A KGB spy worked in Buckingham Palace for decades. The Crown only tells part of the story
The long-anticipated third season of Netflix’s The Crown opens on the eve of Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s election following 13 years of conservative rule in Britain. It’s 1964, and the air in Buckingham Palace is rife with fear of communism as frustration with the tax-guzzling monarchy swells outside the palace gates.
As it turns out, it had already been lurking inside the palace for years.
The first episode introduces us to Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, Sir Anthony Blunt (played by Samuel West), who held the position for 27 years. For the first 19 of those years, he operated undetected as a spy for the Soviet Union. Then he confessed in exchange for immunity from prosecution, and remained in the palace for eight more years. But there's much more to the story than what the episode shows.
Who Was Anthony Blunt?
Blunt was born in Hampshire country in the south of England and was educated at Cambridge. He visited the Soviet Union in 1933 while he was in university, but it is believed he was recruited as a spy for the KGB in 1934, and spent his remaining years at Cambridge recruiting his peers. Blunt served in the British Army in WWII, often passing British intelligence on the Germans off to the Soviet Union. In that time he also successfully retrieved from Germany sensitive letters between the Duke of Windsor (the Queen’s uncle who abdicated the throne) and Hitler, which we saw in The Crown season two. You’ll recall that the palace worked tirelessly to bury those.
Blunt was also a third cousin of the Queen mother, and he was knighted in 1956 for his work with the royal art collection.
How Did Blunt Get Identified As a Soviet Agent?
Sir Anthony Blunt was one of the Cambridge Five, a spy ring that operated from the early '30’s throughout WWII, up until at least the mid-'50’s. The ring of Cambridge-educated spies came to the public’s attention when Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, both British diplomats, suddenly fled to the Soviet Union in 1951. Kim Philby, the third member outed, was a British intelligence officer who managed to keep his cover until 1963 despite serious suspicion.
The following year, Blunt was the fourth member of the Cambridge Five to be identified. Michael Straight, an American whom Blunt had attempted to recruit at Cambridge, informed British intelligence of Blunt’s espionage after years of wrestling with the knowledge. Blunt, who had been suspected and previously interrogated more than eleven times without breaking, confessed this time in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
What Happened to Blunt After Blunt Confessed?
Blunt received far more than immunity from prosecution. The Crown accurately portrays how the royal family swallowed the secret and kept Blunt in his role for nearly a decade following his confession. The episode implies that this was to protect the reputation of Britain’s intelligence forces. It also suggests that Blunt blackmailed Prince Philip with a portrait of him done by osteopath Stephen Ward, referencing the scandal that rocked the royal marriage in season two. But it’s more likely that the Mountbatten-Windsor clan kept their lips tight to protect their own honor. As we know, Anthony Blunt had insider knowledge of the Duke of Windsor’s correspondence with the Nazis, which the Queen was determined to keep secret from the world.
Blunt remained in his prestigious palace role until 1972. He continued to write books and give lectures at institutions across London. But when Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, she was furious at the leniency which with the country treated Blunt’s treason. She publicly outed him in the House of Commons in November of that year and a media storm followed. The Queen stripped Anthony Blunt of his knighthood immediately after the news broke, and though he remained in London, Blunt lived as a recluse until he died of a heart attack in 1983 at age 75.
Anthony Blunt’s memoirs were only released to the public in July of 2009. In them, Blunt confesses that spying was “the biggest mistake of my life.” Perhaps we’ll meet him again in season four of The Crown to watch his public fall from grace.