The Crown S5 E2 real history: Prince Philip’s ‘keeper of secrets’ and Andrew Morton’s book on Princess Diana
In episode two of season five of The Crown, Prince Philip’s friendship with Penelope Meredith Mary Knatchbull, Countess Mountbatten of Burma, blossoms after a devastating tragedy, while Diana goes against ‘the system’ with a tell-all interview to a British tabloid journalist…
Who is Penelope Knatchbull – and what was her relationship with Prince Philip?
In episode two of The Crown, we see a great deal more of Penelope Meredith Mary Knatchbull, Countess Mountbatten of Burma (played by Natascha McElhone). Penelope and her husband Norton Knatchbull, 3rd Earl Mountbatten of Burma, were depicted in episode one as close friends of Prince Charles, joining the Prince of Wales and Diana on their holiday in Naples in 1991. The Knatchbulls were very close to the royal family; Prince Charles was best man at their wedding in 1979, and Norton was the grandson of Lord Mountbatten, who was assassinated by the IRA in 1979, with whom both Charles and Prince Philip were very close.
By the beginning of episode two, Norton and Penelope’s youngest daughter, Leonora, has tragically passed away from cancer (Leonora died in 1991 from a kidney tumour, and a charitable trust was established in her name). This prompts Prince Philip (played by Jonathan Pryce) to pay his cousin Norton a visit, to check on his welfare. In the drama, Norton isn’t home, and instead Philip spends time with Penelope. In the episode, the pair is depicted as having a close friendship; we see the Duke of Edinburgh arranging for the refurbishment of a carriage owned by Penelope and then taking her for a ride in it.
Later in the episode, he suggests to the Queen (played by Imelda Staunton) that it’s appropriate for husbands and wives to keep certain things private from one another. “If people were more considerate, more mature, more discreet… it can actually be the glue that binds it all together,” he tells her.
“See, I think in a marriage one should aim to exist without secrets of accommodations,” replies the Queen.
“Well, that’s because you are who you are,” Philip says.
Although the drama stages this conversation in the context of a discussion about Prince Charles and Diana’s marriage, viewers might draw parallels that Philip is also talking about his relationship with Penelope Knatchbull – some media outlets have suggested that The Crown is implying the evidence of an affair here.
In truth, what is known about their friendship is that both Penelope and her husband Norton have maintained an incredibly close bond with the British royal family over the years. Most significantly, after Prince Philip died on 9 April 2022 amidst Covid-19 restrictions, Penelope was one of 30 mourners in attendance at his funeral. She has been described as the Duke of Edinburgh’s “keeper of secrets” by biographer Ingrid Seward.
“It is true that the pair became close and took part in carriage-riding competitions,” writes historian Tracy Borman for HistoryExtra. “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,” says Borman. “In fact, the opposite seems to have been the case.”
Did Diana record tapes for journalist Andrew Morton?
Another strand running through this episode is the situation of Princess Diana (played by Elizabeth Debicki), who has returned from her 1991 Italian holiday to a round of successful public engagements. She privately admits in the drama that her relationship with Charles is “worse than ever” – and is soon introduced to tabloid journalist Andrew Morton by her close friend James Colthurst. The latter soon becomes a go-between Diana and Morton. It soon becomes apparent that the journalist is writing a biography of her – whether she likes it or not.
Who was Dr James Colthurst?
Born in Ireland in 1957, James Colthurst was a close friend of Diana, and became the ‘middleman’ between the Princess of Wales and her biographer, Andrew Morton, in 1991–2. They had been friends since before Diana’s marriage into the royal family, when she was still Lady Diana Spencer, working as a nanny in London. Described as a ‘minor aristocrat’, Colthurst was educated at Eton and came from a wealthy family.
Colthurst later spoke of how Diana was "enormously enthusiastic" to tell her story.
