The Crown S4 E9 real history: Prince Charles’s ski avalanche accident and his failing marriage to Diana

Princess Diana faces multiple humiliations in episode 9 of season 4 of The Crown: lambasted by Charles following her performance to Billy Joel’s ‘Uptown Girl’ at the Royal Opera House (a gift to the prince that badly backfired), called out on her extra-marital affairs by the Queen, and shunned by her husband after declaring she wanted to make their marriage work “with all her heart”

Emma Corrin as Diana, Princess of Wales and Josh O'Connor as Prince Charles in season 4 of ‘The Crown’

In this episode Prince Charles narrowly escapes death when he is involved in an avalanche while on a skiing holiday that killed his best friend, and we see the royal marriage continue to unravel – but the Queen forbids Charles and Diana from divorcing. 

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But how accurate is all this? Let’s unpick the historical truths of episode 9… 

(This article contains spoilers for season 4, episode 9 of The Crown)

Prince Charles’s ski avalanche: what happened?

Tensions run high in episode 9 after the Queen and Prince Philip learn that Prince Charles has been involved in an avalanche while on a skiing holiday at Klosters in Switzerland with Diana and friends. The Queen and her husband are seen anxiously awaiting news, their fears intensified when the body of an as-yet-unidentified male is discovered.

This is true to history – Charles really did narrowly avoid death while on a skiing holiday, in March 1988. At 2.45pm on 10 March 1988, Charles was caught in an avalanche at about 6,000 feet that killed one of his closest friends, Major Hugh Lindsay, former equerry to the Queen. Another member of the royal party of six, Patricia Palmer-Tomkinson, broke both legs in the accident. The prince and other members of the group, who had been skiing off piste above the resort of Klosters, were able to ski to safety.

The Duchess of York; Princess Diana; and Prince Charles on a skiing holiday at the resort of Klosters, 9 March 1988
The Duchess of York; Diana, Princess of Wales; and Prince Charles on a skiing holiday at the resort of Klosters, pictured on 9 March 1988, the day before the avalanche that killed one of Charles’s closest friends, Major Hugh Lindsay. (Photo by Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)

Diana was not involved in the avalanche – she and Sarah, the Duchess of York, had spent the afternoon at the chalet where the party had been staying.

A regional avalanche warning had been in effect above 5,280 feet on the day of the accident, the Los Angeles Times reported. But before the incident, all reports pointed towards favourable weather conditions.

The royal party flew home to London the day after the avalanche, accompanying the body of 34-year-old Major Hugh Lindsay.

The Queen with Major Hugh Lindsay, 1985
The Queen during an official tour of Portugal, pictured with Major Hugh Lindsay, the Queen’s equerry, standing behind her, 29 March 1985. (Photo by Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)

Who was Major Hugh Lindsay?

Major Lindsay was a former equerry to the Queen and close friend of Prince Charles.

A career army officer, he returned to his full-time army duties in 1986, two years before the avalanche. He was 34 years old when he died in 1988.

Major Lindsay’s wife, Sarah, who worked in the Buckingham Palace press office, was pregnant with a baby girl when her husband died. The couple had been married for less than a year.

In June 1988 it was reported that investigators had dropped a criminal inquiry and cleared Prince Charles of personal fault in connection with the avalanche, the Los Angeles Times reported.

In The Crown, Charles’s near-death experience is seen to make him realise once and for all that his marriage to Diana is “a charade” and that he wants to be with Camilla “fully, completely, as my wife” – something he tells his lover over the phone. How historically accurate is this? Royal biographer Penny Junor says that by the time of the avalanche, in 1988, Charles and Diana’s marriage was already “very broken and they were leading largely separate lives”. The marriage had collapsed, says Junor, as early as 1986.

Junor also finds it highly unlikely that Charles had any notion of Camilla becoming his wife at this time. “I don’t think he thought he could marry Camilla, even if he’d been divorced from Diana,” she said. “Camilla was still married to someone else; it would be pretty unheard of for the future supreme governor of the Church of England to marry a divorcee as a divorced man himself. He may have wanted to spend the rest of his life with Camilla, but I’d be very surprised if he said, ‘I want to marry you and do this properly’.”

This also casts doubt on the closing scene of episode 9, in which Charles is seen to ask Camilla if she would leave her husband, Andrew Parker Bowles, if he “were able to escape this calamity of a marriage [to Diana]”. Junor finds it hard to believe Charles would have asked this of Camilla.

“The only reason Andrew divorced Camilla [in January 1995] was because Charles had admitted his adultery to [TV presenter] Jonathan Dimbleby. Andrew went on to marry his long-term girlfriend, Rosemary Pitman, but if Charles had not given that interview, I think Andrew and Camilla would have waited longer before formally parting ways. The interview with Dimbleby triggered a chain reaction. I don’t think Charles had any idea of having Camilla as his wife at that time.” 

Royal death codenames: Operation ‘Menai Bridge’

In episode 9, as the Queen and Prince Philip anxiously wait to hear whether Charles has survived the avalanche, the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, tells them: “We have contingency plans in place for all members of the royal family, ‘Menai Bridge’ is no exception.” Here he is referring to the codename for the death of the Prince of Wales. (Interestingly, in reality Sir William Heseltine was the Queen’s private secretary by this time. Charteris was the Queen’s private secretary more than a decade before the avalanche, from 1972 to 1977).

“Why bridges?” Prince Philip asks his wife. “We’re all bridges,” she replies. “The choice of name was to suggest a link between this life and the next.”

