Though The Crown is based on the real British royal family, the show's plot can often make it hard to separate fact from fiction.
Season 5 of The Crown finally aired on Netflix after two years of waiting. The first season of The Crown aired in 2016, telling the story of all the major players in the royal family tree starting just before Queen Elizabeth II’s ascension to the throne. Every season since has covered roughly a decade or so in the lives of the royals.
The new season of The Crown takes place between 1991 and 1997 and sees Charles and Diana nearing the end of their tumultuous marriage, securing their position as global tabloid fodder. (And, as season five points out, coverage of their lives would often blur the line between journalism and salacious gossip.)
Despite the fact that there was so much real-life royal drama during this time, there are elements of The Crown that are not based on real events—so much so that Netflix added a disclaimer when releasing the trailer for this season that stated, “Inspired by real events, this fictional dramatization tells the story of Queen Elizabeth II and the political and personal events that shaped her reign.”
It can be confusing to parse fact from fiction. Here’s a fact check of The Crown season five to help understand what’s real and what’s not.
Here’s what was actually true in The Crown—and what wasn’t
Most of the historical events that have appeared on The Crown are based on true events. Let’s start with a few things that definitely happened.
Truth: Martin Bashir did use false evidence to convince Princess Diana to appear on Panorama
On The Crown Season 5 Episode 7, BBC journalist Martin Bashir (played by Prasanna Puwanarajah) is shown fabricating fake bank statements to convince Charles Spencer and his sister, Princess Diana (Elizabeth Debicki), into believing that members of their trusted teams were being paid off by British intelligence services for information about them. In turn, Bashir played into their fears and earned Diana’s trust enough to convince her to appear on his TV show, Panorama, giving one of the most explosive interviews of the decade.
In 2020, an independent inquiry did find Bashir guilty of wrongdoing, and the BBC apologized to Charles Spencer for Bashir’s deception.
Truth: Prince Philip was a world-class carriage driver
Season 5 Episode 2 is when we learn of Prince Philip‘s obsession with carriage driving. In fact, Philip (played by actor Jonathan Pryce) was not just a hobbyist in the sport, but he competed internationally as a member of the British Diving Team. He also wrote several books and served as the president of the Fédération Équestre Internationale.
Truth: Windsor Castle sustained massive fire damage in 1992
Tim Graham/ Getty Images
In Season 5 Episode 4, Queen Elizabeth (Imelda Staunton) referred to 1992 as an “annus horribilis,” or, a horrible year. It was the year that marked the separation of Charles and Diana as well as Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. Adding to the heartbreak, 1992 was also the year that Windsor Castle caught fire when a spotlight ignited a curtain, destroying dozens of rooms and several priceless works of art,
Truth: Mohamed Al-Fayed hired the Duke of Windsor’s former valet, Sydney Johnson, to work for him
In Season 5 Episode 3, we are introduced to Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Daw), the Egyptian businessman who would build up an empire that included the Ritz Hotel in Paris and Harrods Department store in London. As the show depicts, Al-Fayed was a lifelong Anglophile and did meet and hire Sydney Johnson, a Bahamian man who previously spent three decades as Edward, Duke of Windsor’s valet after Edward abdicated the throne. Johnson began working for Al-Fayed in 1977, five years after Edward passed away. After Edward’s wife, Wallis Simpson died, Al-Fayed purchased their Paris estate and, along with Johnson, helped restore it.
With regard to the end of this episode, when Mohamed Al-Fayed met Princess Diana, while we’re not sure if they really did bond instantly at a polo match, it’s true that the two became friends years before Diana began dating Mohamed’s son, Dodi Al-Fayed. Dodi would later die in the 1997 car crash that also took Diana’s life.
Truth: Tampongate really did happen
Tim Graham/Getty Images
In 1989, when Charles and Camilla’s affair was not yet public, the two engaged in a phone conversation where Charles compared himself to a tampon. The conversation was later released to the public in 1993 after Diana and Charles separated.
And now for a few things that appear on The Crown season 5 that didn’t actually happen…
Fiction: The Sunday Times poll
Throughout the season, Prince Charles (Dominic West) is seen as a man who is ready for new responsibilities. Specifically, the responsibility of being king. In Episode 1, a poll revealing that half the British population thinks that his aging mother Queen Elizabeth, should abdicate her role is published in the Sunday Times, and Charles takes that as a sign that he should start preparing himself to be king. He even goes so far as to meet with Prime Minister John Major (Jonny Lee Miller) to seek his support.
But, none of that happened. There was no such poll published in 1991 by the Sunday Times, and no such conversation between Major and the Prince of Wales. In fact, Major is one of this season’s biggest detractors. He has called the series “a barrel-load of nonsense.”
Fiction: Prince Philip and Penny Knatchbull’s affair
It’s true that Prince Philip and his godson’s wife, Penny Knatchbull, were both invested in the sport of carriage driving, and it is also true that their friendship was fodder for speculation that there was something more to it. But alas, there is no concrete evidence that Prince Philip engaged in an affair with Penny.
Fiction: Diana didn’t warn the queen about her Panorama interview
Everyone involved in Princess Diana’s Panorama interview knew it was a giant risk to let the estranged princess speak so candidly on the most revered broadcasting network in the country. While it’s true that Marmaduke Hussey, then-chairman of the BBC, felt that it was a disgrace to air the interview, the queen herself was not actually given a heads-up by Diana before the inflammatory program aired in 1995. The conversation between Diana and the queen was pure fabrication, confirmed by Patrick Jephson, Diana’s press secretary at the time.
While it can be confusing parsing out what The Crown gets wrong about the royal family and what the show gets right, season 5 remains as engrossing as ever thanks to its excelling writing and cast. What we do know for sure is that season six, which tackles the final months of Diana’s life and the years after, can’t come soon enough.
- BBC: Martin Bashir: Inquiry criticises BBC over ‘deceitful’ Diana interview
- BBC: Prince Philip ‘greatly missed’ by carriage driving friends
- The Guardian: John Major dismisses The Crown as a ‘barrel-load of nonsense
- The Telegraph: ‘Charles did discuss his regency with a Prime Minister – just not with John Major’