The Crown S4 E4 real history: mothers in the spotlight and the ‘favourite’ royal child
As Margaret Thatcher deals with the disappearance of her son, Mark, dramatised amid rising tensions in the Falklands, the Queen reconsiders her own relationships with her four children…
The theme of motherhood is the main focus of episode 4. Testing Prince Philip’s theory that she has a favourite child, Queen Elizabeth II meets with each of her children and viewers get a first glimpse of Princes Andrew and Edward. Meanwhile, Thatcher faces challenges both at home and abroad. But how historically accurate is all this? Let’s unpick the historical truths of episode 4…
(This article contains spoilers for season 4, episode 4 of The Crown)
What happened to Margaret Thatcher’s son?
Episode 4 opens in Paris 1982 at the famous Paris Dakar rally. A loudspeaker announces Mark Thatcher, the British prime minister’s son. “Ready,” he declares, and the team sets off. It soon becomes clear that the 29-year-old was less ready than he thought. In the Queen’s weekly audience with Margaret Thatcher, the normally ‘iron’ lady breaks down in tears in front of her sovereign. This isn’t due to the Queen’s displeasure at soaring interest rates and rioting in several British cities, but the fact that during the rally her son has gone missing in Algeria.
Mark Thatcher really did go missing in the Sahara, for six days in January 1982; Mark himself wrote in 2004 how he “did absolutely no preparation. Nothing. I did half a day’s testing and the day after that we were driving out of the Place de la Concorde in Paris. I was thinking, ‘OK, I wonder how this is going to go?’ I soon found out.”
During Thatcher’s audience with the Queen, the monarch (played by Olivia Colman) offers Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) paper hankies and a brandy, assuring her “it’s by no means the first time a prime minister has broken down in here” – but remains unruffled by the emotional display. That is, until Thatcher matter-of-factly declares her son “the favourite” of her two, twin children.
The idea that Mark was Thatcher’s favourite child is “completely, undoubtedly true” says historian Dominic Sandbrook. “But I don’t think she would have said as much to the Queen, she wouldn’t have unburdened herself in that way. Margaret Thatcher’s relationship with the Queen was extremely punctilious. The Queen had been quite pally with Harold Wilson, but she was not pally at all with Margaret Thatcher – and anyway, Thatcher didn’t want that, she was incredibly deferential to the Queen, it was quite a ‘stiff’ relationship.”
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The Queen’s search for a favourite
Nevertheless, Thatcher’s mention of a “favourite child” in The Crown sets Elizabeth II off on her own quest to wrangle with her own feelings for her four children, particularly after Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) teases her that “any honest parent” would admit to having a favourite, and it is “obvious” which one is hers. Philip’s own answer is unequivocal: Anne. With her habits of pragmatism and love of the outdoors, the Queen’s only daughter is often said to favour her father, and many friends close to the royals have claimed Anne is Philip's favourite. Upon her birth he reportedly called her “the sweetest girl”, and as she grew into a “confident extrovert”, wrote royal biographer Sally Bedell Smith in 2017, she could respond in kind to some of the duke’s blunter comments. Royal biographer Penny Junor adds: “Philip wanted a son in his own image, and he ultimately got the son he had always wanted in Princess Anne.”
Ruffled by Philip’s open admission, the Queen asks her bemused private secretary Martin Charteris to arrange meetings with her four children, also requesting a briefing document updating her on the recent activities of each child: “One would hate to appear uninformed, or cold, or remotely… remote”, (possibly a reference to how Charles would later describe his mother in a 1994 authorised biography). In reality, Charteris was no stranger to the formality that regularly marked the Queen’s relationship with her children as she balanced motherhood with royal duty; he once commented how Prince Charles “must have been baffled by what a natural mother-son relationship was meant to be like”.
In episode 4 the Queen’s youngest child, Prince Edward (born in 1964), is first up: 18 years old and returned from school at Gordonstoun, where he is in his final year and is Guardian (Head Boy). Both Andrew and Edward followed their elder brother Charles in attending the austere Scottish boarding school, once described by Charles as “Colditz in kilts”. One classmate of Charles’s, John Stonborough, said that “bullying was virtually institutionalised” at the school.
