Television

The Crown Season 4 : Here’s How Much of Princess Diana’s Storyline Is True

[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Season 4 of The Crown.]

Let’s assume you’ve already finished watching the new season of The Crown — no shame here; Season 4 is freaking good. This season of the Netflix drama covers Queen Elizabeth II’s (Olivia Colman) reign from roughly 1979 to 1990. A lot of it deals with Elizabeth’s relationship with her new prime minister from the conservative party, Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson), which is tense and a delight to watch. But the real crux of the season — and surely what many people are talking about — is the doomed relationship between Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Princess Diana (Emma Corrin). The season dives right into their drama, detailing their first meeting, their iconic wedding, and the beginnings of the relationship’s demise. With the knowledge that The Crown isn’t a documentary but a drama that takes some major artistic license with the facts, let’s take a closer look at some of the big events depicted in Diana’s storyline in Season 4 and see how they stack up against what really happened.

The First Meeting

Emma Corrin and Josh O'Connor, <em>The Crown</em>Emma Corrin and Josh O’Connor, The Crown

In the Season 4 premiere, “The Gold Stick,” the topic of choice amongst the Windsors is Charles’ love life. Camilla Parker-Bowles (Emerald Fennell) is married, although she and the Man Who Will Be King are still hanging out. In light of not being able to be with the one he wants, Charles is playing the, um, polo field, as it were. But Charles is in his early 30s, and his family is ready for him to pick his princess; the Camilla stuff is getting old. When Charles meets up with his current lady friend, Lady Sarah Spencer, at her family’s estate, he runs into her 16-year-old sister, Diana. As the show depicts it, Diana’s hiding in her “mad tree” costume for her school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the two have a quick conversation as she tries to stay out of her sister’s way. 

As with so much of The Crown, the gist of the beginning of Charles and Diana’s courtship story is based on the facts, but the show takes some artistic licenses. Diana wasn’t wearing a Midsummer Night’s Dream costume when she met Charles. But it’s true that the two met in 1977, when Diana was just 16, while Charles was dating Diana’s sister Sarah and came to the estate for a grouse hunting event. “We sort of met in a plowed field,” Diana said in their engagement interview in 1981.

The Courtship

Emma Corrin, <em>The Crown</em>Emma Corrin, The Crown

In the series, Charles and Diana don’t run into each other again until years later at one of Anne’s (Erin Doherty) equestrian events, when Diana stops at Charles’ car to offer her condolences on the loss of Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance) — she knows how close he and Charles were. After that meeting, Charles can’t help but ring up Sarah Spencer and ask for her sister’s number. 

Their courtship is brief. Once Charles brings Diana to Balmoral for her royal family “test” to see if, as Anne puts it, “she sinks or swims” — and it’s very clear Diana is swimming — his family strong-arms the heir apparent into proposing. The Windsors have spoken, and regardless of Charles’ worries about Diana being too young or the fact that he, you know, is obviously in love with Camilla, they want Lady Diana Spencer to join the royal family. 

Again, a lot of this is sort of true: The assassination of Lord Mountbatten, or Uncle Dickie, as his family called him, at the hands of the IRA played a role in Charles and Diana coming together. According to royal biographer Andrew Morton, who wrote Diana: Her True Story, the two were at a mutual friend’s home in 1980, and while sitting together on a bale of hay, she expressed her condolences about Mountbatten and sympathy for Charles’ loss. While talking about watching Charles at the funeral, Diana reportedly said, “I thought: It’s wrong, you’re lonely, you should be with somebody to look after you.” In the documentary Diana: In Her Own Words, as reported by O, The Oprah Magazine, Princess Diana recalled, “The next minute he leapt on me, practically. It was strange. I thought, ‘This isn’t very cool’…but I had nothing to go by because I’d never had a boyfriend.” The two began their relationship after that weekend.

It’s also true that Charles and Diana’s courtship was a short one. In Diana: In Her Own Words, Diana said, “We met 13 times and we got married.” One of those 13 times did, in fact, include spending time with the Windsors at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, because although the Balmoral test, as depicted in Episode 2 of The Crown‘s fourth season, isn’t some official event one has to pass to be a member of the royal family, it is an unspoken initiation into the world of the Windsors. According to Royal expert Richard Fitzwilliams, Diana was the one to originally pass this test, setting the standard for other women looking to marry princes, who may or may not have names like Catherine and Meghan. 

