Netflix’s sleek period drama The Crown has captivated audiences with its peek into the private life of Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy), but many fans may be wondering how much of the glamorous series is based on real life. While some elements — like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s frosty relationship with the royal family and Princess Margaret’s romance with the dashing Pete Townsend — are true, several key elements of the series are either totally made up or exaggerated for dramatic effect. (And let’s be honest, even the life of a royal sometimes needs TV magic to make it more watchable.)
Keep reading if you want to find out what was real and what was just for show. And, it goes without saying, spoilers ahead!
False: Churchill’s Assistant Venetia Scott and Her Death
In the first half of the series, Churchill’s charms rub off on his young and eager assistant Venetia Scott (Kate Phillips) who seemingly develops a crush on the legendary statesman after reading his autobiography. While the increased attention given to Scott in episode 4 would leave you to believe that she and Churchill (John Lithgow) were going to develop a passionate affair, that is quickly cut short as Scott is killed by a bus during the Great Smog of 1952 (more on that later). Scott’s death eventually leads Churchill to reassess his previous position on the smog and rally to come to London’s rescue.
While her role in the series leads to a great turning point on Churchill’s part, it doesn’t appear that Scott ever existed, according to the Radio Times.
False-ish: The Great Smog and London’s Reaction
While the Great Smog plays a central role in The Crown, the panic it shows was apparently not all together accurate. While the Great Smog was denser and longer-lasting than previous “fogs,” the long-term effects of the Great Smog weren’t realized until several weeks — and even years — later as Londoners were already used to bad air quality. Still, despite not causing an outright panic or near-political crisis, the Great Smog still had a devastating impact, including poor visibility, widespread illness and deaths. (It’s estimated that the Great Smog caused somewhere between 6,000 to 12,000 deaths.) The Great Smog also influenced environmental legislation, including the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968, which led to a reduction in air pollution.
True: Queen Elizabeth’s Friendship with Porchie
While Philip (Matt Smith) is off flying planes and checking out waitresses at gentlemen’s clubs, Elizabeth gets a bit of her fun on The Crown when she takes up horse breeding alongside her childhood friend Porchie, aka Lord Porchester and later Earl of Carnarvon (Joseph Kloska). Elizabeth’s obvious excitement — and blushes — around Porchie leads to fight with Philip, causing her to declare that while many people wanted her to marry Porchie, she fell in love with Philip and he’s the only man she’s ever loved. (Philip’s silence is surely a sign of more marriage troubles to come in season 2.)
Porchie was indeed a real person and was extremely close to the Queen, who took him on as her racing manager in 1969. While there were rumors that Porchie and the Queen had an affair — including claims that he is Prince Andrew’s biological father — there has never been any actual evidence of a romance. As in the show, Porchie went on to marry Anglo-American Jean Margaret Wallop and the couple had three children — Henry, Carolyn and George, who is the current Earl of Carnarvon. Porchie and Elizabeth remained close until his death in 2001.
True: Lord Mountbatten’s Influence Over Prince Philip
Philip’s closeness with his uncle, Lord Mountbatten (Greg Wise), is the cause of some courtier rumblings on The Crown, mostly because they don’t want to see the Mountbatten family take over the Windsors. In real life, Mountbatten did hold considerable influence over Philip and acted as a father figure after the future Duke of Edinburgh was sent to live with the Mountbatten family when he was 7. (Philip’s mother, Prince Alice of Battenberg, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and sent to an asylum when he was young while his father, Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark, ditched his family to live in Monte Carlo after being exiled from Greece.) Mountbatten was close Elizabeth’s dad, King George VI (Jared Harris), and engineered the first meeting between then-princess Elizabeth and Philip when the royal family toured the Royal Naval College in 1939. Mountbatten continued to remain close to Philip and the royal family, particularly Prince Charles, up until his tragic death in 1979 at the hands of IRA terrorists.
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The repeated line about Mountbatten being the “man who gave away India” is also somewhat true. Mountbatten was appointed Viceroy of India in 1947 with the explicit goal of overseeing the country’s move towards independence, which had already been agreed upon. He is also regarded as the man who controversially broke up India — separating Muslim Pakistan from the rest of unified India as part of a negotiation deal with the country’s leaders. As also referenced in The Crown, Mountbatten’s wife Lady Mountbatten (Linda Peters) had an affair with famed Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
True: The Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s Nicknames for the Royal Family
In The Crown, much is made of the fact that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (Alex Jennings and Lia Williams, respectively) have nicknames for the royal family — ranging from the sorta-cruel like “Cookie” or “the Scottish Cook” for the Queen Mother (Victoria Hamilton) to the cutesy like “Shirley Temple” for the Queen. It turns out that these names are totally accurate — in letters published in 1988, the duke and duchess used those nicknames and several others when talking about the royal family and British politicians (Churchill was called “Cry Baby”). The letters also underlined another theme in The Crown — the frosty relationship between the duke and the rest of the royal family. When visiting England after the death of George VI, the duke called the two Elizabeths and Queen Mary “ice-veined bitches” after he discovered that his personal allowance was being cut off. Upon returning to England in 1953 following the death of Mary, he again highlighted the strained relationship with colorful language to the duchess after learning his mother had only left him a pair of candlesticks and three small boxes.
“What a smug stinking lot my relations are and you’ve never seen such a seedy worn out bunch of old hags most of them have become,” he wrote.
True: Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend’s Romance
The relationship between Elizabeth’s younger sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) and the much-older Peter Townsend (Ben Miles) is a central plot point in the first season of The Crown and the relationship was very much real. As in the series, Margaret was required to have her marriage approved by the Queen and Parliament and Churchill advised that the Cabinet and Parliament would not approve the match because Townsend was divorced. Like her uncle, she was given the option to give up royal life (and her royal income and titles) if she still wanted to marry Townsend, but she instead chose to end things, a fact Townsend later referred to in his 1978 autobiography Time and Chance.
“She could have married me only if she had been prepared to give up everything—her position, her prestige, her privy purse,” he wrote. “I simply hadn’t the weight, I knew it, to counterbalance all she would have lost.”
Margaret went on to marry photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones, a volatile marriage that ended in divorce in another scandalous divorce in 1978.
True: The Issue Over the Royals’ Last Name
As in The Crown, courtiers were wary of Elizabeth’s children taking on Philip’s chosen last name of Mountbatten as they feared that this gave too much weight to the Mountbatten family over the Windsors. In 1952, Elizabeth announced that her children would use the last name of “Windsor” when needed, although in 1958 she quietly changed the name to “Mountbatten-Windsor,” perhaps a sign that the exclusion of his last name had become a sore spot for Philip.
Probably False: Prince Philip’s Refusal to Kneel in Front of the Queen
While much is made in The Crown of Philip’s refusal to kneel in front of his Queen at her coronation it is highly unlikely that he ever considered not kneeling in front of her for her actual coronation. While Philip did push back against tradition on family issues like his children’s last names and their education, he would have understood and respected the significance of kneeling in front of Elizabeth at her coronation — and also likely balked at the breech of protocol as a royal himself.
“I doubt Prince Philip ever spoke those words to his wife, because he came from a royal house which had borrowed so much of its ritual and protocol from the British Royal Family,” expert Christopher Wilson told the Daily Mail, referring to the tense scene in the Crown. “He knew full well what was expected of him in public, and was prepared to go along with it.”