Uneasy Lies the Head That Wears ‘The Crown’

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Stephanie Ruesch

Last week, the nominees for the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards were announced, with Season 4 of the Netflix drama The Crown reigning as the Globes’ most-nominated TV series of 2021 and tying at the SAGs for the most nominations for a TV show. Along with these accolades, this season of The Crown has also brought its fair share of controversy, primarily urging from the United Kingdom’s culture secretary that Netflix add a disclaimer warning viewers that the show is fictionalized, a call that stems primarily from Season 4’s portrayal of Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s tumultuous marriage; Netflix ultimately refused to add such a disclaimer. Adapted from Peter Morgan’s play The Audience, The Crown dramatizes the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The show begins with her marriage in 1947 to Prince Philip and to date has covered through the end of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership in 1990, with two more seasons for the show in development.

With deference towards historical accuracy, let’s explore some of the events depicted in the show using resources from HeinOnline to dig deeper behind the drama. Follow along through these databases:

“The Woman I Love” (Seasons 1-4)

Permeating throughout all seasons of The Crown is the abdication of Edward VIII and the twin crises it created: the public constitutional crisis and the personal crisis within the Windsor family. Edward VIII, eldest son of George V and great-grandson of Queen Victoria, became monarch on January 20, 1936 upon the death of his father. By that time, he had already been having an affair with his future wife, Wallis Simpson, whom he had met in 1931. Mrs. Simpson was an American divorcée and a British subject by her second marriage. Ten months into Edward’s reign, Wallis Simpson petitioned for divorce from her second husband. The following month, Edward announced his intention to marry her to Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

Cabinet objected to the King marrying a twice-divorced woman, arguing it was “a grievous blow to the prestige of the Monarchy,” primarily because remarriage after divorce was opposed by the Church of England if a former spouse was still alive, further complicated by the fact that, as monarch, Edward was the head of the Church.  Edward proposed a morganatic marriage as a potential compromise, in which Simpson would not be titled queen and any children they had would not be allowed to inherit the throne. A morganatic marriage, however, required a statutory amendment of the Act of Settlement 1701 and the consent of all the Dominion Parliaments, as well as that of Baldwin’s own cabinet. At the end of November, with the King’s permission, Baldwin contacted the Dominion Parliaments and laid out the three options before them: 1) a traditional marriage, with Simpson as Queen, 2) a morganatic marriage, or 3) abdication. With Cabinet both rejecting a morganatic marriage and barring the King from appealing directly to his subjects in a radio broadcast for their support of his marriage, Edward formally signed his abdication act on December 10th.

Two days after the signing of the Abdication Act, Edward’s brother Albert, the Duke of York, ascended the throne as George VI, making his then ten-year-old daughter Elizabeth heir apparent. Edward, meanwhile, left England for a self-imposed exile in Austria. George VI later made his brother the Duke of Windsor; the following year, Edward and Wallis finally married and would remain together until his death in 1972.

The Marburg Files (Season 2)

The Abdication looms large over the dramatized persons in The Crown; it is a specter that haunts every intrapersonal scandal, from Princess Margaret’s barred marriage to (divorced) Group Captain Peter Townsend in the 1950s to Prince Charles’ thwarted romance with Camilla Parker-Bowles. Having witnessed first-hand the fragility of the monarchy, The Crown’s characters are cautious not to court another constitutional crisis.

