Lord Snowdon and Princess Margaret: why did their marriage break down?
The marriage of Antony Armstrong-Jones, later Lord Snowdon, to Queen Elizabeth II’s younger sister, Princess Margaret, seemed at first like a fairy tale: together he and Margaret made the country’s most exciting, glamorous couple. But, says Anne de Courcy – who met and interviewed Lord Snowdon numerous times while writing her authoritative biography of him – all too soon, cracks began to show. Here, ahead of the third season of The Crown, which explores the breakdown of their marriage, de Courcy charts the couple’s doomed romance as well as their numerous extra-marital affairs…
At first glance, the marriage of Princess Margaret to Antony Armstrong-Jones, later Lord Snowdon, on 6 May 1960 seemed like a fairy tale – the beautiful princess marries the handsome young man who has secretly courted her. The princess – lovely, wilful, passionate, haloed with the mystique of royalty – was an ultra-desirable figure of her day. No man on whom she turned her wonderful violet-blue eyes could have resisted; and it was no surprise that after her doomed romance with Group Captain Peter Townsend she was surrounded by a circle of aristocratic and wealthy admirers.
Who was Antony Armstrong-Jones?
In the more Bohemian world in which he moved, Antony Armstrong-Jones – as was his name before he married Princess Margaret – was also well known. Before he was 25 years old he had begun to revolutionise theatre photography, which had previously consisted of formulaic, perfectly posed portraits of the stars.
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Instead, ‘Tony’ would prowl among the cast at rehearsals, flitting about in well-worn jeans while snapping away with a small hand-held camera. The results were blown up into grainy, gritty poster-size shots of the actors in full flow that compelled from across the street or dominated the theatre foyer. Nothing like it had been seen before.
Together he and Margaret made the country’s most exciting, glamorous couple – good-looking, romantic, photogenic and deeply in love, their drawing-room a place where the arts and the establishment met and mingled in a way never seen before.
And for the first few years, their marriage was all either of them could have desired. They seemed perfect partners, from their shared sense of humour; ability to make each other laugh; joint tastes for ballet, theatre, water-skiing, swimming and sunbathing; to the intense mutual physicality of their relationship.
“They could hardly keep their hands off each other,” one friend told me of the early days of their relationship.
How did Tony and Margaret first meet?
They first met at a small dinner party given by the princess’s lady-in-waiting, Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, in 1958, but they did not ‘click’ until a few months later when one of the princess’s admirers asked for a photograph of her and arranged for Tony to take it.
His easy flow of chat, wit and animal high spirits intrigued Margaret and it was not long before he became part of her circle. Their engagement, however, was the best-kept royal secret of the last century, a courtship so clandestine that no-one, bar a very few, knew of it – certainly not the women with whom he was involved at the time.
The first was his long-term girlfriend, the actress Jacqui Chan. She had begun to notice Tony’s mysterious absences but when she questioned them, was brusquely told that they were none of her business. Then there was Gina Ward, the gorgeous young actress with whom Tony had also been having an affair. “But you’re in love with me!” she cried, when he told her of his engagement.
Nor did any of these women, and least of all the princess, know that during their courtship Tony had conceived a child with a former girlfriend, Camilla Grinling – who was by then married to Tony’s best friend, Jeremy Fry. (This child, a daughter, was born while the Snowdons were on honeymoon.)
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But all too soon, cracks began to show. The year after Margaret and Tony's wedding, Margaret gave birth to their first child, a son named David, in November 1961. But by the time their second child, a daughter named Sarah (the future Lady Sarah Chatto), was born in 1964, problems in the marriage had begun to show. Both were used to being centre stage – and each wanted their own way. Being a princess, Margaret was not used to contradiction, while Tony's sunny manner, flow of wit and easy charm concealed an intensely manipulative streak coupled with a ruthless determination that could persuade, cajole or occasionally bully almost anyone into doing exactly what he wanted.
Then there were the affairs. Most of these, whether fleeting or drawn-out, were on Tony’s side. For along with the charm, the looks, the boundless energy and intense creativity went a highly charged libido. His mainsprings were, quite literally, sex and work; and both were essential to him.
Largely thanks to the princess, Tony had joined the newly launched Sunday Times colour magazine. His work took him away from Margaret for most of the day. Then there was his passion for making things. Often he would disappear the moment he came home to his work room in the basement of their Kensington Palace apartment to work on, say, a bookcase for their home or a copper hood for the cooker while Margaret, who had been alone all day, waited in vain upstairs (if she came down to the workroom she was quickly sent upstairs again). Increasingly, she began to feel isolated within the marriage.
A place to call home
But almost nothing caused greater problems than the question of a house in the country. Both of them longed for a place of their own (the Kensington Palace apartment, being a royal residence, was in the gift of the Queen), both had different ideas on this.