In The Crown Edward greets the Queen by bowing his head – despite their HRH status, all royal children are required to bow to the sovereign, though this formality was apparently dispensed with when they were young. The prince is worried as to the reason for the lunch (“a deux”) and immediately expresses concern about his Civil List money (a grant paid by the government to cover some expenses of the royal family, for services to the state. This was replaced in 2012 by the Sovereign Grant system).
Despite Edward’s depiction in The Crown as entitled and whiny, the Queen’s fondness for her youngest son is clear. Dr Ed Owens, a historian of the British monarchy, explains that Andrew (b 1960) and Edward (b 1964), born a decade after the Queen’s first two children, were able to command more of her attention later on in her reign.
Whereas when Charles and Anne were young the Queen had to leave “the day-to-day work of bringing up her children to a succession of royal nannies”, by the time Prince Andrew and Prince Edward were born, “the queen’s public routine in Britain was more settled and overseas affairs, most notably colonial independence ceremonies, were overseen by other members of the royal family,” says Owens. “This gave Elizabeth II more time to spend with her younger sons and she adopted a more hands-on approach to raising the boys.”
In the drama, Edward declares how he expects to walk into “any area of life I might fancy”, and why shouldn’t he, he asks, given “what the royals do for this country”. The queen seems taken aback and unimpressed by this transactional attitude – a dramatic choice which perhaps hints at later accusations levied at Edward of using his royal status for financial gain, particularly during his forays into TV production.
Read the real history behind more episodes with our S4 episode guide to The Crown:
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Tensions in the Falklands
Elsewhere in the episode, we see the beginnings of the Falklands crisis. Tensions escalate when a group of Argentine scrap metal workers land on the British Overseas Territory of South Georgia, and Thatcher’s ministers are AWOL. Yet the conflation of Mark’s disappearance with the beginning of the crisis is “a complete fabrication,” says Dominic Sandbrook.
Mark went missing and was then found in January 1982, but the Falklands weren’t even on Thatcher’s radar until late March. Sandbrook, who has researched and written extensively on the way Thatcher dealt with the Falklands crisis, said: “There has never been even a hint that Margaret Thatcher was emotional or in any way distracted when dealing with the Falklands crisis. Any suggestion that she was is a complete invention.
“The two events [Mark going missing and the eruption of tensions in the Falklands] were two months apart. But what makes The Crown’s portrayal even more egregious is that the Falklands was really the one time where Margaret Thatcher shone. Often she was quite abrasive, a lot of people loathed her, but during the Falklands War everybody who worked with her – even civil servants, people who weren’t necessarily Tories – said she was a dream to work with. This was partly because, as a woman, she wasn’t expected to have extensive military knowledge, so for once she didn’t feel the need to ‘show off’ or to dominate, she was quite happy to sit back and listen to the advice of her military men, whom she really liked.”
The Queen and her daughter
Switching back to the royals, next on the Queen’s agenda is Princess Anne. They ride out on horseback together at Anne’s 18th-century estate, Gatcombe Park in Gloucestershire, and Anne seems hostile and distracted. She bemoans the constant scrutiny from journalists who have “got it in for me” and constantly compare her unfavourably to Princess Diana, the newest royal.
It’s true that the Princess Royal never courted the press: “She has never been the show pony, she is not there to promote herself,” says Penny Junor. “She is like her mother in that she has dedicated herself to her role.” And, as is shown in The Crown, Princess Anne really did tell photographers to “naff off” as they caught her falling from her horse at the Badminton Horse Trials, and she has admitted in an interview with the BBC that she disliked the 1970s introduction of royal walkabouts. As for her thoughts on Diana, Ed Owens confirms that Princess Anne is “too tactful to have revealed her thoughts about Princess Diana in public. Royal biographers and commentators have, though, speculated as to her response to Diana’s arrival in the family. They have suggested that Anne, whose public image was based on a combination of shrewd intelligence and a commitment to duty, found Diana frivolously girlish and superficial.”
