Claire Foy feels pretty fond of Queen Elizabeth II. After all, she has been attempting to climb into her head ever since being cast as the monarch for Netflix’s The Crown – a difficult task, as Elizabeth is a very private person in a very public role.
“I feel like once you’ve kind of looked at someone’s character and understanding in a deeper way, then you’re bound to have an attachment to them,” she told RadioTimes.com. “It’s probably not in any way based in reality at all, but I feel very, very fond.”
But just how close to reality is The Crown’s portrayal of Elizabeth? Let’s take a look….
What was her childhood like?
The kid version of Princess Elizabeth is played by Verity Russell as a serious and dutiful child – and this seems, by all accounts, to be entirely accurate.
Elizabeth was born in 1926, and was nicknamed “Lilibet” by her close family based on her inability to pronounce her own name as a toddler. At the time it looked unlikely she would ever be queen. Her grandfather King George V was on the throne, her uncle was next in line and her dad (then Prince Albert, Duke of York) was the second son of the King.
She and her younger sister Princess Margaret were educated at home under the supervision of their mother and their governess Marion Crawford (“Crawfie”), who later published an unauthorised account of her time with the princesses. The book reveals an affectionate and responsible child who loved horses and dogs.
But then third in line to the throne became second, and second became first. Her grandfather died in 1936, her uncle abdicated later that year and her father was thrust onto the throne. Elizabeth was heir presumptive.
Accordingly, she received private tuition in constitutional history from the Vice-Provost of Eton College – just like in The Crown.
What happened during the Second World War?
Despite suggestions that she send the princesses off to Canada until it blew over, Elizabeth’s mum declared: “The children won’t go without me. I won’t leave without the King. And the King will never leave.”
Instead, they lived between Balmoral Castle, Sandringham House and Windsor Castle. At Windsor, the princesses staged pantomimes at Christmas to aid the Queen’s Wool Fund and clothe the troops.
Princess Elizabeth and Princes Margaret in a war-time pantomime of Aladdin
At 18, by her own request, Elizabeth joined the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service and put on her coveralls to train as a mechanic and military truck driver. This is why, in The Crown, she shoos away all the men trying to fix her broken-down car – she can do it perfectly well herself.
Fun fact: the Queen is the only female member of the royal family ever to have entered the armed forces.
Princess Elizabeth training as a mechanic in the Second World War
On Victory in Europe Day, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret slipped out onto the streets of London to celebrate with the crowds. “We asked my parents if we could go out and see for ourselves. I remember we were terrified of being recognised… I remember lines of unknown people linking arms and walking down Whitehall, all of us just swept along on a tide of happiness and relief,” she later said.
How did she meet – and marry – Prince Phillip?
Elizabeth met Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark a couple of times as a child, but she got to know him better from the age of 13 when they began to exchange letters. Philip served in the Royal Navy during the war years.
Their engagement was announced officially on 9th July 1947, when Elizabeth was 21. It was pretty controversial: Philip had no money and three sisters who had married Nazis. He had been raised in exile, without a home or a kingdom. But the couple were resolute, and so Philip renounced his Greek and Danish titles, became the Duke of Edinburgh and joined the Church of England.
The royal wedding took place on November 20th 1947 at Westminster Abbey. In the shaky post-war economy, Elizabeth required ration coupons to buy the material for her gown.
What was their early married life like?
Prince Philip and then-Princess and their children Prince Charles and Princess Anne in 1951
Elizabeth gave birth to her first child, Prince Charles, a year after the wedding. Princess Anne followed in 1950. The young family moved into Clarence House in London, but also spent time in the British Crown Colony of Malta where Philip was stationed as a Royal Navy Officer.
There were already inklings that the King’s health was in decline, though. During 1951, Elizabeth frequently stood in for him at public events, touring Canada. Her private secretary Martin Charteris reportedly carried a draft accession declaration just in case the King died while she was abroad.
How did she hear of the King’s death?
The way in which Elizabeth finds out about her father’s death in The Crown seems almost too dramatic to be true – but it is.
In early 1952, Elizabeth and Philip were touring Australia and New Zealand via Kenya. As the King drew his final breath at his country retreat Sandringham House, the Princess and her husband were spending the night in the Treetops Hotel in Kenya, watching the sun rise over the jungle. And at the time the King is supposed to have died, Elizabeth spotted a magnificent eagle hovering overhead.
However, she wasn’t to know anything about it all until later. Elizabeth left the hotel and returned to Sagana Lodge with Philip, while coded telegrams arrived from London which nobody was able to decipher because the man with the key to the cabinet containing instructions had left for the day. Charteris heard the news from a Kenyan newspaper editor and finally got the message to the new Queen.
Jim Corbett, a hunter and Elizabeth’s bodyguard in Kenya, wrote in the visitors’ log book at the Treetops Hotel: “For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess and after having what she described as her most thrilling experience she climbed down from the tree next day a Queen.”
