The Crown: Who was Lord Altrincham? Find out about the man who helped haul the Royal Family into the modern age

Learn the real-life story behind the man who dared challenge the Royal Family and whose story was told in the second season of The Crown on Netflix.

By BT.com Published: 26 January 2018 - 2.26pm
PA Images

If there is one thing that the Royal family has embodied over the years, it’s continuity and stability; change is only ever gradual, and when it is misjudged, as headline-grabbing events of the Eighties and Nineties proved, it can be quite painful to watch.

Not many people have the nerve - or indeed the opportunity - to address the royals directly and tell them what they should be doing differently and even fewer have the chance to institute change. But according to an episode of the second series of Netflix drama The Crown, that is precisely what Lord Altrincham (played by John Heffernan in the programme) did. 

Who was Lord Altrincham?

John Heffernan who plays Lord Altrincham in The Crown Getty Images

Born to Edward Grigg, a Times journalist who served in Winston Churchill's wartime cabinet before being made the first Baron Altrincham, John Grigg was educated at Eton before serving in France and Belgium in World War II. Following the war, he read Modern History at New College Oxford.

After two failed bids to win a Parliamentary seat, upon the death of his father in 1955 he inherited his title as well as ownership of his publication, the National and English Review. Despite his Conservative background, he used the publication to launch attacks on government policy in the Suez Crisis, to call for the reform of the House of Lords, and most shockingly at the time, to criticise the Queen (played in season 2 by Claire Foy, below) and her entourage royal court.

Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown Netflix

How did he criticise the Royal Family?

In the article, written in August 1957, Grigg argued that the Royal court was too upper-class and "out of touch" to truly represent modern, post-war Britain, and suggested a more classless and Commonwealth court.

He also made personal comments against the Queen, describing her style of speaking as "a pain in the neck" and suggesting that "the personality conveyed by the utterances which are put into her mouth is that of a priggish schoolgirl, captain of the hockey team, a prefect, and a recent candidate for Confirmation".

Among his more measured recommendations were that the Queen should make televised addresses to her subjects and that the 'presentation' parties of young aristocrats - known as debutantes - each year should be replaced by something more democratic and accessible. 

Grigg met with the Queen's assistant private secretary Martin Charteris to discuss his proposals, though whether the Queen and Lord Altrincham ever met in person - as episode 5 of Netflix's series The Crown suggests - remains unclear.

What is certain is that four months after he wrote his controversial article, the first televised Christmas message was broadcast, and presentations were replaced by garden parties, with guests drawn from a greater social range.

What was the public reaction?

Lord Altrincham debating on TV ANL/Shutterstock

Although he was from a Conservative political background and claimed to have had the best interests of the monarchy at heart, Lord Altrincham's suggestions drew plenty of criticism.

Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher and the Daily Mail attacked him, he was branded a subversive and a republican, he was dropped from appearing on the BBC and the Duke of Argyll suggested he should be hanged, drawn and quartered. 

A slap in the face

Gridd defended his opinions saying, "Only the boss can get rid of bad servants.... it's her responsibility", but criticism remained fierce. Renato Marmiroli, an Italian admirer of the Queen, even challenged him to a duel.

When leaving ITV's London studios after giving an interview defending his views, Grigg was slapped in the face by Philip Kinghorn Burbidge, a member of the far-right League of Empire Loyalists.

When his attacker, a 64-year-old ex-soldier, appeared in court, he was fined £1 and defended himself saying, "I felt it was up to decent Britons to show some resentment. I did what Prince Philip wanted to do but couldn't".

Life after the affair

Marian Patricia Campbell  and Lord Altrincham Getty Images

In 1958 - the year after his controversial comments - he married Review employee Marian Patricia Campbell (played in The Crown by Gemma Whelan), two years before the publication shut down. They adopted two sons.

In 1963 he renounced his title on the day the Peerage Act received Royal Assent - only the second person to do so after Viscount Stansgate, the Labour politician Tony Benn who had pressed for the Act in the first place. But while Benn was soon returned to the House of Commons, Grigg - who had stood unsuccessfully as a Conservative candidate in the 1950s - concentrated on his career as a journalist and historian.

He spent the rest of his life writing for, among others, the Guardian, the Times and the Spectator, as well as penning an award-winning multi-volume biography of former Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

Grigg remained a supporter of the modernisation of the monarchy. In 1982, he lamented the fact that the royal court was still "unrepresentative not only of the Comonwealth, but even of the United Kingdom. To put it bluntly, there are no black or brown faces in prominent places at court, and this contradicts what the monarchy ostensibly stands for".

John Grigg died from cancer at the age of 77 on December 31, 2001. 

Watch The Crown seasons 1-3 on Netflix.

Season 4 of The Crown is released on Netflix on Sunday, November 15.