The Crown: The Profumo affair - the scandal that shook sixties Britain

All you need to know about the scandal that changed British politics forever - and the truth about the Duke of Edinburgh's role in it.

The early 1960s were a time of cultural upheaval, where the post-war era of deference petered out and collided awkwardly with a new, less respectful and diffident Britain - and never more so than in the Profumo affair, where the government of an old Etonian member of the aristocracy was brought crashing down by a minister's dalliance with a model.

What was the Profumo affair?

The scandal began when Secretary of State for War John Profumo met aspiring model Christine Keeler at Cliveden House, the country retreat of Lord Astor, and embarked on a brief affair with her.

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It was not their dalliance that proved so destructive, however - it was the fact that in March 1963, when questioned about it, he told the House of Commons there was "no impropriety whatever" in their relationship, only to then admit 10 weeks later, that he had misled the House, and would resign.

A string of spy scandals in previous years had made the Cold War between the west and Soviet Russia even more tense than before, and the knock-out blow for Profumo came when it emerged that Keeler had also been involved with Yevgeny Ivanov, a naval attaché at the Soviet embassy.

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How did the scandal come to light?

The affairs only came to light when one of Keeler's former lovers, Johnny Edgecombe, assaulted another, 'Lucky' Gordon; Keeler said she would testify against Edgecombe and sought refuge at Ward's flat, only for Edgecome to track her down and, when she refused to come out, fire several shots at the door.

Edgecombe was arrested, prompting Keeler to talk openly about Ivanov, Profumo and Ward at society events. Eventually the gossip reached Labour back bencher George Wigg, who used parliamentary privilege to ask the Home Secretary to categorically deny the truth of rumours connecting "a minister" with the Edgecombe shooting. 

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The mixture of sex, scandal, class, deceit and intrigue ensured lurid headlines, made worse by the bungled attempts of the establishment to deflect the blame onto those least able to protect themselves.

How was Stephen Ward involved?

Stephen Ward, a well-connected osteopath and artist who had introduced Keeler and her friend Mandy Rice-Davis to Profumo and his friends at Lord Astor's house, was tried on charges of living off immoral earnings; on the last day of his trial, he committed suicide.

Keeler was jailed for nine months for committing perjury during Edgecome's trial, while Rice-Davis earned a place in political folklore with one of her quotes during the trial.

When Lord Astor, titled member of the landed gentry and pillar of the establishment, disputed Rice-Davis's account, she replied "He would, wouldn't he?", damning a whole strata of society in one sentence. Britain was changing.

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Did the Profumo affair bring down the government?

Within two months of Ward's death, Lord Denning's inquiry into the incident was published, proving an instant best-seller despite lacking many of the salacious details the public were hoping for. The damage, however, was done.

Less than a month after the report was published, in October 1963 Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who four years earlier had won a 100-seat majority in a general election, resigned on grounds of ill health.

His natural successor, reformer Rab Butler, was kept out by the so-called 'Magic Circle' of party insiders who passed the leadership onto another of the Eton old guard, the ineffectual Alec Douglas-Home.

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He held onto power for a year, but when he went to the country in October 1964, Labour, under new leader Wilson, campaigned on the platform of "13 wasted years" of Tory rule, winning a narrow majority to lead Britain out of the monochrome of the post-war era and into the technicolour of the Beatles, Carnaby Street and more. 

What was the legacy of Profumo?

The scandal left a huge impact on British public and political life, as well as popular culture. 

It was the subject of the 1989 film Scandal starring Joanne Whalley as Keeler, John Hurt as Ward and Ian McKellen as Profumo, as well as a West End musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, which ran for four months in 2013.

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Following the scandal, Lord Profumo withdrew from public life, devoting the next 40 years to charity work with homeless people in the East End of London, starting out washing dishes and ending up president of the Toynbee Hall charity, before dying aged 91 in 2006.

Christine Keeler published several autobiographies and accounts of what happened, before dying in December 2017, aged 75.  

Was Prince Philip really involved in the Profumo affair?

Mystery Man, the final episode in season two of Netflix's royal drama The Crown, places the Duke of Edinburgh on the fringes of the Profumo affair, showing him receiving osteopathic treatment from Ward, who then draws a sketch of him and, when Philip glimpses a picture of Keeler, invites him to a weekend party at which she will be present.

Later it is suggested that a mystery man in a photo taken at one of Ward's parties is Philip himself.

Certainly Ward was a member of the Thursday Club, the well-connected Soho dining club that Philip and his friend and private secretary, Mike Parker, attended alongside actors, politicians and various members of the establishment.

Ward undoubtedly painted a charcoal, pastel and watercolour portrait of the Prince, according to an inscription on the sketch, 'at Buckingham Palace 9 June 61'. The painting was sold at auction for £6,000 at Christie's in 2011.

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Philip was not Ward's only royal subject - he also painted portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Kent. 

However, any other links between Prince Philip and Profumo suggested in the programme have been dismissed as artistic licence.

Royal historian Christopher Wilson told the Daily Mail that the producers of the drama were becoming "increasingly elastic" with the truth. "I think the show has crossed a line and stepped out of reality into fiction," he said.

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