In season four, episode two, of The Crown, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her husband, Denis, travel to the queen’s estate of Balmoral in the Scottish Highlands. They quickly feel out of place amid the royals’ upper-crust countryside lifestyle. The prime minister doesn’t know the slightest thing about hunting—which is a problem, because the Windsors can’t stop talking about it. When Denis comments that he understands why a struggling nearby estate allows paying guests to stalk stags on its grounds, he is sharply rebuked by the queen mother for not comprehending “conservation.” The Thatchers prefer to sleep together in one bedroom, whereas British aristocrats sleep separately. And when the prime minister accidentally sits at a chair reserved for the queen, Princess Margaret doesn’t even try to mask her disdain. The Thatchers end up leaving early. “I’m struggling to find any redeeming features in these people at all,” the prime minister tells her husband. “They aren’t sophisticated or cultured or elegant or anything close to an ideal.” At the end of the episode, she’s seen firing all the old-establishment members of her cabinet.
And that’s just in an early episode. Throughout season four, the tension between Downing Street and Buckingham Palace is a central plot point, culminating in EPISODE TK, where the two leaders are at odds over sanctions against South Africa. Frustrated, Elizabeth leaks her disdain to The Times—a major scandal, as royals are not supposed to weigh in on politics, domestic or foreign. (That standard still exists today: Despite stepping down from their public roles, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, for example, received blowback for encouraging U.S. citizens to vote in the 2020 election.)
So, was the relationship between Queen Elizabeth and Margaret Thatcher really so fraught with ideological and class conflict?
In her memoir, Thatcher called the stories of frostiness between her and the queen overblown. “Although the press could not resist the temptation to suggest disputes between the Palace and Downing Street, I always found the Queen’s attitude toward the work of government absolutely correct,” she wrote. “Of course, under the circumstances, stories of clashes between ‘two powerful women’ were just too good not to make up. In general, more nonsense was written about the so-called ‘feminine factor’ during my time in office than about almost anything else.” Thatcher also lauded the queen’s vast knowledge of political issues, saying “Her Majesty brings to bear a formidable grasp of current issues and breadth of experience.” So her saying that the family had no “redeeming features” is a likely exaggeration.
What about those trips to Balmoral? It is true that, shortly after visiting Scotland in 1981, Thatcher fired three of her ministers. They included the highborn Lord Soames and Sir Ian Gilmour. Also, yes, she wasn’t one for countryside pursuits: Tabloids say she walked around in high heels, had to borrow wellies, and seemed puzzled at Balmoral etiquette. (When learning they had a strict bedtime of 11:15, she apparently said, “Bed? What would we do up there?”) But it’s a stretch to say there’s a direct correlation between that trip and the cabinet reshuffling. The affected men had been vocal critics of Thatcher, and the prime minister wanted to consolidate both allies and power: “The consensus among Conservatives last night was that the Prime Minister, while shifting the centre of gravity of the Government perceptibly to the right, has strengthened her own position,” reported The Times at the time. And although Thatcher may have not fit in at Balmoral, her husband, Denis, did: It’s said he got on delightfully with the queen mother due to their mutual love of a stiff drink.
Speaking of The Times—in July 1986, they did indeed publish a story with the headline “Queen dismayed by ‘uncaring’ Thatcher.” It caused shockwaves with claims that the monarch believed “that a compromise must be reached between Thatcher and the other Commonwealth leaders” and that she felt that Thatcher’s approach could be “uncaring, confrontational and divisive.” At the time, Buckingham Palace denied the report. But it didn’t matter: The prime minister was said to be “crushed” by the story. Later, it emerged that the queen’s press secretary, Michael Shea, was the source, and members of parliament called for his resignation. He left Buckingham Palace the following year. Did Shea have the queen’s go-ahead on the leak? It’s unclear—but, as a trusted advisor, he certainly had insight into her thought processes.
At the end of the day, the two admired each other due to their mutual sense of duty and work ethic. “A senior Buckingham Palace official at the time recalls being struck by how vigorously they would talk together,” Andrew Marr wrote in his 2012 book, The Real Elizabeth. “Another says: ‘The Queen always saw the point of Margaret Thatcher. She understood that she was necessary.’” After Thatcher was ousted from power in 1990, Queen Elizabeth awarded her the Order of the Garter and the Order of Merit—a scene shown in the final episode of The Crown.
A professional courtesy? Perhaps. But consider this: In 2005, the queen attended Lady Thatcher’s 80th birthday party—an invitation that, with her busy schedule, she certainly could have turned down.