Like much of the world, the royal family sat agog at their TV screens or listening to the radio for news of the first moon landing on July 20, 1969. But was Prince Philip as moved by the event as he’s portrayed to be in season 3 of The Crown?
Queen Elizabeth (played by Olivia Colman in The Crown) has had a lifelong fascination with space travel, and her husband Philip was always keen on innovation and science.
In fact, back in 1962, when the then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan came to the palace for his weekly audience with the Queen, he found her engrossed in BBC commentary of John Glenn’s first circling of the Earth, historian Robert Lacey reports. “After a perfunctory greeting, Elizabeth turned her attention back to the radio,” he writes in The Crown, The Inside History.
Later, she did indeed meet the three men who made the first mission to walk on the moon — Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.
But it is how writer Peter Morgan uses the seventh episode of series three of The Crown, called “Moondust,” to explore Philip’s exploration of a different kind, his Christian faith, that has caught the attention of viewers.
Philip — correctly portrayed as as a man of action, a keen and daring pilot — believes the American trio “must have acquired some secret of existence by the great adventure they have been on,” Lacey says. “But he meets them and finds them as quite ordinary individuals. This turns him towards the Christian religion and is a factor in him finding his faith, through St. George’s House in Windsor.”
When you see it in The Crown it “makes it seem he is disenchanted with the moon men and this turns to the Christian faith but in reality he had found the faith — in the old fashioned church he had originally spurned — a few years before the men landed on the moon.”
Historian Hugo Vickers, in his book The Crown Dissected, confirms Philip’s deep thinking about his faith in this period. “In a discussion I once had with Princess Anne about her grandmother, Princess Alice, she told me that her father liked to wrestle with all questions of religion. He likes to argue, and he is prepared to be swayed.”
Can’t get enough of PEOPLE‘s Royals coverage? Sign up for our free Royals newsletter to get the latest updates on Kate Middleton, Meghan Markle and more!
Philip did, as the episode portrays at the end, find a lifelong friend in Robin Woods, who had set up the St. George’s House retreat in Windsor – three years before the moon landings. Woods had “a powerful influence on Prince Philip’s religious life,” writes Vickers. “Today there are more books on religion and ornithology in Prince Philip’s extensive library at Buckingham Palace than on any other subject.”
Endlessly fascinated by space travel, the Queen has also met the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, and the first woman, Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova.