Unlike most of The Crown’s fifth season, episode six does not take place in the 1990s. Instead, it opens in World War I–era Britain, when the House of Windsor was headed not by Queen Elizabeth but by her grandfather King George V and his wife, Queen Mary.
A letter arrives at the king’s desk from Downing Street. The subject? The tsar and tsarina of Russia who, months earlier, had been overthrown in the Russian Revolution. “The government is willing to send a ship to bring the Romanovs to safety here in England,” the king’s aide tells him. “The prime minister does not wish to do so without your support.” The whole family exchanges wary glances across the table. The episode then cuts to a home, called Ipatiev House, deep within the Russian countryside. An imprisoned Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra are woken up by a soldier who tells them they are being moved to a new location. “It’s Cousin George!” Nicholas exclaims to his wife. They could not be more wrong: Minutes later, their entire family is brutally murdered in a basement. The British royal family, as it turns out, refused to help them with safe passage to the United Kingdom.
Fast forward to the 1990s, and Queen Elizabeth is preparing to meet Boris Yeltsin, the new president of the Russian Federation. The viewer learns that Elizabeth and Philip are relatives of the Romanovs—and wary of Yeltsin’s decision in the 1970s to demolish Ipatiev House when he was a minor official. When Prince Philip learns that his DNA may help identify the remains of his Russian ancestors, he begins researching the two royal family’s relationship, and their roles in each other’s fates.
The Crown is known for drawing on events from across royal history to bring its present-day narrative to life. But in the case of the relationship between the Windsors and the Romanovs—what’s fiction, and what actually happened?
It is very much true that the Windsor and the Romanov families are related. Queen Elizabeth’s great-grandmother Queen Alexandra came from Danish royalty. She married King Edward VII of the United Kingdom, whereas her sister Maria married Czar Alexander of Russia. Maria’s son Nicholas was the last ruler of Russia—and also the first cousin of King George V, Elizabeth’s grandfather.
Nicholas and George were great friends. In 1909, for example, their families vacationed together on the Isle of Wight for the Cowes Regatta. They wrote letters and telegrams to each other often, referring to each other as “Nicky” and “Georgie.” (“My dearest Georgie, I thank you so much for your kind long letter,” Nicholas wrote in February 1917. And upon Nicholas and his family’s execution by Bolsheviks, George professed profound sorrows in his diary. “It was a foul murder,” he wrote in July 1917. “I was devoted to Nicky, who was the kindest of men, a thorough gentleman, loved his country and his people.” (Despite George’s sentiments, Nicholas had earned the nickname Nicholas the Bloody within Russia for his callous handling of the Khodynka Tragedy.)