The Crown S4 E3 real history: Diana’s struggles, the ‘G’ & ‘F’ bracelet, and a royal engagement
At long last, the heir to the throne has chosen a bride. But, as episode 3 of season 4 of The Crown reveals, the relationship between Prince Charles and Diana is no fairy tale romance
In this episode we witness for the first time Diana’s struggle with an eating disorder and see her roaming the halls of Buckingham Palace, lonely and bored, before enduring a torturous lunch with Charles’s ex-girlfriend, Camilla. Diana also discovers the famous ‘G’ & ‘F’ bracelet and tells the Queen the royal wedding cannot go ahead. But how historically accurate is all this? Let’s unpick the historical truths of episode 3…
(This article contains spoilers for season 4, episode 3 of The Crown)
Charles & Diana get engaged
The sense of anticipation is palpable in the opening scenes of episode 3: Prince Charles watches from a window as Diana leaves Windsor Castle, while Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Margaret, the Queen Mother and Princess Anne each sit anxiously by their respective telephones, clocks ticking fervently in the background. At last the Queen’s phone rings, she picks up immediately. “It’s done, I did it,” Prince Charles tells his mother. The heir to the throne is at long last engaged. “Did you get on one knee?” his mother asks. “No, I thought in terms of rank the Prince of Wales only ever knelt before the Sovereign.”
Having returned to London, the newly engaged Diana pushes past throngs of reporters to reach her flat in Earl’s Court. There, her three girlfriends gather in the hallway, eagerly awaiting news. Cue screams of excitement as Diana confirms what they hope and suspect: she and the Prince of Wales are betrothed. What follows is a whirlwind of excitement as the four ladies speed through central London in a black cab, squealing as they pass Buckingham Palace, and dance the night away in a nightclub before drunkenly singing ‘God save the Queen’ as they head home. Diana is flushed with joy: her newfound reality looks nothing short of a fairy tale.
Is this really how Charles and Diana came to be engaged? The Prince of Wales did indeed propose at Windsor Castle, on 6 February 1981. Diana “thought at first that Charles was joking but nevertheless accepted, and was shocked when she later realised he meant it,” writes Tracy Borman in this article for HistoryExtra.
It’s not known whether Charles got down on one knee, but royal biographer Penny Junor doubts the way he is seen to explain his decision not to in The Crown. “‘I thought in terms of rank the Prince of Wales only ever knelt before the Sovereign’ is such a pompous thing to say,” says Junor. “I can’t see him saying something like that.”
Diana did, as the episode suggests, choose her own engagement ring – a 12-carat Ceylon sapphire stone set with 14 solitaire diamonds and a white gold band – from a selection of rings brought to Buckingham Palace by the House of Garrard, the then-crown jeweller in Regent Street. Diana is seen in the episode telling Charles and the Queen she’s chosen it because it reminds her of her mother’s engagement ring – this is, in reality, what she said – but “another theory is that she was drawn to its large size,” writes Tracy Borman. Indeed, in The Crown Charles quips that Diana has chosen it because “it’s the most expensive”.
But Penny Junor doubts whether the Queen would have been present when Diana chose her engagement ring, as is seen in The Crown. “I would be awfully surprised if that were true – why would the Queen have been there?” she says. “It wasn’t really any of her business.”
At the time, Diana’s choice of ring caused a scandal, with many criticising her for not having a custom-made engagement ring. Instead it was available for anyone to buy. Some newspapers went so far as to dub it “the commoner’s ring”.
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The episode also accurately shows Diana being moved into a suite of rooms at Buckingham Palace, but in reality this didn’t happen until after the couple’s engagement was announced. Diana actually went to Australia for two-and-a-half weeks with her mother and stepfather after Charles proposed and their engagement was kept secret, probably to allow time to prepare for the official announcement, which was made on 24 February 1981, says Tracy Borman.
Bidding her farewell, Diana’s flatmates toast to “no more worries, no more flatmates, no more rent collection… and to one day, not too far away, being the f***ing Queen!”
But while the opening scenes of episode 3 are jubilant and celebratory, the mood very quickly changes: arriving for a family dinner at Clarence House, in one fell swoop the newly engaged Diana manages to offend Princess Margaret, whose storytelling is interrupted by Diana’s entrance, and blunder her way through greeting the rest of the family, mixing up titles and not knowing who to curtsy to first – to audible tuts and sighs. “Oh dear,” says the Queen Mother, “thank goodness we’ve got your grandmother to sort all this out.”
