The Kennedys at Buckingham Palace as portrayed on The Crown – Fiction or reality?

The critically acclaimed series, with its four seasons so far, is a remarkable portrayal of what is there to know about the ups and downs of royal protocol and the challenges of a constitutional monarchy in our modern society. However, a solid amount of the script is sheer fiction and assumption, with a very thin line between what is made up and what is real.

While one must not forget that the plot is often fiction, only based on historic events, it is important to praise the creators’ excellent attention to detail.

On season 2, episode 8 titled “Dear Mrs. Kennedy”, we see the 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy (played by Michael C. Hall) and Jacqueline Kennedy (Jodi Balfour) making an official visit to the United Kingdom, shortly after concluding their stays in Vienna and Paris. This, of course is all true, the Kennedy couple did actually make this tour in Europe, arriving at Buckingham Palace on 5 June 1961. During the episode, the ongoing discussions about the European Economic Community are also mentioned: Charles de Gaulle, the then President of France, has had absolutely no intention to approve of Great Britain joining the ECC. It was only after his resignation in 1969, that the UK’s membership was officially approved.

The episode shares many details about how delicate the reception welcoming the Kennedys was. The visit was initially labelled as a private one, which the aim of the couple participating in the First Lady’s niece’s christening: the little girl’s mother was Lee Radziwill, Jacqueline’s sister, who was already divorced and living with her second husband, two-times-divorcée Prince Stanislaw Albrecht Radziwill at that time. In fact, the reception at Buckingham Palace took place shortly after the christening ceremony.

Jacqueline Kennedy originally insisted on inviting her sister and her husband to the event at the palace, but only eight short years after her own coronation being in association with a divorced woman (Wallis Simpson, wife of Her Majesty’s uncle, former King-Emperor Edward VIII), the request was quickly denied and a new guestlist was made shortly: Princess Margaret was cut off among many others as well, replaced by politicians from the Commonwealth. It is a lesser-known fact, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy worked as a reporter during the Queen’s coronation, before her marriage to John F. Kennedy.

During the episode, we can also see a rather fascinating discussion between the royal couple: about the seating plan at the reception. On screen, His Royal Highness Prince Phillip (Matt Smith) details how he should be seated next to the First Lady, instead of his uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten. He argues that in terms of protocol, he shall be seated next to the most senior female in the room besides Her Majesty, in that case, the First Lady. Her Majesty (Claire Foy) reminds him how this rule of protocol is only followed during state dinners, while this particular one has been requested to be kept informal: it had also to do with the ECC discussions with the French. Although we cannot be sure if such a dialogue ever took place in real life, what the actors mention about the protocol followed during state and informal dinners is correct.

The episode then shows a disastrous first meeting between the two couples, with the Private Secretaries in complete horror over the faulty greetings by the guests. In reality, there is no official documentation about the exchanged words. However, the tension and nervousness between them is clearly visible even from the pictures, taken mostly by Cecil Beaton, official photographer of the House of Windsor during that time. The Kennedys were actually given a short tour in the palace to see a few paintings in the halls of the Royal Gallery and Mrs, Kennedy did indeed visit the Queen on a later occasion too.

In terms of the so-called unkind comments made by the First Lady after their official visit, there may have been some truth in there too. Carolyn Harris, author of the book “Raising Royalty: 1000 years of royal parenting” claimed that Cecil Beaton, the official photographer of the Kennedys’ visit at Buckingham Palace, seen how generally unimpressed Mrs. Kennedy was with the overall ambience at the reception. Still, deciding whether those claims are true or false is practically impossible, almost 60 years on.

The verbal rivalry is pure fiction, as well as the seemingly jealousy-driven trip to Ghana by Her Majesty. Actually, the situation in Ghana was much more concerning than it is shown on The Crown: Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah seriously threatened the entire West by starting negotiations with the USSR, namely with Khrushchev. The Soviet Union reportedly intended to expand its footholds in the Cold War and President Nkrumah was getting close to being a dictator himself.

Even though the series suggests it that way, Her Majesty’s intention to visit Ghana was not at all as spontaneous as it may seem. Two years prior a similar trip was postponed last minute because Her Majesty was with child and, for this reason, unwilling to undertake such a demanding trip. The political situation slowly, but steadily escalated after that, and by the time Her Majesty met the Kennedys, it became a huge concern throughout the Commonwealth. What is more, the previously agreed financial strategy to construct the dams at the River Volta was also hanging by a thread with the US pulling out of the agreement, after seeing Ghana moving towards the USSR.

The Queen’s trip was nevertheless risky, given the troubled political past with Ghana (the country became independent from Britain in 1957). The trip was indeed a tremendous success and the famous dance with the president actually happened: that scene highlights brilliantly how versatile diplomacy can be.

Sadly, the Kennedys’ using those special ‘cocktails’ also turned out to be true: medical records show that both of them regularly received those so-called vitamin-shots by the infamous Dr Jacobson. Those injections contained highly addictive materials with various substances that included amphetamine and methamphetamine.

The episode ends with pretty dramatic scenes, with the news of the assassination of President Kennedy reaching the members of the royal household with the original radio report and media coverage. Mrs. Kennedy did actually refuse to change her outfit with her husband’s blood stains on it until the next morning. The Queen, after learning the tragic news, orders a week of court mourning in the royal household and the bells to be rang at Westminster Abbey in every minute for an hour: though the Private Secretary kindly reminds Her Majesty that the bell is only be rung when a member of the royal family passes, the Queen insists on the matter on screen, just like she did in real life: a true act of kindness and compassion.

Source of pictures:

  2. Netflix/
  3. Bettmann Archive, Netflix /

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