The Crown and the assassination of Lord Mountbatten: fact or fiction?

Netflix drama takes liberties with facts and omits significant details, says biographer

The new series of The Crown, Netflix's hit drama about the British royal family, begins with an episode featuring one of the most shocking episodes of the Troubles: the killing of Lord Louis Mountbatten, in August 1979, at Mullaghmore, in Co Sligo.

There is no disputing that it was murder: the IRA blew up the boat he was on. But the accuracy of other aspects of the programme's portrayal of Mountbatten, and his relationship with his great-nephew Prince Charles, are open to question. In fact some scenes are "complete bo***cks", according to one biographer of the admiral, who was supreme allied commander for south-east Asia during the second World War, the last viceroy of India, and chief of the UK defence staff.

Although often a contentious figure, Mountbatten was, at the age of 79, long retired from public life, and by the time of his death he had been coming to Ireland, to stay at Classiebawn Castle, for 30 years.

Compounding public outrage at the time, the bomb on Mountbatten's boat, Shadow V, killed three other people: his 14-year-old grandson Nicholas Knatchbull, Lady Doreen Brabourne, Nicholas's 83-year-old paternal grandmother, and Paul Maxwell, a 15-year-old boat boy.

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Nicholas’s parents – Mountbatten’s daughter Patricia and her husband, John – and his identical twin, Timothy, were badly injured in the blast.

The IRA described the killing as an execution that would “bring to the attention of the English people the continuing occupation of our country”. In a particularly brutal rejoinder, the terrorist group said it hoped the killings would “tear out their sentimental imperialist hearts”.

That same day the IRA killed 18 British soldiers at Warrenpoint, in Co Down.

Ironically, Mountbatten was a supporter of a united Ireland; in 1972 he had gone so far as to offer his services to the Irish ambassador in London, as an intermediary. This was not known at the time of his death; it surfaced only when Irish State papers were released in 2007.

Mountbatten's biographer Andrew Lownie says the first episode of the fourth series of The Crown leaves out some significant details about the killing, most notably that Mountbatten had ignored the advice of his personal security officer not to go to Ireland that year and that his security had been reduced. "Why would he ignore that advice and risk his family? That was an extraordinary thing to do."

Before his death, Mountbatten is depicted as having had a furious row with Prince Charles about Charles's affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. Mountbatten tells him to stop seeing her; Charles accuses him of hypocrisy and says that neither the admiral nor his wife, Edwina, is in a position to lecture anybody about adultery.

Later, a grieving Charles is seen opening a last letter from Mountbatten, in which Mountbatten reminds him that the previous prince of Wales (who became Edward VIII) came to grief over a woman and that Charles's infatuation with another man's wife "will bring ruin and disappointment" to him. Instead, he exhorts Charles to find "some sweet, innocent, well-tempered girl with no past".

These are the scenes that Lownie, author of The Mountbattens: Their Lives & Loves, describes as “complete bo***cks”. They would never have happened like that, he says. Mountbatten “would have told him to settle down but to have her as a mistress, on the side. He would not have asked him to make a choice.”

The episode has provoked some ill-informed commentary on social media. Two key misapprehensions are worth clarifying.

India

Contrary to what many have said online, Mountbatten, as the last viceroy, did not cause the partition of India. That resulted from the failure of the Indian leadership, particularly the Muslim League, to agree to a unitary state. The Muslim League insisted on the creation of two separate Muslim states, which became Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Mountbatten has been criticised for bringing forward the date of Indian independence to August 1947. He did so at a time when communal violence was increasing on a daily basis. Nevertheless, he was well regarded in India and asked to stay on as governor-general of the independent Indian state.

After his death, India declared seven days of mourning, and Mountbatten was praised by the Indian president for his “statesmanship, sagacity and wisdom”.

Paedophilia

The other allegation that has surfaced as a result of the Netflix series – although it does not feature in it – is that Mountbatten was a paedophile.

Lownie's book uncovered an FBI file from 1944, when Mountbatten was supreme allied commander for south-east Asia. In the file, Baroness Decies, a family acquaintance of the Mountbattens, describes the couple as "persons of extremely low morals" and Mountbatten as a "homosexual with a perversion for young boys".

Closer to home, Lownie interviews in the book two men who were teenagers at the time of Mountbatten's death. One was from the notorious Kincora Boys' Home, in Belfast, which has been at the centre of allegations of a paedophile ring involving well-connected men. The other claimed to have met Mountbatten four times that summer at Classiebawn.

Lownie says he had heard allegations of Mountbatten’s paedophilia but was inclined to dismiss them as rumours. “I came to the book with no view. I followed the evidence,” he says.

He suggests the IRA may have killed Mountbatten because of the allegations that he was a paedophile rather than because of his position in the British Empire. “There were a lot of IRA people in that area. I am pretty sure they knew [the rumours]. They could have killed him any time in the last 30 years” of his life.

Lownie says attempts to get to the heart of what happened with Mountbatten’s death have been thwarted by the failure of the UK National Archives to release its files about Kincora Boys’ Home. “There is so much in this story that has not been looked at.”