There’s a new season of ‘The Crown’, and it’s out now for your bingeing pleasure!
Whether or not you’re a fan of the royals, the Netflix show features terrific acting, gorgeous costumes and great historic gossip. If you’re anything like me, you frequently get distracted wondering how realistic its portrayals are. Of course the show is going to take some artistic liberties, but it is based on real people and real events. So, how much of it is true and how much is made up?
Here’s an episode-by-episode rundown of all the questions I had to look up while watching the new season. (You can avoid spoilers by not scrolling below the episodes you’ve seen.)
Episode 1, “Gold Stick”
Was Prince Charles really a playboy before he met Diana?
Believe it or not: Yes! In the 2007 biography The Diana Chronicles, Tina Brown wrote that “during his years at Cambridge and in the Navy, the Prince dated actresses, models, socialites, colonial fly-bys, Peace Corps types, saucy female grooms, and daughters of his parents’ friends.”
In fact, Brown claimed his great-uncle Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten apparently had a “slush fund” for “paying off any potentially troublesome conquests.” And as on the show, Dickie did encourage Charles to play the field. In a 1974 letter, he told the Prince of Wales, “I believe, in a case like yours, the man should sow his wild oats and have as many affairs as possible before settling down.”
What’s the deal with Dickie and Edwina’s marriage?
In the show, Charles makes an off-handed remark to his great-uncle that his advice to settle down with an innocent young lady seems a tad hypocritical, given the non-traditional nature of Dickie’s relationship with his wife Edwina. That’s an understatement, as their relationship could be a prestige TV series of its own.
“Mountbatten’s marriage to the restlessly brilliant and very rich beauty Countess Edwina Mountbatten (nee Ashley) had been scandalously open, both of them having, in today’s terminology, ‘lots of shag mates,’” Brown wrote. Dickie had both male and female lovers, including Noel Coward. And while we don’t know for sure if they had a romantic or sexual relationship, Edwina had a 12-year correspondence with Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister.
It’s all well-documented: “both Mountbattens left a Beltway-size paper-trail of all their emotions,” the Washington Post said.
Fun fact: because Britain is tiny, Gillian Anderson, who plays Margaret Thatcher in “The Crown,” actually played Edwina in the 2017 movie “Viceroy’s House.”
Was Dickie really assassinated by the IRA?
Yes, and the details are quite similar to what’s seen in the show. He was on a boat in Mullaghmore, Ireland, on Aug. 27, 1979 when a bomb went off. He died instantly, along with his teenage grandson Nicholas Knatchbull, and a local boy who worked on the boat named Paul Maxwell. His son-in-law’s mother Doreen Brabourne died from her injuries the next day. Dickie’s daughter Patricia and her husband John Knatchbull survived the blast, along with Nicholas’s twin brother Timothy.
As in “The Crown,” Charles was on a fishing trip in Iceland when he got the news, according to Tina Brown.
It’s also true that one of the earliest events that bonded Charles and Diana was her telling him how struck she was by seeing him at Dickie’s funeral. “You looked so sad when you walked up the aisle at Mountbatten’s funeral,” she told him, according to Brown. “My heart bled for you when I watched.”
Episode 2, “The Balmoral Test”
Is the “Balmoral test” a real thing?
Not in any ways the royals would formally acknowledge. But the Royal Family does spend a lot of time at their summer home in Scotland, with its ultra-specific code of conduct and intense focus on hunting and horse-riding.
The Balmoral lifestyle, which includes an ultra-strict, formalized routine that starts with 6 a.m. bagpipes and has a dress code that forbids women from wearing pants, is definitely not for everyone. Over the years, many guests have found it difficult, including Diana, who Tina Brown wrote was terrified before her first visit. Brown also said Tony Blair’s wife Cherie hated Balmoral — she had an allergic reaction to the furs and feathers from the trophy animals on the wall, and called her husband’s visits to the Scottish castle “too unbelievably horrible for words.”
Did Margaret Thatcher really anger Princess Margaret by sitting on Queen Victoria’s chair?
No, but that did happen between two other people — Brown wrote that when Sabrina Guinness, one of Prince Charles’ girlfriends, visited Balmoral, she “irritated the Queen almost immediately by sitting in Queen Victoria’s sacred chair.”
If Princess Margaret had been given the chance, though, snapping at a prime minister for sitting in the wrong chair does seem like something she might do.
