With Emma Corrin joining the cast at the late Princess of Wales, the newest instalment of The Crown centres on Diana’s ill-fated relationship with Prince Charles, amid pressure on the prince as heir apparent to find a suitable bride. The glamorous young princess is adored by her public, but behind closed doors it’s not long before cracks begin to show in the couple’s so-called fairy tale romance.
In the opening episode of season 4, which picks up in the late 1970s, we’re also introduced to Britain’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, as she takes office in 1979.
But how historically accurate is the episode? How did Charles and Diana really meet, what did the Queen think of Thatcher, and why was Lord Mountbatten assassinated? Let’s unpick the historical truths of episode 1…
(This article contains spoilers for season 4, episode 1 of The Crown)
Charles meets Diana
Seeing as season 4 is all about the race to find Prince Charles a bride, it’s little surprise that in the first few minutes of episode 1 we see Queen Elizabeth II, played by Olivia Colman, quizzing Charles’s great-uncle, Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance), on “matters of the heart”, looking for an update on who Charles (Josh O’Connor) is currently dating. Over a family lunch following the Trooping of the Colour ceremony, the Queen is told her son’s latest love interest is Lady Sarah Spencer – Diana’s elder sister (Charles really did date Sarah Spencer, briefly, between 1977 and 1978). The greatest advantage of such a match? “Unlike a certain Mrs Parker Bowles, she’s not married,” quips Princess Anne (Erin Doherty).
Setting the scene for the love triangle that will dominate season 4, the family is seen bemoaning the ongoing affair between Charles and Camilla, who by this time is married to a serially unfaithful Andrew Parker Bowles. (In reality, Charles and Camilla spent a final weekend together in mid-December 1972 shortly before Charles’s seven-month voyage in the Caribbean on board the HMS Minerva. Camilla married Andrew in July 1973, and she and Charles became romantically involved again shortly after the birth of her second child, Laura, in early 1978). Cue a frustrated Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) blaming Mountbatten, or ‘Dickie’, for having encouraged the pair to get together in the first place. “We can’t be surprised,” Philip tells the family. Charles “was following the advice he was given, wasn’t he Dickie? You were the one who encouraged it, telling him to sow his oats, play the field, [with] no thought for his duty”.
Next in the episode we see Charles visit Sarah Spencer at Althorp, the Spencer estate. It is here that he first meets Sarah’s teenage sister – his future bride – Diana (played by Emma Corrin), who is dressed as “a mad tree” for a part in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When Charles later tells Sarah about having bumped into her sister, she replies that Diana was “obsessed with the idea of meeting you”.
Is this really how Charles and Diana first met? Yes and no. Charles really did meet Diana for the first time while he was dating Sarah – he thought her “jolly” when he visited Althorp in 1977. But Diana was not dressed in costume, nor was she “obsessed” with the idea of meeting Charles, says royal biographer Penny Junor. “It’s my understanding they met at a gala dinner at Althorp in ’77, the night before a shoot. The Spencer family were famous for their gala dinners to which they invited all the local dignitaries. That night 32 people sat down for dinner in the State Dining Room and it was a black-tie event. I’ve never heard that Diana was in fancy dress when she first met Charles, she would have been wearing a long, formal gown. And this meeting certainly wasn’t a big thing – Diana was just his girlfriend’s younger sister, she was only about 16.”
Junor also finds it “highly unlikely” that Diana was “obsessed with the idea” of meeting Charles. “I do think that Diana developed a crush on Charles after that point,” she says. “He was going out with her big sister and I think Diana went back to her school with dreams of one day marrying the Prince of Wales. I think she decided at that point to keep herself pure for him. But it was just a schoolgirl crush.”
You can read more about how Charles and Diana first met and their ill-fated marriage here.
At the end of the episode Charles is seen telephoning Sarah, who is by now his ex-girlfriend, to ask her for information about Diana and to ask her permission to date her. This, too, likely never happened, says Junor. “I can’t see that happening in any family really,” she said. “I think that scene is a fabrication.”
The real history behind The Crown
Want to know even more about the real events from history that inspired the drama? Read more from the experts…
- Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth II: what was their relationship like?
- Prince Charles and Camilla: a history of their romance
- Why did Charles and Diana’s marriage fail?
- The Queen’s “rebel sister”: 8 facts about Princess Margaret
- Historian Sarah Gristwood reviews The Crown season 4: “We’ve reached the issue of how fiction influences opinion in the real world”
- Buckingham Palace intruder Michael Fagan: what happened and why did he break in?
