The British monarchy is one of the most impervious institutions of the modern world. Queen Elizabeth II, who ruled for 70 years before her death on Sept. 8, was at its enigmatic center.
The queen is also at the center of Netflix’s Emmy-winning period drama, “The Crown,” which follows her reign across decades; Claire Foy portrays her in the first two seasons, and Olivia Colman took on the role in Seasons 3 and 4. It’s no secret that the drama has taken liberties, at times controversially so, in its storytelling. But the series – which creator Peter Morgan recently called “a love letter” to the U.K.’s longest serving monarch – has also shed light on the inner workings of the royal family in ways that the news, broadsheet gossip or carefully crafted palace statements never could.
“The Crown” has portrayed Queen Elizabeth as a staunch defender of royal tradition – a characterization supported by the historical record – even when it alienates her from her own family members. The fifth season, which premieres in November and will see actress Imelda Staunton take on the mantle, is expected to see the sovereign continue in that vein as she deals with the dissolution of the marriage of Charles, her eldest son and heir, to his wife, Diana.
Below, we’ve rounded up “The Crown” episodes that offer insight into the queen and her approach to the monarchy.
“Hyde Park Corner” (Season 1, Episode 2): The show’s second episode depicts King George VI’s (Jarred Harris) death, which followed a period of ostensible recovery (his actual diagnosis, lung cancer, was kept a secret) and thrust the palace into chaos. News of the monarch’s death reaches Elizabeth while she and her husband, Prince Philip (Matt Smith) are in Nairobi, Kenya, carrying out a royal tour on behalf of her father. The king’s death is conveyed to Elizabeth without words as she spots Philip’s trenchant expression from across the well-manicured lawn of their lodge. The princess’s worst fears are confirmed when the aide who informed her husband of his father-in-law’s passing bows his head before her.
Thousands of miles away from her family, Elizabeth inherits the throne and is instantly cognizant that all eyes are on her as the new monarch. Queen Mary (Eileen Atkins), Elizabeth’s paternal grandmother, writes “dearest Lilibet” a letter acknowledging that her granddaughter “will be as devastated as I am by this loss.”
“But you must put those sentiments to one side now for duty calls,” the king’s mother tells Elizabeth. “The grief for your father’s death will be felt far and wide. Your people will need your strength and leadership.” Her ascension to the throne, Mary asserts, means that she must also mourn Elizabeth Mountbatten in favor of Elizabeth Regina (her regnal name, plus the Latin suffix identifying her as the queen). “The two Elizabeths will frequently be in conflict with one another,” her grandmother warns. “The fact is, the Crown must win. Must always win.”
Elizabeth takes the advice to heart but allows herself a brief moment of grief, sobbing at her dead father’s bedside. She emerges, shaken but steadfast, and greets her mother and sister, who bow to their new queen. The episode’s haunting final image shows the octogenarian Queen Mary – dressed in black all the way up to the veil that shades her face – offering a deep bow to her 25-year-old granddaughter.
“Scientia Potentia Est” (Season 1, Episode 7): Another season one episode suggests Queen Elizabeth, who was tutored privately as a child, harbored insecurities around her lack of formal education. The series shows Elizabeth confronting her mother about why she was denied the chance to learn more traditional subjects including literature and math, seen as “undignified” topics of study for a future queen. “Sewing, needlework and saying poems with (teacher) Crawfie,” she tells her mother. “That is not an education.” The queen mother reminds Elizabeth that she also studied with the vice provost of Eton College – a fact supported by real-life accounts of the royal’s upbringing – but Elizabeth reminds her those lessons consisted of “being drilled in matters of the Constitution.” In “The Crown,” she hires a private tutor to help fill in some scholarly gaps in hopes of being able to converse more naturally with visiting heads of state, politicians and other dignitaries.
“You received an entirely appropriate education for a woman of your background,” the queen mother says. “Which has entirely failed to prepare me for the life I lead now,” Elizabeth retorts. The episode is another reminder of the tension between Elizabeth’s adherence to tradition and the sweeping social changes that took place during her seven-decade reign.