The princess “enjoyed destabilizing her guests by flipping around in seconds from encouraging racy talk at the dinner table to suddenly pulling rank,” Brown wrote. “If someone unguardedly referred to ‘your father’ she admonished, “You mean, His Majesty the King.’”
Episode 3, “Fairytale”
Did Charles and Diana really meet when she was rehearsing in a play?
No, that’s one of the few details of their relationship that’s purely made up for the show. But they did meet through Diana’s older sister Sarah, who Charles briefly dated.
Did Diana really find a bracelet Charles was giving Camilla right before their wedding?
Yup, she did.
Did she really suffer from bulimia and self-harm?
Yes, and that lonely, miserable period Diana spent at Buckingham Palace after the engagement are a lot like what the real Diana experienced. Read more about the accuracy of “The Crown’“s depiction of Charles and Diana’s relationship here.
Episode 4, “Favourites”
Did Princess Anne really have an affair?
In her conversation with Princess Anne while they’re riding, the Queen references a “Sergeant Cross” of the Royal Protection Branch, who’s rumoured to be spending time “intimately” with Anne. She was married to Captain Mark Phillips at the time.
While the rumours were never confirmed, it’s believed that the Queen’s only daughter did in fact have an affair with her bodyguard Peter Cross.
Once the rumours got out, Cross was removed from royal protection duties and essentially went into hiding, according to The Express.
Mark, too, had cheated, and he and Anne separated in 1989. Their divorce was finalized a few years later.
Did Margaret Thatcher’s son really go missing in Algeria?
Yup, this really happened. Her son Mark Thatcher, then 28, was taking part in the Paris-Dakar rally, an off-road endurance event that involves crossing the Sahara Desert to get from France to Senegal. But his car broke down in the desert, leaving him and the two others in his crew stranded. For six days, no one knew where they were.
As in the show, Mark’s father Denis Thatcher flew to Algeria to look for him. The Algerian military eventually spotted the crew via helicopter, and they were rescued.
“I was never scared for my life,” Mark wrote in The Guardian. “We would have had to be there four weeks before really getting in danger.”
In real life, though, the timeline wasn’t exactly the same as in the show, where Thatcher is making the plans for the Falkland Islands right as she’s fretting about her son. Mark’s misadventure was in January 1982, and the Falklands War didn’t start until April of that year.
Who’s the “scandalous” American actress Prince Andrew is involved with?
Her name is Koo Stark, and their relationship really was a scandal. She had appeared in several movies with explicit sex scenes, including “The Awakening of Emily,” which Andrew and the Queen discuss in the show.
As for whether the fictional Andrew’s enthusiastic re-telling of her raunchy movie, involving some predatory older men taking of advantage of the young, beautiful protagonist, is a dig at the real Prince Andrew? That’s up for interpretation.
Is Andrew really the Queen’s favourite?
Obviously we can’t know for sure, but it’s been the speculation for years. In a two-part documentary series last year, “Paxman on the Queen’s Children,” royal historian Piers Brendon claims Prince Andrew is “obviously” the Queen’s favourite of her four children.
“Andy skipped university and went straight to naval college, which went down well with his naval officer father. He completed the Marines Commando course, just to show he could, before qualifying as a helicopter pilot,” Brendon said. “Then, aged just 22, he fought in the Falklands. And so, it’s pretty clear that Prince Andrew is obviously Queen Elizabeth’s favourite son. He was heroic during the Falklands War. It’s clear that she has a soft spot for him.”
Episode 5, “Fagan”
Did Michael Fagan really break into the Queen’s bedroom while she was sleeping?
Yes, this really happened, and many of the show’s details about the intrusion itself are real — although it did take some liberties with its depiction of Fagan’s personal life.
It’s been called one of the worst security lapses in history. In July 1982, Fagan got himself up over Buckingham Palace’s 14-foot railing, climbed up a 60-foot drainpipe, entered a window that had been opened and wandered through the palace, entering the Queen’s bedroom. He was spotted by one member of the palace’s staff, but he seemed at ease and his behaviour didn’t raise any suspicion, according to the official Scotland Yard report.
He really did sit and talk with the Queen for about five minutes, and he really did steal a bottle of wine. The Queen remained remarkably calm through the whole thing: she didn’t scream when she first saw him, instead sternly telling him, “Get out of here at once,” according to Tina Brown. After they talked, the Queen instructed an aide to get Fagan outside and give him a cigarette.
