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'The Crown' season 4: Did Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher get along?

The fourth season of Netflix's glossy drama implies the two leaders repeatedly butted heads. But what do historians say?
Image: Queen Elizabeth and Margaret Thatcher
Elise Wrabetz / NBC News; Netflix; Getty Images

Netflix's lavish royal family drama "The Crown," now in its fourth season, turns viewers into amateur historians. (Who among us has not scurried off to Google in the middle of an episode, itching for factoids about the Falklands War and Conservative Party infighting?) The acclaimed series takes ample liberties with the historical record — but NBC News is here to help you separate fact from fiction. Be warned, though: spoilers ahead.

The fourth season of "The Crown" partly revolves around the testy relationship between Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman) and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson), who served from 1979 to 1990. "The Crown" plays up the differences between the two women, highlighting their contrasting styles and alleged disagreements over contentious public policy matters.

But was the real-life rapport between the private monarch and the arch-conservative leader really so fractious? Let's consult the experts.

Did they clash over political issues?

Three episodes from the fourth season — "Favourites," "Fagan" and "48:1" — strongly imply that Elizabeth objected to Thatcher's harsh government spending cuts and refusal to impose economic sanctions on South Africa's apartheid regime. The show depicts the queen politely but firmly confronting the prime minister over these matters during private meetings and "audiences" at Buckingham Palace.

But in an interview with NBC News, a historian who has written several biographies of members of the British royal family said it was highly unlikely that Elizabeth directly challenged "the Iron Lady" over any of the prime minister's policy decisions, many of which remain deeply divisive to this day.

"The truth of the matter is that in those audiences, the queen was always scrupulous. She didn't advise or offer her opinions. It's the last thing she would have done," said Sally Bedell Smith, author of "Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch."

"She was brought up never to get involved in party politics. She would not imply she favored one position or politician over another, even in her conversations with her advisers and friends," Smith added.

Clive Irving, author of "The Last Queen: Elizabeth II's Seventy Year Battle to Save the House of Windsor," agreed that the queen was not one for verbal skirmishes with prime ministers, saying, "She greatly disliked friction of any kind and favored consensus."

Politics - Economic Summit Banquet - London
Queen Elizabeth II, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at Buckingham Palace on June 9, 1984.PA Images via Getty Images file

Irving, a veteran journalist and former managing editor of The Sunday Times in London, said most information about the queen's views of her prime ministers was "largely hearsay," given how few of her private attitudes have been recorded for posterity.

Smith and Irving both observed that Peter Morgan, the creator and principal writer of "The Crown," appeared to be basing his portrayal of their relationship on a 1986 article in The Sunday Times that detailed an alleged rift between the two leaders over policy disagreements — a report that Buckingham Palace forcefully disputed at the time.

"The Crown" shows how that article allegedly came to fruition: Michael Shea (Nicholas Farrell), the queen's press secretary, is depicted telling a reporter that Thatcher's aggressive austerity policies and inaction on apartheid dismayed the queen. In actuality, the historians said, Shea's comments were likely taken out of context — and perhaps colored by his own left-wing views.

Nonetheless, Elizabeth has been credited with using her influence to pressure the South African government over its institutionalized racist segregation. Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, for instance, has described her as a "behind-the-scenes force" in helping to bring an end to South African apartheid.

"Did she work behind the scenes in the case of South Africa to offer encouragement to Nelson Mandela? Yes," Smith said. "But she did it by using her soft power. She never was in a confrontational situation with Margaret Thatcher."

Thatcher, for her part, appeared to downplay any tension in the relationship.

"Although the press could not resist the temptation to suggest disputes between the Palace and Downing Street, I always found the Queen's attitude towards the work of the Government absolutely correct," Thatcher wrote in her autobiography. "Of course, stories of clashes between 'two powerful women' were just too good not to make up."

'Chalk and cheese'

The fourth season also strongly suggests that Elizabeth and Thatcher did not have natural chemistry, sharply differing when it came to personal temperament and worldly interests.

The second episode, "The Balmoral Test," portrays Thatcher as a humorless workaholic with little patience for socializing, single-minded in her focus on remaking the United Kingdom in her own image. Elizabeth, by contrast, is depicted as the consummate outdoorswoman who does not entirely understand the prime minister's rigid ways.

Queen Elizabeth II, Margaret Thatcher, Prince Philip and Lady Mountbatten at the unveiling of the tribute statue to Lord Mountbatten, November 1983.
Queen Elizabeth II, Margaret Thatcher, Prince Philip and Lady Mountbatten at the unveiling of the tribute statue to Lord Mountbatten, November 1983.Peter Shirley / Express Newspapers Via AP Images file

"It is fair to say they were temperamentally what the British would call chalk and cheese," said Smith, using an idiom for two people who are superficially similar but different in substance. But their one-on-one dynamic was cordial to a fault, without any of the subtextual power maneuvers or awkwardness implied by "The Crown," she said.

"They had enormous respect for each other. Thatcher was invariably deferential with the queen. She was raised with enormous reverence for the monarchy," Smith said, adding that a young Thatcher wrote an admiring essay when the queen took the throne in the early 1950s.

Carolyn Harris, a royal historian and author of "Raising Royalty: 1,000 Years of Royal Parenting," pointed out that the queen, who rarely attends funerals, went to Thatcher's funeral in 2013. (The monarch had not attended the funeral of one of her prime ministers since that of Winston Churchill in 1965, she added.)

Morgan, for his part, has said in interviews that he was struck by the six-month age difference between the two women, adding that they were generational peers bound by their sense of duty and strong Christian faith.

"They're both girls of the war generation who switch the lights off when they leave a room," Morgan told Vanity Fair in an interview published in September. "But then they had such different ideas about running the country."