Following Diana’s faux pas, the Queen Mother recommends that she undergo some tutorials, Martin Charteris tells the Queen, “for what will be a very drastic transition from teenager to royal princess”. After a brief discussion it is decided that Diana’s grandmother, Lady Fermoy, should be her teacher. But Penny Junor doubts whether Diana had any formal tutorials. “Michael Colborne, Charles’s right-hand-man, certainly drilled Diana and talked her through everything that would be expected of her, but I don’t think Diana ever spoke of having proper tutorials as such. I think if she had been put through a ‘crash course’ as is shown in The Crown she would have mentioned it in Diana: Her True Story [Andrew Morton’s authorised 1992 biography]”.
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“Whatever ‘in love’ means”
Then comes what is arguably the most heart-breaking – and impressively realistic – recreation of the season so far: the first interview Charles and Diana gave to the media following their engagement. Diana (Emma Corrin) looks up nervously at her fiancée, like a rabbit in headlights, as the couple are quizzed by a reporter and told “You both look very much in love.” Cue Prince Charles’s famous reply: “Whatever ‘in love’ means.”
Why did Charles say this, and what did he mean? Penny Junor is at a loss to explain it.
“Charles is horribly honest and overthinks things”, she said. “It was the stupidest remark, it’s come back to haunt him again and again. And it made Diana look like a bit of an idiot because she was there saying, ‘of course we’re in love!’ But Charles was never brought up to express his emotions in public; he may have been a little embarrassed by the question. Remember, in those days people didn’t wear their hearts on their sleeve, and the royal family certainly didn’t, they kept their emotions totally buttoned up. And, in reality, Charles wasn’t in love. But I’m absolutely sure he thought he could, in time, grow to love Diana. The potential was very much there. On paper she was perfect.”
The pair are then seen parting ways as Charles embarks on a six-week foreign tour. The prince did indeed go on such a tour (of the United States, Venezuela, New Zealand and Australia), but not until late March, the month after the couple’s engagement was announced, and it lasted five weeks. In The Crown, at the airport Charles tells his bride-to-be that he has asked Camilla to get in touch with her. “Your ex? Why would you do that?” a horrified Diana asks. “I just thought if you ever wanted company, she’s the best company,” Charles replies.
Diana did indeed go on to socialise with Camilla (more on that below), but it is not known whether Charles floated the idea at the airport. In reality, the press reported that the couple had a “tender, tearful farewell” at Heathrow. Charles “smiled, patted [Diana] on the shoulder and said ‘Take care’. She whispered to him, lowered her head and began to cry.” One official reportedly said, “We have never seen such a touching farewell.”
In The Crown, having returned to Buckingham Palace, Diana’s boredom and loneliness soon become apparent: she is seen pacing her suite of rooms, looking thoroughly disinterested in tutorials with her grandmother, and being stonewalled when trying to reach both the Queen and her private secretary on the telephone. Meanwhile her husband-to-be, Diana claims, has failed to telephone her in three weeks while on his foreign tour. Things reach a head when, one night, Diana sneaks down to the palace kitchen and gorges on refrigerated desserts, before making herself violently sick.
This unhappy depiction, says Junor, is largely accurate. Diana was struggling with her mental health and with the eating disorder bulimia – a condition with which she battled for many years before seeking professional help.
But while it is true that Diana felt isolated in Buckingham Palace, Penny Junor stresses: “There were people looking after her. The Queen’s lady-in-waiting, Lady Susan Hussey, was an old family friend of Diana’s, she was around a lot. And Michael Colborne treated Diana like a daughter. The two of them shared an office. So, Diana was not just ‘dumped’ in the palace, there were people looking out for her.”
And Junor thinks it quite wrong that Charles failed to telephone Diana while he was abroad. “I think that’s a dramatic device to show that Charles was very busy, he didn’t stop being busy just because he was engaged. He honoured his commitments and kept on working – which Diana resented. She hated being alone and couldn’t understand why his work had to take precedence of their being together.”
Read the real history behind more episodes with our S4 episode guide to The Crown:
- The Crown S4 E1 real history
- The Crown S4 E2 real history
- The Crown S4 E4 real history
- The Crown S4 E5 real history
Did Diana really have lunch with Camilla?
Our sympathy for Diana reaches new heights when in episode 3 she is invited to a torturous lunch with Charles’s ex-girlfriend, Camilla. At every turn Diana is reminded of how little she knows her future husband – and how well Camilla does. From Charles’s eating habits (“He has a soft-boiled egg with everything, you must know that?”) to his love of gardening and his favourite colour (green), Camilla seems to relish lauding her in-depth knowledge of the prince over Diana – “Darling, you really know nothing, do you?” Camilla also reveals her nickname for Charles (‘Fred’) and his for her (‘Gladys’), and Diana is visibly pained when Camilla tells her she and Charles talk on the phone “most days”.