The real Fagan told The Independent that the Queen “speaks and it’s like the finest glass you can imagine breaking: ‘Wawrt are you doing here?!’”
He told The Telegraph that he didn’t actually compain to the Queen about Margaret Thatcher, as in the show. But he does share the sentiment that she was bad for the country, telling the paper, “A lot of people thought like that. She did a lot of damage to children. She was like Trump.”
Fagan really was an out-of-work painter and decorator and a father of four, and he was “nursing a broken heart” at the time of the break-in, according to the Mirror. But his issues with his family and with his local government office were exaggerated.
As seen on “The Crown,” he did spend three months in a psychiatric hospital after the break-in. In the late ’90s, he was arrested on drug charges and spent four years in jail. He still lives in London with his partner. He’s now 70, and a great-grandfather.
And in case you were wondering: Fagan would like Prince Andrew to co-operate with law enforcement in the Jeffrey Epstein/Ghislaine Maxwell case.
“He is putting the Queen and country into disrepute, hiding behind the flag,” Fagan told the Daily Mail.
Episode 6, “Terra Nullius”
Was the prime minister of Australia really as anti-royal as the episode made him seen?
He was. Bob Hawke, a proud republican, came into power just months before the royal tour was set to begin. When asked about welcoming Charles and Diana to the country, he told a reporter, “I don’t regard welcoming them as the most important thing I’m going to have to do in my first nine months in office,” Tina Brown reported. He also said of Charles, “I don’t think we will be talking about Kings of Australia forevermore.”
But as the show depicts, the public’s adoration of Diana turned that around completely. The tour was such a success, and she was so beloved, that by the time they Diana and Charles left, Australia was virtually an entirely royalist state. Brown noted that Diana even won over Hawke’s wife, Hazel.
Did Diana really call Uluru (then known as “Ayers Rock”) “Ayers Dock?” Did she have trouble climbing it?
There’s no evidence that this flub or her trouble climbing the rock actually took place.
Did Diana really defy royal tradition by bringing an infant Prince William on the trip?
Bringing a baby on a royal tour was unheard of at this time. But the show makes it seem like this was an example of Diana’s stubbornness, and a conflict between her and the rest of the Royal Family.
This isn’t actually accurate. In fact, as HuffPost reporter Michael Hobbes explains on the podcast, “You’re Wrong About,” it was a suggestion of the Australian prime minister. Malcolm Fraser, who preceded Bob Hawke, suggested that baby William stay at a “sheep station” where his parents could visit every few days.
Did Charles resent how much attention Diana got?
Did Prince Charles fall off a horse?
This detail was likely borrowed from an earlier trip Prince Charles made to Australia and New Zealand. In 1981 — two years before his tour of the region with Diana — he wrote a letter expressing his desire to get people in New Zealand to stop laughing at him for falling off a horse.
“Kindless, fallacious remarks and references about me falling off horses are starting to get through to me,” he wrote. “It seems as though the main thing they know about me out here!”
Episode 7, “The Hereditary Principle”
Did Margaret really smoke 60 cigarettes a day?
Yes. She was a very heavy smoker, a habit that started in her youth and escalated over time. She used to start her days by chain-smoking while reading the paper, according to her biographer Craig Brown. By middle age, she was smoking up to 60 cigarettes a day.
Did she need lung surgery?
Yes. In 1985, a small part of her left lung was removed, due to fears it might be cancerous. (It wasn’t). Her father, King George VI, had had a similar operation 30 years earlier, and later died of lung cancer.
Who were Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon?
The discovery Margaret makes about family members who were assumed dead is disturbingly true. Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon’s father was the Queen Mother’s brother, making Katherine and Nerissa Queen Elizabeth’s first cousins. They were both intellectually disabled.
The 1963 edition of Burke’s Peerage, which charts the genealogy of British aristocrats, listed both sisters as dead. In fact, they had been living in an institution for nearly 20 years, having been placed there when Katherine was 15 and Nerissa was 22.
The editor of Burke’s Peerage, Harold Brooks-Baker, was shocked at the lie, but no one thought to check it, he told Macleans when the story broke in 1987: “It is not normal to doubt the word of members of the Royal family.”
