Who was Dazzle, Princess Margaret’s Catholic priest friend in The Crown?

The real Reverend Derek 'Dazzle' Jennings led a fascinating life.

Tom Burke plays Dazzle Jennings in The Crown

Looking at the real-life stories behind The Crown really can take you down some interesting rabbit holes, and one of the most interesting additions to the Netflix drama is a man named Dazzle. He is a central figure in episode seven, titled ‘The Hereditary Principle’, which focuses on Princess Margaret and her discovery of a painful family secret.

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Here’s what you need to know about the man behind the drama.

Who plays Derek ‘Dazzle’ Jennings in The Crown?

The role of Dazzle Jennings is played in The Crown by guest star Tom Burke. You can read more about him in our The Crown cast feature.

Who was the real Derek ‘Dazzle’ Jennings?

Derek “Dazzle” Jennings was born in 1946 and died in 1995 at the age of just 48. He was a civil servant who surprised his friends by quitting his job to take Holy Orders – and he did have many, many friends, including Princess Margaret, Alec Guinness, and the Reverend Richard Coles (of The Communards and Strictly fame).

Dazzle’s obituary in The Times reads: “The death of Father Derek Jennings deprives London’s religious life of one of its most eccentric comets… graced with the nickname of “Dazzle”, Jennings was ubiquitous. He would turn up at country house dinners, theatre festivals, auction houses and modest student gatherings, always yearning to argue the toss, always with an admonitory finger at the ready, always loyal.”

Dazzle first converted to Roman Catholicism when he was still a student. After graduation he entered the civil service and climbed the ranks, but in 1984 – at the age of 38 – he abruptly resigned to take Holy Orders. This is the point at which we meet him in The Crown, as he breaks the news to Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter).

After this, Dazzle went off to the English College in Rome to begin his training for Catholic priesthood, before returning to London to serve first in Camden and then in Chiswick. From there, he moved on to King’s College London where he became the chaplain to Roman Catholic students. The Times wrote: “His encounters with students were a different pastoral challenge. He found them as stimulating as he often found the faculty members infuriating.”

This was where Richard Coles first got to know him. He wrote in his autobiography that Dazzle was “adored by aristocrats”, was “not always blessed with an even temper” and could be seen “cycling round town on a sit-up-and-beg bicycle wearing a homburg.” He took his students on a weekend trip to a monastery, and would spontaneously perform opera.

After his diagnosis with lymphatic leukaemia, Dazzle quickly became very ill, although in 1994 he was able to take Alec Guinness and his wife Merula to meet the pope. He died on January 23rd 1995 at his friend’s house in Ealing, with Catholic bigwig Cardinal Hume praying at his bedside.

Did Derek ‘Dazzle’ Jennings try to convert Princess Margaret to Catholicism?

Princess Margaret in The Crown
Princess Margaret in The Crown (Netflix)

The roots of this storyline in The Crown seem to have come from a Princess Margaret biography published in 2002, very shortly after the Princess’s death. The author, Noel Botham, claims in his book ‘Margaret: The Last Real Princess’ that Margaret did seriously consider becoming a Catholic – and that Dazzle was involved.

According to Botham, Dazzle himself was convinced that Margaret wanted to convert. However, Margaret apparently felt she could not convert because of her loyalty to her sister, who – as Queen – is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

In the early ’80s, Botham writes, a dinner party was arranged at Dazzle’s flat in Chelsea, London; the guests were Cardinal Hume and Princess Margaret.

As the story goes, Dazzle later told a fellow priest that Margaret “returned to Kensington Palace on a spiritual high” and described the evening as “one of the most rewarding, fascinating and satisfying nights of her life.” Botham says this account was confirmed by Ealing vicar Andrew Davis, in whose house Dazzle ultimately spent his final days.

By some accounts, Margaret was quite a religious person. Botham writes that during her marriage and divorce she “relied on the power of prayer to bring her safely through the darkest days with her spirit intact.” And one of her publicly-stated reasons for not marrying Group Captain Peter Townsend was that he was a divorcee, and she was “mindful of the Church’s teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble.”

Whether he did try (and fail) to convert Margaret or not, he did convert at least one person: Richard Coles, who temporarily moved over to Catholicism before switching back to the Church of England. He writes: “In the end it was Dazzle who got me over, made explicit what others did not, answered my questions as efficiently as the catechism of the Catholic Church, and made me think it might be possible.”

Did Princess Margaret have a crush on Derek ‘Dazzle’ Jennings?

Margaret and Dazzle in The Crown
Margaret and Dazzle in The Crown (Netflix)

As Botham writes: “He was a great comfort to Princess Margaret but she was clearly attracted to him in other ways, too. She became besotted by him. That is the only way to describe her behaviour. She used any excuse to place herself near him, and used a variety of unsubtle ploys to let him know how impressed with him she was. She positively simpered at him.

“For various reasons, which of course she well understood, he felt unable to respond to her in that way. But he was able to answer her many questions about the Catholic Church, for he was always a superb teacher. And she was an excellent pupil.”

Was Derek ‘Dazzle’ Jennings gay?

In The Crown, Margaret doesn’t realise Dazzle is a homosexual until after she has made her move, when her family tell her what they assumed she already knew: Dazzle is a “friend of Dorothy”.

And yes, this is based on the truth. Richard Coles writes: “He was of course gay, although – incredibly – he thought this was a secret known only to a few. He found intimate relationships impossible or very difficult, so the celibate status he was obliged to adopt by the discipline of the Roman Catholic Church suited him.”

Of the Catholic Church’s attitudes towards homosexuality, Coles wrote: “Dazzle tried to reassure me that the condemnation was of the sin and not the sinner, but it seemed to me that was a distinction which made no difference when it came down to it… Dazzle, too, in his tense, celibate state, seemed to me to have paid a high price for his priesthood and I had moments of dread when I saw myself in his shoes.” He talks of Dazzle talking about ‘homosexuality’ with “clinical detachment”.

Richard Coles
Richard Coles
Mike Marsland/WireImage

In Piers Paul Read’s authorised biography of the actor Alec Guinness, we can also read how Guinness tried “to avoid topics of conversation that might expose his [own] latent proclivities,” and was therefore bothered by his friend Dazzle bringing up the subject repeatedly.

In the early 1990s, Guinness wrote: “Took Fr Derek Jennings to dinner at Les Saveurs. Wish he’d drop his constant references to homosexuality. It’s becoming an obsession” – and “Derek Jennings for dinner in The Grill. Found him rather arrogant and tiresome and endlessly on about homosexuality.”

Did Derek ‘Dazzle’ Jennings visit the Queen’s cousins?

Dazzle Jennings in The Crown
Dazzle Jennings in The Crown (Netflix)

There’s no evidence – or none that we can find, anyway – to suggest that Princess Margaret took Dazzle to visit her developmentally disabled cousins in their care home. (The Queen’s cousins Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon feature in episode seven.) Most likely, this is a bit of dramatic licence from The Crown writer Peter Morgan.

Did Margaret fall out with Derek ‘Dazzle’ Jennings?

The Crown has Margaret dramatically banish Dazzle with the words: “I think it would be better if we don’t see one another again.” However, in real life they remained friends and continued to have cosy dinners together until the end, which came sooner than expected.

When Dazzle was on his deathbed, Richard Coles writes,  he was visited by “an extraordinary mixture of people – Princess Margaret, Alec Guinness, a French monk who made the journey from Mont Ventoux to his vicarage in Ealing with oils to anoint him, and a succession of county ladies who called in with jars of game broth from their estates – even the nurse who came to take care of him turned out to be an Italian contessa.”

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