Philip Murphy on The Crown: “If scholars can’t write accurate histories of the Queen’s reign, drama is what we’ll continue to rely on”
Season five of Netflix’s flagship drama The Crown approaches, and even before its release, it has earned accusations such as “damaging” and “inaccurate” for its portrayal of the royal family in the 1990s. Yet, writes historian Philip Murphy, the Palace’s actions to curb the information publicly available have perhaps unintentionally allowed more space for dramatic portrayals to flourish…
Autumn 2022 has seen the return of a great royal tradition: the annual parade of indignation by the great and the good trailing a new series of The Crown. Former prime minister John Major has decried it as “damaging and malicious fiction”, while actor Dame Judi Dench called it “an inaccurate and hurtful account of history”. Historians who have actually tried to write about the Queen’s reign have been notably absent from this latest pile-in. Aside from a keen sense that the key ingredients of good history are very different from those of good drama, this may come down to a sense that the royal family’s problems around the merging of fact and fiction are partly of its own making.
It sometimes seems that the Palace regards historians rather as the Queen’s first press secretary – the notorious Sir Richard Colville (1952–68) – viewed journalists: as an irritant whose unhealthy and impertinent curiosity needed to be curbed at all costs. Ironically, something approaching a sensible working relationship was briefly established by the government of John Major himself in the form of the 1993 Open Government Initiative (OGI). This saw the release to The National Archives (TNA) of files on “sensitive”’subjects, such as the intelligence community and the royal family, which had previously been marked for prolonged closure. It also led to a more liberal regime for files due for review under the 30-year rule.
When, however, Tony Blair’s government passed the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act in 2000, the Palace took fright and began to act rather like a hunted animal. Although correspondence with the royal household came under one of the many exemptions from the Act (section 37), this was subject to a public interest appeal. The Guardian journalist Rob Evans invoked this in 2005, demanding the release of 27 pieces of correspondence between Prince Charles and various government departments. After a decade-long legal battle, Evans finally prevailed, and the letters (known as the “black spider memos”, for the prince’s spidery handwriting) were made public. But in an effort to ensure this never happened again, in 2010 the Palace obtained an absolute exemption from the Freedom of Information Act for all correspondence with government relating to the Queen, the heir to the throne and the second-in-line. In more general terms, the move from OGI to FOI seemed to have led to a culture shift within Whitehall vetting teams so that instead of using their initiative, officials now appear to be highly risk-averse, closing and redacting any document relating to the Queen’s personal views or actions, however innocuous they might be.
Historians are, of course, skilled at circumventing censorship, and much excellent work continues to be published. The fact remains, however, that we probably know less about the political role of the monarchy in our lifetimes than our grandparents knew in theirs. When embarking upon his authorised biography of George V, Harold Nicolson was under instructions from the king’s private secretary and keeper of the royal archives, Sir Alan Lascelles, to “omit things and incidents which were discreditable to the royal family”. Nevertheless, reading his 1952 book from a contemporary perspective, what’s striking is the detailed way in which Nicolson documents the King’s personal intervention in episodes such the formation of the National Government in 1931.
There is, of course, a difference between having access to information about the political role of members of the royal family and knowing about their personal lives. There is a clear public interest in understanding the former, particularly at a time of extreme turbulence in British politics with a new monarch on the throne. Evans was ultimately able to obtain access to a number of Charles’ letters because they showed him actively lobbying ministers for some of his pet causes. Yet the regime of censorship in force since 2010 makes no distinction between the personal and the political, ruling them both out of bounds.
Back in 2018, I discovered a file in TNA which, very much to my surprise, dealt with the debate in the 1990s about replacing the Royal Yacht Britannia. My guess was that, because it was in a rather obscure Welsh Office series, it had somehow slipped through the vetting net. It included a letter from the Queen’s deputy private secretary, Kenneth Scott, to the Cabinet Office in May 1995. This noted that although it had been reluctant to get involved in the discussions,
“…this reticence on the part of the Palace in no way implies that Her Majesty is not deeply interested in the subject; on the contrary, The Queen would very much welcome it if a way could be found of making available for the nation in the 21st Century the kind of service which Britannia has provided for the last 43 years.”
We have seen the way in which, unmoored by any firm historical base, drama and anecdote begin to merge
Rather like the letters from Charles, this very heavy hint about replacing the yacht seemed to me a case of the Palace lobbying the government on a matter of public policy. When journalist Valentine Low published a piece based on my find in The Times, there was a flurry of official activity (leading to the file being temporarily closed and subject to further review) which confirmed my sense that the censors had simply overlooked it the first time round. Nevertheless, there seemed to be an obvious public interest in its release. If we were allowed to know more about the political role of the monarchy – something that is crucial for our understanding of how the British political system works – it would be easier to reach agreement about those personal issues the royal family can reasonably attempt to keep secret. At the same time, it is worth remembering that some of the most damaging revelations about the latter have been leaked by those within or close to the royal household itself.
In the days that followed the Queen’s death in September 2022, what was striking about the wall-to-wall commentary about her own role was that most of it was simply reheated anecdote and glorified gossip. If scholars are prevented from writing accurate histories of the Queen’s reign, that – and the work of dramatists – is what we will continue to rely on for our image of the royal family. Indeed, we have seen the way in which, unmoored by any firm historical base, drama and anecdote begin to merge.
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When Tony Blair published his memoirs in 2010, he claimed that when he met the Queen to “kiss hands” on becoming prime minister in 1997, she said to him: “You are my tenth prime minister. The first was Winston. That was before you were born.” It was suggested at the time that Blair’s memory may have been at fault and that the line had actually come from the script by Peter Morgan, the creator of The Crown, for an earlier dramatisation of a royal crisis – the 2006 film The Queen, directed by Stephen Frears. Those who insist on the need for historical accuracy in the representation of the British monarchy should join forces with those demanding the opening of the archives.
Philip Murphy is Professor of British and Commonwealth History at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, and director of History & Policy