The Queen Mother, who was a patron of the Royal Society for Mentally Handicapped Children and Adults (as it was called at the time) reportedly discovered that her nieces were still alive in the early 1982, and sent them money. But she never corrected the Peerage.
Nerissa died in 1986, and Katherine in 2014. We still don’t know why the girls were placed in the institution while the world thought they were dead. There’s also no clear indication what the Queen, Margaret, or the rest of the Royal Family thinks about the sad situation.
What about the ill members of the Windsor family?
On the show, the Queen Mother mentions some the sick relatives on Margaret’s father’s side.
King George III, who reigned from 1760 to 1820 and oversaw the American Revolution, suffered from a mental illness of some kind. According to the Royal Family’s website, he “became permanently deranged in 1810,” and his son took over as Regent. Some historians believe it was related to a hereditary liver disorder, porphyria. Others suggest it could have been mania as a result of bipolar disorder.
Prince John was the youngest sibling of George VI, Elizabeth and Margaret’s father. He was epileptic and may have had some form of autism, and like Katherine and Nerissa, he was largely kept out of public view. He died at just 13.
Episode 8, “48:1”
Was the Queen’s 1947 speech in South Africa real?
Yes. The show brings back the Queen of seasons one and two, Claire Foy, to play Elizabeth on her 21st birthday. She really did spend that day in Cape Town, where she made a speech about her duty to the Commonwealth. You can read the speech on the Royal Family’s website.
Did the Queen and Margaret Thatcher clash over what to do in South Africa?
While we obviously don’t know the Queen’s real feelings about any of this, what happened on the show does match up pretty consistently with what actually happened. Thatcher was the only Commonwealth leader who refused to impose sanctions on apartheid-era South Africa, pitting the U.K. against 48 other countries.
And the Sunday Times did print a story about how the Queen was unhappy with Thatcher’s approach to South Africa, which was described as “uncaring, confrontational and divisive.” And the Queen’s staff knew the information would be printed, according to the piece.
“The Sunday Times indicated the reason for such unprecedented information from the palace was Elizabeth’s deep concern for the survival of the Commonwealth, which is in conflict over the refusal by Mrs. Thatcher’s Conservative Party government to impose severe sanctions on South Africa’s white-led government,” read a 1986 AP story.
Thatcher did eventually agree to “limited sanctions,” although she said she was “disappointed” by Nelson Mandela and considered his political party, the African National Congress, a “terrorist organization.” As on the show, Buckingham Palace denied the rumours of their rift, and the Queen did apologize to Thatcher.
Did news reports of their rift really overshadow Prince Andrew’s wedding to Sarah Ferguson?
It’s true that the two were happening simultaneously: the Sunday Times article came out on July 18 or 19, 1986, and the wedding was July 23 or that year. But the wedding did get quite a bit of attention, including a New York Times article called “Fergie Fever.”
Also, as on the show, Andrew did choose Edward, not Charles, to be his best man.
Episode 9, “Avalanche”
Did Diana really surprise Charles with a dance to “Uptown Girl”?
Yes! She worked for weeks with dancer Wayne Sleep to perform the song at the Royal Opera House, although it wasn’t, as seen in the show, for Charles’ birthday.
And unfortunately, it went about as well in real life as it did on “The Crown.”
Charles was visibly uncomfortable as she danced, and at the reception afterwards. “It was embarrassingly clear that he had not been ravished by the spectacle of his wife en pointe,” Tina Brown wrote. Diana later told Andrew Morton, in the biography he wrote about her, that Charles told her that night that during her performance, he found her “undignified, too thin and too showy.”
It’s too bad, because she seemed to really enjoy herself. She had worked as a ballet teacher, and “she loved the freedom dancing gave her,” Sleep told The Guardian.
Did the Queen really not know who Billy Joel is?
I searched far and wide for this one, and couldn’t find any confirmation either way.
As you might expect, the Queen’s musical tastes don’t skew particularly modern. Her cousin Lady Elizabeth Anson told the BBC in 2016 that the Queen loves musical like “Oklahoma!” and “Showboat.” A playlist she made for the network that year included several hymns, “Cheek to Cheek” by Fred Astaire, and Vera Lynn’s “The White Cliffs of Dover.”
