The announcement of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s engagement feels like it was timed to the release of Netflix’s “The Crown.” The second season will be available to stream beginning Friday.
Season two picks up right where the first one left off. The marriage of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip is rocky, the relationship between Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend is over and Britain is on the brink of war with Egypt over the Suez Canal.
Season one, reportedly the most expensive Netflix series to date, was a colorful blend of documentary and historical fiction. But can we rely on its accuracy?
We decided to fact-check the retelling of the relationship between Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the queen through the lens of royal protocol. Here’s the separation of fact from fiction, with research and help from Autumn Brewington, a journalist and and former blogger on the royals for The Washington Post.
In “The Crown,” the dynamic between Churchill and the queen was stiff.
“I think the biggest thing that was wrong, even if some only called it a stretch, is the idea that Queen Elizabeth II would have interpreted Churchill as delaying her coronation and comparing it to her father’s coronation roughly five months after becoming king,” says Brewington. “The circumstances were totally different and she knew that.”
Despite the 52-year age gap between Churchill and the queen, years later she said her favorite prime minister was “Winston, of course, because it was always such fun.” After putting her kids to bed, the queen would meet Churchill on Tuesday evenings in her study. Picking a coronation date was one of the first orders of business following the death of her father, King George VI.
The wait from accession to coronation is “first, to allow a period of mourning and then to establish time for the elaborate plans to be made.” (“Royal Sisters” by Anne Edwards, p. 274) However, her father hadn’t waited long for his own coronation because he conveniently took over the ceremony meant for his brother, Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne. The ceremony had already been set out one-and-a-half years after Edward VIII’s accession date. (“Majesty: Elizabeth II and the House of Windsor”)
In “The Queen Mother: The Official Biography,” William Shawcross wrote that the coronation was fixed for June 2, 1953, because “Churchill had been against having it in 1952 because he felt that the country’s economic crisis was so serious that not a single working day should be lost.”
Prince Harry is fifth in line to succeed the throne, and his engagement to Meghan Markle isn’t the first time a royal has wanted to marry a divorced person. There was Edward VIII, who chose Wallis Simpson over the kingdom; Princess Margaret and Townsend; and more recently, Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. Prince Harry’s father was able to tie the knot his longtime love because divorce no longer carried the same stigma, yet the two still married in a private civil ceremony. In 2002, the Church of England relaxed its rules, allowing remarriage in the church of divorced people whose former partners remain alive.
John Lithgow, who plays Churchill, popped into the queen’s study on his own for his last audience. No flashy entrance.
Typically, people who came to meet the queen would wait in a room until the queen pressed a buzzer that would throw the doors open, but on the evening of Sir Winston Churchill’s last audience with the queen as prime minister, he “was ushered up the red-carpeted stairway, where, at the top, like her father before her, Elizabeth had come out on the landing to greet him.” (“Royal Sisters,” p. 317)
Claire Foy, who plays the queen in “The Crown,” merely thanked Churchill during their last official business meeting. “However will I cope without you?” she asked him, but didn’t offer dukedom nor a letter to him.
The queen invited Churchill to dukedom during their last audience as a symbol of his exemplary service to the monarchy. It was a rare move. Churchill refused, but received the queen’s letter of thanks to him. “I had a lovely letter from her,” Churchill told Lord Moran, “eight pages in her own writing. It took me a whole morning to reply.” (“Winston Churchill in the Twenty First Century,” p. 113)
It’s said that non-royal dukes and duchesses in today’s Britain remain an endangered species, and there are more non-royals dying out than titles being created. It’s become tradition for the queen to grant her male heirs dukedoms on their wedding day, which means their wives also become duchesses. Many speculate that Prince Harry will be Duke of Sussex, and Meghan Markle will be Duchess of Sussex.
It’s unlikely that Churchill ever kissed Her Majesty on the forehead before he left his last audience.
If Queen Elizabeth offers a hand, it’s polite to take it, but “for the briefest of touches rather than a full-on handshake.” (“The Wicked Wit of Queen Elizabeth II,” p. 41)
Michelle Obama got away with giving the real Queen Elizabeth a warm hug when they met in Buckingham Palace in 2009. The queen reciprocated by putting her arm around the first lady’s waist. And although there’s no account of whether Meghan Markle made physical contact with the queen during their meeting over tea, she’ll evidently be joining the royal family for Christmas at the queen’s Sandringham estate — the first royal fiancee to do so.