Anthony Blunt: The Art Historian/Russian Spy Who Worked at Buckingham Palace

Samuel West portrays Anthony Blunt in The Crown.
Samuel West portrays Anthony Blunt in The Crown.
Des Willie, Netflix

*Mild spoilers for season 3 of The Crown on Netflix ahead.

Viewers of the third season of The Crown on Netflix will likely have their curiosity piqued by Anthony Blunt, the art historian who is revealed to be a spy for the Russians during his 19 years of service to the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Instead of getting the boot once he was discovered, however, Blunt went on to remain under Her Majesty's employ for eight more years—until his official retirement. While treason never looks good on a resume, the royal class had good reason to keep him on.

Blunt, who was born and raised in England, visited the Soviet Union in 1933 and was indoctrinated as a spy after being convinced of the benefits of Communism in fighting fascism. He began recruiting his university classmates at Cambridge before serving during World War II and leaking information about the Germans to the KGB. Blunt was one of five Cambridge graduates under Soviet direction. Two of them, diplomats Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, relocated to the Soviet Union in 1951. Another, Kim Philby, went undetected until 1961. John Cairncross escaped notice, too, but was eventually outed.

However, it was Blunt who had a post at Buckingham Palace. After being tipped off by American intelligence, MI5 interrogated Blunt. He confessed to his treachery in 1964 and was granted immunity from prosecution. Why was he able to remain employed? One theory has it that British intelligence was so embarrassed by Blunt's ability to circulate in the upper levels of the monarchy that firing him would have raised too many questions. Another thought has Blunt having knowledge of some bizarrely congenial wartime correspondence between Adolf Hitler and the Duke of Windsor (a.k.a. King Edward VIII, whose abdication led to Elizabeth's eventual ascension to the throne).

Whatever the case, the Queen was advised by MI5 to keep Blunt around. In his role as art curator, he had no access to classified information. Blunt was at the Palace through 1972 and spent another seven years roaming London giving lectures. His actions remained a tightly guarded secret until Margaret Thatcher disclosed his treason in 1979.

As for that speech seen in The Crown, where Olivia Colman's Queen Elizabeth makes some not-so-subtle digs at Blunt at the opening of a new exhibition, there's no record of such a takedown ever happening. While the two reportedly kept their distance from each other in private, according to Miranda Carter's Anthony Blunt: His Lives:

“Blunt continued to meet the Queen at official events. She came to the opening of the Courtauld’s new galleries in 1968, and in 1972 she personally congratulated Blunt on his retirement, when the Lord Chamberlain, knowing nothing of his disgrace, offered him the honorary post of Adviser on the Queen’s pictures—inadvertently continuing his association with the Palace for another six years.”

Stripped of his knighthood as a result of the truth about his actions being made known, Blunt became a recluse and died of a heart attack in 1983. His memoirs, which were made public by the British Library in 2009, indicated his regret, calling his spy work "the biggest mistake of my life."

License to Bird: Meet the Real James Bond

American ornithologist James Bond, circa 1974.
American ornithologist James Bond, circa 1974.

On January 4, 1900, a child was born in Philadelphia. His name was Bond. James Bond. He would not grow up to be a globe-trotting, license-to-kill-carrying playboy spy like the other James Bond. Instead, he became an ornithologist, and lived a fairly quiet, normal life—until someone borrowed his name.  

Bond lived in New Hampshire and England while growing up, and developed an accent that a colleague described [PDF] as an “amalgam of New England, British, and upper-class Philadelphian.” After graduating from Cambridge, Bond returned to the U.S. to work as a banker, but his childhood interests in science and natural history spurred him to quit soon after and join an expedition to the Amazon to collect biological specimens for Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences.

After that, and with no formal training in the field, he started working as an ornithologist at the Academy, and was “among the last of a traditional museum breed, the independently wealthy, nonsalaried curator, who lacked advanced university degrees.” Working at the museum, Bond became an authority on the bird species of the Caribbean, and his 1936 book, Birds of the West Indies, was considered the definitive guide to the region’s birds at the time. 

