The Crown, Peter Morgan’s award-winning Netflix series about the life of Queen Elizabeth II, is already a history digest. The show touches on events from World War II to the Great Smog to the Suez Crisis; it is filled with cameos (JFK! Cecil Beaton!) and contemporary references (the Melbourne Olympics, the baptism of Dwight D. Eisenhower). Season 2, which picks up in late 1956 and ends sometime in 1963, touches on the Suez Crisis, the Queen’s third and fourth pregnancies, the marriage of Princess Margaret, and the Profumo affair. But still, a 10-hour season cannot cover everything — particularly when the queen’s personal life remains such a mystery, and is thus open to multiple, equally dishy interpretations. Below, a guide to further reading on The Crown’s second season, and on the royal family as it exists today.
Elizabeth: A Biography of Her Majesty of the Queen, Sarah Bradford, 1996
As befits the longest-serving monarch, there are as many Queen Elizabeth II biographies as there are moods. Choose Sally Bedell Smith’s 2012 Elizabeth: The Queen if you’re feeling snippy toward the late Diana, Princess of Wales; seek out Ben Pimlott’s exhaustive 1996 The Queen if you crave politics and footnotes. I’ve chosen Sarah Bradford’s 1996 Elizabeth here because of the particular attention it pays to rumors of Prince Philip’s infidelity — a topic that features in Season 2, and that most other biographers are loath to discuss — but also because the book is extremely readable, with an emphasis on everyday details about the queen’s life. Did you know that she likes musicals?
Suez: Britain’s End of Empire in the Middle East, Keith Kyle, 1991
If the Season 1 scenes of Prime Minister Anthony Eden sparring with Colonel Abdel Nasser did not tip you off: The Suez Crisis is coming. The brief British, French, and Israeli invasion of Egypt, spurred by a dispute over control of the Suez Canal, was a political humiliation for the U.K.; the crisis led to Eden’s resignation and the continuing reduction of Britain’s global powers. Keith Kyle’s book is considered to be the definitive book on the incident. Here, meanwhile, is a investigation into how Eden’s health issues might have affected the events.
John Grigg on His 1957 Criticism of the Queen
In August 1957, Grigg, then the 2nd baron altrincham, published an article diminishing the monarchy, and the upper classes lost their minds. The piece, which introduced the August issue of The National and English Review, criticized the queen directly, which was unheard of in the press-friendly ’50s. Some highlights, courtesy of Pimlott:
She will not…achieve good results with her present speaking style of speaking, which is frankly “a pain in the neck.” Like her mother, she appears to be unable to string even a few sentences together without a written text … But even if the Queen feels compelled to read all her speeches, great and small, she must at least improve her method of reading them …
George V, for instance, did not write his own speeches, yet they were always in character; they seemed to be a natural emanation from and expression of the man. Not so the present Queen’s. The personality conveyed by the utterances which are put into her mouth is that of a priggish schoolgirl, captain of the hockey team, a prefect, and a recent candidate for Confirmation. It is not thus that she will be enabled to come into her own as an independent and distinctive character.
It goes on. The queen’s supporters and henchman were outraged; Grigg was attacked in the street and soon gave up his title. The original article is not online, but Grigg wrote about the experience in 1997, linked above.
The Queen’s First Televised Christmas Broadcast, 1957
The tension between public and private life — and more specifically, the queen’s discomfort with the public demands of her own role — crop up in almost every episode of The Crown. According to Pimlott, the anxieties leading up to this particular broadcast were no different, and, while not a disaster, it supports some of Grigg’s ruder points about the queen’s public persona. But it’s interesting as an artifact of the young queen speaking and also in comparison with some of the later footage on this list.
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe, 1958
A contemporary novel, an all-time masterpiece, and a necessary perspective on the colonialism portrayed in The Crown.
Princess Margaret’s Pre-Wedding Documentary, 1960
Notable for its use of Princess Margaret’s real voice and for footage of the real Group Captain Peter Townsend, around the 4:00 mark. Another reason to invest: Matthew Goode joins season 2 as Margaret’s eventual husband, Anthony Armstrong-Jones.
While we’re at it, here’s a snapshot of Margaret’s life before the wedding, excerpted from a biography of Armstrong-Jones:
Her life developed a routine. She would stay in bed until 11, breakfasting on weak China tea and what she picked from a plate of fruit. She would then get up and have her bath, with the aid of Ruby Gordon, her dresser, and select her clothes and jewelry. Her shoes and cigarette lighters were cleaned every morning, and her hairdresser, René, called on her regularly. Sometimes she would play with her dogs, two Sealyhams named Pippin and Johnny and a King Charles spaniel named Rowley. At 12:30 she would appear looking groomed and fresh and go to her desk, on which sat a large glass of fresh orange juice and her mail. Then came lunch, with the Queen Mother and members of the household.
The Crown: very accurate!
Before he married Princess Margaret, Anthony Armstrong-Jones — later given the title Earl of Snowdon, so Margaret’s children wouldn’t be commoners — was a successful society portrait photographer. He continued his work during and after the marriage, which (spoiler, sorry) ended in 1978.
Dr. No, 1962
After resigning in disgrace, former prime minister Anthony Eden recuperated at Goldeneye, the Jamaican estate of one Ian Fleming. The first James Bond film was released a few years later, at the tail end of The Crown Season 2. (FYI: It’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime.)
“Til There Was You,” The Beatles, 1963
The queen, pregnant with Prince Edward, was not in attendance at the Beatles’ 1963 Royal Variety Performance, but the queen mother and Margaret were there to witness the rise of Britain’s Next Great Export. This show is famous for John Lennon’s request that the fancy “rattle their jewelry” before “Twist and Shout,” but I’ve chosen this song because (a) The Music Man is the sort of thing the queen would love and (b) ’60s Paul is adorable.
Royal Family, 1969
There are obviously many documentaries and news highlights available on YouTube; I’d recommend this 1992 documentary or this footage of the queen running around at the Epsom races as a start. But the most essential clip is from Royal Family, a year-in-the-making documentary about the everyday lives of Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, and their four children. At the time, it was seen as a way to make the Royal Family more accessible; it’s now regarded as a Rubicon of press attention that the family regrets crossing. The documentary has never been publicly available in full, but this two-minute segment includes some of the most famous clips: a stilted dinner conversation and the Balmoral barbecue. The queen seems far more comfortable around cameras, at least.
The Diana Chronicles, Tina Brown, 2007
This is, for my money, the most insightful book written about the nature of celebrity in the 21st century — but it’s also an extremely well-reported biography of Princess Diana. Brown, who was the editor of British society magazine Tatler before taking over Vanity Fair and The New Yorker (and the doomed Talk, and The Daily Beast and Newsweek), is impeccably sourced in the aristocratic world that surrounds the royals, and she translates their psychologies and peccadillos with wit and ease. “The Mouse That Roared,” Brown’s 1985 Vanity Fair cover story on Princess Diana, is a good starting point; if you are looking for more Diana coverage, I also recommend the documentary Diana: In Her Own Words, which is on Netflix.
The Wine Show, Hulu
Matthew Goode plays Anthony Armstrong-Jones on Season 2 of The Crown, and after you’ve watched it, you will want to see more of him. Here is a video of him drinking wine while wearing a fedora. Enjoy.