Season four of The Crown covers the rule of Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) from start to finish, through the lens of her relationship with the Queen (Olivia Colman).
Starting in 1979 and taking us through to 1990, we see their first-ever Audience as they meet at Buckingham Palace and size each other up: the female monarch meeting the country’s first female Prime Minister.
But how accurate is the version of their relationship we see in The Crown? From agreement over the Falklands to clashes over South Africa, here’s everything you need to know:
Is their relationship in The Crown based on real life?
The Crown had plenty of material to work with when it came to dramatising the relationship between Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth II.
Head of Research Annie Sulzberger explains: “A lot of it is out there actually. Neither of them will give you a quote about how they felt about the other but people who surrounded them have been pretty clear that it was a frosty relationship for a while. The Falklands gave them a little bit of sunshine, but it thawed quite a bit there and returned to a relationship simply at odds.
“For Elizabeth, her role is to keep the country together, her role is to unify, and she wants a country which is as smooth sailing as possible. Thatcher coming in and changing up all the rules of society means that she’s in for a far bumpier ride as a Head of State. She doesn’t have the power to counteract any of Thatcher’s policies, she has to just deal with the consequences of them.”
What did Thatcher say publicly?
Margaret Thatcher deals with the subject of the Queen very early on in her autobiography – and then hardly mentions the monarch again in the rest of the (very long) book. Her angle is that they got along perfectly fine, thank you very much, and suggestions otherwise are based on sexist tropes.
She writes in chapter one: “All audiences with the Queen take place in strict confidence – a confidentiality which is vital to the working of both government and constitution. I was to have such audiences with Her Majesty once a week, usually on a Tuesday, when she was in London and sometimes elsewhere when the royal family were at Windsor or Balmoral.
“Perhaps it is permissible to make just two points about these meetings. Anyone who imagines that they are a mere formality or confined to social niceties is quite wrong; they are quietly businesslike and Her Majesty brings to bear a formidable grasp of current issues and breadth of experience.
“And, although the press could not resist the temptation to suggest disputes between the Palace and Downing Street, especially on Commonwealth affairs, I always found the Queen’s attitude towards the work of the government absolutely correct. Of course, under the circumstances, stories of clashes between ‘two powerful women’ were just too good not to make up. In general, more nonsense was written about the so-called ‘feminine factor’ during my time in office than about almost anything else.”
So did Thatcher and the Queen get on?
On a personal level, several accounts suggest that they had an uneasy relationship. Thatcher was reportedly stiff and formal around the Queen, arriving at the Palace each week with a proper written list of topics to plough through; she did not ever relax around the monarch, sitting on the edge of her seat and failing to enjoy her mandatory trips to stay with the Royals at Balmoral with all their social protocols and outdoorsy pursuits.
The most positive account comes in Robert Hardman’s 2019 book Queen of the World, which insists that the Queen at least had a “profound respect” for Thatcher’s achievements, and had “a mild fascination in learning what made her tick” – but that doesn’t mean they enjoyed each other’s company.
They were also at odds in other ways. Thatcher’s biographer John Campbell says there was a paradox at work; while the Prime Minister had an “almost mystical reverence for the institution of the monarchy… at the same time she was trying to modernise the country and sweep away many of the values and practices which the monarchy perpetuated.”
AN Wilson writes in his book The Queen that “Thatcher was the sort of quasi-revolutionary figure who actually needed conflict in order to succeed,” and that she was “poles apart” from the Queen, whose “instincts have been unifying ones.”
The Queen also seems to have had increasing concerns about Thatcher’s leadership, on two levels – as we see in The Crown. Firstly, the Queen was utterly devoted to the concept of the Commonwealth, while Thatcher regarded it as a distraction and a problem. And secondly, the Queen was reportedly concerned that Thatcher’s government was exacerbating social tensions and slashing spending on important services.
On the first point, Campbell writes: “She feared that the Government’s policies were wilfully exacerbating social divisions: she worried about high unemployment and was alarmed by the 1981 riots and the violence of the miners’ strike.”
And on the second point, “She was upset by Mrs Thatcher’s ill-concealed dislike of her beloved Commonwealth: she was disturbed by the raising of university fee for overseas students, which hit one of the most practical benefits of the Commonwealth, and by the whole South African sanctions controversy which regularly pitted Britain against all the other members, with embarrassing calls for Britain to be expelled.”
