumours of their romance.
A timeline of Charles and Camilla’s relationship in the ’90sElsewhere on screen, Charles and Camilla begin to test their new freedom following Charles’s divorce in this episode, but what happened between them at this time?
November 1992: An intimate transcript of a 1989 phone call between the two is released to the public, inducing the scandal of “Camillagate”
December 1992: Charles and Diana formally separate, raising questions about Charles’s future relationships
June 1994: Charles publicly admits to having an affair with Camilla during his marriage to Diana, in an interview with Jonathan Dimblebey
January 1995: Camilla files for divorce from Andrew Parker Bowles
August 1996: Charles and Diana finalise their divorce
July 1997: Charles throws a lavish 50th birthday party for Camilla at Highgrove
August 1997: Diana dies in a tragic car crash
January 1999: Camilla and Charles are publicly photographed together as a couple, for the first time
Who was Dodi Al-Fayed’s girlfriend, Kelly Fisher, and were they engaged before he met Diana?
Kelly Fisher (played by Erin Richards in The Crown) was an American model, and she was engaged to Dodi Fayed.
The two had bought a house in Malibu, as covered in the series, where they planned to live after their marriage. The two were in Paris on 14 July 1997, when Dodi was summoned by his father to join himself, his wife, Diana, and Princes William and Harry, on a holiday in Saint Tropez.
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It was there, on a luxury yacht, where Dodi and Diana’s romance began. This was to be cut tragically short on 31 August 1997, when both sustained fatal injuries in a car crash in Paris.
Was the HMY Britannia decommissioned under Tony Blair’s government?
Throughout this most recent series of The Crown, we watch as the Queen battles for government funding to refurbish the HMY Britannia and resultantly continue its use.
And it is not difficult to see why – the Britannia travelled over one million nautical miles with Her Majesty and, as said in our history of royal yachts, was the only royal home in which the Queen felt able to “truly relax”.
However, Tony Blair did decide to decommission the royal yacht, as “the costs were too great” to refurbish her. 1994 saw the announcement that the Britannia would be retired. The Crown depicts a conversation between Blair and the Queen, as he offers the use of a privately-owned yacht for the family to use instead. Whilst it cannot be confirmed whether this offer was made, there were plans discussed for a replacement which were eventually abandoned.
The Britannia’s final foreign voyage was to Hong Kong in July 1997, and it served as a base for Prince Charles once he arrived there. He was, as portrayed in the series, visiting to represent the Queen in the week before the territory of Hong Kong was handed back to China.
Also, in The Crown, we see Charles’s dismay at being seated in business class, whilst politicians and other attendants are in first. This was the case in reality, with his diary entry from the time reading: "It took me some time to realise that this was not first class(!) although it puzzled me as to why the seat seemed so uncomfortable." According to the BBC, he then discovered dignitaries, including Edward Heath, Douglas Hurd, "the new Foreign Secretary Robin Cook", and Paddy Ashdown, were all "in First Class immediately below us. Such is the end of Empire, I sighed to myself.”
In this episode of The Crown, Tony Blair (Bertie Carvel) shares his regret with Charles (Dominic West) at his decommissioning of the Britannia, once stepping inside and seeing its beauty up close, which mirrors his feelings in reality. A report, written by royal correspondent Robert Harman, said: “What the royal family may find particularly intriguing – and infuriating – 14 years later, is that Tony Blair now deeply regrets his part in it.”
So, as series five comes to a close, we watch the Queen say goodbye to the Britannia. It was in 1997 that she said this farewell, photographed as she “walked off her deck for the last time, shedding a tear at the yacht’s fate.”
And there is a feeling in the final moments of The Crown series five, of an underlying metaphor – the forced movement of the monarchy into modernity – for which the events of the ’90s seem to have been the ultimate catalyst.
Lauren Good is the digital editorial assistant at HistoryExtra, She joined the team in 2022 after completing an MA in Creative Writing, and she holds a first-class degree in English and Classical Studies, during which she studied ancient history and philosophy