From the Kennedys to former King Edward VIII, Queen Elizabeth hosts a lot of famous visitors in season two of The Crown. But one of the most meaningful guests for the monarch is American evangelical Reverend Billy Graham, who died Wednesday at age 99 at his home in Montreat, N.C.
During episode six, the Queen is enthralled while watching Graham’s sermon on television with the Queen Mother. She’s so captivated by the young preacher that she later tells Prince Philip, “I think he’s rather handsome.”
The Queen invites Graham to give a sermon in Windsor Chapel and then hosts him for lunch at the palace. They later share a few poignant chats about the Queen’s desire to be a “simple Christian” and her struggles with forgiveness.
In real life, the unlikely pair had a special friendship. Whenever Graham came to the U.K., the Queen would invite him to preach, and when she traveled to the U.S., she would often visit him. Graham is regarded as the most influential preacher of the 20th century. He held popular indoor and outdoor rallies and his sermons were broadcast on radio and television around the world.
“No one in Britain has been more cordial toward us than Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II,” Graham, who is now 99 years old and living in Charlotte, North Carolina, wrote in his autobiography, Just As I Am. “Almost every occasion I have been with her has been in a warm, informal setting, such as a luncheon or dinner, either alone or with a few family members or other close friends.
“I believe one reason for the Queen’s spiritual interest was the warm faith of her mother, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother,” he wrote. “The first time we were with her was at Clarence House, her residence in London. She had invited [Graham’s wife] Ruth and me for coffee, and when we arrived she greeted us warmly and introduced us to Princess Margaret. We were there about an hour, and within five minutes we felt relaxed because they both were so gracious.”
Graham also shared an anecdote from one of those visits.
“I always found her very interested in the Bible and its message,” he wrote. “After preaching at Windsor one Sunday, I was sitting next to the Queen at lunch. I told her I had been undecided until the last minute about my choice of sermon and had almost preached on the healing of the crippled man in John 5. Her eyes sparkled and she bubbled over with enthusiasm, as she could do on occasion. ‘I wish you had!’ she exclaimed. ‘That is my favorite story.’ “
As head of the Church of England, the Queen has never hidden her strong Christian faith, but it is rare for royalty to speak openly about their religious beliefs. She surprised many when she wrote the foreword to The Servant Queen and The Master She Serves in Feb. 2016.
“I have been – and remain – very grateful to you for your prayers and to God for his steadfast love,” Queen Elizabeth wrote. “I have indeed seen his faithfulness.”
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The Queen rarely writes forewords to anything, and the passage offers a glimpse into her beliefs.
“She has always been deeply religious,” Robert Lacey, who is the show’s historical consultant and author of The Crown: The Official Companion, tells PEOPLE.. “She was close to the Rev. Billy Graham in his prime, inviting him to preach at Windsor whenever he was in Britain, and meeting up with him when she visited the States. He helped her with a Christmas broadcast in the ‘90s.
“Her Christian faith is fundamental to her in an old-time evangelical way, deriving from the example of her mother, who knelt at her bedside every night to say her prayers. It is said that the Queen does the same.”
- With reporting by Simon Perry