The Crown S4 E7 real history: Princess Margaret’s decline and a royal secret revealed

What’s the real history behind episode 7, season four of The Crown? Did Margaret really uncover the secret of the Bowes-Lyon sisters? How did the princess’s health decline? Here we unpick the historical truths behind the episode…

Helen Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret in 'The Crown'

“If it were up to me, I would have given it all to you, gladly,” the Queen tells her younger sister, Princess Margaret, in episode 7, named ‘The Hereditary Principle’. The title refers to the convention that governs the transfer of rule within many royal families, including the British monarchy; power and titles pass from family member to family member. And this episode doesn’t shy away from interrogating that principle, grappling with themes of inheritance, duty and birth right.

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As well as investigating Princess Margaret’s role and the sense of self that she has inherited through her royal birth, The Crown uses the personal trials of the princess (played by Helena Bonham Carter) and a large helping of artistic licence to explore the moving story of two little-known relatives of the royal family.

(This article contains spoilers for season 4, episode 7 of The Crown)

The Queen Mother is introduced to baby David Linley in 1961 by Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon
The Queen Mother is introduced to baby David Linley in 1961 by Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon. (Photo by Getty Images)

Prince Margaret’s life after her marriage

Viewers begin in familiar territory – the episode opening on Princess Margaret as she wiggles to music and puts on lipstick, preparing to welcome a charming, younger man to her apartments. In this case it’s Derek “Dazzle” Jennings (played by Tom Burke), a charismatic and flamboyant civil servant in the British government’s Department of the Environment who, it is revealed, is leaving the Civil Service to train as a Catholic priest (as the real Jennings did). Bonham Carter’s Margaret enjoys both diversion and flattery from the handsome Jennings, but when he ultimately rebuffs her she is thrown into despair.

In reality, by this time Princess Margaret’s days had become marked by boredom and, increasingly, unimportance. Her marriage to Anthony Armstrong-Jones, Lord Snowdon, had broken down (the couple divorced in 1978), and by the same year, writes Dominic Sandbrook for HistoryExtra, seven out of 10 people agreed that she had damaged the reputation of the royal family. “Whenever her most outspoken critic, the Labour MP Willie Hamilton, laid into her ‘expensive, extravagant irrelevance’, people nodded with approval.”

Margaret’s decline was stark in contrast to the sparkle she had once attracted as the ‘rebel royal’, a glamorous and romantic foil to the steadiness of her elder sister. It was a dynamic established in childhood, according to author Selina Hastings. “She was very spoilt and indulged,” says Hastings, “and made to feel a very special person indeed, while simultaneously being given clearly to understand that it was her sister who was important.”

Princess Margaret (left) and Princess Elizabeth
Princess Margaret (left) and Princess Elizabeth. (Photo by Fox Photos/PNA//Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Princess Margaret’s health

Shortly into the episode, it becomes clear that all is not well with Margaret’s health, and as she coughs up blood while having breakfast with the Queen, the camera cuts to her undergoing surgery. This was the 54-year-old Princess Margaret’s investigative lung surgery in 1985. The operation ruled out cancer, and a statement from Buckingham Palace said: “The Queen is very pleased at the satisfactory outcome”. Within months of the biopsy, Princess Margaret was reportedly back to smoking 30 cigarettes a day (though she had cut down from her previous total of 60).

As Margaret recuperates in The Crown, she throws herself back into royal business with gusto. During Prince Edward’s 21st birthday celebrations, she speaks to the Queen about taking on more responsibilities. “I’m ready to focus on the one thing that won’t let me down. Us. My position as a royal,” Margaret says.

Yet the princess’s renewed sense of duty is not to be rewarded. The Queen’s private secretary, Martin Charteris, tells Margaret that she is to be retired, as she is now outranked in the line of succession by the Queen’s four adult children (since Edward had come of age). The 1937 Regency Act restricts the number of senior royals who are called on to deputise for the monarch on formal occasions to six. (Interestingly, in reality Sir Philip Moore was the Queen’s private secretary by this time. Charteris was the Queen’s private secretary a decade before these events, from 1972 to 1977).