But scandal, like true love, finds a way. After their marriage in 1937, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor visited Nazi Germany, where they were entertained by some of history’s most notorious malefactors, including Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring, and Adolf Hitler, much to the horror of British officials back home. After the war, American troops discovered a cache of files from the German Foreign Ministry near Marburg Castle in the German countryside. Now known as the Marburg Files, or the Windsor File, found among the documents was correspondence between the Duke of Windsor and Nazi high-command. Upon learning of the documents, George VI demanded the files be suppressed , but a large portion of them were released in 1957 (as relayed in the show, when Queen Elizabeth learns of and reviews the documents, eventually confronting her uncle about them). Of particular concern to the Royal Family was the Files’ alleged revelation of a plot by the Nazi government to reinstate the Duke of Windsor as king and Wallis Simpson as queen, even going so far to plan their kidnapping if the couple would not cooperate willingly. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, fearful of the couples’ public coziness with Nazi high-command, had appointed the Duke as the Governor of the Bahamas for the remainder of the war, a move that in hindsight seemed justified by the discovery of the files. The extent of any Nazi sympathies held by the couple or their involvement in a foreign plot to retake the throne is still debated by historians today.

The Profumo Affair (Seasons 2-3)

The release of the Marburg Files in 1957 was not the only political scandal featured in Season 2 of The Crown. The 1960s would see one of the largest political scandals in modern British politics: the Profumo Affair.

As is the case with so many of history’s political scandals, sex was at the center of the Profumo Affair. John Profumo was the Secretary of State for War under Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who had succeeded Anthony Eden upon his resignation in 1957 after fallout from the Suez Canal crisis. Christine Keeler was a 19-year-old aspiring model who worked as a dancer at Murray’s Cabaret Club, where she met Stephen Ward. Ward was an osteopath who moved in high-end circles; he knew Prince Philip at least as an acquaintance, if not necessarily as a patient as portrayed in The Crown. But Ward was definitely firm friends with Yevgeny Ivanov, a naval attaché at the Soviet Embassy in London. MI5 approached Ward with hopes that he could help secure Ivanov’s defection, and the Foreign Office later used Ward’s connection to Ivanov as a backchannel to the Soviet Union, involving him in unofficial diplomacy during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

In July 1961, all the main players came together at a party held by Ward at the spring cottage at Cliveden, a magnificent estate in Buckinghamshire. While Keeler and Ivanov partied with Ward at the cottage, John Profumo and his wife were attending their own party at the estate’s main house. The two groups came together at the swimming pool. Shortly after the party, Profumo and Keeler started a brief affair. Allegedly, she also slept with Ivanov around the same time, a rumored entanglement that becomes pertinent later.

The following year, after ending her affair with Profumo, Keeler became involved with a man named Johnny Edgecombe. Their relationship ended badly; after their breakup, Edgecombe tracked Keeler down at Ward’s flat and fired gunshots at the front door. The police inquiry naturally attracted the attention of the press, especially with the involvement of the well-connected Ward, and journalists soon linked Ward, Keeler and Profumo together. Keeler began to talk both to reporters and to the members of the opposition Labour party. Rumors intensified when Keeler failed to appear to testify at Edgecombe’s trial, with the papers insinuating that Profumo had used his connections to whisk her out of the country.

Under pressure from his own party to explain himself, Profumo stood in the House of Commons and admitted to knowing Keeler, Ward, and Ivanov, but denied having a sexual relationship with Keeler (sound familiar?). But scrutiny from the press only intensified after another jilted lover attacked Keeler. Ward used his connections to approach the Prime Minister’s personal secretary to ask that the police not investigate, and also divulged the truth behind Profumo and Keeler’s affair. Further sensationalizing matters in both the press and in government—and even in the daily business of the U.S. House of Representatives —was the tangential involvement of Ivanov, with rumors flying about Russian spies and national security breaches—claims that ultimately were never substantiated.

But with the affair confirmed and guilty of contempt in the Commons, Profumo resigned from office. Three days later, Ward was arrested on charges of immorality. Just as his trial began, however, Ward committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. Fallout from the scandal lead to a narrow Conservative Party defeat in the 1964 general election, and Harold Wilson became prime minister.

