It was common knowledge that the fifth season of The Crown, Peter Morgan’s award-winning Netflix drama, would address the high-profile separation of Princess Diana and Prince Charles. However, since premiering a few days ago, another enigmatic character has caught fans’ attention: Penelope Knatchbull, commonly known in the British press as Lady Penny. This character, played by Natascha McElhone, was the best friend of Queen Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
But Lady Penny, who was born in London on April 16, 1953, came from humble origins. Before she was the Countess Mountbatten of Burma, she was Penelope Eastwood, the daughter of Marian Hood and Reginald Eastwood, a butcher. Neither she nor her younger brother Peter, who died in 2013, could have imagined that, in the late 1960s, their father would become a wealthy businessman thanks to his Angus Steakhouse restaurant chain.
As a result of her father’s success, Lady Penny had the opportunity to be educated at an exclusive Swiss school. Back in London, while studying business at the prestigious London School of Economics, she began dating Norton Knatchbull, the third Earl Mountbatten of Burma. Since the young man was the grandson of Lord Louis Mountbatten – the last viceroy of India, as well as a great-grandson of Queen Victoria – Penny began to rub shoulders with British royalty. In fact, the first time she chatted with Philip was in 1975 during a polo match. He had just turned 55; she was 22.
Norton and Penny soon made their engagement official. The couple were initially going to marry in the summer of 1979, but had to postpone the date after Louis Mountbatten and three others were killed in an IRA attack. The four died after terrorists detonated a 23-kilogram bomb that had been planted on the family’s yacht, Shadow V.
Still in mourning, Norton and Penny were married on October 20, 1979, at Romsey Abbey in Hampshire. Around 900 guests attended the ceremony, and Prince Charles (now King Charles III), who was Norton’s cousin and loyal friend since their teenage days at Gordonstoun boarding school, acted as best man. When the two married, they inherited Broadlands, an 18th century estate with 60 rooms, near the village of Romsey.
Penny gave birth to three children: Nicholas, born on May 15, 1981, Alexandra, on December 5, 1982, and Leonora, on June 25, 1986. In 1990, doctors found a malignant tumor in Leonora’s kidney, and she died on October 22, 1991, at just five years of age.
In the second episode of The Crown, which covers the death of the little girl, Prince Philip introduces Penny to carriage driving. Although the two had known each other for some time, there is evidence that Leonora’s death brought them closer together. The Crown, however, hints that their relationship may have been more than just Platonic, albeit without showing any physical signs of affection. This continues in the sixth episode, when a jealous Queen Elizabeth reproaches her husband for not supporting her. But is there any truth to this suggestion? Or is the show just exercising its artistic license?
“It is true that the pair became close and took part in carriage-riding competitions,” says royal historian Tracy Borman in an article on the official website for BBC History Magazine. “But any hint of a more intimate relationship between them is purely speculative.”
Meanwhile, when actress Natascha McElhone was asked about her character, she told Radio Times: “We so rarely see a man and a woman on screen who have a deep friendship where romance is not alluded to. The richness of those friendships, that loyalty. Our story starts because he really sees her when she’s in deep pain and in grief, and he reaches out a hand and gives her a nudge back into life.”
Both Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth stood by Penny when, in 2010, her eldest son Nicholas was caught on a video smoking crack cocaine. Initially, the young heir refused to go to rehab, but eventually he agreed to do so out of fear he would be disinherited of his family fortune, estimated at $119 million. In 2021, Nicholas, now a music producer and gardener, married Ambre Pouzet, a French artist who is known for her mermaid performances. The event was a much more modest affair than his sister Alexandra’s wedding. In 2016, she married businessman Thomas Hooper at Romsey Abbey, the same church where her parents were wed. Queen Elizabeth II attended the ceremony, and Prince Charles walked Alexandra down the aisle.
Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth also supported Lady Penny when, without warning, Norton fled to the Bahamas with his mistress, fashion designer Eugenie Nuttal. In 2014, after Norton was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Penny allowed him to return to Broadlands, not to the marital home, but rather an adjacent barn that was converted into a guest house. Since then, the earl has hardly left the estate.
When Prince Philip died during the pandemic, Penny was one of the select few people invited to his funeral, which due to Covid-19 restrictions was limited to 30 guests. And last September 19, she was also present at Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. Given her reputation for discretion, no one expects Lady Penny to discuss her portrayal in The Crown. But in an article in The Times, Ingrid Seward offered this opinion: “I’m sure this new storyline for The Crown has caused untold stress and heartache for Penny, her children and her wider family.
“And in so many ways it seems unjustified – she is the unfortunate victim in their fictional tale because she was young, attractive, and photographed with Philip. Would Penny have been featured if she was unattractive? I highly doubt it. Personally, I believe Philip and Penny had a somewhat symbiotic relationship. He was almost a grandfather figure, someone able to advise and counsel her during difficult times.”