The opening episode of The Crown season three introduces us to Sir Anthony Blunt, played by Samuel West.
Here’s what you need to know about the true story behind the Netflix drama:
Who was Anthony Blunt?
Anthony Blunt (1907-1983) was a highly-respected art historian and member of the Royal Household who was unmasked as a Soviet spy. He was also a distant cousin of the Queen’s.
It was during Blunt’s years studying and teaching at the University of Cambridge in the 1930s that he was recruited by the Soviet NKVD, which later evolved into the KGB secret service.
In 1939, war broke out and he joined the British Army; the following year he was recruited to MI5, where he was tasked with keeping neutral missions in London under close surveillance. In his new job he had access to classified reports, including “Ultra intelligence” – the results of German codes broken at Bletchley Park. Throughout the war he passed secret intelligence to his Russian handlers.
After the war, Blunt was appointed Surveyor of the King’s Pictures – continuing in the post under Queen Elizabeth II after she came to the throne in 1952, and accepting a knighthood in 1956.
During his distinguished career as an art historian he was director of the Courtauld Institute of Art, a professor at the University of London, and a celebrated author of key academic texts.
What was the Cambridge Spy Ring?
The Cambridge Spy Ring – or the “Cambridge Five” – was a ring of spies in Britain who passed information to the Soviet Union during World War II. It took many years for them all to be exposed, and none were ever prosecuted for spying.
The five men were Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess (who defected to the Soviet Union in 1951), Kim Philby (who defected in 1963 after years of suspicion), John Cairncross (the last to be discovered), and Anthony Blunt.
Recruited in the 1930s at the University of Cambridge, these students and academics were convinced by Soviet Communism, seeing it as the best defence against the rise of fascism across Europe and the world. Several were members of the Cambridge Apostles, a secret society which was (at the time) dedicated to Marxism, and Blunt himself visited the Soviet Union in 1933. In fact, he is thought to have been the main recruiter for the spy ring – though the full picture is still a little murky.
“I was persuaded by Guy Burgess that I could best serve the cause of antifascism by joining him in his work for the Russians,” Blunt said in a later interview. “This was a case of political conscience against loyalty to country. I chose conscience.”
Each of the Cambridge Five pursued careers that put them at the heart of the establishment, enabling them to pass large amounts of intelligence to the Soviet Union. They became diplomats, BBC correspondents, MI6 and MI5 agents, Foreign Office workers, and – in Blunt’s case – a top art historian and curator of the Queen’s art collection.
When the truth began to emerge, it is thought that Blunt helped the other members of the ring to flee the country. But he also distanced himself from the KGB as he built his career as an art historian.
Real-life history behind The Crown season 3
If you’re curious about the stories and events that inspired Netflix’s The Crown, we’ve got all the big questions covered with these in-depth features…
How was Anthony Blunt unmasked as a spy?
Suspicions were first raised in 1951, when Blunt’s friend Burgess fled to the Soviet Union with Maclean; had he shared their sympathies? Why had he been one of the first to hear of their defection? And from the (heavily redacted) FBI file on Anthony Blunt, we also know that the Americans were talking to their sources and keeping a close eye on him.
But Blunt managed to ride it out for another 13 years, thanks partly to his friendships with top people in the secret service.
Utterly convinced that any suspicions about Blunt were bogus, MI5 Deputy Director Rod Liddell wrote in his diary: “Anthony telephoned about the press who were still persecuting him. I advised him not to speak to them, and if accosted outside to say that he knew nothing about the matter and had nothing to say.”
According to a later statement by Margaret Thatcher, the Security Service was suspicious of Blunt after 1951, carrying out “an intensive and prolonged investigation of his activities” and interviewing him “on 11 occasions.” However, they still didn’t have any real evidence against him.
But everything changed after 1963, when American citizen Michael Straight pointed the finger at Anthony Blunt.
These two men had known each other at Cambridge back in the 30s, and it is likely that Straight was also involved in this network of KGB spies. But faced with a background check for a new government job in Washington DC, Michael Straight decided to come clean about his history – and give Blunt up as a spy. Six months later, the FBI passed their information on to MI5 and the game was up.
Was the truth kept secret? Did the Queen know?
Anthony Blunt was now exposed as a Soviet spy – but only a select few people were allowed to know the truth.
Thatcher later told the House of Commons that “early in 1964 new information was received which directly implicated Blunt. It did not, however, provide a basis on which charges could be brought.” Instead, the authorities decided that “the public interest” lay in trying to secure a confession from Blunt and “obtain information from him about any others who might still be a danger.”
In April 1964, Blunt received a visit from an MI5 officer. He was offered a deal: in return for a full confession, he would be granted immunity from prosecution. Attorney-general Sir John Hobson and MI5 also agreed that his spying career would be kept secret from the public.
According to that agent’s recollections, as Miranda Carter writes, “Blunt, blank and unreadable, walked to the window, poured himself a large drink, paused long and dramatically, tuened around and said, ‘It is true.'”
After the Queen was discreetly told of Blunt’s confession (which came on 23rd April), the Palace asked what it should do about his role looking after the royal art collection. They were instructed to let him stay on as Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures and to keep the whole thing secret.
But perhaps it wasn’t a total shock to the royals when the palace was informed of Blunt’s confession. The diaries of Guy Liddell, Deputy Director of MI5, suggest the Queen mother was already suspicious, and in 1951 he had to reassure her via King George VI’s private secretary Tommy Lascelles (Pip Torrens in The Crown) that he was sure Blunt wasn’t a spy.
“I told Lascelles that I had known Anthony Blunt for about 10 years,” he wrote. “I was convinced he had never been a communist in the fullest political sense, even during his days at Cambridge.