Yet that Anne received a rough deal from the press is not the whole story. “In the mid-1980s,” says Owens, “a significant portion of the press, and particularly female journalists, celebrated Princess Anne’s outspoken and assertive approach to her public role, particularly as patron of the international charity Save the Children. Although she was not characterised as a feminist, some writers did cast her as typifying the ‘new woman’ – a figure who refused to play second fiddle to men, be it in public life or in private.”
Royal biographers have suggested that Anne, whose public image was based on a combination of shrewd intelligence and a commitment to duty, found Diana frivolously girlish and superficial
In The Crown the Queen also questions Anne about her marriage to Captain Mark Philips. “Fleet Street reporters were well aware of rumours regarding Anne’s marital difficulties,” says Owens, “and her husband was characterised as a somewhat aloof figure, more interested in equestrian sports than supporting his wife in her royal duties.”
The drama also has the Queen referring to a ‘Sergeant Cross’. This was Detective Sergeant Peter Cross, Anne’s personal bodyguard since 1979, who was relieved of his duties a year later amid allegations that the two had become close. Cross later sold a story to the tabloids in 1984 claiming an affair, though the Princess Royal has never acknowledged his allegations. It is true that Anne’s marriage was dogged by infidelity, certainly on the part of her husband. During the early 1980s, it was alleged by American media that Anne’s husband had engaged in “semi-public affairs”, and it was later proven by DNA testing that in 1985 Phillips had fathered a daughter as a result of an extramarital affair. The royal couple eventually divorced in April 1992.
Though clearly worried for her daughter, in the drama the Queen remains at arm’s length emotionally, assuring Anne that her feelings of recklessness “will pass”.
What was Margaret Thatcher like as a mother?
Meanwhile, a delighted and effusive Thatcher confirms that her son is now safe. In reality, Mark Thatcher’s team was eventually spotted from the air and rescued by an Algerian military aircraft on 14 January 1982. The trio were running short of food but still had plenty of drinking water. “You are all used to thinking of me as prime minister,” Anderson’s Thatcher in The Crown tells the press, “but the last few days have shown me very clearly that above all else I am a mother.”
So, what was Thatcher like as a mother? “She had nannies for her twins, Mark and Carol,” says Dominic Sandbrook, “and she doted on Mark – Mark could do no wrong, and in a sense, Carol could do no right. Having said that, that’s not an unfamiliar dynamic: the very dominant mum whose ‘naughty boy’ is the apple of her eye and the dutiful daughter gets it in the neck all the time is a pretty well-worn family dynamic, and Mrs Thatcher was absolutely imprisoned by it. She spoiled Mark and treated Carol as if she were a complete waste of air. Carol probably resented that.”
“It’s mothers and sons,” Denis Thatcher tells daughter Carol in the drama. “We’re the support act in this show.” It is true that Mrs Thatcher’s relationship with her daughter was sometimes strained, as Sandbrook shares. “There’s a story where Thatcher was getting ready to take part in one of the ballots for the Tory leadership in 1975 and Carol had her law school exams at the same time; Carol says at breakfast how nervous she feels and her mum says ‘You think you’re nervous? Imagine how I feel, I’ve got the Tory party leadership contest!’ For your parent to say that to you is sub-ideal to say the least.
“But I don’t think Margaret Thatcher was unusual, it’s more that she was a working woman from the 1950s who decided that her career was going to be really important to her.”
Also highlighted is Thatcher’s attachment to other traditionally perceived gender roles. Several times in the season Thatcher is depicted cooking for the men in her cabinet. It’s plausible, says Sandbrook, that Thatcher would have served food for ministers if they came upstairs, but it’s harder to believe she would have had time to actually cook it. “There’s one story of her, when she had just arrived at Number 10 in 1979, doling out shepherd’s pie that her aides had brought from her house in Chelsea. She served it, but her aides had cooked it beforehand.” And in reality, Thatcher’s guests would more likely have been served cheese on toast than a home-cooked meal.
