In the early morning on July 9, 1982, a man named Michael Fagan jumped a fence at Buckingham Palace, climbed a drainpipe, entered an unlocked window, and made his way to Queen Elizabeth II’s bedroom, where she was sleeping. The incident is dramatized in the fifth episode of The Crown season 4, and the break-in really was as simple as the show makes it look. It’s the reason that Fagan broke into the palace and his interaction with the Queen that the series takes liberties with. He wasn’t so much a hero for the working class, as he was a guy who took advantage of bad security and was possibly still feeling the effects of psychedelic mushrooms.
So, who was the real Michael Fagan?
As shown in The Crown, Fagan really was a painter and decorator, really had been married to a woman named Christine who left him, and really did have children. He was born in London in 1948, and just so happened to have two sisters named Elizabeth and Margaret.
A 1993 interview with BBC 4’s “Famous for 15 Minutes” notes that his family situation played a role in his state of mind during his two break-ins — one when he met the Queen and one a month earlier when he toured the palace on his own.
How did Fagan get into Buckingham Palace?
It really was easy for Fagan to enter the palace twice, because of a lack of security and a series of coincidences, as explained in a Scotland Yard report from the time (via the New York Times). Fagan climbed the palace walls, scaled a drainpipe, and entered through a window. A palace staff member did see him, but didn’t deem him suspicious. Alarm beams were not functioning property. One alarm was heard, but assumed to be faulty. A maid was cleaning a room with the door closed and a footman was out walking the Queen’s dogs, so no one heard her personal alarm bell ring. The list of security issues goes on and on.
During Fagan's first break-in, a palace staff member did see him, but by the time she alerted others, he was gone.
What did Fagan and the Queen really talk about?
It’s this part where things get murky. A big deal was made of what Fagan and Queen Elizabeth talked about during the time they were together. At the time, his lawyer said that Fagan and the Queen spoke about the royal family until he was escorted away.
In Fagan’s 1993 BBC interview, he said that he went to the Queen's window and drew the curtains, at which point she realized there was an intruder. He sat on the end of her bed, but she yelled at him to leave. “A lot has been said about what went on in that room. This is the truth: She just said get out,” Fagan explained.
Fagan said a footman took him away and offered him a drink while they waited for the police to show up. According to the Scotland Yard report, the Queen and a maid “ushered Fagan into a nearby pantry on the pretext of supplying him with a cigarette” and kept him there while they waited for the police. The report also includes claims that Fagan had considered cutting his wrists in front of the Queen once he entered the palace, but didn’t end up doing it. He did cut his hand, as shown in The Crown, but it was on an ashtray that he broke; not by shattering a window.
Fagan’s story has evolved and grown more colorful in the years since the incident. He was asked about having a lengthy conversation with the Queen in a 2012 interview with the Independent and he said, “Nah! She went past me and ran out of the room; her little bare feet running across the floor.”
Why did Fagan break into Buckingham Palace?
Well, his explanation has changed over the years.
While on trial in 1982, Fagan said (via NYT), “Well, the security was so bad it was lax. I wanted to show as an example that I could get in. I got into the palace. I wanted to show the Queen isn't safe in that position.”
In the 1993 BBC interview, he said, “The Queen, to me, represented all that was keeping me down ... I just wanted her to know what it was like to be an ordinary chap trying to make ends meet." This interview is most in line with what we see on The Crown.
In the Independent interview in 2012, Fagan said, “I don't know why I did it, something just got into my head.” He added, “I went back because I thought 'that's naughty, that's naughty that I can walk round there.’” He also said he was being affected after taking psychedelic mushrooms five months prior. “I forgot you're only supposed to take a little handful. Two years later I was still coming down. I was high on mushrooms for a long, long time."
In 1982, Fagan’s parents spoke to British reporters about their son, as reported by the Washington Post. His father called him a “royal fanatic” and his mother said that he would visit the palace to see his “girlfriend, Elizabeth Regina." His mother also said, “He is not a revolutionary in any way. He has no political affiliations.”
What happened to Michael Fagan after the palace break-in?
Fagan entering Buckingham Palace and going to the Queen’s bedroom was a civil offense at the time, and he was not charged. Instead, he was charged with stealing half a bottle of wine that he drank during the first break in (yep, that Crown moment was real), which was a criminal offense. Fagan admitted to drinking the wine, but pleaded not guilty. The jury acquitted him because he had “no dishonest intent” to deprive the owner of the wine, as reported by the New York Times.
Fagan was briefly sent to Park Lane mental institution and Brixton prison on unrelated offenses, including stealing a car, which he was out on bail for during his second break-in. As reported by the Independent, he was found guilty of other crimes in the years that followed including attacking a police officer, indecent exposure, and conspiracy to supply heroin, for which he served four years in prison. He also made headlines for recording a cover of the Sex Pistols "God Save the Queen."
The Crown used Fagan’s story to make a point about the British working class during Margaret Thatcher's time as prime minister. Fagan’s motivations in the show are clear: No one in power will listen to me, so I’ll have to take my issues to the top. It’s something many people can relate to, and Fagan’s story does lend itself to that narrative. But, in reality, his break-ins weren't so poetic. While the act itself is depicted accurately, Fagan didn’t share his thoughts on Thatcher with a calm and receptive Queen Elizabeth, and as far as we know, he wasn’t secretly some sort of hero for the unemployed British public.
What does remain true is that no one will ever really know what it was like when Fagan and the Queen were alone — if only because he’s not the most consistent storyteller and she’s certainly not talking.