“Tommy said that he was glad to hear this, since it was quite possible that the story might get around to the royal family; he would then be able to say that he had already heard it and looked into it and was satisfied that there was nothing in it.
“[Tommy] told me Blunt had on one occasion intimated to the Queen [i.e. Queen Elizabeth II’s mother] that he was an atheist – and that the Queen had been a little shaken by his remarks. He was certain that if he now went up to her and told her that Anthony was a Communist, her immediate reaction would be ‘I always told you so’.”
But astonishingly, while the Queen was fully informed of Anthony Blunt’s confession, Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home (1963-4) was actually kept in the dark about the whole thing.
According to secret papers made public in 2018, the Home Secretary simply decided not to tell the Prime Minister, and so Sir Alec (who was replaced by Harold Wilson in October 1964) did not find out the truth until 15 years later along with the rest of the country.
In 1979, after the whole thing went public, the secret-keeping former Home Secretary wrote in a letter to Margaret Thatcher: “I have written to Alec to explain why in April 1964 I did not bring him in on what was happening about Blunt, and to say how sorry I am if in my well-meant effort not to add to his burdens I may, with hindsight, have exercised my discretion wrongly.”
Did the Queen give that speech directed at Anthony Blunt?
The Crown shows the Queen subtly (not so subtly) having a dig at Blunt in a speech and then freezing him out of her life.
The big speech is likely a dramatisation for The Crown. However, as Miranda Carter writes in Anthony Blunt: His Lives, “It is reported that she afterwards never referred to the subject… Lord Charteris, who was [Michael] Adeane’s deputy and became the Queen’s private secretary in 1968, insisted in later interviews that, with the discovery of his guilt, Buckingham Palace closed its doors to Blunt. This was not entirely true.
“Blunt continued to meet the Queen at official events. She came to the opening of the Courtauld’s new galleries in 1968, and in 1972 she personally congratulated Blunt on his retirement, when the Lord Chamberlain, knowing nothing of his disgrace, offered him the honorary post of Adviser on the Queen’s pictures – inadvertently continuing his association with the Palace for another six years.”
But Blunt himself seems to have avoided the Queen as far as he could. According to Carter, “The Louvre’s former director, Michel Laclotte, remembered that when Blunt escorted him round Buckingham Palace in the early 1970s he crept round on tiptoe, obviously desperate not to encounter her.”
The knowledge of Blunt’s spying didn’t seem to put the Queen Mother off, though. He continued to show her round his galleries and they occasionally shared a box at the opera.
In The Crown season three, we also see Prince Philip giving Blunt a stern talking-to – but being forced to backtrack when Blunt mentions some drawings which could cause him trouble. Again, it’s not clear whether this conversation happened, but it has a basis in reported events.
Carter tells us: “In the summer of 1963, only a few months before his confession, he had apparently quietly acted on behalf of the royal family to purchase a series of drawings that Stephen Ward – then a key witness in the Profumo affair – had made of the Duke of Edinburgh.”
How was Anthony Blunt publicly exposed as a spy?
As the late 1970s approached, some within MI5 seem to have decided to expose Blunt as a traitor. Inside sources leaked the story to an author and former military intelligence agent called Andrew Boyle, and in 1979 he published an explosive book titled Climate of Treason.
Boyle did not name Blunt specifically, giving him the codename “Maurice” or “the Fourth Man”, but it became obvious exactly who he was talking about – especially when Blunt actually tried to prevent the book’s publication. He only succeeded in drawing attention to himself.
In November 1979, Anthony Blunt was outed in the House of Commons by newly-minted Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Responding to an MP’s question about “an individual whose name has been supplied to her,” Thatcher told Parliament: “The name… is that of Sir Anthony Blunt.”
On the decision to let Blunt keep his job at the Palace after his confession, Thatcher explained: “Blunt was not required to resign his appointment in the Royal Household, which was unpaid. It carried with it no access to classified information and no risk to security, and the security authorities thought it desirable not to put at risk his co-operation in their continuing investigations.”
What happened to Anthony Blunt afterwards?
After Sir Anthony Blunt was exposed in 1979, the Queen immediately stripped him of his knighthood. He was also removed from the Fellowship of Trinity College, Cambridge, and opted to resign as a fellow of the British Academy after a failed effort to expel him; in short, he was publicly disgraced as a traitor.
In the immediate aftermath of Thatcher’s speech, Blunt was nowhere to be found. Many wondered if he would turn up in Moscow – but unlike the other members of the Cambridge Spy Ring, he chose not to defect to Russia.
Instead, he was hiding out at home in London with his long-term partner John Gaskin, lying low with the lights off until his friend and former pupil Brian Sewell was able to smuggle the two of them out.
Blunt then agreed to speak with a select few journalists, including BBC Television’s Christopher Morris, who (in a reflection of the times) asked if his “homosexual leanings” had been the “leverage that made you join as a Russian spy.”
“It had nothing to do with homosexuality and it was, as I say, a matter of belief,” Blunt responded.
“Do you now regret having made that decision?” Morris asked.
Blunt responded: “Very much. At the time it seemed right, but looking back of course I realise it was disastrous and an appalling mistake. Also, I ought to have realised at the time that I didn’t understand enough about politics really to take a decision of this kind.”
Blunt also revealed that he’d actually been ordered to defect – but had decided to remain in London. “I was totally disillusioned with Russia, and by that time also with theoretical communism,” he said. “I couldn’t bear the thought of living in Russia and preferred to take the risk of going on here rather than living under a regime I by then abhorred.”
Despite his wish to resume his career as an art historian, Anthony Blunt’s reputation never recovered. He died of a heart attack in 1983 at the age of 75.
The Crown season 3 is available on Netflix now