Did Thatcher irritate the Queen by behaving like the Head of State?
At the time, plenty of commentators noted that Thatcher – who spent more than a decade as Prime Minister – was behaving more and more like the country’s Head of State, taking a presidential or royal role.
Looking at her drive towards an Americanised ‘Global Britain’, and how she pushed through British membership of the European Union, and how she pursued such divisive policies, AN Wilson writes in his book The Queen: “Thatcher behaved on the political stage like a President.”
Biographer John Campbell points out how Thatcher refused to allow the Queen to visit the European Parliament or the Soviet Union: “More than by any of these minor tussles, however, the Queen could not fail to be irritated by Mrs Thatcher’s own increasingly regal style.” And as we see in an episode of The Crown, “The impression that Mrs Thatcher was developing monarchical pretensions first gained currency when she took the salute at the forces’ victory parade through the City of London at the end of the Falklands war, a role that many thought more properly the Queens’.”
The Falklands War does seem to have been a turning point. In the year after the victory, Thatcher made a semi-regal visit to the islands, and her foreign visits began to echo royal tours with crowds and bouquets.
Robert Harris observed in The Observer in 1988: “We have become a nation with two monarchs… Margaret Thatcher has steadily become more like the Queen of England than the real thing.” And in 1989, Thatcher’s increasing use of the ‘royal plural’ peaked when she announced the birth of Mark Thatcher’s baby: “We have become a grandmother.”
Did Thatcher cry in an audience with the Queen?
We’ll probably never know whether Thatcher got teary-eyed during an Audience with the Queen, breaking down after her son Mark Thatcher went missing. What happens in the Audience is private.
We do know, however, that Thatcher cried on her way out of Downing Street.
In her autobiography, she writes of leaving 10 Downing Street on her way to the Palace for her final audience with the Queen: “As on the day of my arrival, all the staff of No. 10 were there. I shook hands with my private secretaries and others whom I had come to know so well over the years. Some were in tears.
“I tried to hold back mine but they flowed freely as I walked down the hall past those applauding me on my way out of office, just as eleven and a half years earlier they had greeted me as I entered it. Before going outside and with Denis and Mark beside me, I paused to collect my thoughts. Crawfie [her personal assistant] wiped a trace of mascara off my cheek, evidence of a tear which I had been unable to check.”
And Campbell describes her “only with difficulty holding back the tears as she made her final statement.”
Did they clash over South African sanctions?
In 1947, as dramatised in The Crown with a special cameo from Claire Foy, Princess Elizabeth made a vow devoting herself to the service of “our great Imperial family.” And she took it very seriously.
Headed by the Queen, the “Commonwealth of Nations” is a political association which currently has 54 member states – most of which are former territories of the British Empire. It is often described as a “family” of nations.
Thatcher’s first experience of the Commonwealth came with the 1979 Heads of Government Conference, which was to urgently discuss the issue of Rhodesia.
Though there was apparently tension with the Queen – as Campbell says, Thatcher “initially refused to attend the conference, and she did her best to make it impossible for the sovereign to attend” – it was actually a success in the end for both monarch and Prime Minister, as the conference paved the way for the establishment of Zimbabwe as an independent nation. Both played a role and earned credit, but Thatcher’s attitude was a sign of things to come.
Then came the row over apartheid in South Africa, which dominated in the 1980s.
Thatcher strongly opposed the idea of imposing sanctions on South Africa, defying Commonwealth opinion and blocking attempts to use the Commonwealth nations’ collective influence and economic power. Meanwhile, the Queen was keen for the UK government to impose sanctions – but as a constitutional monarch she could not force Thatcher into an agreement.
Thatcher regarded Nelson Mandela as a terrorist; she interpreted the situation in South Africa through the lens of Western Freedom vs Soviet Communism, seeing the ‘Western’ regime threatened by a Soviet-backed Black liberation movement. Mandela’s ANC was, she reckoned, a tool of the communists.
