Princess Margaret, Royal Rebel: How Her Early Heartbreak and Headstrong Ways Moved the Monarchy Forward
From the age of 6, Princess Margaret was destined to live in the shadow of her older sister.
It was then that their father, Albert, became King George VI when his older brother,Edward VIII, gave up the throne after less than a year as king to marry the twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson. They became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and the scandal resulted in 10-year-old Princess Elizabeth becoming the future Queen of England.
The shake-up also vaulted Margaret from fourth to second in line, though she presumably never thought much of it because any children of Elizabeth’s would automatically precede her. But though she herself would never wear the crown, generations upon generations of royal protocol still prevented her life from ever being entirely her own.
Which isn’t to say that she didn’t enjoy herself.
“In one sense, she had such a voice, but she also wasn’t able to really own what she wanted in her life,” Vanessa Kirby, who plays Margaret on the sumptuous Netflix drama The Crown, told Bustle recently. “I felt so sorry for her, and it’s made me more passionate to live my life in the way that I would like to.”
Margaret and Elizabeth were very close as children growing up, the tense atmosphere of World War II providing the backdrop for their formative years.
“These were two entirely normal and healthy little girls, and we had our difficulties,” Marion Crawford, who spent 17 years with the family as governess, later wrote in an unauthorized memoir. “Neither was above taking a whack at her adversary, if roused, and Lilibet was quick with her left hook. Margaret was more of a close-in fighter, known to bite on occasions.”
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And despite some bumps along the way, they would remain close until Margaret’s death in 2002. Elizabeth’s younger sibling was one of the few true confidantes the queen had in her life as the responsibilities and pressure piled up immediately following her ascension to the throne in 1952.
Margaret was a bridesmaid when Elizabeth married Prince Philip in 1947, and they maintained a direct phone line between Buckingham Palace and Margaret’s residence at Kensington Palace for daily chats.
Though their lives were far from normal and Margaret refrained from referring to her sister in public as anything other than “the queen,” in private the younger sister still called her big sis by her childhood nickname of “Lilibet”—and she was still “Margot” to the queen.
But tradition was tradition, and the queen would always be a rung above Princess Margaret, compelled to serve as the family’s moral authority and bound by the rule of law and royal tradition. And a myriad of tests came early.
Not long before Elizabeth married Philip in November 1947, Margaret fell in love with the very married RAF Captain Peter Townsend, who as an attendant of her father’s worked in the palace and had accompanied the family on a trip to South Africa earlier that year.
“We rode together every morning in that wonderful country, in marvelous weather,” the princess told a friend about the tour, according to 2009’s Snowdon: A Biography. “That’s when I really fell in love with him.”
Townsend, who was 15 years older than Margaret, also had two sons. When George VI died in 1952, he moved from Buckingham Palace with Margaret and the Queen Mother to Clarence House; shortly after, he and his wife divorced.
The decorated officer, whose gentle temperament was said to have complemented Margaret’s more fiery nature, proposed to the princess in 1953—but it was when she casually brushed a speck of lint from his coat, as any girlfriend would, in the middle of her sister’s coronation in June 1953 that the media were shocked into attention, never to let up on the taboo couple.
Those whose approval would theoretically be necessary for them to marry were opposed to the match from the start.
Queen Elizabeth II was said to feel deeply for her sister’s predicament, but having barely warmed the throne she wasn’t yet in a position to rewrite history and all of a sudden make it perfectly acceptable for a member of the royal family to marry a divorcé.
Per the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, the reigning sovereign’s permission was required, and the queen did investigate all her options. Complicating the process, the Church of England ironically forbade divorce—though King Henry VIII had to leave the Catholic church and start the Church of England himself in 1532 to divorce his first wife so he could marry Anne Boleyn, lucky her. The British government was also that prudish about it. Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 rather than risk a constitutional crisis.
About to embark on a six-month tour of the Commonwealth, the queen asked her sister to wait a year, and then they would revisit. In the meantime, she first had Townsend transferred back to her staff at Buckingham Palace, and then the prime minister arranged a post for him in Belgium.
Margaret and Townsend wouldn’t see each other again until Oct. 12, 1955—when it became apparent that their hoped-for marriage would not be happening, despite a wave of public opinion in their favor.
