If you thought Tampongate was going to be the most bizarre royal scandal depicted on The Crown, grab a seat. Let’s discuss the “toe-sucking” incident of 1992.
In season 5, episode 4, Queen Elizabeth II (Imelda Staunton) sits down with her son Prince Andrew (James Murray) to discuss his marriage with Sarah Ferguson. By this point, he and the Duchess of York, who doesn’t appear onscreen this season, are separated. The duchess has even been linked with an American named Steve Wyatt and is now dating her financial advisor, John Bryan. The latter was photographed with Fergie in St. Tropez “doing something unmentionable,” Andrew warns the Queen. His poor mother doesn’t want to know what, but alas, he tells her anyway: “Sucking Sarah’s toes, Mummy.” Scenes later, she finds photos of the act published in the Daily Mirror.
While The Crown creator Peter Morgan tends to imagine the exact details of royal events, this scandal hardly needed embellishing. The Duchess of York was in fact photographed on a romantic vacation with Bryan in 1992, months after she and Andrew announced their separation. In the most infamous image, she’s lying in a pool chaise with a foot raised, which Bryan holds up against his mouth. (While the world would go on to assume and remember that he was sucking on her toes, Bryan reportedly insisted that he was just kissing them.) The Daily Mirror published this and a number of other paparazzi photos from the getaway, including Ferguson sunbathing topless, Bryan lying on top of her on a chaise, and the couple kissing.
If Ferguson were any other woman in any other family, and not engaging in an affair, these would be photos of an unbothered woman living her life (who are we to kink-shame in 2022?) and whose romantic vacation was intruded upon by nosy photographers. And while the latter part about the media’s disrespect for her privacy rings true, the former doesn’t: Ferguson wasn’t just anyone; she was still at the time the daughter-in-law to the Queen. Obviously, the royal family didn’t take this well.
Apparently, Ferguson was in Balmoral Castle with the Queen, Prince Philip, Prince Andrew, as well as Prince Charles and Princess Diana, when the photographs were published in real life. According to her memoir, My Story, Ferguson warned the Queen and Prince Andrew about the images in advance, to which he replied, “Don’t worry, we’ll just deal with it.” Still, the photos were said to upset the Queen and especially Prince Philip, whose relationship with Fergie is believed to be sour ever since. Per The Washington Post, Buckingham Palace issued a short statement in response to the photos, but focused on the intrusive way they taken: “We strongly disapprove of the publication of photographs taken in such circumstances.”
Ferguson herself eventually addressed the photos years later. In a 2011 CNN interview, she said, “I remember seeing it and just going, ‘Oh no, Sarah.’” She added, “I think it’s an extraordinary tale and it’s one which every day I work at and every day I try and see how and why I did these things.” She even clarified what she and Bryan were really doing in her 1996 memoir. “John and I were actually playing Cinderella when the picture was snapped, the whole scene was not nearly as intense as it was made to look,” she wrote, per Newsweek.
In The Crown, Prince Andrew then uses this moment and the “sheer humiliation of it all” (though this would not be the biggest scandal he’d face) to ask for his mother’s permission to divorce Ferguson. The couple did formally divorce in 1996, four years after the scandal. But the photos weren’t the only cause for their breakup; the cracks were already forming early on, as the couple spent most of their time apart due to Andrew’s naval duties. They reportedly only saw each other 40 days a year for the first five years of their marriage.
“And two weeks after the wedding, the courtiers told Andrew, who thought he’d be stationed in London, ‘You have to go to sea,’” Ferguson told Harper’s Bazaar in 2007. “I spent my entire first pregnancy alone; when Beatrice was born, Andrew got 10 days of shore leave, and when he left and I cried, they all said: ‘Grow up and get a grip.’”
Plus, Ferguson wanted to work, which, at the time, seemed unfit for a duchess—“so Andrew and I decided to make the divorce official so I could go off and get a job,” she added to Bazaar.
Despite all the hubbub surrounding the paparazzi scandal and their separation, Ferguson wanted to remain on good terms with the Queen during the divorce. “When I met with Her Majesty about it, she asked, ‘What do you require, Sarah?’ and I said, ‘Your friendship,’ which I think amazed her because everyone said I would demand a big settlement. But I wanted to be able to say, ‘Her Majesty is my friend’—not fight her nor have lawyers saying, ‘Look, she is greedy.’ I left my marriage knowing I’d have to work. I have.”
Through the years, Ferguson and Prince Andrew have also remained on great terms and still live together in Windsor. Their daughter Princess Eugenie has even joked that “They are the best divorced couple I know.”
Ferguson hasn’t addressed The Crown‘s depiction of the toe-kissing scandal at the time of writing, but she is known to be a fan of the show. She even commended its portrayal of her and Prince Andrew’s wedding in an earlier season and wrote to executive producer Andy Harries to offer insight on her character, which he declined. Ferguson once joked to Town & Country about her limited presence in The Crown. “Hello? Where is Fergie?” she teased. I wonder what she thinks about that now.
Erica Gonzales is the Senior Culture Editor at ELLE.com, where she oversees coverage on TV, movies, music, books, and more. She was previously an editor at HarpersBAZAAR.com. There is a 75 percent chance she’s listening to Lorde right now.