Does the Balmoral Test really exist – and did Diana and Thatcher both go through it?

As The Crown season four introduces us to "the Balmoral Test", we unpack the truth about what happens at the Windsors' family home.

The Crown season four

In season four of The Crown, both Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) and Lady Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin) undergo the Balmoral Test.

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One fails spectacularly; the other passes with flying colours.

But how true is what we see in the Netflix drama? Here’s what you need to know.

Does the Balmoral Test exist?

There are, indeed, reports of a so-called “Balmoral Test”. And what we see in The Crown – including a very awkward moment involving Queen Victoria’s chair – is based on real-life accounts.

In his book ‘Diana: Her True Story’, which was based on interviews with Princess Diana herself, Andrew Morton writes: “Ever since Queen Victoria bought the estate in 1848 it has had a special place in the affections of the royal family. However the very quirks and obscure family traditions which have accrued over the years can intimidate newcomers. ‘Don’t sit there’ they chorus at an unfortunate guest foolish enough to try and sit in a chair in the drawing-room which was last used by Queen Victoria.

“Those who successfully navigate this social minefield, popularly known as ‘the Balmoral test,’ are accepted by the royal family. The ones who fail vanish from royal favour as quickly as the Highland mists come and go.”

In her book The Diana Chronicles, Tina Brown lays out the dangers of the “social minefield”, including the trap that is Queen Victoria’s chair: “No one is allowed to sit in the deceased monarch’s favourite chair, still positioned where she liked it in the drawing room.” On top of that, there is a strictly enforced dress code involving constant outfit changes; and an unchanging set of activities involving early mornings and picnics and mealtimes.

Did Diana pass the Balmoral Test?

Diana and Prince Philip at Balmoral
Diana and Prince Philip at Balmoral (Netflix)
Netflix

Unlike previous of Charles’s girlfriends, Lady Diana Spencer was a big hit at Balmoral.

Of course, in real life, the Balmoral trip we see dramatised in The Crown was not entirely Diana’s first time meeting ‘the Family’; she’d been with Charles and his father Prince Philip at a yachting regatta in the previous month, she’d joined one of the Queen Mother’s grand picnics, and she’d also stayed on the Balmoral estate in previous years for the Braemar Games.

But her invitation in September 1980 was a big deal, because the Queen herself would be in residence – and this was certainly a kind of initiation crossed with a job interview. “I was terrified – s****ing bricks,” she told Andrew Morton. However, “The anticipation was worse than actually being there. I was all right once I got in through the front door.”

Tina Brown writes: “It was a big plus to Diana’s cause that she appeared so happy tramping over sodden moors. The Queen found her charming and appropriate. Without fresh-air credentials, Diana would have never got past round one with any of them.”

There is, however, no mention of an early-morning trip with Prince Philip, or the shooting of a magnificent and symbolic stag – as seen in The Crown.

As Brown puts it, this first performance at Balmoral involved a real feat of effort to hide her true nature: “It’s an index of how crazy she was about Charles that Diana displayed such authentic-seeming devotion to huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’.”

But by Diana’s own account, in the transcripts published in Morton’s book, her subsequent problems with Balmoral had nothing to do with her hatred of the outdoor life – and more to do with the company and the problems in Charles and Diana’s marriage.

She said: “The atmosphere drains me to nothing… I come away depleted of everything because they just suck me dry, because I tune in to all their moods and, boy, are there some undercurrents there! Instead of having a holiday, it’s the most stressful time of the year. I love being out all day. I love the stalking.”

Did Thatcher have a disastrous trip to Balmoral?

Thatcher and the Queen going stalking in The Crown

As Prince Philip actor Tobias Menzies explains: “It’s a tradition that all PMs are invited to Balmoral in August.” In an early episode of The Crown season four, Margaret Thatcher has just become the new Prime Minister so she travels up to Scotland with her husband Denis Thatcher: “It doesn’t go well, she is a fish out of water, she is bemused, humiliated and confused by the strange rules, and by the end of it, it sets up some distance between Thatcher and the Queen which then plays out through the season.”

If Thatcher did fail the Balmoral Test, she certainly doesn’t mention it in her autobiography! (In fact, she makes very little mention of the Queen at all.) It’s also unlikely that the Royal Family judged their Prime Ministers in exactly the same way as their potential royal brides, although every visitor certainly had to navigate the eccentric rules and social etiquette of Balmoral life.

But there is no doubt that Thatcher hated going up to Balmoral, which can’t have helped the relationship between the Queen and Thatcher. Biographer John Campbell writes: “Mrs Thatcher loathed having to go once a year to Balmoral. She had no interest in horses, dogs or country sports and regarded the outdoor life – long walks and picnics in all weathers – which the Royal Family enjoyed on holiday, as ‘purgatory’.

“Though she frequently told interviewers that she loved nothing better than a country walk, she never had any suitable shoes and had been forced into borrowed Hush Puppies or green wellingtons. She could not wait to get away and on the last morning was up at six as usual, with her thank-you letter written, anxious to be off as soon as Denis was ready. The Queen was almost certainly equally glad to see her go.”

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The Crown is available on Netflix now. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our guide to the best series on Netflix and best movies on Netflix, visit our TV Guide, or find out about upcoming new TV shows 2020.