Despite his many scientific accomplishments—which included dozens of papers about Caribbean and New England birds, more books and field guides, numerous medals and awards and other researchers using the term “Bond’s Line” to refer to the boundary that separates Caribbean fauna by their origin—that book would be what catapulted Bond, or at least his name, to international fame.

In 1961, Bond was reading a London newspaper’s review of the latest edition of his book and found eyebrow-raising references to handguns, kinky sex, and other elements of a life that sounded very unlike his. He and his wife Mary quickly learned that another James Bond was the hero of a series of novels by Ian Fleming, which were popular in the UK but just gaining notice in the U.S. Mary wrote to Fleming to jokingly chastise him for stealing her husband’s name for his “rascal” character. 

Fleming replied to explain himself: He was a birdwatcher and when he was living in Jamaica beginning work on his first spy novel, Birds of the West Indies was one of his bird “bibles.” He wanted his main character to have an ordinary, unassuming name, and when he was trying to drum one up, he remembered the author of the book he turned to so often. “It struck me that this name, brief, unromantic and yet very masculine, was just what I needed and so James Bond II was born,” Fleming wrote to Mary. (Fleming later called “James Bond” the “dullest name I’ve ever heard.”)

Fleming told Mary that he understood if they were angry at the theft of Bond’s name, and suggested a trade. “In return I can only offer your James Bond unlimited use of the name Ian Fleming for any purpose he may think fit,” he wrote. “Perhaps one day he will discover some particularly horrible species of bird which he would like to christen in an insulting fashion.” 

He also invited the Bonds to his home in Jamaica, which they took him up on a few years later. During the Bonds’ visit, Fleming gave James a copy of his latest novel, You Only Live Twice, inscribed with the message “To the real James Bond from the thief of his identity.”

For the next few decades, until his death at the age of 89, Bond’s famous namesake caused the ornithologist a few minor annoyances. Once, he was supposedly stopped at the airport because officials thought his passport was a fake, and the occasional bank teller would likewise think the same of his checks and refuse to cash them.

Young women would often prank call the Bond house late at night asking to speak to 007, to which Mary would reply: “Yes, James is here. But this is Pussy Galore and he's busy now."

Beyond Queen Elizabeth: 10 Fantastic Shows to Stream After The Crown

Olivia Colman stars in season 3 of The Crown.
Olivia Colman stars in season 3 of The Crown.
Sophie Mutevelian / Netflix

So you’ve already torn through the latest season of The Crown, which arrived on Netflix in mid-November. You’ve watched and evaluated the performances from the new cast, including Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret, Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip, and Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II. You’ve done your Google searches on the events depicted in season 3, from the Cambridge Five to the Aberfan disaster. You’ve played back every scene featuring a corgi. What are you going to do now?

If you’re looking for something else that’s historical, royal, or just vaguely British, give one of these shows a try. They’re all available on a major streaming service (Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime) and they all feature the same whispered bombshells and meaningful glances that make The Crown such a quietly devastating—and highly addicting—drama.

1. Victoria

Like The Crown, Victoria opens with a young queen ascending the throne after a death in the family. Only in this case, the queen is 18-year-old Alexandrina Victoria, who would rule Great Britain and Ireland for an astonishing 63 years. This costume drama hasn’t even covered a third of that reign, but it’s packed plenty of royal scandal, real-world politics, and dramatic gowns into its three seasons. There’s no official word on when fans can expect the next batch of episodes, but writer Daisy Goodwin has promised “an absolute humdinger” of a fourth season.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

2. The Tudors

Henry VIII famously had a problem with commitment. He married six women, more than one of whom he had executed, making his life prime material for a soapy drama. Showtime delivered just that with The Tudors, which aired its final episode in 2010. The show covered each of Henry’s marriages and various international affairs in between, casting now famous British actors in some of their earliest roles. Henry Cavill appears in all four seasons as the king’s brother-in-law, Charles Brandon, and Natalie Dormer (aka Margaery Tyrell) dominates the first two seasons as Henry’s doomed second wife, Anne Boleyn.

