On April 9, 2021, Prince Philip died at Windsor Castle at the age of 99. We’re republishing this November 2020 story to commemorate his life and legacy in the royal family.
Episode 2 of The Crown season 4 sets up a truly delicious dramatic scenario: a long, weird weekend at Balmoral Castle during which the royal family is visited not only by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson), but also by Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin), Prince Charles’s new girlfriend and future wife.
The episode is named “The Balmoral Test,” a reference to the long-rumored royal initiation to which newbies are subjected at the Queen’s estate in Aberdeenshire. Diana creates a strong first impression at dinner, mostly by being charmingly meek and self-deprecating, but the real test comes the following morning, when Prince Philip takes her out on a hunting expedition.
Diana acquits herself extremely well during her outing with Philip, cheerfully declaring herself a “country girl at heart” as she helps him catch a rare stag. With Philip’s stamp of approval, Diana’s relationship with Charles is officially on the fast track. But how close is this to the truth? Here’s a rundown.
Did Diana & Philip actually hunt together?
In The Crown, a rare imperial stag is spotted on the grounds of Balmoral. Our favorite members of the royal family are obsessed with finding it, because killing an imperial stag means you win your name on the placard underneath its display head, in the grand old tradition of hunting innocent animals for sport. (The fact that Diana’s first visit to the castle coincides with the royals trying to ensnare an innocent, doe-eyed animal that has no idea it’s walking into a trap…well, the subtext is right there for the taking.)
Philip takes Diana out for a hunting expedition that doubles as a friendly interrogation, and the pair end up getting along famously. Diana impresses her future father-in-law by being unafraid to get her hands dirty (literally and figuratively) and helping him to track down and slay the imperial stag.
“We have Diana to thank,” Philip says as the duo triumphantly return to the castle with their prize. “You spotted him, not me,” Diana, of course, is quick to demur, which only endears her to Philip even more. “You shot him, sir. It wasn’t an easy shot,” she enthuses. “It was brilliant!” Hooray for bloodsports! Afterwards, Charles grimly tells Camilla (the actual love of his life) that Diana got “rave reviews” from everybody, including Philip and the queen. It’s promptly made clear to Charles that he should lock this down ASAP and propose to Diana.
So, did this really happen? As far as we can tell, Diana and Philip going hunting together was a scenario invented by Peter Morgan and his writers—but not an implausible one, according to former royal butler Grant Harrold.
“If [the queen] invites you to Balmoral, then you are being invited to spend time with the royal family in a personal setting,” Harrold told the Scottish newspaper The Daily Record. “You are going to be out on the hills with the Queen or other members of the Royal Family, perhaps fishing, hunting or doing other country pursuits.”
As depicted in the show, Diana would have felt at home in this kind of environment, unlike Margaret Thatcher, who finds the whole thing baffling. The Spencer family had long-standing ties to the royals—Diana’s grandmothers served as ladies-in-waiting to the Queen Mother—so hunting and other upper-class outdoorsy activities wouldn’t be at all alien to Diana.
There is one real-life incident that may have inspired this Diana/Philip storyline: According to The Daily Express, Diana drew controversy in the 1980s after she was photographed on a hunting trip with Charles shortly before their wedding. She was reportedly accused of “cruelly wounding a stag,” and afterwards took part in a ceremony where a hunter's forehead is smeared with the blood of their first kill. Okey-dokey then! The same report notes Diana lost her taste for bloodsports after this experience, and vowed never to take part again.
Did Philip like Diana in real life?
There are a lot of conflicting reports about this. At least one, from CNN, suggests Philip was “unkind” to Diana. But this seems to be contradicted by the tone of many letters he wrote to his daughter-in-law as her marriage to Charles was on the rocks. In one letter, per The Daily Mail, he told her he wanted to do his “utmost to help you and Charles to the best of my ability. But I am quite ready to concede that I have no talent as a marriage counsellor!” In another, he went much further, sympathizing with Diana and putting much of the blame for the marriage’s failure on Charles.
We do not approve of either of you having lovers. Charles was silly to risk everything with Camilla for a man in his position. We never dreamed he might feel like leaving you for her. I cannot imagine anyone in their right mind leaving you for Camilla. Such a prospect never even entered our heads.
Diana, for her part, was grateful for Philip’s support and made that clear in her responses. In one letter, she wrote: “Dearest Pa, I was particularly touched by your most recent letter, which proved to me, if I did not already know it, that you really do care. You are very modest about your marriage guidance skills, and I disagree with you!”
But things took a turn after the publication of Andrew Morton’s 1992 biography, Diana, Her True Story–In Her Own Words. Prince Philip reportedly wrote a series of letters to Diana at this point which “upset and infuriated” the princess. In one, he reportedly told her that her “irrational” behavior and jealousy were to blame for many of her marital problems with Charles. In another, he bluntly told her that being part of the royal family “involved much more than simply being a hero with the British people.”
All in all, it’s fair to say that Diana and Philip’s relationship was complicated. In a recent interview with People, Tobias Menzies suggested the two found some common ground because both came into the royal family as “outsiders,” but that his version of Philip made a miscalculation in meeting Diana. “He ends up underestimating her actually, which is slightly paternal blindness, arguably sexism,” he said. “He is very beguiled by this beautiful young woman and doesn’t really register the turbulence that is clearly in her, which ends up being very destructive to the family and obviously fatal to herself.”
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