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Fact checking ‘The Crown’: Queen Elizabeth’s faith and her close relationship with preacher Billy Graham

Claire Foy, center, and Matt Smith, right, in a scene from “The Crown.” (Robert Viglasky/Netflix via AP)
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One of the running themes throughout the Netflix show “The Crown” is the devout Christian faith of Queen Elizabeth, who is shown kneeling for prayer by her bedside as her husband jokingly teases her to offer one for him. The queen, after all, serves not just as head of state but head of the Church of England, the mother church of Anglicanism worldwide.

“Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the Earth,” her elderly grandmother, Queen Mary, tells Elizabeth early in the show.

The second season of the series portrays the queen as someone who, feeling betrayed by a family member, wrestled deeply with questions of faith and forgiveness. The show also depicts her budding relationship with famous American evangelist Billy Graham, who drew millions of people to his “crusades” across the globe and was a friend to many U.S. presidents.

Several writers have pointed out how “The Crown” took more liberties with historical fact and chronology in its second season. So did the show take some liberties in depicting the queen’s faith and her relationship with the evangelist?

Half a million people turned out to cheer along the route of the wedding procession of Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh on Nov. 20, 1947. (Video: Reuters)

Spoilers ahead!

“The Crown” shows the queen sipping her tea while watching the evangelist on television preach to a packed stadium. Even though several of her family members seemed befuddled by Graham, his fiery preaching style piqued the queen’s curiosity, and she asked for a private meeting with him. “I think he’s rather handsome,” the queen tells her husband.

“You do speak with such wonderful clarity and certainty,” Elizabeth, played by Claire Foy, tells Graham. After he delivers a sermon for the royal family at Windsor Castle, the queen says that she felt “a great joy” to be “a simple congregant, being taught, being led … to be able to just disappear and be…“ “A simple Christian,” Graham replies. “Yes,” Elizabeth says. “Above all things, I do think of myself as just a simple Christian.”

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In the show, the royal family struggles with its relationship to former King Edward VIII, Elizabeth’s uncle who abdicated the throne to marry a divorcée and became the Duke of Windsor. That familial struggle becomes increasingly tense as the queen learns the family’s dark secret: Her uncle had become friendly with the Nazis during World War II, plotted to overthrow his brother and encouraged Germany to bomb England.

After learning the shocking details about her uncle, the queen asks Graham open-ended questions about forgiveness. Played by actor Paul Sparks, Graham tells the queen that she should pray for those she “cannot forgive.”

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So what really happened? Here’s what we know from scholars and books.

1) Evidence of the queen’s faith is easily traceable.

Scholars believe the queen possessed a “deep vibrancy of her faith” as someone who read scripture daily, attended church weekly and regularly prayed, said Stan Rosenberg, a member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford. Despite suffering some public attacks for her handling of Princess Diana’s death and her political views, she is widely admired for her faith, and “folks here know her to be thoughtful, authentic, serious, and devout but not a pressingly intrusive Christian,” he said.

The queen’s Christmas messages, a British tradition that goes back to 1932, have provided a window into her private faith.

“I know just how much I rely on my faith to guide me through the good times and the bad,” she said in 2002. “Each day is a new beginning. I know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings, and to put my trust in God. … I draw strength from the message of hope in the Christian gospel.”

2) Queen Elizabeth and Billy Graham met in 1955.

Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, said his father had a good relationship with the queen, not necessarily a pen pal relationship where they’d write to each other regularly, but he spoke several times in her private chapel and he was knighted in 2001. But Billy Graham initially met resistance, his son said, and some in Parliament tried to block him from coming. (Franklin Graham, who is planning to speak in September, faces his own version of British resistance now, according to the Guardian).

Franklin Graham said the show asked him to consult but he declined, saying any conversations they had were private. He said his father usually gave a dignitary a Bible, often the latest one he was carrying, so he believes he probably gave the queen one.

“There’s no question, she’s very devout in her faith and very strong in her faith,” Franklin Graham said. “Her faith has been consistent not just with conversations with my father but throughout her life.”

The queen’s meeting with the evangelist came about after Graham launched one of his evangelistic “crusades.” Graham had spoken to “the greatest religious congregation, 120,000, ever seen until then in the British Isles,” according to a biography of the late John Stott, a chaplain to the queen. During one of his rallies, Graham preached for 12 weeks, drawing 2 million.