- Was the Queen opposed to the Falklands War?
- The Crown: the real history behind series 1–3
- Princess Diana and Prince Charles’s wedding: everything you need to know
- Why was Lord Mountbatten, Prince Charles’s great-uncle, assassinated?
- Everything you need to know about Prince Charles
- Who is Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall?
- Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon: why did their marriage break down?
- Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip: 8 milestones in their marriage
- Who is Princess Anne, daughter of Queen Elizabeth II?
Was Margaret Thatcher sexist towards women?
Episode 1 also introduces us to Britain’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher (played by Gillian Anderson), on the day of the 1979 election when she led the Conservatives to a decisive electoral victory over Labour’s James Callaghan. “I rather like what I’ve seen of her so far,” the Queen tells Prince Philip as the pair watch the television coverage of the election from inside Buckingham Palace; the Queen is notably impressed by Thatcher’s former careers as a chemist and a barrister. Likewise, later in the episode we see Thatcher laud the Queen’s “commendable appetite for work”. But while the two women certainly shared a mutual respect for one another, in reality, once Thatcher was elected, the relationship between the Queen and her prime minister was often tense and awkward, writes Dominic Sandbrook in this article for HistoryExtra.
Having won the election, later in the episode we see Thatcher’s first audience with the Queen (the Queen has, throughout her reign, held a weekly audience with her prime minister, in an audience room in her apartments. The meeting, which usually takes place on a Wednesday, is entirely private and no records are kept). Thatcher, a trim figure in royal blue, greets the Queen with exaggerated deference in the form of a low curtsy. “The paradox being that Thatcher, an instinctive populist, was also a dewy-eyed monarchist,” writes Sandbrook – her low curtsies “became a palace joke”.
The two women briefly discuss family before moving on to Thatcher’s cabinet. “I’m assuming no women?”, says the Queen. “Women?” Thatcher asks, aghast. “Oh, certainly not… I have found women in general tend not to be suited to high office… they become too emotional.”
This scene, says historian Dominic Sandbrook, is highly contrived: Thatcher, he argues, would never have said such a thing to the Queen. “In reality Thatcher thought men were the flaky and emotional ones and that women were decision-makers,” he told HistoryExtra.
“And ‘I’m assuming no women?’ is a strange question for the Queen to ask, because there weren’t any other prominent Tory women for Thatcher to have elected to her cabinet,” he added. “Thatcher wasn’t leaving anybody out because they were a woman, and she certainly didn’t have a low opinion of women. Throughout her career she went out of her way to say women were better than men, and from a young age she argued that women should be encouraged to work outside the home. So, the idea that she would say something to the effect that she couldn’t possibly have women in her cabinet because they were a waste of space is unthinkable. That would have been a betrayal, I think, of what she really thought, which was that women should work hard and get to where they deserved.
“I think this scene has been put in because one of the criticisms people have made of Margaret Thatcher is that she didn’t make much effort to promote other women. This was a criticism not just of her but of quite a few women of her generation: these so-called ‘Queen bees’ who had established themselves in the 1950s and 60s had often had to overcome a lot of male prejudice to get to where they were. They felt they had earned their position through their own efforts and that other women should earn it too; they didn’t believe in ‘affirmative action’ for other women.
“They also probably rather liked – as Mrs Thatcher did – being the only woman in the room. Thatcher liked knowing that she had got there on merit and that she was surrounded by all these men who hadn’t. She also liked being the centre of attention: ever since she had entered parliament she had been used to being the only woman in the room, so it did make it more complicated if there was another woman to deal with; often she bridled and saw them as a rival for attention. But I don’t think it’s true that she didn’t get on with women – certainly there were women she got on with – although she probably preferred women who deferred to her. But she probably preferred men who deferred to her too!”
And in reality, says Sandbrook, contrary to her public image as an ‘Iron Woman’, Thatcher was herself a very emotional woman indeed – she made no secret of the fact she was often moved to tears by events or wounded by unkind words exchanged in the Commons. “There are times when I get home at night and everything has got on top of me when I shed a few tears, silently, alone,” Thatcher told Woman’s World in 1978. But, crucially, Thatcher only showed emotion in private. “She didn’t believe in emoting in public, and I think part of that was because she felt that she couldn’t show emotion because people would write her off as a ‘flaky woman’. And, actually, I think they would have done – it’s very easy to dismiss female politicians.”