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. Outlander

Take all of the historical intrigue of The Crown, add in some time travel and a lot more sex scenes, and you have Outlander. Based on Diana Gabaldon’s best-selling book series, this Starz original centers on Claire Randall, a nurse living in post-WWII Britain who is sent back in time to 1740s Scotland. Her travels don’t end there. Over the course of the show, Claire schmoozes with the French royal court in Paris and gets shipwrecked off the coast of the American colonies. She also falls in love with a Highlander named Jamie, even as she attempts to reunite with her husband Frank in the present day.

Where to watch it: Netflix

4. Call The Midwife

Drawing on the diaries of a midwife who worked in the East End of London in the 1950s, this BBC show follows young women in medical training as they travel in and out of the homes of expectant Brits. By focusing on a working class neighborhood, Call the Midwife paints a picture of the London outside Queen Elizabeth’s palace walls, exploring in particular the stories of mothers in a post-baby boom, pre-contraceptive pill world.

Where to watch it: Netflix

5. Upstairs Downstairs

The first Upstairs, Downstairs aired in the 1970s—and when it ended, the tony Bellamy family had just been devastated by the stock market crash of 1929. The reboot (note the lack of comma in the title) picks up in 1936, with one of the original series' housekeepers serving a new family. Just like the original, it shows the very different lives of the “upstairs” aristocrats and their “downstairs” domestic staff, while nodding at current events that would’ve affected them both. A special treat for fans of The Crown: Claire Foy playing the frequently misbehaved Lady Persephone Towyn.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

6. Versailles

Ever wondered what it was like to party in the Hall of Mirrors? Versailles takes you inside the grand French palace of the same name, fictionalizing the lives of Louis XIV (the “Sun King”) and his court in the mid-1600s. Versailles isn’t quite as critically adored as The Crown and its cohorts—many reviewers have written it off as a slighter historical series—but it’s got all the requisite melodrama and the jaw-dropping sets we’ve come to expect from these costume epics.

Where to watch it: Netflix

7. Poldark

When war breaks out between the Brits and American colonists, Ross Poldark leaves his hometown of Cornwall to fight for King George III. After eight years of battles, the redcoats lose, sending Poldark back across the ocean, where he finds that everything has changed: His father is dead, his estate is in ruins, and the love of his life is engaged to his cousin. This is where Poldark, the BBC adaptation of Winston Graham’s eponymous novels, picks up. While Ross Poldark is a fictional character, the show incorporates lots of real history, from the aftermath of the Revolutionary War to the subsequent revolution in France. Amazon Prime has the first four seasons, but you’ll have to head over to PBS Masterpiece for the fifth and final season, which just wrapped its run a few weeks ago.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

8. The Borgias

Rodrigo, Cesare, and Lucrezia Borgia were extremely influential nobles in 15th and 16th century Italy. In 1492, Rodrigo claimed the papacy, and with it, control of the Roman Catholic Church. That basically meant he and his children ruled the country: as long as Rodrigo was Pope Alexander VI, the Borgias could get anything they wanted. Showtime dramatized their power plays, betrayals, and rumored incest over three seasons of The Borgias, with Jeremy Irons in the lead role as Rodrigo.

Where to watch it: Netflix

9. Downton Abbey

If you missed out on the Downton Abbey craze in 2010, now is the perfect time to catch up. The entire series—which concerns the uppercrust Crawley family and their many servants—is available on Amazon Prime, and the movie, which premiered earlier this fall, is still playing in select theaters (and is quickly making its way to on demand). Though the story is primarily set in the 1910s and 1920s, Maggie Smith’s withering insults are timeless.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

10. Coronation Street

If you want to understand the royals, you have to watch their favorite shows—and Coronation Street has long been rumored to be Queen Elizabeth’s preferred soap. (Prince Charles is also a fan; he appeared on the show’s live 2000 special.) Airing on ITV since 1960, Coronation Street follows several working-class families in the fictional town of Weatherfield.

Where to watch it: Hulu

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