She also painted herself as a more practical opponent of apartheid. As Campbell explains, she apparently believed the regime “could not long survive the liberalising demands of a modern economy and would inevitable be undermined by increased trade and international contacts, not by sanctions and boycotts.” Unfortunately, this approach did not ultimately produce results.
So the stage was set for a big clash. At the Nassau Summit in the Bahamas, which we see dramatised in The Crown, Thatcher felt herself bullied; other leaders felt lectured.
She accepted a limited extension of sanctions, but then – in front of the press – undid any progress by saying she had only moved “a tiny little bit”, and actually the other leaders had moved towards her position: “Well they have joined me now!” Her own Conservative colleague Geoffrey Howe later said he watched in horror as she humiliated the other heads of government, “devalued the policy on which they had just agreed – and demeaned herself.”
Unlike the scene we see in The Crown, Thatcher does not seem to have selected the word “signals” so she could wrong-foot the Queen and her press officer Michael O’Shea by declaring that “signals can change”. But as you can see in the transcript, she did favour the word “signals”.
Did the Queen ask Michael Shea to leak a story to the Sunday Times?
A controversial topic – and one on which The Crown takes a definite view!
In The Crown, press secretary and novelist Michael Shea (Nicholas Farrell) is ordered by the Queen to secretly brief the press that she is displeased with her Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. He takes the story to a reporter at the Sunday Times. But when the Queen realises that this has reflected poorly on her, Shea is thrown to the wolves and said to have acted entirely alone; he is also asked to resign from the Palace.
So here’s what we know happened: in July 1986, The Sunday Times ran a front-page story claiming to reveal tensions between Downing Street and Buckingham Palace, over South Africa and also more generally – with the Queen concerned that Thatcher’s policies were “uncaring, confrontational and socially divisive.”
Michael Shea had certainly been talking to a journalist at the Sunday Times, as he told his colleagues proudly ahead of the article’s publication. However, he apparently didn’t realise the true angle or content of the article. The Queen’s Private Secretary Sir William Heseltine (in real life Martin Charteris had actually gone by this time) did realise the true nature of the story ahead of time, and briefed the Queen – who rang Thatcher in advance and had a “very amicable discussion”.
After the paper hit the newsstands, the Palace issued a response saying the story was “entirely without foundation.” But the paper stood by its story.
Campbell writes: “Mrs Thatcher was privately furious and blamed elements within the Palace for trying to undermine the Government; but she was determined not to blame the Queen or given any countenance to the idea of a constitutional crisis.”
Michael Shea was soon unveiled as the source. Although he didn’t immediately leave the Palace – staying on until 1987 – he was not awarded the customary knighthood. So had Shea been operating on the Queen’s orders? Or did he go off-script?
“In fact the report was a piece of journalistic mischief-making which was swiftly repudiated,” says John Campbell, while Robert Hardman insists: “No one at the Palace or Downing Street… seriously believed that the Queen had authorised, or even nudged, anyone to speak in those terms about her government.”
Whether the Queen meant to make her displeasure public or not, there is one thing everyone agrees on: the Queen was genuinely displeased with Thatcher at that point in time.
Did the Queen give Thatcher the Order of Merit?
Yes – Thatcher was appointed to the Order of Merit on 7th December 1990. This was actually almost two weeks after her resignation as Prime Minister on 28th November and her final Audience with the Queen, so it does look like The Crown has taken some dramatic licence by having Olivia Colman’s Queen Elizabeth personally bestow it upon Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher during their Audience.
The Order of Merit is the highest honour which the Queen can personally bestow. As a side note, the Queen also bestowed Nelson Mandela with the Order of Merit in 1996 when he came to visit.
At the same time as Thatcher received The Order of Merit, her husband Denis Thatcher was controversially made a hereditary baronet. Margaret Thatcher was then appointed to the House of Lords two years later, in 1992, and became Baroness Thatcher in her own right.
Margaret Thatcher died in 2013 – and, unusually, the Queen made the personal decision to attend former Prime Minister’s funeral, just as she had after the death of Winston Churchill.
The Guardian commented: “The Queen attended Churchill’s funeral in 1965, But there is no rule book governing this unique set of circumstances so her decision to attend, with the Duke of Edinburgh, can be interpreted as a highly personal and significant gesture, indicative of the respect she had for the eighth and longest-serving of her prime ministers.”