“He’s already started writing. He thinks there’s another book coming about you that’s likely to be a bit of a hatchet job based on sources close to the Prince of Wales,” Colthurst tells Diana. “Morton’s view is that his version would at least give you some control.” Though there was no ‘hatchet job’ on the immediate horizon in 1992, Prince Charles did cooperate with Jonathan Dimbleby on a 1994 biography which detailed in part how the prince had been forced into a loveless marriage with the Princess of Wales.
“I don’t want to be responsible for starting a war,” Diana tells Colthurst in the drama, surely foreshadowing the so-called ‘war of the Waleses’ that was to follow. Colthurst reassures her that there would be no need to meet Morton, and that a possible interview could be done via tape recordings. We soon see Diana recording a tell-all side of her story, covering her disintegrating marriage, unhappy childhood as well as her battles with bulimia and depression. The drama also has a suggestion of what Diana thought when Charles was asked if he was in love with her and infamously replied “whatever in love means”. She was, she says, “absolutely traumatised. My self-worth was cut in two”.
But did events actually unfold in this way? According to Morton – yes. “I was keen to talk to the Princess directly, but this was simply out of the question. At 6ft 4in tall and as a writer known to Palace staff, I’d hardly be inconspicuous," Morton told the Daily Mail. “So I interviewed her by proxy – giving my questions to James Colthurst, who then conducted six taped interviews with her in her sitting room at Kensington Palace.”
Colthurst has spoken of his experience couriering the tapes; he later told of a moment in a café, when, "all around everyone's eating bacon and eggs chatting away, and I put these headphones on and turn on the tape recorder and listen to Diana talking about bulimia nervosa, which I'd never heard of, talking about her suicide attempts, talking about this woman called Camilla Parker Bowles. It was like entering a parallel universe, I walked out of that café thinking, 'Wow what on Earth have I heard?'"
Prince Philip, Diana and ‘the system’
"Don't rock the boat. Ever. To the grave," Prince Philip warns Diana towards the end of the episode. He has paid a visit to her to warn her about going against ‘the system’ – his term for how the royal family often functions less like an ordinary family and more as a united institution. “For better or for worse, we’re all stuck in it,” he says. Indeed, he even goes as far to call the Queen ‘the Boss’.
More like this
The real Royal Family is indeed referred to in similar terms. ‘The Firm’ is how it is typically described; it’s a term that gained renewed prominence in Meghan, Duchess of Sussex’s infamous 2021 Oprah Winfrey interview and denotes the entire family and all its associated institutions. The informal name reportedly stems from a statement by the Queen’s father, King George VI, who described himself and the rest of the royals as “not a family, we’re a firm”.
But what do we know about how Philip and Diana really felt about each other? Both the Queen and Prince Philip were fond of Diana in the early years. “When Diana stayed at Balmoral in the summer of 1980, the Queen and Prince Philip thought she was enchanting,” journalist Penny Junor told HistoryExtra. And, indeed, episode two of The Crown chooses to reflect some of this affection. “I can be a tough old nut,” he says. “But I’ve always had a soft spot for you […] I’ve always felt protective of you.”
Things did, however, change over the years. While Charles initially kept his marital difficulties secret from his parents, as time went on the Queen and Prince Philip became increasingly involved and, according to Junor, “irritated by [Diana]”.
“Diana’s behaviour was damaging the monarchy, and if there’s one thing the Queen cares about above all else, it’s the monarchy,” said Junor. “She is safeguarding it for the future; that’s the prime task for any monarch.”
For insight into Diana’s own feelings that caused her to collaborate with Morton and Colthurst on the 1992 tapes, drama viewers can look to the princess’s words, later recorded on video tapes in 1993 and broadcast in a 2017 Channel 4 documentary Diana: In Her Own Words. She told of “sobbing” to the Queen once she believed she had “confirmation” that her marriage was loveless. “So I went to the top lady and said: ‘I don’t know what I should do’. She said: ‘I don’t know what you should do.’ And that was it. That was ‘help’.”
Save 42% AND receive a copy of The Earth Transformed by Peter Frankopan when you subscribe BBC History Magazine! PLUS Get FREE access to HistoryExtra worth £34.99.