Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female Prime Minister—who served from 1979 to 1990, making her the longest serving PM in the 20th century—was a polarizing figure in life and in death. “The Iron Lady,” as she was known, ushered in an era of conservative politics and British nationalism, the echoes of which are still felt today. She famously did not get on too well with Queen Elizabeth, a tense dynamic that plays out in the new season of The Crown, which covers roughly the years that Thatcher served. In episode two, the controversial PM—portrayed by Gillian Anderson— pays an awkward visit to Balmoral Castle in Scotland, where the royal family enjoys their annual summer holiday.
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It is said to be the Queen’s favorite place to escape the press and the public, and to unwind with her family and beloved dogs. The stay at Balmoral includes lots of long walks in the sweeping Highlands, picnics, fishing, grouse hunting, tartan outfits, and Prince Philip’s famous barbecues.
The Queen also extends an invitation to the serving PM to visit, and by all accounts, Thatcher did not enjoy her Scottish sojourn, referring to it as “purgatory.” Here’s a brief history of Balmoral and what Thatcher thought about the Queen’s favorite estate.
Unlike other royal estates, Balmoral is privately owned.
The first home at Balmoral was reportedly built in 1390, but the property didn’t enter into the British royal family until 1852, when Prince Albert purchased the estate as a gift for his wife, Queen Victoria. However, when the residence was deemed too small, the royal couple built an additional, neo-Gothic style castle—the one that still exists today—to fit their growing family. The new structure was completed in 1856, and the other building was torn down. Now, the 50,000-acre estate features 150 buildings in total.
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Unlike Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, which are owned by the Crown and are the Queen’s to use as long as she is the ruling monarch, Balmoral is private property: it is owned by Windsors.
The Queen has taken her family there for generations, and traditionally invites the PM for a short stay.
Queen Elizabeth took Charles, Anne, and Andrew there many times as young children. Free from public duties, the monarch can let her hair down and spend time with the family. While at Balmoral, the royals can act normal— well, as normal as royals can be. Lord Lichfield, a former photographer for the family, said in 1972, that “lunch is always outdoors and they are outside every day going on expeditions.” Prince Philip apparently cooks up elaborate barbecues for the Windsors to enjoy in the fresh air, and the Queen often roams the countryside (sometimes in a Land Rover).
In more recent times, Prince Charles and Princess Diana honeymooned there. It’s also where Prince Harry and Prince William learned of their mother’s tragic death in 1997.
Since the Queen is often there for weeks on end, many members of the royal family come to visit her, and are often spotted traveling to Sunday church services (the Queen also traditionally extends an invitation to the Prime Minister to visit Balmoral for a short stay.)
“I think Granny is the most happy there. I think she really, really loves the Highlands,” the Queen’s granddaughter, Princess Eugenie, said in the documentary Our Queen At Ninety.
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Thatcher never seemed to enjoy herself at Balmoral, and had a famously tense relationship with the Queen.
It is customary for the Queen to have an “audience” with the Prime Minister once a week: a private, off-the-books conversation. The meetings between Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth became increasingly frosty over the years, with Thatcher deeming them a “waste of time,” and apparently reading the agenda for the meetings at the last minute, in the car on the way to Buckingham Palace, according to The Queen and Mrs Thatcher: An Inconvenient Relationship.
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The annual Balmoral visit was no less unpleasant. In episode two of The Crown, we see the PM not able to hold her own at games and sports, showing up ill-prepared for the outdoor life with only her high heels, arriving at dinner very early, and wanting to leave as quickly as possible. Apparently, this is pretty true to life: Thatcher regarded trips to Balmoral as “purgatory,” according to the Queen’s biographer, Ben Pimlott. The Queen and Mrs Thatcher also states that Thatcher referred to Balmoral as a “different world.”
The Queen apparently does the dishes—so Thatcher once bought her some rubber gloves.
In Elizabeth: The Woman and Queen, it is reported that Thatcher gave the Queen rubber gloves as a Christmas present, after watching Her Majesty wash dishes at Balmoral without a pair.
Years later, former PM Tony Blair has also mentioned the Queen’s housekeeping habit. “You think I’m joking, but I’m not. They put the gloves on and stick their hands in the sink. The Queen asks if you’ve finished, she stacks the plates up and goes off to the sink.”
Royals, they’re just like us!
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Assistant to the Editor in Chief Liz Cantrell is the assistant to the Editor in Chief of Town & Country, covering arts and culture, and has previously written for Esquire.
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