Princess Margaret at Wimbledon
Princess Margaret often deputised for the Queen at official occasions, but this happened less as the princess slipped down in the order of royal succession. (Photo by Douglas Miller/Keystone/Getty Images)

Craig Brown reported Selina Hastings’ take on the real Margaret’s fate. “At each royal birth, the new Order of Succession appeared in The Times, Margaret’s position moving from second to third to fourth with monotonous regularity, like a game of Snakes and Ladders, all snake and no ladder.”

Despite Margaret’s on-screen self-pity, in reality her failing health actually saw her regarded more positively than in previous decades, says Dr Ed Owens, a historian of the British monarchy. “News editors were aware of her personal situation, so treated her more sympathetically.

“As the public’s attention shifted to the activities (and antics) of Princess Diana and Sarah Ferguson [the wife of Prince Andrew],” Owens says, “Margaret was gradually regarded with greater affection. She disapproved of the behaviour of the younger royal women, and she re-asserted herself in public life as a figure who was devoted to her duty and the queen, playing the role of reliable sister and confidant.”

But in the drama, despite Margaret’s distress (“The day stretches before me like a great yawning void,” she cries), the Queen – depicted as a stickler for duty and protocol – insists that they have to “play by the rules” and Margaret is demoted. Later in the episode, Margaret snaps at her lady-in-waiting: “I’m so far down the royal pecking order these days I’m virtually an untouchable.”

In the episode, as she often did in reality, Margaret decamps to Mustique, St Vincent and the Grenadines, where friends Colin and Anne Tennant, Lord and Lady Glenconner, await (Anne was friend and lady-in-waiting to the princess from 1971 until Margaret’s death in 2002). The pair had offered the princess a plot on Mustique, which Colin owned, upon Margaret’s wedding to Anthony Armstrong-Jones in 1960, and the house (finished in 1972) became a refuge for Margaret. Christened Les Jolies Eaux (‘beautiful waters’) by the princess, the island offered “privacy – a bolthole”, wrote Lady Glenconner in her 2019 autobiography; it gave the princess “an independent base from her husband” in the late and unhappy stages of her marriage.

In 'The Crown' Prince Charles (Josh O'Connor) visits his aunt Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) on the island of Mustique
In ‘The Crown’ Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) visits his aunt Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) on the island of Mustique. (Image by Des Willie/Netflix)

During the episode, Margaret has a flashback of former lover Roddy Llewellyn in the swimming pool. Her relationship with Llewellyn had waned towards the end of the 1970s (in July 1981 he married a writer and designer named Tania Soskin). The Crown shows Margaret drifting further into despair, and when Prince Charles visits Mustique, he finds his aunt depressed and isolated. Over lunch he confesses that “corrosive” cracks are beginning to show in the Wales’s marriage, and when Charles mentions he is “seeing someone”, Margaret quips “Yes, we all know about that.”

(It’s no secret that Margaret wasn’t on Diana’s side during Charles and Diana’s increasingly heated marital troubles. Craig Brown writes that when Margaret found out about Andrew Morton’s 1992 authorised biography of the Princess of Wales, she said to a friend: “Poor Lilibet [the Queen] and Charles have done everything they can to get rid of that wretched girl, but she just won’t go.”)

But in his conversation with Margaret in The Crown, Charles is not talking about Camilla Parker Bowes. He is referring to a therapist, and is seemingly on a mission to encourage his ailing aunt to seek professional help of her own.

Did Margaret receive psychotherapy?

Princess Margaret had, according to Craig Brown, seen one Dr Peter Dally, a consultant psychiatrist attached to Westminster Hospital in 1966, at the persuasion of Lord Snowdon. “I only lasted one session,” Margaret told a friend. “I didn’t like it at all. Perfectly useless.”