Read the real history behind more episodes in our S4 episode guide to The Crown
Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Troubles in Ireland
By far the most dramatic event of episode 1 is the assassination of Prince Charles’s great-uncle, Lord Mountbatten, in Ireland at the hands of the Provisional IRA (PIRA). While enjoying his annual August holiday at Classiebawn Castle near the village of Cliffoney, County Sligo, Mountbatten was blown up on his fishing boat, which he had moored a mile away at Mullaghmore Harbour in order to lift the lobster pots he and his family had set the previous day. The Crown’s recreation of the tragedy is largely true to history – you can read what really happened, and why Lord Mountbatten was assassinated, here.
In episode 1, shortly before his death, Dickie is seen arguing on the telephone with Prince Charles, who is on a salmon fishing expedition with friends at the River Hofsá in Iceland. At the mention of Charles’s upcoming “rendezvous” with Camilla, Dickie expresses his disquiet: “Oh Charles, you’re not still seeing her? You know what the family thinks”. To which Charles angrily bites back that Camilla is “trapped in a marriage of your engineering to a husband who’s bedding half of Gloucestershire!”
- Historian Sarah Gristwood reviews The Crown season 4: “We’ve reached the issue of how fiction influences opinion in the real world”
Was this really the last conversation Charles had with Mountbatten before his death? It’s unlikely, says bestselling historian Andrew Lownie, who believes Charles’s last correspondence with Dickie was a letter he sent to his great-uncle dated 13 August which read: “I hope you are having a decent rest in Ireland and are not working unnecessarily hard.”
There is also no evidence to suggest that Lord Mountbatten encouraged Camilla to marry Andrew Parker Bowles, says Lownie. In season 3 of The Crown, Mountbatten was seen conspiring with the Queen Mother to put an end to the relationship between Charles and Camilla and orchestrating the marriage of Camilla and Andrew. But in reality “The Queen Mother loathed Mountbatten, so they certainly wouldn’t have conspired together,” says Lownie. “Mountbatten was keener on match-making than breaking up relationships.”
Later in episode 1, while on the plane journey home from Iceland, Charles is handed a letter written by his great-uncle immediately before his death. In the letter Dickie chastises Charles for pursuing Camilla, reminding him that “the choice of a woman was the issue around which the last Prince of Wales came to grief” – referring, of course, to Edward VIII’s abdication of the throne in 1936 to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson (Edward VIII was the Prince of Wales when he first met Simpson). Dickie urges Charles to make a fresh start with “some sweet and innocent well-tempered girl with no past, who knows the rules and will follow the rules… This is your duty now, the most important task.”
But did Dickie really send such a letter? Yes and no, says Andrew Lownie. Mountbatten had said something to this effect back in 1974 when, on 14 February, he sent a letter to Charles which read: “I believe, in a case like yours, the man should sow his wild oats and have as many affairs as he can before settling down, but for a wife he should choose a suitable, attractive and sweet-charactered girl before she met anyone else she might fall for. After all, [your] Mummy never seriously thought of anyone else after the Dartmouth encounter when she was 13! [Dickie is referring here to when the young Elizabeth first met her future husband, Philip]. I think it is disturbing for women to have experiences if they have to remain on a pedestal after marriage.”
But there was no such letter written right before Dickie’s death, and no evocation of Edward VIII (although, says Lownie, a few months earlier, on 21 April 1979, Dickie had referenced Edward when he wrote to Charles criticising him for leaving a family holiday in Eleuthera early: “I thought you were beginning on the downward slope which wrecked your Uncle David’s life and led to his disgraceful abdication and his futile life ever after,” the letter read. “I spent the night worrying whether you would continue on your Uncle David’s sad course or take a pull”.)
On this podcast, Alexander Larman and Dan Jones discuss Edward VIII’s relationship with Wallis Simpson and how it led to the British king’s abdication:
Following Mountbatten’s death, we see Margaret Thatcher telephone the Queen at Buckingham Palace to offer her heartfelt condolences to the royal family and to the families of “the servicemen killed at Warrenpoint today”. As Andrew Lownie explains, there was further carnage on the day Mountbatten was murdered when, that afternoon, the IRA killed 18 British soldiers on the Irish border at Warrenpoint in what was the deadliest attack on the British Army during the Troubles. You can read more about the Troubles here. In the episode, in her phone call to the Queen, Thatcher vows to “wage a war against the Irish Republican Army with relentless determination and without mercy until that war is won”.
Did Thatcher really make such a telephone call to the Queen? Historian Dominic Sandbrook tells us it’s “not implausible”, but that she would only have done it “out of duty, because she felt she ought to.” He told HistoryExtra: “In her relations with the Queen Mrs Thatcher was always guided by her advisers, so if they had told her a phone call to the Queen was the right thing to do, she would have done. But it’s hard to imagine she would have done it as a friendly gesture or as ‘one woman to another’; she would have done it because she felt she ought to. She wouldn’t have done it – if indeed she did to it – because she was being kind.”