The Aberfan Disaster (Season 3)

One of the most tragic real-world events brought to life on The Crown’s small screen was the Aberfan disaster. On the morning of October 21, 1966, in the Welsh mining village of Aberfan, a colliery spoil tip (a pile of shale, dirt, rocks, and other waste material removed during the mining process) collapsed, sending 140,000 cubic yards of sooty refuse avalanching into the village below. It crashed into the local school, where lessons had just begun, killing 116 children, 5 teachers, and 23 other adults.

In a grizzly coincidence, all children who attended the school had been given dental exams the month prior, and these recent dental records proved invaluable in identifying the bodies of the dead.

On the 25th, a formal tribunal was appointed to investigate the disaster and the liability of the National Coal Board, who controlled the colliery and who had received complaints from residents in the years before the disaster about the tip’s stability after problems with recent flooding.  Meanwhile, donations poured in to assist survivors, eventually being consolidated into the Aberfan Disaster Fund, a trust that was regulated by the Charity Commission under the Charities Act 1960.

The Fund eventually amassed £1.75 million (about £32 million today). But controversy on how funds should be dispersed dogged the Fund’s work, from whether £500 or £5,000 should be paid to surviving parents who had lost a child, to whether children mentally scarred but physically unharmed by the disaster deserved compensation, to whether funds should be used in removing the remaining tips in Aberfan.

In 1967, the inquiry into the National Coal Board released its final report, in which it found the Board guilty of neglecting to ensure the tip’s safety. Despite this, no one from the Board ever faced criminal prosecution over the disaster—and no one was fired. As a result of the disaster, the Mines and Quarries (Tips) Act 1969 was passed to provide further oversight of tips to prevent another disaster like Aberfan from occurring. The Queen has reportedly described her decision to wait eight days after the disaster to visit the people of Aberfan her “biggest regret.”

The Iron Lady (Season 4)

A new season always brings Elizabeth at least one new prime minister. Season four focused solely on the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, the first woman to hold that office. Dubbed the “Iron Lady,” she was prime minister from 1975 to 1990, making her the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century. Thatcher’s time in office covered a period of great change in Britain, as a series of economic policies intended to pull the country out of a recession resulted in high levels of unemployment. The show chose to embody the effects of Thatcher’s philosophy, known as Thatcherism, into its portrayal of Michael Fagan, an unemployed painter and decorator who in 1982 twice snuck inside Buckingham Palace and once into the Queen’s bedchamber. Fagan in the show is down on his luck, estranged from his wife and children, living in a flat that’s fallen into terrible disrepair, and unable to receive any kind of assistance from the government. He holds a captive, albeit unorthodox, audience with his Queen, begging her to pay attention to the effects Thatcher’s policies are having on the working man, and also disparaging the current state of the palace, saying it could use a fresh coat of paint. In reality, Fagan and Her Majesty likely had no such philosophical discussion during their brief nocturnal meeting. Fagan, having technically broken no laws for shimmying up Buckingham’s drainpipe, was instead charged with theft for drinking a bottle of wine while roaming the palace halls.

Thatcher’s economic policies placed a high priority on controlling inflation rather than unemployment, emphasizing the free market through deregulation, privatizing state-owned companies, and reducing trade unions’ influence. She had a strong ally philosophically with her American counterpart Ronald Reagan, and the two shared a close relationship; on Regan’s death in 2004, Thatcher attended his funeral (against her doctor’s orders) and delivered a eulogy.

High unemployment decimated Thatcher’s approval rating, but victory in the Falklands War helped her win re-election in 1983 (an international conflict that did not overlap with her son Mark’s disappearance in the Paris-Dakar rally, as portrayed in the show). But the implementation of the Community Charge (poll tax) to replace domestic rates (or property taxes) with a single flat-rate per-capita tax on every adult was disastrous; protests against the tax took place across Scotland and England, and the poll tax today is considered to be one of the main reasons for Thatcher leaving office in 1990. She did receive an Order of Merit from the Queen after her resignation, as seen on the show; among her many accolades, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush. Margaret Thatcher died in 2013.

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