The Crown season four opens not only with a brand new British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, but also with a shock assassination that rocks the royal family to its core – and throws up questions about royal father-son relationships both past and present.
Lord Mountbatten (played by Charles Dance in The Crown cast) was assassinated during the August Bank Holiday of 1979, and in the Netflix royal biopic his death proves a devastating blow to his great-nephew and “Honorary Grandson” Prince Charles.
But who was the real Lord Mountbatten, and who was responsible for his assassination?
Who was Lord Mountbatten?
Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, described in one contemporary obituary as “the last of [Britain’s] storybook heroes,” was a distinguished British Naval officer and uncle (and substitute father figure) to Prince Philip. He was also distantly related to Queen Elizabeth II.
Chief of the Defence Staff during the early 1960s, he was both an experienced military man and a statesman; he was a Commander in the Second World War, and became the last Viceroy of India in 1947 (and the first Governor-General of India after independence). Afterwards he also served as First Sea Lord, and then Admiral of the Fleet, in the UK.
The Crown season three depicted Mountbatten considering leading a coup d’état against Harold Wilson’s government in the late 1960s, a move that would have seen an unelected government take power with Mountbatten at the head.
In The Crown season two, his unconventional open relationship with his wife, Lady Edwina Ashley Mountbatten, was alluded to when the Queen sought advice from him regarding her own marriage with Prince Philip. (Was Prince Philip unfaithful? You can read our season two guide to his alleged infidelities.)
“You married a wild spirit—we both did,” Mountbatten tells the Queen, before suggesting that trying to “tame” either Edwina or Philip was of no use: “When you really adore someone, as fully and as hopelessly as I think you and I do, you put up with anything.”
In real-life, Mountbatten himself also allegedly had extramarital affairs, most famously with married French socialite Yola Letellier, whose life story was reportedly the inspiration behind the book Gigi (and subsequent musical and film adaptations of the same name).
Who killed Lord Mountbatten?
Lord Mountbatten was assassinated by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) during a boat explosion off the coast of Mullaghmore, County Sligo, in north-west Ireland. The attack took place over the August Bank Holiday, on 27th August 1979.
Mountbatten had a summer home, Classiebawn Castle, situated in the small seaside village in Sligo. He had taken his fishing boat ‘Shadow V’ out to sea, and was accompanied by his elder daughter Patricia and her family.
Mountbatten’s 14-year-old grandson Nicholas Knatchbull was also killed, as was 15-year old crew member Paul Maxwell (Nicholas’ twin brother, Timothy, survived). The Dowager Lady Brabourne, Patricia’s elderly mother-in-law, later died of her injuries.
The IRA claimed responsibility, releasing a statement that added: “This operation is one of the discriminate ways we can bring to the attention of the English people the continuing occupation of our country.”
A witness told the New York Times: “The boat was there one minute and the next minute it was like a lot of matchsticks floating on the water.”
Another witness, Richard Wood-Martin, was in a nearby boat and later told The Guardian: “There was a puff of smoke, a loud bang, a shower of bits of timber and the boat was gone. One person was blown to the left and it was Timothy [Knatchbull]. I managed to pull him into the boat. He was face-down in the water.”
In November 1979 Thomas McMahon, a 31-year-old fitter and an experienced bomb-maker, was found guilty of planting the bomb. Francis McGirl, a gravedigger, was also charged, but later acquitted. Both men were arrested two hours before the bomb exploded at 11.45am; the prosecution would later argue that they planted the bomb, but others were responsible for detonating it. (via The Times, 24th November 1979)
The prosecution established that the green paint found on McMahon’s clothing matched the paint on Shadow V. The prosecution also established that various trace substances found on his clothes (for example, ammonium nitrate) were the same substances used in the explosion.
What was Lord Mountbatten’s relationship to Prince Charles?
Lord Mountbatten was reportedly an “honorary grandfather” to his nephew Prince Philip’s offspring, including Prince Charles.
