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Royal Biographer Andrew Morton on The Crown and His ‘Secret Conspiracy’ With Diana

9 minute read

The first thing Andrew Morton did when he heard Queen Elizabeth II had died was grab a black tie. The royal biographer—who has been writing about the British royal family for more than 40 years—knew he would have a busy week of media appearances ahead when the monarch’s 70-year reign ended with her death on Sept. 8.

“Even though it was expected, intellectually and emotionally, you think that she’s impregnable,” he says of his reaction to the news. “So there was that element of shock, and then you move on.”

Morton left the U.K. 10 years ago and, like his subjects Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, now calls California home. Despite this, he says he was back in London covering the historic event for ABC News and witnessed Britain enter a period of national mourning as the monarchy journeyed into a new era with King Charles III at its helm.

“You saw the respect that people had in the fact that they were prepared to queue for 12 hours to honor her majesty,” Morton says, adding that he saw the closing of this monumental chapter as an opportunity to bring forward the publication of his latest book, The Queen: Her Life, from next year to Nov. 15.

Morton has now written 13 books about the royals, but he knows he will always be defined by a single work in particular. Diana: Her True Story, a 1992 “unauthorized, authorized biography,” as Morton calls it, of the Princess of Wales five years before her death. The book was written with secret recordings from Diana that she made in her lifetime and gave to Dr. James Colthurst, her friend and middle man, to pass on to Morton. It wasn’t until after Diana died in a car crash in 1997 that Morton revealed she was the direct source for his work. He proceeded to publish an updated version informed by the late princess’s tape recordings entitled Diana: Her True Story – In Her Own Words.

Now, Morton’s book will be depicted as a plotline in season 5 of Netflix’s The Crown, which premieres Nov. 9, as viewers learn the backstory of how the best-selling biography came to be. The author spoke with TIME about his perspective on the future of the monarchy, the accuracy of The Crown, and whether he’ll be reading Prince Harry’s upcoming memoir Spare.

TIME: The Queen is a figure everyone already knows so much about. What does your new book bring to the retelling of her story?

Andrew Morton: It’s bringing the whole story up to date and trying to give it a little bit of my own perspective after writing and observing the royal family for 40 years. I’m relaying some of my experiences, my conversations with people who have worked with her, and I think it’s a vivid and rounded portrait—but I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Read More: Queen Elizabeth II’s Death Is a Chance to Examine the Present-Day Effects of Britain’s Colonial Past

Is this something that you had been writing in preparation for the death of the monarch?

I’ve been collecting bits and pieces over the years, little stories here and there because you are never really off duty. The process started with embarking on the idea of writing about Elizabeth and Margaret, which was my previous book. That got me thinking about the Queen. Having done most of [the royals], I thought I may as well do the “top lady,” as Diana used to call her. The reign was winding down and there was still an awful lot going on. Quite frankly, I think she came into her own then—the leadership she showed during COVID-19 was remarkable. That speech she made was probably one of the most poignant speeches she ever made in her 70-year reign.

Now that we have the complete picture, what would you say is Queen Elizabeth II’s legacy?

The legacy is change within continuity. Her [oldest] grandson is happily married with three children, has been trained quite assiduously by the Queen, and is very much following in her footsteps. Her legacy is stability as well, and we can see how much she’s been missed instantly. It shows you how unstable our world is, when even a nation like Britain, which is supposedly sober and even handed and fair minded, quickly falls apart.

You’ve dedicated most of your career to the royals—what keeps you interested in them?

You begin to appreciate that the monarchy is a moving target. It’s not a static thing. The Queen changed compared to her twilight years. Look at how the monarchy itself has changed from being quite pretty—white handbag, white gloves, do not touch—to being a very involved exchange with its people.

Having written about so many royals in such detail, who is it that has fascinated you the most?

However many books I write for the rest of my days, I’ll always be remembered for one book, and that’s the Diana book. And that’s because of this extraordinary story, which you will see on The Crown, of a future Queen involved in a secret conspiracy with somebody she hardly knew—that was me.

Read More: As King Charles III Sets Out to Win Hearts and Minds, The Crown Dredges Up His Darkest Chapter

When did you become aware that you would feature on the new season of The Crown?

They used me as a consultant for that period almost two years ago. I would have a conference call with eight script writers, and they would ask quite detailed questions like, “What was the color of your daughter’s wallpaper?” Because for a time I used her bedroom as an office. But they’ve kept their cards very close and didn’t involve me in the script writing process. They just wanted the factual detail.

And how true to life do you expect the season will be?

Someone who has seen it says the bits which are authentic and accurate are the least flattering for the royals, and the bits which are made up are not so bad. I get the sense that the episode involving me is probably the most authentic because you don’t have to exaggerate much. It’s an astonishing story. Here’s a woman who rarely spoke in public unveiling the secrets of her heart, her difficulties inside the royal family, a failed marriage, and her sense of isolation and loneliness.

Read More: The True Story Behind Martin Bashir’s Controversial BBC Panorama Interview With Princess Diana on The Crown

Do you think that encouraging Diana to record those tapes was the right thing to do?

Of course. I’m very proud of Diana: Her True Story – In Her Own Words. It told her story in a way that was compelling, convincing, and compassionate. The book is 30 years old, and it has been described as a modern classic. It revealed what many people inside the royal world knew and were keeping quiet about because of the subterfuge and secrecy.

On the subject of books, will you be reading Prince Harry’s memoir Spare?

I’ll be reading it. Harry has every right to talk about his life inside the royal family and his decision to leave. It’s not like he’s the first one in history to do that. I’ll just refer you back to Edward VIII, who wrote A King’s Story: The Memoirs of the Duke of Windsor, which irritated the Queen Mother, who always blamed him for her husband’s early death, and irritated King George VI, his brother. There’s also The Heart Has Its Reasons: The Memoirs of the Duchess of Windsor by Wallis Simpson, and the now-King Charles’s authorized work by Jonathan Dimbleby, The Prince of Wales: A Biography, where he talks about his adultery, and attacks his mother for being a distant figure and his father for being a bully.

Diana always expected Harry to be a wingman to William, not a hitman, so it will be interesting to see how the book is received inside the royal family. But if the monarchy can’t survive a book written by a former member of that institution, then it’s not worth continuing. It’s survived many things, and it will certainly survive Spare.

What sort of monarch do you expect King Charles III will be?

Charles will not be remembered for his longevity as King, as he has probably got 25 years at the very most. So people will focus on his other aspects. Climate change will be one cause, and people close to him also talk about his role as a convener, as a chairman, as opposed to an agitator. You could see him, for example, convening over an international conference held at Buckingham Palace. Also, unlike his mother, he is far more interested in music, culture, and art. As the Prince of Wales, he used to visit art galleries late at night—and so I would suggest that he will be the king of culture.

Do you think the monarchy will endure as it changes face?

For the last few years, any debate about the Commonwealth, the future of the monarchy, the distribution of the royal palaces—what’s going to happen to Kensington Palace, the Windsor Castle, and so on—have been parked out of respect for the Queen, and now that she’s passed, King Charles III will use the observations that he’s made over the years to reform aspects of it.

For example, what are they going to do with Kensington Palace now that William and Catherine have moved out? Should that be turned into a royal art gallery or a public building? What are they going to do with Prince Andrew? The Commonwealth is also going to change its shape and [reduce] the number of countries in it. Prince Phillip, King Charles, and the rest of them have all acknowledged that: OK, if you decide you want to go your own way, go your own way. But let’s remain friends.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Write to Armani Syed / London at armani.syed@time.com