Graham delivered a sermon for the queen on Easter Sunday in 1995 in the royal family’s private chapel.

“Good manners do not permit one to discuss the details of a private visit with Her Majesty, but I can say that I judge her to be a woman of rare modesty and character,” he wrote in his autobiography “Just As I Am.”

“She is unquestionably one of the best-informed people on world affairs I have ever met,” wrote Graham, who is now 99 years old and living in his mountain home in Montreat, N.C. “… I have always found her highly intelligent and knowledgeable about a wide variety of issues, not just politics.”

3) It’s unlikely, although still possible, that the two met alone.

“The Crown” shows the queen meeting alone with the evangelist so they could discuss things privately. However, Graham long had a personal rule that he would not meet alone with another woman, something that became known as “the Billy Graham rule” and has come under the spotlight since Vice President Pence has said he uses the same rule.

Historian and Graham biographer William Martin says Billy Graham began the practice in 1948, and it encompassed lunches, counseling sessions, even a ride to an auditorium or an airport because the pastor believed it helped keep him from “even the appearance of evil.”

Martin says, however, that there’s not much chance that the queen would have been left truly alone even if no attendant was in the room. But if the queen asked for this, Martin and fellow Graham historian Grant Wacker both believe he probably would’ve made an exception.

“Graham always meant for the rule to be observed with common sense,” said Wacker, who is a historian at Duke Divinity School. “The point was to prevent candlelit dinners far from home.”

4) How Graham might have responded to the question about forgiveness.

The queen tells Graham she asked him to return to Buckingham Palace to talk about forgiveness. “Are there any circumstances, do you feel, where one can be a good Christian and yet not forgive?” she asks. Graham says Christian teaching is very clear that no one is beneath forgiveness. But forgiveness was conditional, she counters.

“One prays for those one cannot forgive,” he says.

The exchange highlights a fuzzy line between personal forgiveness and public forgiveness. Does Elizabeth, as a niece, have a responsibility to forgive her uncle? Should she, as the queen, extend forgiveness to someone who, by the show and historical documents’ account, betrayed his country?

It’s unclear exactly what was said in those meetings. Wacker said that after Graham revealed private conversations with President Harry Truman, Truman never forgave him, and Graham resolved not to discuss any conversation with any head of state ever again.

However, Queen Elizabeth has made several public comments about the role of forgiveness in her life.

“Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith,” she said in 2011. “It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God’s love.”

5) The queen mother might have liked Graham more than the series portrayed.

The show portrays the queen and the queen mother watching the evangelist on television, and the queen mother appears shocked that England seems enthralled by “someone who learned their trade selling brushes door-to-door in North Carolina,” and that people would turn “out in droves for an American zealot.” “He’s not a zealot,” Elizabeth tells her mother. “He’s shouting, darling,” she replies. “Only zealots shout.”

But “The Crown” historical consultant Robert Lacey writes in his show companion book that the queen mother possessed “a deep and literal faith,” “experienced the Second World War as a battle against godlessness,” and welcomed Graham’s visits.

In Graham’s autobiography, he wrote that the queen mother had a “quiet but firm faith.”

“The last time I preached at Windsor, as I walked in I saw her sitting over to my right, with others in the royal family,” he wrote. “She deliberately caught my eye and gestured slightly to let me know she was supporting me and praying for me.”

6) Ruth Graham probably didn’t wear ugly shoes to meet the queen.

Anne Blue Wills, who is working on a biography of Ruth Graham, Billy Graham’s wife, says that it’s unlikely that Ruth Graham (seen only from a distance) would have worn flat brown sandals for her visit to Buckingham Palace.

“The whole outfit, actually, struck me as dumpy — and intentionally unattractive Christians were a pet peeve for Ruth,” Wills said.

A picture of the pair leaving for the 1954 crusade aboard the SS United States shows Ruth with a fur stole over one arm wearing leather gloves and a corsage. “She had a great sense of style and unless ugly sandals were ‘in,’ I don’t think she would have worn them to meet the queen for the first time,” Wills said.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Queen Elizabeth’s grandmother. This version has been corrected.