Prince Charles once said of his great-uncle ‘Dickie’: “I admire him almost more than anybody else I know.” (via The New York Times)
Charles also confided in Mountbatten about his personal life. Following Camilla Parker Bowles’ wedding, an apparently heartbroken Charles wrote to his great-uncle and confidante: “I suppose the feeling of emptiness will pass eventually.”
In 2015, Charles visited the Sligo spot where Mountbatten was killed, and reportedly told a well-wisher: “It’s been a long time… I never thought it would happen.”
He also spoke of his “deep loss” during a speech he gave at a local arts centre. “I could not imagine how we would come to terms with the anguish of such a deep loss since, for me, Lord Mountbatten represented the grandfather I never had,” he said.
“Through this dreadful experience, though, I now understand in a profound way the agonies borne by so many others in these islands, of whatever faith, denomination or political tradition.”
Did Prince Charles speak at Mountbatten’s funeral?
Mountbatten was buried on 5th September 1979, nine days after his death, in a large ceremonial funeral at Westminster Abbey with around 2,000 guests.
He had reportedly “planned much of the funeral himself,” according to the BBC, meaning that he would have identified whom he wanted to speak during the service (as seen in Netflix’s The Crown).
The lesson, Psalm 107, was read by Prince Charles, and paid homage to Mountbatten’s naval career: “They that go down to the sea in ships, to occupy their business in great waters.” Meanwhile one of the hymns was “the sailor’s anthem”, ‘Eternal Father, Strong to Save’. (via The New York Times)
Various videos available on YouTube (including this one via Associated Press) document the funeral ceremony, and Prince Charles’ presence inside the abbey.
During the parade that preceded the funeral, Lord Mountbatten’s black charger horse, Dolly, was led by an attendant. Mountbatten’s own boots had been placed (reversed) in the stirrups.
Did Mountbatten warn Charles to stop seeing Camilla and find a princess?
In The Crown season four episode one, Lord Mountbatten pens a sternly-worded letter to great-nephew Prince Charles just hours before his own death. In the letter (delivered after his assassination), he details why Charles must get over his infatuation with Camilla Parker Bowles and instead marry someone more suitable.
When he heard of Mountbatten’s death, Charles was holidaying with “Kanga” (Lady Tryon) and her husband at their lodge in Iceland (as depicted in The Crown).
So far as anyone knows, Mountbatten did not write a letter deliver his message from beyond the grave – but Mountbatten definitely disapproved of Camilla as a potential wife for Charles, and also encouraged him to marry a more “sweet-charactered girl” (more below).
The Crown’s creator Peter Morgan has explained why he made up the storyline around Mountbatten’s last letter to Charles, saying: “I think everything what’s in that letter that Mountbatten writes to Charles is what I really believe, based one everything I’ve read and people I’ve spoken to, that represents his view.”
In her 2007 biography of Princess Diana, Sarah Bradford suggests that military man Mountbatten actually sent Charles (who signed up for military service in 1971) overseas expressly to put a dent in Charles and Camilla’s then-budding relationship.
According to Jonathan Dimbleby’s biography of Prince Charles, Mountbatten hoped that Charles might marry Amanda Knatchbull (his own granddaughter), while the Queen Mother favoured the Spencer sisters (one of whom, Diana, Charles did eventually marry).
Following Camilla’s marriage in 1973, Charles had a number of romantic dalliances, including a rumoured (rejected) marriage proposal to Mountbatten’s aforementioned granddaughter Amanda.
In February 1974, Mountbatten wrote to Charles: “In a case like yours, the man should sow his wild oats and have as many affairs as he can before settling down, but for a wife he should choose a suitable, attractive, and sweet-charactered girl before she has met anyone else she might fall for … It is disturbing for women to have experiences if they have to remain on a pedestal after marriage.”
That same 1974 letter appears to be referenced in The Crown season four. In the (apparently fictional) letter from Mountbatten that Charles reads on a plane, it states: “Must I remind you again of the importance of building your destiny with some sweet and innocent, well-tempered girl?”