“Gloriana” (Season 1, Episode 10): Princess Margaret’s (Vanessa Kirby) well-documented love affair with Peter Townsend (Ben Miles), a divorced Royal Air Force officer, is a source of steamy drama in “The Crown’s” first season. It all comes to a head in the season finale, as Elizabeth ponders whether to let her 25-year-old sister defy tradition and marry a divorcé less than two decades after their uncle Edward (Alex Jennings) abdicated the throne to do the same with the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson (Lia Williams). In the end, Elizabeth – despite personally liking Townsend, who worked as an equerry in the royal household, and longing to see her sister happy – backed Parliament and the Church of England in ruling that Margaret would have to give up her royal income and leave England to marry Townsend.
The decision unfolded similarly in real life. Margaret released a statement saying she would not marry Townsend: “Mindful of the Church’s teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before any others,” the queen’s sister said.
“The Queen alone is the final arbiter,” the New York Times reported in 1955. “Dedicated to the duties of the monarchy, devoted to the memory of her father, King George VI, who trained her to be Queen, she must, informants say, see duty before her sister’s lifelong happiness.”
“Aberfan” (Season 3, Episode 3): “The Crown” devotes a standout episode to the 1966 disaster that killed 140 people, most of whom were schoolchildren, in the Welsh mining town of Aberfan. Queen Elizabeth drew criticism for waiting more than a week to visit the horrific scene of the tragedy – one of the first to be televised and covered around the world – which occurred after an avalanche of coal waste and slurry slid down a mountain following days of heavy rain.
The show presents Elizabeth’s hesitation as a matter of royal principle, however misguided. “The crown visits hospitals, not the scenes of accidents,” she tells a secretary who suggests she visit the grieving townspeople.
She doubles down when Prime Minister Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins) returns from Aferban and urges Her Majesty to travel there. “What precisely would you have me do?” the queen asks, noting that her presence tends to cause disruption and could hinder rescue efforts. “Comfort people,” Wilson replies. “Put on a show?” she interprets. “The crown doesn’t do that.”
“I said comfort people,” Wilson reiterates. While the queen does eventually travel to the site of the disaster, “The Crown” depicts her outreach as perfunctory; she later tells Wilson that she “has known for some time that there is something wrong with me,” listing various times she struggled to emote in the face of tragedy. Wilson challenges her politely, sharing some of the less-than-genuine actions he takes to be “more approachable” to his constituents.
After their conversation, the queen sits in solitude listening to “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” the solemn hymn sung at the funeral for the children buried alive by the preventable avalanche. Alone with her thoughts, a single tear streams down her cheek. A title card relays that royal insiders have speculated her delay in visiting the town is one of her biggest regrets.
“Tywysog Cymru” (Season 3, Episode 6): As Charles (Josh O’Connor), known to have a complicated relationship with his mother, battles his family over his desire to be with the woman of his choosing (Camilla Parker Bowles, as she was then known), he steps up his royal duties, delivering a speech in Wales amid increased calls for independence in the region. Though he nails the speech (in Welsh, no less), his mother, who later reads a translation of his address, is unimpressed, having picked up subtle allusions to Charles’s issues with the monarchy.
“Isn’t there a similarity between my predicament and the Welsh? Am I listened to in this family? Am I seen for who and what I am? No!” the fictional Charles says to his mother after he is called to speak with her in a confrontational scene.
“Rather too much of a voice for my liking,” the queen replies. “Not having a voice is something all of us have to live with. We have all made sacrifices and suppressed who we are. Some portion of our natural selves is always lost.”
“That is a choice,” Charles tells her.
“It is not a choice. It is a duty,” the Queen says, echoing her grandmother’s advice.
When Charles insists that he “can lead not just by wearing a uniform or cutting a ribbon, but by showing people who I am” and that he has “a voice,” his mother admonishes him. “Let me let you in to a secret,” she says. “No one wants to hear it. … No one.”
“Fagan” (Season 4, Episode 5): The most recent season of “The Crown” recounts a horrifying breach in palace security that enabled Michael Fagan (Tom Brooke) to break into Buckingham Palace – twice – gaining access to the queen’s private bedroom on his second illegal visit. On “The Crown,” an appropriately alarmed Queen Elizabeth calmly talks to the stranger, who details his personal woes amid economic instability. The plot line matches some reports of the 1982 intrusion, but in 2020, Fagan told the Independent that his exchange with the queen was much briefer. “She went past me and ran out of the room, her little bare feet running across the floor.”
“The Crown” uses the incident to examine Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s (Gillian Anderson) increasingly unpopular policies, including a war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, and as a window into the tense, formal relationship between the two most powerful women in the United Kingdom.
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