The king, with a parrot on his shoulder, seems more interested in collecting stamps than dealing with affairs of state, and he defers to the queen. The scene ends before we learn her decision.
Next we’re transported to Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, Russia, where the czar, his wife, four daughters and son are being held. Tricked into thinking they are about to be rescued — by “cousin George,” they presume — the family is led to a cellar where they are gruesomely murdered by Bolshevik revolutionaries.
Fast-forward to 1991: Queen Elizabeth II, played by Imelda Staunton, watches news coverage as the communist Soviet Union collapses and Boris Yeltsin, promising democracy, takes control. Soon the queen learns that years earlier, when Yeltsin was a lower government official, he ordered the destruction of Ipatiev House.
The remainder of the episode deals with the royals’ thawing relations with Russia and an effort to find the Romanov remains and give them a dignified rest. Prince Philip, played by Jonathan Pryce, is asked to give a DNA sample to help identify the remains, since he is also related to the Romanovs (he and the queen were third cousins). Philip’s close friend, Lady Penny Knatchbull, develops an alternative theory on why the British royals didn’t rescue the Romanovs, and Philip and Elizabeth fight over his perceived abandonment of his ancestors by hers.
So how much of this is true? Did King George V really abandon the Romanovs to a terrible death? Did Philip really provide DNA to identify their remains? And might their rescue have been scuttled because of petty jealousies between two women?
Many parts of the breakfast scene are broadly accurate. In 1917, the prime minister really did ask the king for permission to carry out their Romanov rescue plan. In general, the king really was more interested in stamp-collecting than just about anything else, and he really did eat breakfast with a parrot on his shoulder — though Charlotte, as she was called, was pinkish gray, not blue-and-yellow like the parrot on the TV show.
George V and Nicholas II really were cousins — first cousins, in fact. The two men bore a remarkable resemblance to one another, something commented upon all their lives when the families vacationed together or gathered for royal weddings. Nicholas called George “Georgie” in letters, and when Nicholas and his family were murdered, George wrote in his diary, “I was devoted to Nicky, who was the kindest of men, a thorough gentleman, loved his country and his people.”
That may well have been true, but “Nicky” also oversaw the 1905 shooting of unarmed protesters by his soldiers, leaving perhaps 1,000 people dead, and failed to take seriously constitutional reforms that might have saved his throne and his life.
When Nicholas was forced to abdicate at the beginning of the revolution, England was allied with Russia against Germany in the First World War, which explains much of its interest in preserving the czar’s life. This is when the prime minister, with the king’s permission, first extended an offer to rescue him.
But things were complicated. Once it became clear Nicholas would not be returning to the throne, the British government had to think about keeping good relations with the new Bolshevik regime. Plus, in England, the king was unpopular and may have faced the threat of his own forced abdication if he was seen as being too welcoming to the Romanovs — especially given Nicholas’s wife, Alexandra, was German. So the offer of rescue was retracted.
There was another reason for the retraction put forward in the episode by Prince Philip’s close friend, Lady Penny Knatchbull: that George’s wife, Queen Mary, was jealous of Nicholas’s wife, the Czarina Alexandra. They had grown up together as German princesses, Alexandra the prettier of the two, Knatchbull explained. Alexandra had rejected romantic overtures from George’s older brother, who subsequently became engaged to Mary. When the older brother died suddenly, Mary married George instead. Because of this, Knatchbull claimed in the show, Mary and Alexandra were rivals, and Mary “didn’t want the prettier, grander Alexandra in England upstaging her.”
It’s true that Alexandra rejected George’s older brother, but that’s where the facts end. Mary and Alexandra did not grow up together as German princesses. Although Mary’s father held a German prince title, Mary was born and raised in England. There’s no evidence the two women were rivals — this seems to have been invented for the show to mirror the rivalry between the queen and Knatchbull for Philip’s attention.
Last, Philip really did provide a DNA sample that helped identify some of the Romanovs’ remains. Though both Elizabeth and Philip were related to the Romanovs, Philip’s connection came through Alexandra, with whom he shared a common female ancestor, meaning only he could provide a mitochondrial DNA match. With his sample, scientists confirmed in 1993 that four of the remains belonged to Alexandra and three Romanov daughters.
The show doesn’t mention it, but the body of Nicholas’s brother was exhumed to provide a DNA match for Nicholas’s remains. The remains of Alexei and the last Romanov daughter were found later; Philip provided another DNA sample in 2007 to confirm their identities.