“Thatcher was very happy ‘playing mother’, as it were, and she was very solicitous – she insisted on doing everything for her guests,” says Sandbrook. “She fussed over everybody and she’d look after you – and she prided herself on that. She would have happily served food. But in reality, she wouldn’t have had time to spend an hour-and-a-half cooking a meal because she worked all the time, the workload was overwhelming.”
Prince Charles and Andrew
Elsewhere in episode 4 of The Crown, the Queen continues to test Philip’s theory that she has a favourite child. Her second-born son, Andrew, showboats by arriving at the grounds of Windsor Castle piloting a navy rescue helicopter, a nod to the fact that the prince’s relationship with the Queen was marked by cheekiness and practical jokes (he once reportedly interfered with Buckingham Palace’s aerials so the Queen could not watch the races). As with Edward, the drama presents Andrew as free of many of the formal burdens that had dogged the elder two royal siblings.
During the lunch depicted on screen, the conversation turns to Andrew’s personal life. At this time, the press had dubbed the young prince ‘Randy Andy’ due to the many women he was linked with, and the “young, racy, American actress” that the Queen refers to is almost certainly Koo Stark, an American photographer and actor who the prince dated between 1981 and 1983. Stark appeared in the avant-garde film that Andrew mentions, The Awakening of Emily (1976), playing a 17-year-old ‘innocent’ who is seduced by a series of older characters. The way in which Andrew describes the film’s plot and its young protagonist in The Crown could arguably be seen as a reference to the allegations against Prince Andrew that surfaced in late 2019.
In The Crown, despite these activities that the Queen clearly disapproves of, she seems to have a special connection with Andrew and is indulgent of him, committing to name him the Duke of York upon any future marriage (Andrew did later marry, he wed Sarah Ferguson in July 1986). Finally, Andrew assures his mother that if it comes to conflict in the Falklands, he will insist on going. In reality, Andrew did serve aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible, and as a Sea King helicopter co-pilot during the Falklands War. This altered many perceptions of the young prince. “Until the 1980s, Andrew had existed in the shadow of his older brother, Prince Charles,” Ed Owens explains. “All of this changed in 1982 when he joined the British task force sent to recapture the Falkland Islands from the Argentine army. After the conflict came to an end in mid-June, Andrew’s exploits as a helicopter pilot were loudly celebrated by Britain’s tabloid newspapers which interviewed a number of soldiers who the prince had helped to save.”
The government wanted to reassign Andrew to a desk job for his own safety. But Andrew – and his mother – insisted that he be allowed to fight, which he did, flying numerous missions during the war, says historian Dominic Sandbrook.
“Andrew’s public image at the time of the Falklands War did much to further the idea that the crown and the British people were in the fight together,” says Ed Owens, “and echoed the language and imagery of the home front during the Second World War. Having then arrived as a royal celebrity in his own right, Andrew’s image evolved, and it wasn’t long before he was presented a ‘playboy prince’ fond of parties and female company.”
Despite some minister’s assurances that the Falklands War would be costly and unpopular, in The Crown Thatcher regards the conflict as a necessary show of strength. “The Falklands was huge for her,” confirms Sandbrook. “It was the defining moment of her premiership, her big test – she knew that if she failed she’d be out. She felt very guilty about the war at first, but the fact she was able to turn it around and carry it off meant she saw it as complete vindication for her methods, and then she basically dined out on it for the next eight years. It’s enormous, Margaret Thatcher without the Falklands is a very different subject; a different person.”
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Charles at Highgrove
The final child to receive the Queen’s individual attention is her eldest son, Prince Charles. The Prince of Wales meets his mother at his beloved Highgrove, the 18th-century Georgian estate that he purchased in 1980, before his engagement to Princess Diana. He hoped to build a “Xanadu” that reflected his principles and character – Charles installed an organic farm on the property and transformed the grounds to reflect his own enthusiasms, “to put the soul back” into agriculture, as he put it. Charles was reportedly so proud of his modifications to the grounds at Highgrove, writes Sally Bedell Smith, that “he took to lying on the floor near the windows of his house to eavesdrop on the conversations of people taking tours.”
