Prince Charles Described 'Agony' and 'Disbelief' Immediately Following the Death of Lord Mountbatten

Emma Dibdin
·5-min read

From ELLE

Compared to its previous three seasons of gripping—but often slow-moving—royal drama, The Crown season 4 is truly action-packed. Within the first hour of the new season, Prince Charles meets his future bride Diana Spencer, Margaret Thatcher is elected Britain's first female prime minister, and a major character is killed in an explosion. The loss of Lord Louis Mountbatten (Charles Dance)—Prince Philip's uncle and father figure to Prince Charles—is a shock that has a ripple effect throughout the season. Here's the true story of his assassination.

Related: How the cast of “The Crown” has evolved

How did Lord Mountbatten die?

Lord Louis Mountbatten was assassinated by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a paramilitary organization that fought against British rule in Northern Ireland, most famously during The Troubles (1968-1998). Mountbatten had been a target of the IRA for decades before his death, and in 1978 a sniper attempted to shoot him at sea but was thwarted by bad weather.

Mountbatten owned Classiebawn Castle, a country house on the Mullaghmore Peninsula in County Sligo that he inherited through the family of his wife Edwina. Mountbatten's immediate and extended family spent many vacations there; they were regulars in the town of Mullaghmore and well-liked by locals. In August of 1979, they were enjoying their annual trip to the estate.

On August 27, Mountbatten took his family out on their boat to go fishing, a regular pastime for them. Knowing this, the IRA planted a 50-pound bomb underneath the boat that was detonated using a remote control. Mountbatten was killed, along with his teenage grandson, Nicholas Knatchbull, and 15-year-old Paul Maxwell, who worked on the estate. Nicholas's paternal grandmother, Dorothy Brabourne, later died from her injuries in the hospital, bringing the bombing's total death toll to four.

Photo credit: Des Willie
Photo credit: Des Willie

Why did the IRA kill Lord Mountbatten?

Mountbatten was well aware that he was an IRA target. In March of 1979, the Northern Irish Shadow Secretary of State, Airey Neave, was assassinated, and according to BBC History Magazine Extra, Mountbatten was warned by his protection detail that he was the likely target of a plot to assassinate a member of the royal family. Though he was strongly advised not to visit Ireland that year, Mountbatten went ahead with his regular family vacation.

The IRA claimed responsibility for the bombing of Mountbatten's boat swiftly, referring to it as an "execution," while also claiming responsibility for two roadside bombings on the same day. Those bombings in Warrenpoint in Northern Ireland killed 18 British soldiers and one civilian.

In the show, the IRA's statement is read out in a voiceover, and though the exact words seem fictionalized, it's based directly on real IRA sentiment. "Thirteen gone but not forgotten—we got 18 and Mountbatten," the statement begins, referring to the 13 people killed in the Bloody Sunday Massacre of 1971. The statement then goes on to describe how Mountbatten had become a symbol of everything the IRA stood against: "To Irish Republicans, Lord Mountbatten was the ultimate symbol of imperialist oppression. Each year he came to sit in his castle on land stolen by the English. He knew the risks in coming here, and his death represents a legitimate blow against an enemy target."

Photo credit: Ralph Crane
Photo credit: Ralph Crane

In reality, "Thirteen gone but not forgotten—we got 18 and Mountbatten" was a phrase that appeared in graffiti in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, shortly after Mountbatten's death.

Who survived the attack that killed Lord Mountbatten?

The fishing boat was full of Mountbatten's relatives, all of whom were injured. Mountbatten's daughter Patricia Knatchbull, her husband John Brabourne, and their other son Timothy—Nicholas's twin brother—were seriously injured, but ultimately survived after extensive surgeries.

“My own memory,” Patricia Knatchbull told the Daily Telegraph in 2008, “is of a vision of a ball exploding upwards and then of ‘coming to’ in the sea and wondering if I would be able to reach the surface before I passed out. I have very vague memories, now and again, of floating among the wood and debris, being pulled into a small rubber dinghy before totally losing consciousness for days.”

How did Prince Charles react?

Photo credit: John Shelley Collection/Avalon - Getty Images
Photo credit: John Shelley Collection/Avalon - Getty Images

As seen in The Crown, Prince Charles was, in fact, vacationing in Iceland when Mountbatten was murdered. He wrote in his diary the night he learned of his great-uncle's death, “A mixture of desperate emotions swept over me—agony, disbelief, a kind of wretched numbness, closely followed by fierce and violent determination to see that something was done about the IRA.” He added, “Life will never be the same now that he has gone and I fear it will take me a very long time to forgive those people who today achieved something that two world wars and thousands of Germans and Japanese failed to achieve.”

In 2015, Charles struck a much more conciliatory tone, speaking about the effect Mountbatten's murder had on his outlook right before a visit to Mullaghmore.

At the time I could not imagine how we could come to terms with the anguish of such a deep loss, since for me Lord Mountbatten represented the grandfather I never had. It seemed as if the foundations of all that we held dear in life had been torn apart irreparably. Through this experience, I now understand in a profound way the agonies borne by so many others in these islands, of whatever faith, denomination or political tradition.

Charles met with Paul Maxwell's mother, Mary Hornsey, during that 2015 trip, and she later told the BBC, "I would not have missed this day for the world. It was one of the most wonderful experiences I have had, turning a very tragic event into something that is healing and forgiving."

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