How historically accurate is this, did Diana and Camilla really go on such a lunch date? Yes, says Penny Junor, but “it was a very friendly lunch as far as Camilla was concerned. She was welcoming Diana as a friend, she wanted to see the ring, and Diana showed it off gleefully. Camilla was excited for Diana and was offering a hand of friendship to her.”
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The depiction of Camilla lauding her knowledge of Charles over Camilla would have been based on the princess’s account of the lunch in Diana: Her True Story, says Junor. “When Camilla later read about it in Morton’s biography it had turned into this terrible lunch where she was supposedly asked leading questions to find opportunities where she could continue seeing Charles,” says Junor.
And it would not, says Junor, have been unthinkable for Diana to have had lunch with an ex-girlfriend of her future husband. “What you need to get your head around is that amongst the upper classes it was perfectly acceptable and doable to carry on being friends with someone you’d had an affair with,” she said. “Andrew Parker Bowles was very friendly with Charles, for example, even though he knew Charles and Camilla were sleeping together. In 1981 Camilla knew that now Charles and Diana were engaged, her relationship with him was over. She and Charles remained friends and shared a big group of friends, so Camilla was simply welcoming Charles’s wife-to-be into the fold.”
The ‘G’ & ‘F’ bracelet
Later in the episode, following an uncomfortable scene in which a tearful and shaky Diana makes herself sick after her lunch with Camilla, we see her visit Charles’s right-hand-man, Michael Colborne, in his office. There she discovers drawings for a bracelet Charles had designed for Camilla, with the inscription ‘F&G’, standing for the pair’s nicknames for one another, ‘Fred’ and ‘Gladys’. Visibly furious, Diana storms back upstairs to her suite of rooms and tries to telephone the Queen, telling the operator “Don’t fob me off! It is absolutely essential that I see the Queen. This wedding can’t go ahead. It’ll be a disaster for everyone!”
How historically accurate is this scene? Well, Charles really did give Camilla a bracelet with their nicknames inscribed, says Penny Junor. Just a few days before his wedding to Diana, Charles had one final lunch with his ex during which he gifted her a bracelet inscribed with the letters ‘G’ and ‘F’ (not ‘F’ & ‘G’, as The Crown depicts – Junor was originally told by Michael Colborne that the letters stood for ‘Girl Friday’). But in reality it was not a drawing of the bracelet that Diana discovered in Michael Colborne’s office, as The Crown depicts, but the bracelet itself, along with a hoard of other jewellery Charles had ordered as presents for a number of women with whom he had been close during his bachelor years, as a way of thanking them for their companionship.
“All the jewellery had been delivered to the office that Diana was sharing with Colborne and put on his desk,” Junor explains. “Colborne was called away to a meeting down the corridor. He left the package of jewellery on his desk and when he came back he met Diana storming out of the office. He quickly realised she had unpacked the boxes, discovered the bracelet and flown into a jealous rage.”
But did Diana really try to make a phone call to the Queen telling her the wedding could not go ahead? “I’m not aware of that happening,” Junor told HistoryExtra, “and I wouldn’t have thought Diana was sufficiently at ease with the Queen to have dared have that conversation.”
Charles is later seen getting off a plane, returning from his royal tour – but instead of rushing from the airport to see his bride-to-be he travels straight to Highgrove. The next morning, he is seen leaving what appears to be Camilla’s house, presumably having spent the night with her, in what looks to be a final parting of ways. He then travels from Gloucestershire to the wedding rehearsal at St Paul’s Cathedral. There, Diana makes it clear she knows he went running to Camilla – and about the bracelet. “I had the bracelet made as a farewell gift, a souvenir,” Charles confesses. “And I went to Gloucestershire… to tell Camilla face-to-face that it’s over.”
Is this really how Charles and Camilla broke off their affair? Did they spend a final night together when Charles was engaged to Diana, and did Charles tell Camilla face-to-face it was over? “It’s highly unlikely,” says Junor, who maintains that the physical side of Charles and Camilla’s relationship ended when he became engaged to Diana. “Camilla stepped right back even before the engagement, she totally understood that her relationship with Charles was over. Therefore, Charles wouldn’t have needed to tell her face-to-face. And I think it is absolutely untrue that she and Charles slept together just before the wedding. They are both decent, honourable people.”
Did Princess Margaret really try to call off the wedding?
