A rite of passage for any couple, meeting the parents is up there as one of the most stressful milestones in any relationship. And when your partner’s parents happen to be royal, it’s bound to make things 10 times harder.
For those who’ve already seen the second episode of The Crown‘s latest season, Prince Charles and Princess Diana‘s trip to Balmoral castle was more than a standard meet-and-greet and involved Diana staying at the royals’ residence, Balmoral Castle, with the entire royal family.
And as it turns out, the so-called ‘Balmoral Test’ was not just a drama-filled plot line for the series but was in fact real and felt more like an initiation ritual than anything else.
Not strictly for partners, the test must be completed by every distinguished guest who wants to become a more prominent fixture in the royal family. From where it’s located to what takes place, here’s everything you need to know.
What Is Balmoral Castle And Where Is It Located?
Purchased by Queen Victoria in 1848, the Highlands castle is located in the sprawling landscape of Scotland. Since the purchase, the Aberdeenshire retreat has become a go-to holiday destination for the royal family, particularly Queen Elizabeth II who spends most of her summers there.
“I think Granny is the most happy there. I think she really, really loves the Highlands,” revealed Princess Eugenie in the documentary The Queen At Ninety.
But of course, Balmoral is more than just a castle. The entire estate boasts approximately 50,000 acres of land and contains 150 buildings.
While spending time at Balmoral, the family are known to ride their horses, spend time fishing, hunting and picnicking. And according to a comment made by Lord Lichfield, a former photographer for the family, in 1972, the Windsors “act as normal people—to a point” while they’re there.
In real life, Prince Philip has an active role in managing the grounds and its natural elements, like the gardens and greenery.
Nowadays, Balmoral has become Queen Elizabeth II’s summer home that she and Prince Philip retreat to every year with other royal family members, such as Prince William, Kate Middleton, and their kids.
What Is ‘The Balmoral Test’ And How Do You Pass?
If you manage to nab your own invitation to visit Balmoral, it’s important to note that scrutiny by the Windsors will be involved. And just like Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher in The Crown, it is vital to know the home’s particularities.
As royal biographer Omid Scobie states, “they call it the queen’s Balmoral Test but I would call it more of a royal initiation.”
“Out of those privileged enough to have been invited to Balmoral Castle during the summer, not everyone has passed. Diana famously flew through it, thanks to her aristocratic background and upbringing, but the likes of Cherie Blair [the wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair] and our current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, have not.”
A make-or-break moment for any future social dealing with the royals, a weekend at Balmoral is considered to be a “social minefield”, according to Andrew Morton’s Princess Diana: Her Story in Her Own Words.
“Those who successfully navigate the social minefield, popularly known as the Balmoral Test, are accepted by the royal family. The ones who fail vanish from royal favour as quickly as the Highland mists come and go.”
Every Prime Minister of the U.K. is expected to visit annually, with Margaret Thatcher allegedly calling Balmoral “purgatory,” according to the Queen’s biographer, Ben Pimlott, as The Guardian reports.
“Prepare to brush up on your royal protocol, have a wealth of talking points at the ready, an outfit for EVERY occasion (from hunting to black tie) and, most importantly, be on your best behaviour at all times. Social etiquette is a must! If you don’t like the food, eat it anyway. If you don’t like trampling through the Highlands in the wind and rain, tough! Unlike a visit to Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle, this is the queen’s private residence and a front row seat within her inner sanctum. You are entering her space and whatever she does goes.”
According to Pimlott, guests have been known to go as far as packing brand new pyjamas, underwear and toiletries so that “when a maid or valet unpacks their belongings away in their room, absolutely nothing can be judged and no negative word can get back to the Queen”.
“But despite all the talk of it being a ‘test’, the Queen is also at her most laid back during summers at Balmoral. Her Majesty will always goes out of her way to make every guest feel welcome and at home. You will be included in the family barbecues, part of every meal and, if you’re lucky enough, get to play with the queen’s dogs.”
As seen in The Crown’s reimagining of the test, Diana successfully passed, fitting right in with the Windsors. “She was a triumph. In the history of Balmoral, no one has ever passed the test with such flying colours,” Charles tells Camilla Parker-Bowles on the phone. And as we saw, Charles’s family encouraged him to marry Diana following that weekend, all thanks to the test.
What did Princess Diana really think about Balmoral?
Seeing as she passed the test almost effortlessly, one would think Princess Diana enjoyed her time there in the years after. But as it turns out, she rather dreaded some of her later trips.
According to Diana’s interviews with Morton, she claimed that she felt certain “negative atmospheres” at the castle with the royal family.
“This myth about me hating Balmoral—I love Scotland, but just the atmosphere drains me to nothing,” she admitted to Morton. “I go up ‘strong Diana.’ I come away depleted of everything, because they just suck me dry, because I tune in to all their moods and, boy, are there some undercurrents there! Instead of having a holiday, it’s the most stressful time of the year. It’s very close quarters.”
“The first couple of days, I’m frightfully chirpy when I get up there and everything’s wonderful. By the third day, they’re sapping me again. There are so many negative atmospheres. That house sucks one dry.”
She added, “I panic a lot when I go up to Balmoral. It’s my worst time, and I think: ‘How the hell am I going to get out of this?’
However, the estate continues to hold huge significance in Diana’s life. After their infamous wedding in July 1981, less than a year after that first trip there, Charles and Diana even returned to the castle to finish their honeymoon.
And when Diana tragically died in 1997, William and Harry were at Balmoral with Queen Elizabeth, who instructed her staff to let the children sleep in before telling them the news, and banned all newspapers with headlines about the crash, per the Washington Post.
Prince Charles’s love for Balmoral goes way back, though. He once said when leaving for his second year at Cambridge in 1968, “I cannot tell you how much I miss Balmoral and the hills and the air—I feel very empty and incomplete without it all.”
Was The Crown filmed at Balmoral?
Sadly, no royal hideaways were used when it came to filming The Crown. And when it came to the trip to Balmoral, Ardverikie Estate in the Scottish highlands was the perfect choice for the stunning backdrop. But of course, this doesn’t rule out seeing the castle in person.
Balmoral is open to the public during the months of April through July, and you can learn more about visiting here.