“I would like it to be known that I have decided not to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend,” Margaret said in a statement that they drafted together and was issued by the Palace on Oct. 31. “I have been aware that, subject to renouncing my rights of succession, it might have been possible for me to contract a civil marriage. But mindful of the Church’s teachings that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before others. I have reached this decision entirely alone, and in doing so I have been strengthened by the unfailing support and devotion of Group Captain Townsend. I am deeply grateful for the concern of all those who have constantly prayed for my happiness.”
It was revealed about 13 years ago via documents unearthed from the National Archives that the queen and Prime Minister Anthony Eden had joined forces to draw up a plan for Margaret and Townsend’s proposed marriage, which would have allowed her to keep her royal title and allowance, and continue on as a face of the royal family, but give up her or any of her children’s place in the line of succession.
“Her Majesty would not wish to stand in the way of her sister’s happiness,” Eden, who was divorced himself, wrote in a letter to his fellow Commonwealth prime ministers.
Alas, the fight for their future had drained them both. “When it was done, we looked at each other,” Townsend recalled to a friend in a letter. “There was a wonderful tenderness in her eyes which reflected, I suppose, the look in mine. We had reached the end of the road, our feelings for one another were unchanged, but they had incurred for us a burden so great that we decided together to lay it down.”
So despite being still in love, they went their separate ways. Their love letters have been preserved in the archive at Windsor Castle, to remain sealed until what would’ve been Margaret’s 100th birthday, in 2030.
Hence Princess Margaret’s sad story line in The Crown‘s first season, with Ben Miles as Townsend.
After their breakup, Townsend met and married a Belgian tobacco heiress named Marie-Luce Jamagne, who at 20 was 24 years younger than him and was said to look a lot like Margaret.
The real deal, meanwhile, continued on as the toast of London society. Though still tethered to the monarchy, she led a modern (for now, even) celebrity lifestyle—sleeping late, doting on her dogs, lunching with mum, going to the theater, dining and living it up until all hours. Sleep, rinse, repeat.
Stories of Margaret’s cigarette and whiskey-fueled nights out kept the monarchy and the tabloids on their toes. Her rowdy circle included a number of men—all of whom she was romantically linked to, though only some of them were actual suitors. She was briefly engaged to Billy Wallace, the grandson of architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, but supposedly because, at 26, she felt it was best to at least settle for someone she liked. Margaret broke it off when he admitted to cheating on her during a holiday in the Bahamas.
“The thing with Townsend was a girlish nonsense that got out of hand. It was never the big thing on her part that people claim,” Wallace later said, per Britain’s Telegraph. “I had my chance and blew it with my big mouth, or she would have become Mrs. Wallace and I would have been able to handle her.”
While Wallace was likely exaggerating, it turned out Margaret was on the fence about Townsend by the time the two years of imposed delay were about up, though it could have just been the emotional fatigue—and royal propriety—talking. In a letter to PM Eden dated Aug. 15, 1955, she wrote, “I am not going to see him during this time but in October I shall be returning to London, and he will then be taking his annual leave—I do certainly hope to see him while he is there…But it is only by seeing him in this way that I feel I can properly decide whether I can marry him or not.”
Margaret’s friend and biographer Christopher Warwick told the Telegraph in 2009 that the princess had previously told him she had no idea of any plan in the works to allow her to marry.
“What is certain as a result of this letter is that she knew the Government was paving the way for the marriage if she wanted it and it proves that she was so much more involved in the process than she ever let on,” he said.
Margaret kept it very hush-hush when she embarked on a romance with society photographer and portraitist Antony Armstrong-Jones, who circulated among the artistic, progressive type of company she favored. (Enter Matthew Goode as the photographer when The Crown‘s second season starts streaming Friday.)
They were at Balmoral Castle when she found out that Townsend was engaged. Suspecting that Antony had been planning to propose, she actually asked him to hold off just a bit—which he did, waiting until the next day. In a feat that would be just about impossible today, their engagement announcement on Feb. 26, 1960, came as a great surprise to the world’s media, as no one really knew they were a couple in the first place.
Armstrong-Jones and Princess Margaret were married at Westminster Abbey on May 6, 1960, in the first royal wedding to be televised. About 300 million people tuned in, though a number of royal family heads from other nations RSVP’d no in objection to what they viewed as the princess’ inappropriate match.
Norman Hartnell, who also made Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding dress, designed Margaret’s gown. She had eight bridesmaids, including her then 9-year-old niece, Princess Anne.
They took a six-week cruise around the the Caribbean for their honeymoon. The bride’s friend Colin Tennant gifted the newlyweds with a vacation estate on his own private island of Mustique (which remains a favorite vacation spot for Kate Middleton and Prince William).
