The Crown season 3 opens to quite a lot of changes. Not only is there a completely new cast portraying the British royal family, but the first drama of the season involves deceit coming from inside Buckingham Palace. In the very first episode of season 3, “Olding,” Sir Anthony Blunt, art advisor to the queen, is exposed as a Soviet spy.
Here’s what you need to know about the real-life scandal.
An art historian with a secret.
Blunt was a British art historian who worked at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Queen Elizabeth’s father, George VI, appointed Blunt Surveyor of the King’s Pictures in 1945; the role is responsible for conserving all artworks that belong to the crown. Blunt kept that job when Elizabeth took the throne, and she knighted him in 1956, according to The Telegraph.
In 1964, Blunt admitted to MI5 that he was part of a Soviet spy ring which would come to be known as the Cambridge Five, according to The Telegraph. The Cambridge Five—named because the ring began in the 1930s, when all five men were studying at Cambridge University—also included Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, and John Cairncross. All were self-proclaimed Communists who worked against the British government to aid the Soviets during WWII and into the Cold War.
Season 3 of The Crown begins in 1964, as Prime Minister Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins) is elected amid rumors that he secretly works for the Russians. As episode 1 unfolds, it’s revealed that there is indeed a mole within the government. But it’s not the new Labor Party PM, as Prince Philip is so keen to believe. Instead, it’s Blunt, played in the show by Samuel West.
Blunt’s fellow spies defected to the USSR.
There are conflicting reports as to how early British Intelligence knew that Blunt was a double agent. In 1951, Burgess and Maclean defected to Russia “after believing that their cover had been broken,” the Daily Beast reports. The two left behind papers which implicated Cairncross and Philby, according to the New York Times.
As more information came out over the next eight years that pointed to Philby’s heavy involvement in the spy ring, he defected to the USSR in 1963. Today, Philby is considered the most successful Soviet double agent of the Cold War period, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
When Season 3 opens in 1964, British officials from MI5 confront Blunt, and he secretly confesses his Soviet connections. Instead of being removed from his post, he’s granted immunity from prosecution and even allowed to continue working for the queen.
Why wasn’t Blunt fired?
According to the BBC, British government officials gave Blunt immunity in order to ensure his confession. He was allowed to remain in the queen’s employ, his obituary in the New York Times reports, in order to secure his cooperation in other matters of national security:
It was regarded as almost certain that the Queen herself had been informed of Mr. Blunt’s confession. The explanation given was that his role at Buckingham Palace carried with it no access to classified information, and it was also decided not to embarrass him in any way that would end his continuing cooperation with the authorities on matters of intelligence.
Outed as “the fourth man.”
Blunt continued his art history work as director of the Courtauld Institute until 1974. His New York Times obituary credits him with “training a generation of art historians in England.”
In 1979, newly-elected Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher—who will be played by Gillian Anderson in Season 4 of The Crown—exposed Blunt in the House of Commons as a traitor. The queen stripped Blunt of his knighthood “minutes after the Prime Minister’s statement,” according to the BBC.
Blunt died of a heart attack in 1983 at the age of 75. In 1985, his story became a movie, The Fourth Man, starring Ian Richardson and Anthony Hopkins. Blunt’s memoirs were released in 2009, 25 years after they were secured in the British Library, according to The Telegraph. In them, Blunt writes of his espionage work, “I made the biggest mistake of my life.”