Brown suggests that perhaps the treatment was “hampered by royal protocol, which dictates that it is the royals who ask the questions, not those to whom they are presented.”

The Crown has Margaret saying as much in this episode. Therapy violates the royal family’s habits of just “getting on with it”, the princess tells her doctor; nevertheless, she opens up, seeming vulnerable and lost. And as the conversation turns to other royals who might struggle with their mental health, the therapist mentions “the sisters”. From there, The Crown explores the story of Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon.


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


Who were “the sisters”, Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon?

Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon were first cousins to Elizabeth II (on her mother’s side). Born in 1919 and 1926 respectively, the sisters were daughters of John Bowes-Lyon, elder brother to Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (later the Queen Mother), and Fenella Bowes-Lyon (née Trefusis).

The two women were secretly sent to the Royal Earlswood Institution for Mental Defectives in 1941, both, it seems, because they had severe learning difficulties which might have led to concerns being raised about the queen’s genetic line, Ed Owens explains.

The Royal Earlswood Institution for Mental Defectives
Once the Royal Earlswood Institution for Mental Defectives, the site is now apartments. (Image by Alamy)

The hospital in Redhill, Surrey, which opened in 1855, was the first establishment to cater specifically for people with learning difficulties. Though the girls were visited by their mother, Fenella, until her death in 1966, “we are to assume that the royal family preferred to keep them hidden from public view: there is no record of their ever having received a visit from the royals,” says Owens.

As shown in The Crown, the 1963 Burke’s Peerage (which, among other things, lists the royal lineage) claimed that both women died in 1961, Owens explains. Reportedly, Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, knew of their existence (the entry in Burke’s was later claimed to be a blunder due to false information provided by the sisters’ mother).

Katherine Bowes Lyon.
Katherine Bowes Lyon. (Image by James Cutler/Shutterstock)

In the drama it is Margaret who finds out about the sisters, later lambasting her mother: “Locked up and neglected. They’re your nieces – daughters of your favourite brother.” Here, as in other episodes of the royal drama, writer Peter Morgan chooses to conflate events to emphasise dramatic themes – in this case, ideas of birth right and inheritance – as there is no public evidence that Margaret discovered the existence or identities of the sisters in this way.

And The Crown omits the fact that, in reality, the public eventually found out about the sisters: “Their existence became a public scandal in 1987,” explains Ed Owens. “The media revealed that the two women had been secretly sent to the Royal Earlswood Institution for Mental Defectives in 1941.”

Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret in 'The Crown'
Princess Margaret (played by Helena Bonham Carter), finds out about the existence of the Bowes-Lyon sisters in ‘The Crown’. (Image by Ollie Upton/Netflix)

In The Crown, Margaret enlists the help of her friend Derek Jennings, who is now in the process of joining the Catholic priesthood, and he visits Earlswood to find out more. What Jennings finds is, sadly, true to history. To Margaret’s dismay, he discovers a further three royal relatives in the institution. These were the Fane sisters – first cousins to the Bowes-Lyons – Edonia Elizabeth; Rosemary Jean; and Etheldreda Flavia; the children of Harriet Fane, sister of John Bowes-Lyon’s wife, Fenella. It was in fact through Fenella’s side of the family, as Margaret is later told by her therapist in the episode, that the genetic condition that afflicted the Bowes-Lyons was passed, through the line descending from Fenella’s father, Charles Trefusis, 21st Baron Clinton.

In 1987, when the identities of Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon were revealed by the press, a statement from Buckingham Palace said that the Queen had been aware of the confinement of the two women but that it was “a matter for the immediate (Bowes-Lyon) family”. Yet “as a result of the publicity surrounding their existence,” says Ed Owens, “the royals were forced to change tack: Nerissa – whose funeral in 1986 had not been attended by any of the Windsors – was given a proper headstone by her family, having been laid to rest in a grave marked only by a plastic tag and serial number.” Katherine Bowes-Lyon died in 2014.

Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother

Shocked by what she has discovered, in The Crown Margaret heads to the Castle of Mey on the north coast of Scotland to confront her mother about the family members.

The Queen Mother (played by Marion Bailey) blames the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936, which made her husband, George VI, king unexpectedly, and meant that everything changed overnight. “I went from being the wife of the Duke of York, to Queen and the wife of a King Emperor,” she says. Her family, the Bowes-Lyons, went from being minor Scottish aristocrats to a family with a direct bloodline to the crown. In the drama, the Queen Mother says that the family members’ “professionally diagnosed idiocy and imbecility” would cause people to question the integrity of the bloodline. “Can you imagine the headlines if it were to get out?”

The Queen Mother Elizabeth (right) and Princess Margaret, 1967
The Queen Mother Elizabeth (right) and Princess Margaret, 1967. (Image by AFP via Getty Images)

While deeply troubling and resonant of eugenic theories, the idea that ‘bad blood’ could threaten the integrity of bloodlines, and therefore conventions of inherited power and wealth, was more typical at the time when the sisters were placed in hospital. Lady Anne Glenconner, former lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret, wrote in her autobiography of the stigma it conferred, and revealed it had affected her personally – it scuppered a potential marriage match between herself and one Johnnie Althorp (later, 8th Earl Spencer, father to Princess Diana). “I found out that his father, Jack, Earl Spencer, had told him not to marry me because I had Trefusis blood,” she writes. “Trefusis blood was labelled ‘mad blood’ or ‘bad blood’, because the Bowes-Lyon girls, Nerissa and Katherine, had been put in a state asylum and were hardly visited by anyone in the royal family to whom they were related through Queen Elizabeth… no earl or future earl would want to risk their earldom through contaminating it with ‘mad blood’.”

The Crown sees Margaret voice some of the accusations that have been levied at the royals since the identities of the sisters became publicly known in 1987. Despite the Queen Mother’s attempts at justification, Bonham-Carter’s Margaret says that what her family did was “unforgiveable”.

Lady Anne Glenconner (née Coke), with future husband, Colin Tennant
Lady Anne Glenconner (née Coke), photographed with future husband, Colin Tennant, the eldest son of Lord Glenconner. ‘Bad blood’ affected one potential marriage match for Lady Anne. (Image by Getty Images)

Princess Margaret’s decline

In the drama, a disaffected Margaret returns to Mustique and resumes her ‘party lifestyle’, which Craig Brown describes as something “pitched between a lunch party at Balmoral and a hen party in Ibiza, any sauciness underpinned by deference.” Yet it does not bring her happiness, and in reality, as Margaret’s health further declined and “she retreated from the limelight”, writes Dominic Sandbrook for BBC History Magazine, “her place as the nation’s leading royal celebrity was usurped by the Firm’s latest recruit, Princess Diana.”

The obvious question is whether things could have been different for Princess Margaret. “A charitable verdict,” says Sandbrook, “would be that Margaret was trapped by the conventions of the institution, expectations of the public and sheer bad timing. Born in a much more deferential era, she came of age at a time when the public were thirsting for glamour. She became associated with a supposed ‘golden age’ of carefree hedonism and was then swept aside during the inevitable hangover. No doubt she was always doomed to struggle in her sister’s shadow.”

It is this dynamic that brings episode 7 to a close, as Jennings is seen trying to convince Princess Margaret that she would be happier as a Catholic. She rails against him, declaring herself “in the very centre” of the royal family, “and I always will be”. As Jennings also appears to conclude, it seems the person Margaret is most of all trying to convince is herself.

Discover more real history behind The Crown here

NEXT EPISODE: The Crown S4 E8 real history: why did Margaret Thatcher & the Queen clash over apartheid in South Africa?

Elinor Evans is deputy digital editor at HistoryExtra

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With thanks to 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)