The Engagement 

Josh O'Connor and Emma Corrin, <em>The Crown</em>Josh O’Connor and Emma Corrin, The Crown

Can we talk about that post-engagement interview for one hot second? Because that moment in Season 4, Episode 3, titled “Fairytale,” is a doozy. If all the dramatic music playing in the background as Charles and Diana meet isn’t an alarm bell for impending doom, one moment in the interview certainly is. When a reporter notes that the couple must be feeling so in love, Diana immediately says, “Of course,” but Charles responds with “Whatever ‘in love’ means.” They should’ve just hung a literal red flag in the background. And here’s the kicker: That is really how that interview went down

Later, Diana would comment on the incident, recounting the moment in the doc Diana: In Her Own Words “And this ridiculous [reporter] said, ‘Are you in love?’ I thought, What a thick question. So I said, ‘Yes, of course, we are,’ and Charles turned ’round and said, ‘Whatever love means.’ And that threw me completely. I thought, What a strange answer. It traumatized me.” She knew it was a portent of things to come.

The Crown depicts plenty of issues in Charles and Diana’s relationship, including their 12-year age difference, but the major one is Charles’ relationship with Camilla. It won’t be until Diana’s bombshell Panorama interview in 1995 (oh, you know Season 5 is taking that on) that we get Diana’s famous “There were three of us in this marriage” line, but Season 4 definitely sets up that dynamic between Charles, Diana, and Camilla. Although The Crown pits Diana and Camilla against each other as adversaries from the get-go, evidence points to the two being friendly when Diana and Charles first dated. As reported by Tatler, in The Duchess: Camilla Parker Bowles and the Love Affair that Rocked the Crown, biographer Penny Junor states that Diana would spend a lot of time at the Parker-Bowleses’ home when she and Charles were first seeing each other, “with former nanny Diana even helping Camilla with her children, Tom and Laura.”

The Crown doesn’t spend too much time showing us Diana and Camilla in the same room, but it does give us an excellent lunch scene. In the fictionalized version, Camilla is all smiles as she clearly marks her territory and makes sure Diana knows how much she knows about Charles. And the fact that the scene ends with the women talking about the bill and Camilla saying “I’m all for sharing” when Diana suggests they go dutch? It is perfect. It seems, though, that in real life that lunch was a little less confrontational. Tatler reports that Morton’s biography, Diana: Her True Story, describes the event as “a lively meeting, spent gossiping together and catching up.” It was only later that Diana questioned Camilla’s motives, Morton notes.

And then, of course, there’s that F&G bracelet Charles designs for Camilla that Diana confronts him about during their wedding rehearsal. Although the confrontation might not have gone down in the cathedral, it is true, according to Slate, that Diana confronted Charles about the bracelet and the “Fred and Gladys” nicknames — which were taken from characters on The Goon Show, a radio show Charles reportedly loved — prior to walking down the aisle in 1981. 

The Australian Tour

Emma Corrin and Josh O'Connor, <em>The Crown</em>Emma Corrin and Josh O’Connor, The Crown

In “Terra Nullius,” the sixth episode of the new season, The Crown depicts Charles and Diana’s (and baby William’s!) 1983 month-long tour of Australia and New Zealand as both the global debut of the Princess of Wales and a real inflection point in the prince and princess’s marriage. It is Diana’s first royal tour, and she finds the experience stressful and exhausting and simply wants to be around her new son. There are rifts in their marriage already, but in the episode, Charles and Diana share several moments when it feels like they’re actually connecting. This, of course, is all shot to hell once Charles begins to notice just how much the public has taken to Diana. She’s the star here; they only want to see her. It’s just the start of his resentment toward his wife. 