How did she cope with becoming a Queen?
The coronation was full of symbolism, and not least when it came to the Queen’s gown. This was embroidered with the floral emblems of Commonweath countries: English Tudor rose, Scots thistle, Welsh leek, Irish shamrock, Australian wattle, Canadian maple leaf, New Zealand silver fern, South African protea, lotus flowers to signify India and Ceylon, and wheat, cotton and jute for Pakistan. Despite the eclectic collection of symbols, it actually looked rather good.
The Crown screenwriter Peter Morgan covers many of the challenges of Elizabeth’s first few years as monarch: her sister Princess Margaret’s hopes of marrying divorced man Peter Townsend, troubles with her husband over whether the royal house should remain the House of Windsor rather than Mountbatten (Windsor won), and the strain of embarking on a round-the-world tour in 1953 to 13 countries with a relentless series of public appearances.
It is, however, very hard to know how she coped in private with the demands of public office. The way Foy plays her, she becomes more reserved and controlled as she settles in to her role.
One thing certainly remained the same: she has continued to love horses and dogs. Since the beginning of her reign she has owned more than 30 corgis, and has indulged in horse-racing.
What was her relationship with Winston Churchill?
In The Crown, Churchill is initially concerned that the Queen may not be up to the job, and he frequently clashes with Elizabeth before learning to respect her.
The Queen meets with her Prime Minister once a week, but their conversations are strictly confidential and no record is kept.
However, she and Churchill are reported to have developed a particularly close relationship, especially given their shared love of horses and his history of working with her father King George VI. Asked many years later which PM she had enjoyed her audiences with most, she is reported to have replied: “Winston, of course, because it was alway such fun.”
The Queen wrote to Churchill on his resignation: “I need not tell you… how severely I shall continue to miss your advice and encouragement. It would be useless to pretend that any successors will ever be able to hold the place of my first prime minister.” She also, however, later called him “obstinate”.
What happened next?
Series one of The Crown only takes us up to Churchill’s resignation in 1955. But there’s plenty of fodder for series two, as hinted by the troublesome appearance of Abdel Nasser. In 1956, that drama led to the Suez Crisis, when Britain and France invaded Egypt in an unsuccessful attempt to capture the Suez Canal.
Sir Anthony Eden resigned, and the Queen was forced to decide who should form a government. She went with Harold Macmillan – not an entirely popular decision. She was also later forced to appoint another Prime Minister in 1963, Alec Douglas-Home, and to get involved in choosing a government from a hung Parliament in 1974 – so there was plenty of political drama for Queen Elizabeth.
The Queen had her final two children in 1959 and 1963: Prince Andrew and Prince Edward.
The Queen with her husband and children in 1972
She kept up an intense travel regime, visiting countries including Ghana, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Cyprus, India, Pakistan, Nepal and Iran, but during the 60s and 70s, many countries gained independence from Britain, as ties with the former Empire weakened.
So where is the dramatic potential in the rest of the Queen’s reign?
Elizabeth has been quietly at the centre of global politics since the crown was first placed on her head. As the Netflix series progresses, will we get to see Romania’s brutal communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu on his state visit to the United Kingdom, hosted by a reluctant Queen? Or Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau pirouetting behind the Queen in 1977 as a show of distain for palace protocol? Or when she was shot at in 1981 by a would-be teenage assassin?
Peter Morgan could also seek inspiration from the time she awoke at Buckingham Palace to find an intruder (Michael Fagan) had snuck into her room. He could explore the Palace’s relationship with the tabloid press as they lost their reverence for the royals, as well as her relationship with PM Margaret Thatcher.
Margaret Thatcher with the Queen in Zambia in 1979
The Queen had a terrible year in 1992 (her “annus horribilis”). Prince Andrew separated from his wife Sarah; Princess Anne divorced Captain Mark Phillips; there was a large fire at Windsor Castle; Prince Charles formally separated from Princess Diana. 1997 was another bad year, when Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris and people felt the Queen didn’t react with the appropriate level of grief.
But throughout it all, republicanism has remained a weak force in Britain. While much criticism has been levelled at the royal family, Elizabeth herself remains personally popular – and now, in the year of her 90th birthday, The Crown has sparked a renewed interest in the private life of the Queen.
How accurate is Claire Foy’s version of the Queen?
So has Claire Foy got her right? Certainly her voice lessons have paid off: the crisp royal accent is perfect. Foy plays the monarch as a firm woman who nevertheless respects the advice of people around her; as someone who wants to keep her husband and sister happy, but puts her country first; as someone who is ever-mindful that she speaks for the Crown, and so cannot say exactly what she thinks.
We’ll probably never know what exactly the Queen was thinking throughout the ups and downs of her reign, or what she is really like behind closed doors – but The Crown makes a very educated guess.
“The spirit of what we’re doing has a truth to the real events,” says executive producer Suzanne Mackie. “But the personal and more intimate moments, inevitably we’ve had to use our imagination.”