As the wedding rehearsal gets under way, Princess Margaret can be seen eyeing the couple doubtfully. That night, on the eve of the wedding, back at the palace she tells her sister, Prince Philip and the Queen Mother: “Charles loves someone else. How many times can this family make the same mistake? Forbidding marriages that should be allowed, forcing others that shouldn’t… We can stop them now, before they tie the knot… We have to stop them now”.
Did Princess Margaret really try to stop the wedding? “I’d be very surprised if that were true, I’ve never heard that,” says Junor. “I would think it’s a dramatic device to make the point that Margaret was prevented from marrying the man she wanted to marry and a whole lot of heartache followed, and that history would be repeating itself.”
In the 1950s, Queen Elizabeth II discouraged Margaret from marrying her father’s equerry Group Captain Peter Townsend. If The Crown is to be believed, the Queen had told her sister that she would no longer be a member of the family if she went ahead with the marriage. But this is not necessarily true. On 31 October 1955, Margaret announced that she had decided not to marry Townsend and that she had chosen her “duty to the Commonwealth” over marrying for love.
Returning to the action in episode 3 of the new season of The Crown: in response to Margaret, Prince Philip insists that Charles’s marriage to Diana will go ahead. He reasons: “The older Diana gets, the more confident Diana becomes, the more beautiful Diana becomes… the more Charles will fall in love with her, and this will all be fine.” This, says Penny Junor, is a sentiment both father and son shared. “Although I don’t think [Charles] was actually in love with Diana, I think he thought he could grow to love her,” she told HistoryExtra. “Fundamentally I believe he had every intention of making his marriage work… but once he was inside that marriage life was utterly unbearable for both of them”.
Did King George VI have an affair?
Interestingly, when in episode 3 Princess Margaret quips that Charles should “juggle” both women (referring to Diana and Camilla), the Queen Mother cries “That’s how it works! That’s how it’s always worked”. So, did the Queen Mother’s husband, King George VI, have an affair?
According to Dowager Lady Hardinge of Penshurst, widow of King George VI’s principal private secretary and a lifelong friend of the Queen Mother, the king was “rather more than a little in love” with the actress Evelyn Laye. The future king first met Laye at the age of 24, several years before he married Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, but despite his devotion to his wife “there remains the startling possibility that George VI continued to carry a flame for one of Britain’s most dazzling stars,” says royal writer Michael Thornton in the Daily Mail.
According to Thornton, the Queen Mother had always been aware of the king’s “intense admiration” for the legendary ‘Boo’ Laye. The Queen Mother’s late private secretary, Sir Martin Gilliat, who knew Laye socially, reportedly told Thornton: “She found it rather touching, and trusted absolutely in Boo’s discretion.”
What’s the story behind Prince Charles’s great-grandmother, Queen Mary, who had an arranged marriage to George V?
Later in episode 3, following her conversation with Princess Margaret, the Queen is seen trying to bolster a glassy-eyed and forlorn-looking Charles with a tale of his great-grandmother, Queen Mary, who made her arranged marriage [to George V] work because she prioritised “duty” over love. “If you could follow the example of your great-grandmother, love and happiness will surely follow,” she tells him.
What’s the real history behind this story? Princess Mary (known to all as ‘May’) of Teck married the future King George V in July 1893, but she had been originally intended to wed George’s brother, Prince Eddy, Duke of Clarence. Tragically, before Eddy and Mary could get to the alter, Eddy died of complications from a bout of flu that turned into pneumonia. “With the characteristic expediency of a dynasty bent on its own survival, May… was encouraged to transfer her affections to George,” writes Denys Blakeway in this article for BBC History Magazine.
“The arranged marriage quickly developed into a bond of real affection and mutual support. The couple became a team… [and] espoused the virtues of the middle classes: fidelity and family.”
The couple successfully “adapted the monarchy to the modern age while giving the appearance of rock-like security,” Blakeway adds. “The monarchy’s survival into the 21st century owes an enormous debt to the reign of George V and Mary.”
Episode 3 ends with suspenseful scenes of the royals getting dressed for Charles and Diana’s wedding, including Diana in her iconic wedding dress. The real voice of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, can be heard delivering the speech from the ceremony. “Here is the stuff of which fairy tales are made. The prince and princess on their wedding day… As husband and wife live out their vows… they will be transformed in the process. Our faith sees the wedding day not as the place of arrival, but as the place where the adventure really begins.”
You can read everything you need to know about Charles and Diana’s wedding here.
Discover more real history behind The Crown here
Emma Mason is the digital editor at HistoryExtra
With thanks to expert Penny Junor, royal biographer and author of 10 books on members of the royal family