Mountbatten’s funeral and the relationship between Prince Philip and Charles
Mountbatten’s funeral took place at Westminster Abbey on 5 September 1979. According to The Crown he left 500 pages of instructions – but did he really? This, says Andrew Lownie, is true to history. “Mountbatten had long-planned his funeral and drove courtiers mad with his detailed specifications. If his requests breached royal protocol, he went above their heads to the Queen.”
Mountbatten had begun planning his funeral – codenamed ‘Operation Freeman’ – back in 1971, and he continuously reassessed the arrangements, reviewing them for what would be the final time as recently as March 1979, just a few months before his death. Over the years he met with representatives from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the Treasury, Home Office and Ministry of Defence to discuss the plans, and by 1975 had requested that 170 different organisations be involved in the security arrangements, the procession, and the general fanfare.
Prudence, Lady Penn, whose husband, Sir Eric Penn, was Comptroller to the Queen between 1964 and 1981, told Andrew Lownie in 1974: “Dickie’s funeral was one of my husband’s responsibilities and I know that he was driven to distraction by his constant interference and his meticulous attention to the detail that he felt his particular position in life deserved!” And in 1976, Martin Charteris, the Queen’s private secretary, told the royal biographer Kenneth Rose over lunch that he received about three letters a week from Dickie, usually on some topic such as how his decorations are to be arranged on the third cushion at his funeral. “Dickie Mountbatten continues to buzz with self-importance,” Rose wrote in his diary after the meeting.
In episode 1 of season 4 of The Crown, we see tensions between Charles and his father, Prince Philip, after it transpires that in the instructions Dickie left for his funeral, he requested that Charles, rather than Philip, give a reading. Acknowledging the “struggles” in his relationship with his son, Philip is visibly pained to admit that Dickie, who had originally been a father figure to him, years later “switched horses” and devoted his affection to Charles instead. “He replaced me as father to you. And you replaced me as son to him… it might have given rise in me to a resentment,” Philip admits.
How historically accurate is this depiction of Prince Charles’s relationship with his father? The relationship is “a very difficult” one, says royal biographer Penny Junor. “In his younger years Charles and his father did not get on very well; Charles was not the son that Philip would ideally have liked. He was too sensitive and too emotional. Philip wanted a son in his own image, and he ultimately got the son he had always wanted in Princess Anne. Charles has spent almost all his life thus far, at least into his 50s and 60s, trying to get his father’s approval and never feeling that he’d got it. So, it’s been a very difficult relationship all along. I don’t doubt that Philip loves Charles and Charles loves his father, but they have not been able to communicate.”
You can read more about Prince Charles’s relationship with his parents here.
It is this inability to communicate, says Junor, that makes her doubt Philip and Charles would ever have had such an emotionally frank conversation like that shown in The Crown. “Remember, when Philip was encouraging Charles to make up his mind about Diana, he sent a memo. He didn’t pick up the phone and chat to his son, or arrange to have lunch with him, he wrote a memo. So, I cannot believe Philip would ever have said to Charles that he felt hurt that Mountbatten had transferred his affections to him. I would think this scene is a dramatic device to emphasise the fact that Mountbatten stepped in as a father figure for Charles.”
Charles had indeed regarded Mountbatten as a pseudo father-figure, someone who had given him affection and support in lieu of his father. Dickie is the only family member in whom Charles confided about Camilla, and the prince felt his loss keenly, writing in his diary that “life will never be the same now that he has gone”.
In his 30-minute eulogy at Mountbatten’s funeral, the real Charles told mourners: “I still cannot believe that I am standing here delivering an address about a man who to me always seemed reassuringly indestructible…What on earth was the point of such mindless cruelty?… Perhaps the manner of his passing will awaken us to the vulnerability of civilised democracy and freedom to the kind of sub-human extremism that blows people up when it feels like it.”
Read more real history behind The Crown here
Emma Mason is the digital editor at HistoryExtra
With thanks to experts Penny Junor, royal biographer and author of 10 books on members of the royal family; historian Dominic Sandbrook, an expert on Margaret Thatcher and author of Who Dares Wins (Allen Lane, 2019); and Andrew Lownie, bestselling historian and literary agent and author of The Mountbattens: Their Lives & Loves (BLINK Publishing, 2019)