True to history, ‘Menai Bridge’ is indeed the codename for the plan for what happens when Prince Charles dies. For the Queen it’s ‘London Bridge’ – the phrase “London Bridge is down” will reportedly be used over secure lines to communicate the Queen’s passing with the prime minister and other governments across the world before alerting the public.

Prince Philip’s codename is ‘Forth Bridge’. The Queen’s husband is believed to have requested a private service at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, in the style of a military funeral, when he dies. According to press reports he will be interred in the mausoleum of Frogmore House at the private Home Park in Windsor Castle, where Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, are buried.

The Queen Mother’s funeral on 9 April 2002 was codenamed ‘Operation Tay Bridge’. An estimated 200,000 people paid their respects over the course of the three days she lay in state in Westminster Hall at the Palace of Westminster.

The last time a British monarch died was in 1952, when George VI died suddenly in his sleep. His death, at Sandringham House, was conveyed to Buckingham Palace in the code word ‘Hyde Park Corner’ to prevent switchboard operators from finding out.

Queens at George VI's funeral
The family of King George VI at his funeral. From left: Princess Elizabeth, the next monarch; Queen Mary, the Queen Mother; and Queen Elizabeth, the late king’s wife. (Photo by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)

Did Diana dance to ‘Uptown Girl’ in the West End? And what did Prince Charles really think of the performance?

Elsewhere in episode 9, Princess Diana is lambasted by her husband following her performance to Billy Joel’s ‘Uptown Girl’ at the Royal Opera House. Did this really happen?

Diana, Princess of Wales did indeed perform a three-minute dance to ‘Uptown Girl’, alongside ballet star Wayne Sleep, at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in December 1985. But the surprise performance was not in celebration of Prince Charles’s 37th birthday, as The Crown suggests, but a Christmas present – the performance took place at a private Christmas gala for supporters of the Royal Ballet.

Diana, Princess of Wales with dancer Wayne Sleep, April 1988
Diana, Princess of Wales with dancer Wayne Sleep after his performance of ‘Song and Dance’ at the Bristol Hippodrome, April 1988. (Photo by Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images)

Diana, who famously loved classical ballet and had in the late 1970s briefly taught at the Vacani School of Dance, had worked in secret with Sleep on the choreography and had managed to keep the performance under wraps from Charles (and the rest of the world). Sleep later recalled how the whole audience gasped when she appeared on stage.

What was Prince Charles’s reaction to the performance? In episode 9 of The Crown he is seen deriding his wife, telling her on the car journey home: “What were you thinking? That grotesque, mortifying display had nothing to do with me or my happiness. Eight minutes they were on their feet, cheering you, and tomorrow the newspapers will be about nothing other than you!”

Did Charles really react this way? According to a 2017 documentary Princess Diana: The Woman Inside, Prince Charles was not a fan of Diana’s performance. Royal expert Richard Kay said: “It was a present which slightly backfired. She did it as a tribute to Charles. Charles wasn’t terribly impressed. He thought she was showing off.”

Emma Corrin as Diana, Princess of Wales in season 4 of ‘The Crown’
Emma Corrin as Diana, Princess of Wales in season 4 of ‘The Crown’. (Photo by Ollie Upton/Netflix)

Royal biographer Penny Junor says: “Diana’s behaviour did sometimes really irritate Charles, and he is capable of using some pretty sharp words. That said, I would be surprised if he said the words attributed to him here, and in these circumstances, but he did grow increasingly frustrated that, wittingly or not, Diana took the attention away from him. He had hoped that he would find in a wife someone who would support him, but instead he had a wife who was, he felt, increasingly in competition with him.”

The press were “obsessed” with Diana, says Junor, and often ignored Charles. He found this very difficult to deal with.

Read more about the start of ‘Dianamania’ here


Read the real history behind more episodes with our S4 episode guide to The Crown:


Did the Queen really forbid Charles and Diana from divorcing?

Later in the episode, the Queen is seen to consult her daughter, Princess Anne, about Charles’s marriage – it’s “worse than the newspapers report”, says Anne. “The minute Harry was born, and duty was done, the marriage was effectively over and they started to find comfort in the arms of others,” she tells her mother.

This, says Penny Junor, is only partly true to history. By around 1987 Charles and Camilla were romantically involved again, and Diana by this time had had affairs with several men. But, says Junor, Charles didn’t simply abandon his wife once he had his ‘heir and spare’. She told HistoryExtra: “It was just a very tragic mismatch… I really do not think that Charles used Diana or intended to use Diana, but once he was inside that marriage life was utterly unbearable for both of them.”

Diana and Charles, 1988
Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales at a dinner given by President Mitterrand at the Élysée Palace in Paris, France, during the couple’s 1988 royal tour of the country. (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)

In The Crown, the Queen is also seen to arrange a meeting with Charles, Diana and Prince Philip to discuss the state of the royal marriage. There, she tells the couple: “Something as important as the marriage of the future monarch simply cannot be allowed to fail.” Diana apologises to Charles for what has gone wrong between them and tells the Queen she still wants the marriage to work.

Did such a conversation ever take place? “It’s possible,” says Junor. “Diana said that the Queen did occasionally talk to her about the state of the marriage, but she made no mention of the Queen saying that it must not be allowed to fail.”

And it was the Queen who, in 1995, instructed the couple to divorce – and quickly – following Diana’s famous Panorama interview with Martin Bashir in which she told viewers “there were three of us in this marriage – so it was a bit crowded”.

Discover more real history behind The Crown here

NEXT EPISODE: The Crown S4 E10 real history: Thatcher’s resignation and the unravelling of a royal marriage

Emma Mason is the digital editor at HistoryExtra 

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With thanks to Penny Junor, royal biographer and author of 10 books on members of the royal family