The Crown: Who was the real Martin Charteris?

The Queen counted Martin Charteris as her favourite Private Secretary, but he had to wait until 1972 to take up the post

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The real Martin Charteris would surely have been delighted with how Downton Abbey star Harry Hadden-Paton plays him in The Crown: in the Netflix series he is a charming, witty, caring aide to the Queen with dashing good looks thrown into the mix.

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Sir Martin Charteris, later Lord Charteris of Amisfield, died in 1999 at the age of 86, so we shall never know what he makes of it all. But in his lifetime, he was reportedly the Queen’s favourite Private Secretary – and one of her most unconventional courtiers.

But how accurate is The Crown’s version of Charteris?

The Netflix royal drama has it pretty much spot on. Eton-educated Charteris enjoyed a close and trusting relationship with the Queen, which began as soon as he was appointed Private Secretary to the then-Princess Elizabeth (“I simply fell in love with her when I met her. She was so young, beautiful, dutiful, the most impressive of women”). At the time, he was an ex-military man in his late 30s with good looks and a sense of humour.

It was not long before everything changed. When the King died, the Palace tried desperately to contact the new Queen, who was at a remote location in Kenya and remained blissfully unaware of her father’s death. The shocking news first came to Martin Charteris from a Kenyan newspaper editor, who made sure the word got to Prince Philip so he could tell the Queen.

So far, so accurate. Charteris then moved with the newly-minted Queen from Clarence House to Buckingham Palace as her assistant Private Secretary alongside Sir Edward Ford and Sir Michael Adeane, who became Private Secretary in 1953 when Sir Tommy Lascelles stepped down.

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Sounds dry? It’s actually high drama. The Crown thrusts Charteris into the limelight when the Queen decides that she wants her faithful aide as her next Private Secretary, instead of the dull Michael Adeane – prompting a tirade from Tommy about the proper order of things (“any departure from the rules is not to be encouraged”). Elizabeth backs down.

It actually took another 20 years for Charteris to rise up to the level of Private Secretary, a position he held until 1977.

So did this really happen? It is not known whether the Queen really tried to give Charteris a cheeky promotion, but former royal correspondent Jennie Bond says Charteris told her that the Queen very much wanted him as her Private Secretary from the start. 

Charteris had a reputation for being a bit shabby for a courtier, not caring about his dress and getting snuff everywhere. He was also known for inserting the odd joke into the Queen’s humourless speeches and making sure to laugh loudly at the appropriate moment.

When he finally retired from the Queen’s service, the Queen presented him with a silver tray inscribed with the words: “Martin, thank you for a lifetime.”

Having declared his love of the Queen (“she never bloody lets you down”), the courtier later poured scorn on much of the rest of her family, calling the Duchess of York “vulgar, vulgar, vulgar, and that is it” in an interview with The Spectator in 1995. The Princess of Margaret he called “the wicked fairy”, and he freely admitted that Prince Charles was “charming” yet “whiny”. And yet, he continued to lunch with the Queen Mother and speak regularly to the Queen, so there were no hard feelings at the Palace.

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In his post-Private Secretary life Charteris went off to become Provost of Eton, and later re-invented himself as a professional sculptor with a fondness for disco dancing. What a man.