In the drama, the Queen seems impatient and slightly mocking of Charles’s grand designs that his home will reflect his own “wild unconventionality”, and when her son begins wistfully reciting Kubla Khan by the Romantic poet Coleridge, the Queen brusquely moves Charles on. Though there’s no evidence that the Queen disapproved of her son’s project, the fact that Charles’s sensitive character was distinct from both his more practical parents was no secret. “I think he must be a changeling,” Charles’s cousin Lady Pamela Hicks once joked.
Highgrove was Charles’s haven, but for his young, pregnant wife, Diana, the estate was isolated, far away from London, and, critically, a mere 15-minute drive away from Charles’s confidant Camilla Parker Bowles – a fact that, in the drama, is not lost on the Queen either. Despite the pregnancy, cracks are beginning to show in the Wales’ marriage: Charles describes Diana as “intellectually incurious” and bemoans the fact she has been “withdrawing again, locking herself in her room watching endless hours of television”. In reality this was a testing time for the couple – as Bedell Smith writes, “Charles remained perplexed by her shifting moods and she… had no hobbies to engage her. When he tried to offer her spiritual and intellectual sustenance by talking about Jung, she tuned out.”
Penny Junor adds: “Apart from being in charge of decorating Highgrove and later their apartment at Kensington Palace, there wasn’t much left for Diana to do to feel part of it all.” Diana came to resent the time Charles spent working and the activities that drew his attention.
Diana’s first pregnancy was a deeply challenging and unhappy time for the princess, so much so that she reportedly threw herself down the stairs in January 1982 while pregnant. In Andrew Morton’s 1992 biography, where this claim originated, the princess said: “I had told Charles I felt so desperate and I was crying my eyes out. He said I was crying wolf. ‘I’m not going to listen,’ he said. ‘You’re always doing this to me. I’m going riding now.’”
Did the Queen know about these marital troubles? It seems highly unlikely that Charles would have opened up. As Junor writes in her biography of Camilla Parker Bowles: “Not even after the Queen found Diana at the bottom of the stairs after her fall, mercifully unharmed, did he take the opportunity to confide in his mother.” Equally unlikely, Bedell Smith agrees in her own biography of the prince, is that the Queen would have probed into the state of her son’s marriage: “The Queen’s natural reticence and sense of propriety prevented her from intervening to correct Diana, much less to ask her, or Charles for that matter, about the princess’s upset.”
Bedell Smith adds: “While the Queen was fundamentally sympathetic, she was almost allergic to confrontation.”
Who is the Queen’s favourite child?
All of her children “are lost”, the Queen is seen to say at the end of episode 4, “each in their own deserts”. And knowing that three of her children’s four marriages will end in infidelity, animosity and divorce, history cannot argue to the contrary. The episode concludes that Andrew is the Queen’s favourite child – as Philip insists he knew all along (and many royal experts have agreed). According to royal biographer Lady Colin Campbell, the Queen associated Andrew with “the re-booting of her marriage and a happy time in her life”, taking extended maternity leave to spend time with her third child. But the Queen’s admission is laced with foreboding. “If he doesn’t change…” she says, the statement lingering – an unmistakable nod to the troubles that have marked Andrew in recent years and led to his retirement from royal duty in late 2019.
Philip tells the Queen to “stop this nonsense,” assuring her that she is a “perfectly good mother”. Whether this is true or not, one thing is certain: royal mother-children relationships are nothing if not unconventional.
Discover more real history behind The Crown here
Elinor Evans is deputy digital editor at HistoryExtra
With thanks to historian Dominic Sandbrook, an expert on Margaret Thatcher and author of Who Dares Wins (Allen Lane, 2019), which explores the pivotal early years of Thatcher’s premiership in Britain: 1979–82; to Penny Junor, royal biographer and author of 10 books on members of the royal family; and Dr Ed Owens, a historian of the modern British monarchy and author of The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and the British Public, 1932–53 (University of London Press, 2019)