Here’s the real story behind Michael Shea, the Queen’s press secretary in The Crown
The show portrays him as the source of an explosive leak to the Sunday Times
Amid all the plotting and drama of season four of the Crown, one particular Balmoral beef stands out – the blow up between the Queen and Thatcher in episode eight. At the heart of it is Michael Shea, the Crown season four’s lowkey smoothest man.
An article published in the Sunday Times headlined “Queen Dismayed by ‘Uncaring’ Thatcher” drove a wedge between the twin female protagonists of the new season.
Thatcher is raging, and the Queen is adamant she had nothing to do with it. But in the middle of the drama is the Queen’s press secretary, Michael Shea, who gets blamed for the leak.
Here’s the real story behind the drama.
Who was Michael Shea?
Michael Shea was the Queen’s press secretary from 1978 to 1987. Described as “smooth and urbane” in a Guardian obituary, actor Nicholas Farrell portrays Shea, who died in 2009.
Shea went to Gordonstoun, the same school Princes Philip and Charles got muddy at during earlier seasons of the show, before graduating from Edinburgh.
He’s at the centre of the storm in 48:1, as the alleged source of the bombshell story which blows things up between the Queen and Thatcher. But what’s the real story behind Michael Shea, the Crown season four’s unluckiest adviser?
Is Michael Shea’s The Crown storyline true?
The headline and the story are real. It made the front page of the Sunday Times, as you’d expect.
Quoting a senior palace source, it said the Queen was upset with Thatcher’s “lack of compassion” over a refusal to backing sanctions against apartheid South Africa, and her stance over the miners’ strike. It said the Queen believed Thatcher’s approach to be “uncaring, confrontational and socially divisive”.
Of course, the Queen shouldn’t be political – you might remember the furore over the “Queen backs Brexit” story in The Sun during the EU referendum – a story which the press regulator eventually found to be “significantly misleading”. So understandably, the story stirred up very public controversy.
The private conversations shown in the Crown are inferred, with Netflix allowed some artistic license to suggest the story reflected the Queen’s real attitude. In truth, we don’t know.
But was the real source of the article Martin Shea? The Crown infers it – a shady meeting here, a phone call there.
In real life, Shea was blamed for the leak. While Martin Charteris decides to feed Shea to the wolves, the true story is even more aristocratic. Sir William Heseltine, the Queen’s private secretary, had a letter published in the Times outing Shea as the “Buckingham palace mole”, confirming he had met with a reporter. Heseltine did, however, claim the story had been misrepresented.
Andrew Neil, then editor of the paper, refused to publicly name the source of the story. Shea made two public denials, which surprisingly didn’t help things.
In her explosive meeting with Thatcher in the show, the Queen denies speaking directly to the press. This much is likely true – what’s more up for debate is whether the leak was sanctioned or whether Shea decided to take the initiative, or was even tripped up by his own loose tongue.
Shea left the Queen’s court a few months after the controversy – whether this was because of a confirmed role in the leak, or because of the attention it attracted, is still unknown.
Other details also stack up with the reality. Shea was an author, signalled in the show by his agent telling him he should write a royal thriller. After leaving the Queen’s court, he eventually wrote over 20 books, including a memoir about working at the palace.
The Crown season four is available on Netflix now. For all the latest Netflix news, drops and memes like The Holy Church of Netflix on Facebook.