If you're anything like us, and have just finished bingeing series three of The Crown on Netflix, you probably have a whole host of questions about just how realistic the hugely popular period drama is.
In fact, the Washington Post has reported that visits to Wikipedia pages related to the first few episodes of season 3 spiked in the days after its premiere on 17th November – presumably, from viewers trying to work out how accurate the show is.
Of course, it’s no exaggeration to say that we’re prone to a little Googling whilst we watch The Crown. Did Prince Philip really say this? Why did the Queen actually do that? Because, while The Crown is a dramatisation, the events it portray are based on some very real people and some very real life events, meaning it gives a fascinating insight into royal history.
But none of us are likely to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the royal family since the 1950s, so we’ve all got questions about certain conversations, events, and depictions from The Crown.
So just how true are your favourite episodes? We’ve uncovered the fact from the fiction, from all three seasons…
How true is The Crown?
Season three of The Crown
Was Princess Margaret and Lord Antony Armstrong-Jones’ tour of the US really as wild as it was portrayed?
In the second episode of season three, we’re in 1965, and focusing on Princess Margaret and her husband Antony Armstrong’s tour of the US.
What we do know is that the Lord and Countess of Snowdon enjoyed a glitzy, star-studded few weeks during their America trip. The royal couple really did rub shoulders with the toast of Hollywood – such as Julie Andrews, Alfred Hitchcock, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, and Judy Garland – although we don’t see this in much detail in the show.
But then there was their infamous night at the White House, in Washington, D.C. In The Crown, it’s portrayed as a wild night. And while it’s not clear whether Margaret and Antony actually took part in drinking games, and were as outspoken as the show suggests, it does appear to have been a rather raucous evening in real-life!
At the time, the New York Times reported that “the party lasted longer than most White House affairs. Margaret and her husband did not leave until 1:35 this morning.” So while it might not have been quite as nuts as the show suggests, it was certainly a lot less tame than most other royal events, particularly those attended by Queen Elizabeth II.
What is the true story of the Aberfan disaster?
In the third season, The Crown covers the Aberfan disaster – the collapse of a colliery mining tip in the South Wales coal mining village, which took place in 1966. The colliery created an avalanche, that fell down onto the local village – tragically killing 144 people, many of them children from the local school, which was directly in the line of the landslide.
It seems that the depiction of the monarchy’s relation to the devastating tragedy is somewhat debatable in the show. In the episode, the Queen is seen dismissing the idea that she should pay a visit to Aberfan immediately after the tragedy, saying, “We don’t do disasters sites, we do hospitals”. Other members of the family do go though – Prince Philip and her brother-in-law, Lord Snowdon.
In the programme, she eventually visits Aberfan eight days after the disaster (which is true), but comes across as unemotional about the entire thing. However, at the end of the episode, viewers see her shedding a tear, when she listens to a hymn sung by mourners at a burial service.
Of course, pictures of the day show the Queen looking incredibly sombre during her visit to Aberfan. But as with much of the royal family’s private feelings, there won’t ever be any way of knowing how the monarch really felt at the time.
Did the royal family really film a documentary about themselves?
This is totally factual. The Queen, Philip and their children had their day-to-day lives filmed long before reality television was a thing. The monarchy commissioned the documentary, and they were filmed for a huge 75 days, in over 170 locations. It covered lots of different events in the family’s lives, including normal things like eating dinner together, to the not-so-ordinary – like the Queen meeting world leaders.
Season two of The Crown
What is the truth about Philip being made a Prince of the United Kingdom?
In season two, we see plenty of suggestions of unhappiness in the Queen and Philip’s marriage – including his unrest at being second to his wife, his suggested infidelity, and his being uncertain of his public role and place in the royal family. The problems culminate in episode three of season two, when the the monarch and her husband argue as he returns from his royal tour of Australia.
In the episode, Philip angrily tells the Queen that he is unhappy, and resents being outranked by his son, Prince Charles. At the end of the episode we see the Queen making her husband a Prince of the United Kingdom. Previously, he had only been the Duke of Edinburgh, after renouncing his Greek and Danish royal titles after marrying Elizabeth.
And of course, there is some truth to the episode. Philip was made a Prince, in real life, in 1957, with the palace issuing the following statement, according to Town & Country – “The Queen has been pleased to declare her will and pleasure that His ‘Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh shall henceforth be known as His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.”
But obviously, what is not known are the reasons why the title came about, and whether it really did come as a result of Philip’s unhappiness about his position within the family. Here, it’s safe to assume that The Crown took a fair amount of dramatic license.
Did Prince Philip make Prince Charles go to his old school in Scotland – and did he really hate it?
This appears to be true. The Duke of Edinburgh attended Gordonstoun independent school in Moray, Scotland, when he was a boy, and Prince Charles later followed in his footsteps. In The Crown, we see the Duke put his foot down about sending his eldest child to the same school that he went to, despite Queen Elizabeth’s protestations that he attend Eton College instead.
And it seems there is a lot of truth in Charles’ reaction to the school. In the episode, he is seen as miserable – bullied by other classmates and struggling with the tough schedule at the school.
Recent reports have suggested that Charles really did dislike the school, calling it ‘Colditz in kilts’.
But in speeches from the Prince of Wales himself, he seems to praise the virtues of the school and the education it game him. At the House of Lords, in 1975, he said, “I am always astonished by the amount of rot talked about Gordonstoun and the careless use of ancient cliches used to describe it.
“It was only tough in the sense that it demanded more of you as an individual than most other schools did – mentally or physically. I am lucky in that I believe it taught me a great deal about myself and my own abilities and disabilities.
And then, in a later interview with the Observer, Charles admitted he was “glad” to have gone to the school. He said, “[It was]…an education which tried to balance the physical and mental with the emphasis on self-reliance to develop a rounded human being.
“I didn’t enjoy school as much as I might have, but that was only because I’m happier at home than anywhere else.”
Was the Duke of Windsor – the former King – really a Nazi sympathiser?
In season two, the former King, Edward, is portrayed as a Nazi sympathiser, appearing to show his support for Adolf Hilter. It’s even suggested that he once visited a Nazi concentration camp.
But the real-life Duke of Windsor’s attitude towards the Nazi’s remains foggy. It’s true that he and his wife Wallis Simpson did visit the former German leader in 1937, and reportedly the Duke gave him full Nazi salutes during the visit.
Royal biographer Andrew Morton also wrote in his book, 17 Carnations: The Royals, the Nazis and the Biggest Cover-Up in History, that he was sympathetic to the regime. He said, “[Edward] was certainly sympathetic…even after the war he thought Hitler was a good fellow and that he’d done a good job in Germany, and he was also anti-Semitic, before, during and after the war.” It’s widely thought that the rest of the royal family did not support the Duke here – as is shown in The Crown.
There are also historical suggestions that the Nazis did indeed have a plan to overthrow the monarchy and reinstate the Duke of Windsor as King, but of course, this never happened.
Season one of The Crown
Did cameras really catch the Queen and Prince Philip in the middle of an argument during their Commonwealth royal tour?
Yes – this is actually widely thought to be an accurate scene from season one of the series. Of course, normally, the royal couple are the picture of composed elegance. But during their royal tour of the Commonwealth in 1954, the Queen and Philip were spotted in the middle a rather explosive argument.
Just like in the show, camera crews were setting up outside the couple’s chalet in Australia, when they witnessed the Duke of Edinburgh storming out of the door, with the Queen following behind him shouting and visibly angry.
Reportedly, just as on The Crown, the monarch emerged a few minutes later and politely said, “I’m sorry for that little interlude but, as you know, it happens in every marriage. Now, what would you like me to do?”. Then, apparently, the royal press secretary at the time, Richard Colville, also approached the film crew, who were quick to hand over the footage to the royals.
It was subsequently destroyed, and her never been seen publically. So while the spat can’t be proven with evidence, it seems highly likely to have happened.
What is the truth behind the Queen’s refusal to allow Princess Margaret to marry Peter Townsend?
Sadly, one of the most heartbreaking storylines in season one of The Crown appears to be achingly true to life. When a 22-year-old Margaret told her sister of her decision to marry their late father’s former equerry, Peter Townsend, it made for a tough decision, to say the least. Just as in The Crown, the Queen was divided by the opinion of the Church and government, who were against the union of a former divorcee and senior member of the royal family, and fulfilling her own sister’s wishes.
Of course, we’ll likely never know the private discussions the sister had on the subject – something which The Crown shines an interesting light on. But history books (National Archives papers released in 2004), reveal that the monarch and the Prime Minister at the time, Sir Anthony Eden, eventually put together a plan in which Margaret could marry Peter, but that they and any children they may have would be removed from the line of succession. However, Margaret would have been able to keep her royal title and all privileges associated with it, and could continue with royal duties. In The Crown, we simply see the monarch eventually refusing her sister permission to marry Peter, lest she be expelled from the family.
History states that Margaret decided not to marry Peter eventually – for reasons which we’ll likely never know. So of course, the subtext behind this decision will likely always be unknown to us…
One point at which The Crown certainly separates from history is with the official statement made at the time. The show sees Peter make the statement on behalf of himself and the Princess. In reality, it was Princess Margaret who issued the statement.
It read, “I would like it to be known that I have decided not to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend. I have been aware that, subject to my renouncing my rights of succession, it might have been possible for me to contract a civil marriage. But mindful of the Church’s teachings that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before others. I have reached this decision entirely alone, and in doing so I have been strengthened by the unfailing support and devotion of Group Captain Townsend.”
What was the Great Smog of London – and how accurately is it depicted in The Crown?
Early on in season one, there is an entire episode dedicated to the Great Smog of London, a severe air-pollution event that hit the city for four days in December 1952.
The smog lingered from 5th – 9th December, and pulled the capital to a standstill – as is shown in the series. Public transport ceased, and many vital emergency services also stopped working, including ambulances. As the show portrays, people struggled to see the hand in front of their face, and life essentially stopped.
What appears to be slightly exaggerated in The Crown is the panic and hysteria at the time. While the Radio Times reports that there was a slightly increase in crime at the time – including over 100 smash and grab raids, reportedly, there was little panic about the smog, given that fog in general was so common in London at the time. The Crown, however, depicts a panicked mania, that, it seems, didn’t happen.
But the disaster did cause plenty of deaths. Official figures at the time reported that 4,000 lost their lives due to the fog, but recent reports suggest that number might be closer to 12,000. Reportedly, most deaths were caused by respiratory conditions being made much worse, in young people and in the elderly.