Although we obviously don’t know the actual private conversations Charles and Diana had while in Australia and New Zealand, many of the emotions surrounding the tour seem to be true, along with the idea that this was really when Diana became the People’s Princess. If you want to know how intense this trip was for Diana, look no further than a photograph taken by Ken Lennox, discussed in Vanity Fair: It’s a quick snap of Diana bursting into tears outside of the Sydney Opera House. Andrew Morton spoke of the tour in his biography, saying: “Just 21, the newly minted royal was petrified of facing the crowds, meeting the countless dignitaries as well as the fabled royal ‘rat pack,’ the media circus who follow the royals around the globe.” In her biography on Prince Charles, Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life, Sally Bedell Smith wrote, “The prince was embarrassed the crowds so clearly favored her over him,” but added that “Diana was upset by the disproportionate interest in her, especially when she realized that it was disturbing Charles.”

There is, however, also evidence supporting those scenes in which Diana and Charles seem to be enjoying one another and their time with William. In her biography, Smith also wrote that there are letters from Charles to a friend about the time the family spent away from crowds and press: “The great joy was that we were totally alone together,” he wrote.

Regardless of how it all went down, at least the clothes were incredible. Like so many of the costumes on The Crown, the show got Diana’s Australian tour wardrobe very, very right

The ‘Uptown Girl’ Incident

Emma Corrin, <em>The Crown</em>Emma Corrin, The Crown

OK, this is a good one — mostly because the idea of a member of the royal family giving a surprise dance performance to a Billy Joel song in front of the public is so wild that it seems like people should be talking about it all the time even now. Like, could you imagine Kate Middleton doing this for Prince William? And yet the event depicted at the top of “Avalanche” really happened. 

In 1985, Princess Diana performed a routine at the Royal Opera House as a surprise gift for Prince Charles. Wayne Sleep, her dance partner for the number, wrote about the entire thing in The Guardian in 2017. Princess Diana grew up loving dance, especially ballet – The Crown shows her turning to dance in her most stressful moments — and had initially contacted Sleep for dance lessons. He couldn’t help her then, but when she contacted him in 1985 about a secret performance during the private gala for supporters of the Royal Ballet, he was ready, willing, and able. There’s sadly no video of this performance — the photos were only leaked in 1995 — but based on Sleep’s retelling, it seems The Crown got it pretty close. 

The other part of this story is, of course, Prince Charles’ reaction to his surprise gift. According to The Sun, royal expert Richard Kay noted that “it was a present which slightly backfired. She did it as a tribute to Charles. Charles wasn’t terribly impressed. He thought she was showing off.” 

Still, the only thing I’m really dying to know for sure is how Queen Elizabeth pronounced “Billy Joel” for the first time. Perhaps some things will just always be a mystery.

The New York City Visit

Emma Corrin, <em>The Crown</em>Emma Corrin, The Crown

The Season 4 finale of The Crown, “War,” details Princess Diana’s solo trip to New York City in 1989. In the show, the lead-up to the four-day trip shows an ever-widening fracture between the Prince and Princess of Wales. Then Diana goes to New York and does what she does best: wins over the people. She is adored. 

One of the most compelling moments of this look at her trip is her visit to the Harlem Hospital pediatric AIDS unit, particularly when Diana hugs a little boy who is a patient there. Cameras were not allowed at the time, but doctors from the hospital described the visit, praising her for bringing awareness to the disease and for her continuous attempts to end the stigma around AIDS. This wasn’t the first example of Princess Diana taking up this mantle: In 1987, Diana was responsible for opening the U.K.’s first AIDS unit at London Middlesex Hospital, and the photographs of her visit there, in which she’s shaking hands with AIDS patients without wearing gloves, shattered people’s perception of the disease at the time. Per Tatler, the chief executive of HIV charity The Terrence Higgins Trust, Ian Green, said of Diana in 1997, “Princess Diana was a true champion of HIV awareness. She brought passion to the cause, and did things which were truly remarkable. She was the first person of profile who was prepared to shake hands and touch people with HIV, which at the time was seen as a risk.” 

Just like Diana’s Balmoral test, her solo trip to New York City was a triumph — and, yes, just another reminder to Charles of how popular his wife was with the public.

The Crown Season 4 is now streaming on Netflix.

Emma Corrin, <em>The Crown</em>Emma Corrin, The Crown

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