Tony wanted Old House, a smallish and dilapidated property on the Nymans estate of his grandparents in West Sussex, which he had known and loved from childhood, whereas Princess Margaret wanted to accept the Queen’s offer of a site near Sunninghill in Berkshire, with its closeness to her family. She detested Old House, partly because of the lack of privacy – it was far too small for her maid and security officer to stay and there was a right of way close by the drawing room windows – and partly because she said it was haunted.
Furious arguments raged, made even more acrimonious when the princess discovered that Tony had simply gone ahead with the refurbishment of his beloved Old House. From this time onwards, it became a place where he would entertain his friends or conduct love affairs.
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There were plenty of these. One was with Lady Jacqueline Rufus-Isaacs, the dazzling daughter of Tony’s country neighbours, Lord and Lady Reading, that was at first secret – her parents would have been furious if they had known. Margaret finally discovered it when Tony went into the London Clinic for an operation for piles and she found Jackie at his bedside. “I could nurse him, you know,” the humiliated princess told a friend plaintively. “When I was a Girl Guide I got a badge for nursing.”
At the same time, Tony contacted former girlfriends, sometimes to rekindle old flames – “I believe in serial and simultaneous,” Tony told me.
Amid rancour, public rows and extra-marital affairs Margaret and Tony’s marriage disintegrated. She had her freezing royal stare, he was quicker-witted and more merciless; both sought comfort with others.
Princess Margaret’s affair with Roddy Llewellyn
Margaret had a brief, well-documented fling with the society pianist Robin Douglas-Home, and then a handsome Cambridge friend of Tony's, a vineyard-owner named Anthony Barton. Then, triggering the Snowdons’ pre-divorce separation, Princess Margaret met Roddy Llewellyn, in appearance a younger, better-looking version of Tony and considerably kinder to her. Their affair became known through a photograph of them together in the Caribbean island of Mustique (or 'Mistake' as Tony always called it), and in 1976, by now barely speaking to one another, Tony and Margaret separated officially.
Lord Snowdon’s second marriage
Tony, filming in Australia with Lucy Lindsay Hogg, the woman with whom he was then having an affair (and who would become his second wife, in December 1978), issued a dignified statement. Yet within 18 months he had begun a liaison with a journalist, Ann Hills, that would last for 25 years. His divorce from Princess Margaret was finalised in July 1978 and in December 1978 he married Lucy. Princess Margaret was aged 47 and Tony was 48.
Ann Hills, who had known nothing of the relationship with Lucy, was devastated but decided to continue their liaison, even though the newlyweds had a daughter, Frances, the following year (1979). All seemed set fair for Tony and Lucy; even Princess Margaret, after a few sterilising years, would send him postcards beginning ‘Darling T’ and ending ‘Love from M’ (as he had always called her).
Not until December 1996 did the different strands of Tony’s life began to unravel. On New Year's Eve, Ann Hills – for whom everything from work and marriage to her love for Tony seemed to have gone wrong – died after drinking a cocktail of champagne and sleeping pills. With Tony’s the last voice on her answerphone, it was not long before their affair became public knowledge.
Memories of Lord Snowdon
For several years, I heard the ins and outs of this complicated life first hand. I was writing Tony’s biography – the only one for which he has ever spoken openly. Once a week, I would go around to his elegant Kensington house, press the clanging bell by the basement side door and enter through to his studio at the rear.
Here he would be sitting, bright-eyed and expectant, in a coloured shirt, chinos, his favourite salmon-coloured socks and Chelsea boots; on his wedding finger his gold signet ring, cut away underneath so that it fitted over his two wedding rings. He would greet me with a kiss, there would be a cup of coffee and I would pull out my tape recorder.
Lucy, discreet, loyal and courageous, remained by his side throughout the Hills affair. However, the next revelation, only 18 months later, was to prove too much. Tony had been invited to guest-edit the 6 November 1997 edition of Country Life (celebrating its centenary that year) and had begun work on it in early spring 1997.
That May, he had begun an affair with the magazine’s features editor, Melanie Cable-Alexander, the 34-year-old daughter of a baronet, who had been deputed to act as his assistant. On 30 April 1998 their son, Jasper, was born.
It was too much for Lucy, who moved out of the pretty house in Launceston Place, west London, staying with friends until she found a flat. Divorce proceedings were put into motion but halted after the decree nisi was given so that both – as Tony frequently reminded people – remained still married.
It is not known exactly why the couple never took the final step to officially divorce, and married they remained, until Tony’s death in January 2017 at the age of 86. Wheelchair-bound, to the last he was telephoning friends, anxious for news and gossip. His own life provided more than enough.
Anne de Courcy is a writer, journalist and book reviewer and the author of the authoritative Lord Snowdon biography (Snowdon: the Biography, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008) – the only biography for which Lord Snowdon has ever spoken openly. To find out more, visit www.annedecourcy.com
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in November 2019.