Princess Margaret and the newly christened Lord Snowdon moved into Kensington Palace upon their return to England, where they were known for hosting artists, actors and other glamorous types at chic soirees in their apartment. Margaret was a patron of a number of organizations and charities, as is the royal way, and she took great pride in her work for the arts (she was, among other things, president of the Royal Ballet), hospitals, the military, children and other causes close to her heart.
She and Armstrong-Jones went on to have two children together, David, 2nd Earl of Snowdon, and Lady Sarah, both of whom the queen is said to have great affection for.
Perhaps still subconsciously (or consciously) lamenting the marriage that didn’t happen, it was just a few years later, however, that one could imagine Margaret becoming a bit of a headache for her sister.
According to various biographical accounts of Margaret, her husband, the royal family and some of the gentlemen mentioned here, the princess became increasingly restless.
In 1966, two years after Sarah was born, the princess reportedly had a brief affair with her daughter’s godfather, winemaker Anthony Barton. Intimate letters that came to light later would seemingly confirm that, next, she had a dalliance with Robin Douglas-Home, nephew of former British PM Alec Douglas-Home. Her rumored celebrity conquests over the years included Peter Sellars, David Niven, Mick Jagger and Warren Beatty.
Tennant introduced then 43-year-old Margaret to Roddy Llewellen, a gardening expect 17 years her junior, in 1973, and—leading an increasingly separate life from her husband—they would enter into an eight-year-long relationship.
Under the guise of them being dear friends, they would holiday together at Margaret’s getaway in Mustique. Distraught by Llewellen taking off for Turkey on a vacation without her at one point, she swallowed a handful of sleeping pills, later saying, “I was so exhausted because of everything, all I wanted to do was sleep.”
In 1976, photos of Llewellen and Princess Margaret landed on the front page of News of the World, and she and Lord Snowdon were more or less forced to acknowledge the rupture of their marriage.
And it was then that Margaret, who may not have even thought it possible, insisted upon getting a divorce. Her wish was granted on July 11, 1978, making her the first royal to divorce since Princess Victoria Melita of Edinburgh in 1901. Snowdon, who supposedly hadn’t exactly been sitting around waiting for Margaret to come home nights, promptly remarried Lucy Lindsay-Hogg later that year.
The image of Margaret, the first “paparazzi princess” before Princess Diana—and later Kate Middleton, and now Meghan Markle—came along, did suffer in the public eye. No matter how much people relish a good scandal, they’re still quick to judge. Twenty years prior, the collapse of Margaret’s relationship with Townsend had been considered more of a black mark against the rest of the royal family, accused of getting in the way of the princess’ chance at happiness. She never blamed her family, however, and would insist that the decision not to marry him was ultimately hers alone.
But though the royal family bent a little, they did not break, and Margaret, not to mention her sister, the queen, powered through what at the time was the biggest scandal of the modern royal era.
The emergence of Princess Diana, who married Prince Charles in 1981 when she was only 20, changed everything, of course. The press and the public found a new person to obsess over, her shocking death in 1997 not diminishing that fascination in the slightest. If anything, it only increased.
Yet thanks at least in part to the travails of Princess Margaret, when Charles not only divorced but also wanted to remarry the divorced love of his life, Camilla Parker-Bowles, Queen Elizabeth II gave her consent—and Charles remains in line to succeed her, as does his son Prince William after him. Perhaps, though you’d never know it to look at her ever-stoic countenance, the queen felt by the 1990s that certain old rules just didn’t make sense any more.
Lord Snowdon—who turned out to have fathered a daughter before he married Margaret, and then went on to have two more children after their divorce—passed away this past January at 86. His biographer Anne de Courcy told the Telegraph, “Tony once said to me, ‘I do like change,’ and that was a powerful motif in all his frolics. They led him into one emotional car crash after another.”
Margaret and Townsend never entirely lost touch over the years, but they did not see each other again until they had a chance meeting in 1992. The following year they both attended a lunch at Kensington Palace, where an observer said they sat together on a sofa and “chatted like the old friends they were.” When he died in 1995 at the age of 80, the palace said that the princess was “sad” to hear the news.
Princess Margaret died in 2002 at the age of 71 after suffering a stroke. At her funeral, for the first time perhaps ever, Queen Elizabeth II looked anything less than stoic in public.
The Crown season 2 premieres Friday on Netflix.