Who Is Penelope "Penny" Knatchbull?

She and Prince Philip strike up an unlikely friendship throughout the fifth season of 'The Crown.'

Natascha McElhone as Penny Knatchbull in 'The Crown'
(Image credit: Netflix)

After four seasons spent documenting nearly half a century of Queen Elizabeth II’s life—not to mention the lives of her family members, their many illicit love interests, and the roster of prime ministers she served alongside—you might think The Crown would be done introducing new characters. But you’d be wrong: The hit Netflix show debuted its fifth season on November 9, complete with several very important new faces (in addition, of course, to the new faces that have stepped in to age up the core cast of royals already familiar to fans of the show).

Season 5 of The Crown picks up right where season four left off, covering the late 1980s and early ‘90s. That means we catch our first glimpses of a pair of very consequential new love interests for Princess Diana—Hasnat Khan (played by Humayun Saeed) and Dodi Fayed (Khalid Abdalla), with the latter’s father, played by Salim Daw, serving as the star of his own episode. Season five also introduces an unlikely new friend for Prince Philip: the much younger Penelope Knatchbull (Natascha McElhone), who would remain close with the royal until the end of his life. Here’s everything you need to know about the real-life Penny and her three-decade friendship with Prince Philip.

Penelope and Philip knew each other for half a century.

The duo are believed to have first crossed paths in the 1970s, when Penelope began dating her future husband, Norton Knatchbull, 3rd Earl Mountbatten of Burma. If that title sounds familiar, it’s because Mountbatten is also Philip’s last name: Norton’s grandfather, Louis Mountbatten, was Philip’s uncle, who popped up occasionally throughout the first four seasons of The Crown as “Uncle Dickie” and became a mentor to Prince Charles.

If my calculations are correct, that makes Philip and Norton first cousins, once removed. To add another layer to their relationship, Philip was also godfather to Norton.

Norton was also close with his second cousin Charles. The Earl Mountbatten of Burma tapped the now-king to serve as best man in his 1979 wedding to Penelope.

Penelope Knatchbull in 'The Crown'

Natascha McElhone as Penny Knatchbull in 'The Crown'.

(Image credit: Netflix)

Philip and Penny’s friendship began after the Knatchbulls lost their daughter.

Toward the beginning of season five of The Crown, Prince Philip is shown reaching out to Penelope after the death of the Knatchbulls’ youngest daughter, Leonora, who died of kidney cancer in 1991 at the age of five. In the show, Philip helps coach Penny through her grief, providing guidance as she sets up the Leonora Children’s Cancer Fund charity and also encouraging her to pick up a hobby to stay busy. His suggested hobby? Carriage driving, a surprisingly thrilling sport that the elder royal had also recently begun to practice.

By many accounts, that’s pretty much how it went in real life, too. A Daily Mail report last year corroborated the onscreen origin story and their shared love of carriage driving, with an unnamed source noting that Philip “was a tremendous support for [Penelope] during a time of unimaginable grief” following Leonora’s death.

In later episodes, the duo’s friendship only grows stronger—adding some tension to Philip’s marriage as he increasingly turns to Penny, rather than Elizabeth, for “intellectual companionship.” To allay any outside suspicion, he’s shown encouraging his wife to spend more time with Penny. Indeed, the women were often spotted out and about together IRL, confounding the unproven reports of a secret relationship between Philip and Penelope that occasionally cropped up throughout their decades of closeness.

Penelope Knatchbull and Prince Philip

Penny Knatchbull and Prince Philip.

(Image credit: Netflix)

Penelope Knatchbull and Prince Philip

Penny Knatchbull and Prince Philip.

(Image credit: Netflix)

Penelope was one of just a few people in attendance at Philip’s funeral.

The 30-year friendship between the pair—who were themselves about 30 years apart in age—came to a close in 2021, when Philip died at the age of 99. Because of COVID-related restrictions, a maximum of 30 people were allowed at the funeral, and Penelope made the cut, Reuters reported at the time, proving beyond a doubt the significance of their friendship. (She was also in attendance at Queen Elizabeth’s funeral in September of this year.)

The 2021 Daily Mail report—which was published the day of Philip’s funeral, where Penelope reportedly appeared “heartbroken”—described her as “the second-most important woman in the duke of Edinburgh’s life.” An aide noted in the article that she was one of only a few friends that Philip “continued to see regularly after 2017 and his withdrawal from royal duties.”

Andrea Park is a Chicago-based writer and reporter with a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the extended Kardashian-Jenner kingdom, early 2000s rom-coms and celebrity book club selections. She graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism in 2017 and has also written for W, Brides, Glamour, Women's Health, People and more.