• History
  • faith

The Real Story Behind Queen Elizabeth’s Friendship With Evangelist Billy Graham

3 minute read

Billy Graham, the influential evangelist who died on Wednesday at the age of 99, used his charisma to spread the word of Christianity to millions worldwide. It also earned him friends among the world’s rich and powerful — even among royalty.

Graham, the son of a North Carolina farmer, began his worldwide mission in London in the 1950s, and it was here that he met with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The pair developed an unlikely friendship, visiting one another multiple times over the following decades; on Easter Sunday 1995, Graham gave the sermon in the royal family’s private chapel, The Telegraph reports.

“No one in Britain has been more cordial toward us than Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II,” Graham wrote in his 1997 autobiography, Just As I Am. As he recalled on her 90th birthday in 2016, she could not officially endorse his work but was personally both supportive of his work and open to his religious teachings.

“I have always found her highly intelligent and knowledgeable about a wide variety of issues,” he added, “not just politics.”

The first meeting came in the course of Graham’s evangelist crusade during which “the greatest religious congregation, 120,000, ever seen until then in the British Isles” gathered, according to the biography of John Stott, former chaplain to the Queen. (The most influential preacher of the 20th century, Graham preached to an estimated 210 million people over his 60-year career, per the BBC.) That royal meeting was most recently dramatized in a Season 2 episode of Netflix’s The Crown. In the episode, the Queen, played by Claire Foy, watches television footage of Graham, portrayed by Paul Sparks, preaching to packed crowds. Fascinated, she asks for a private meeting with him, despite Prince Philip’s and the Queen Mother’s doubts — quipping that he’s “rather handsome.”

In The Crown, she draws spiritual comfort from her meeting with Graham (where, naturally, she offers him tea), and later from his sermon at the royal chapel.

“You do speak with such wonderful clarity and certainty,” she tells him, later adding, “Above all things, I do think of myself as just a simple Christian.”

In the show, the Queen is horrified to discover that her uncle, the Duke of Windsor, previously consorted with the Nazi regime during the war. She seeks advice from Graham on what to do when forgiveness proves difficult, and he advises her to pray for those she “cannot forgive.” Although the conversation is dramatized, the episode foregrounds the real-life friendship between monarch and preacher, which went on to span decades.

The Queen, as head of the Church of England, has previously spoken about the importance of her faith: “I know just how much I rely on my faith to guide me through the good times and the bad,” she said in 2002.

“[The Queen] has always been deeply religious,” Robert Lacey, The Crown’s historical consultant told People. “She was close to the Rev. Billy Graham in his prime, inviting him to preach at Windsor whenever he was in Britain, and meeting up with him when she visited the States. He helped her with a Christmas broadcast in the ‘90s.”

“Her Christian faith is fundamental to her,” he added, “in an old-time evangelical way.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com