But royal expert Ingrid Seward told Vogue that the Queen likes some mainstream pop music too, including Elton John and the Beach Boys. Mind you, she said this in 2017 — hardly the height of popularity of either of those artists.
In 1985, when the scene where she asks Philip who “Billy Joelle” is was set, Joel had already released several of his biggest hits, including “Piano Man,” “Just the Way You Are,” and, of course, “Uptown Girl.” It does seem conceivable she didn’t know him yet, although he may have been on her radar a few years later, in 1989, when he referenced her in “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
How accurate are the details about the avalanche Prince Charles was stuck in?
Pretty accurate. Charles and Diana were on a skiing holiday with friends at the Klosters resort in Switzerland in March 1988 when an avalanche hit. Major Hugh Lindsay, a friend of theirs who used to work for the queen, was killed.
And as on the show, the accident “served as a wedge, not a bridge,” as Brown put it — not just for Charles, but for Diana, too. She blamed him for choosing to ski on such a risky mountain, and opted to spend their first night back comforting Lindsay’s pregnant widow Sarah, who worked for the palace’s press office, leaving Charles alone.
Charles’ housekeeper Wendy Barry wrote that “the tragedy affected the rest of their lives, in several ways, since it appeared to spell the end of any mutual support.”
Did Diana have multiple affairs?
Yes, she did. It’s likely her first affair was with her bodyguard Barry Mannakee in 1985. He was eventually transferred away from her, and later died in a motorcycle accident.
The riding instructor mentioned on the show was another significant relationship of hers. She was with James Hewitt for about five years, according to Brown. Another bodyguard of hers, Ken Wharf, apparently called Hewitt “a protest fuck.”
There were others, too, who Wharf referred to as “Dianamen”: James Gilbey, Philip Dunne, Rory Scott, David Waterhouse. Brown quoted Wharf, saying they were all “tall, of similar physique, dressed and spoke in the same manner, and shared the same tastes and the same circle of friends.”
And importantly, “they were nothing like her serious-minded husband, twelve years her senior and, by his own admission, a man who acted older than his years.”
Are there actually code names for the deaths of the royals?
Yes. In 2017, The Guardian wrote in detail about what will happen when the Queen dies, a plan called “Operation London Bridge.” Prince Philip’s death is Forth Bridge, the Queen Mother’s was Tay Bridge.
Episode 10, “War”
Did Charles and Diana really travel to events separately but make it look like they were arriving together?
Yes. Their marriage had gotten so bad by the late ’80s that they were barely speaking. When they did have to make public appearances together, they would arrive separately, meet close to where they were going, and then arrive in the same car so no one would know the truth.
Is it true that Diana was a more involved parent than Charles?
The show makes it look like Charles was distant to his two sons, while Diana was deeply involved in their lives. This isn’t true. Yes, Diana definitely had more natural warmth than her husband, who had grown up in a very formal family without much physical affection. But he loved his kids, and by all accounts was an affectionate, involved dad. Brown wrote about “Charles’ exuberant warmth when he greets William and Harry on Friday afternoons, picking up William to whirl him around.”
Is it true that Camilla’s great-grandmother was also the mistress to the Prince of Wales?
Yes! Alice Keppel, one of Camilla’s great-grandmothers on her mother’s side, was the mistres of Charles’ great grandfather, King Edward VI. Edward, the youngest son of Queen Victoria, was Prince of Wales before he became king.
There’s a rumour that Charles and Camilla’s first meeting started with her announcing that fact to him, but there’s no proof that actually happened.
Did Diana really take a solo trip to New York?
Yes, she did. And as on the show, she did visit a hospital in Harlem, where she spontaneously hugged a seven-year-old boy who was HIV-positive.
Did the Queen give Margaret Thatcher the Order of Merit?
Yes, she did. The Order of Merit is, in fact, an honour the Queen can give to 24 people of her choosing, and the Queen did offer it to Thatcher in 1990.
“This exposes the talk that Mrs. Thatcher and the queen did not get on as rubbish,” Harold Brooks-Baker, the publisher of Burke’s Peerage, told media at the time.
Did Prince Philip threaten Princess Diana?
Yes, but it was in letters he wrote her as she and Charles are starting to separate, not in a fight at Balmoral. He essentially told Diana that if she didn’t suck it up and stay in an unhappy marriage, the palace would release information about her affairs, which hadn’t yet been reported at that point. He eventually backed down and apologized.