The Queen’s “rebel sister”: 8 facts about Princess Margaret
The Queen’s “rebel sister”: 8 facts about Princess Margaret
Princess Margaret Rose Windsor (1930–2002), Countess of Snowdon and the younger sister of Queen Elizabeth II, was arguably one of the most popular royals in modern history. Known for her rebellious nature and determined personality, she made headlines around the world for her 'party-girl' lifestyle and her relationship with her father's equerry Group Captain Peter Townsend – a romance that featured in the blockbuster Netflix series The Crown. But how much do you know about the royal?
Here, we bring you eight facts about Princess Margaret…
Long before the rebellious Prince Harry came on to the scene, Princess Margaret – the younger sister of Queen Elizabeth II – established herself as the royal family’s ‘wild child’. Known in the press for her vivacious personality and antics, Margaret was an enthusiastic ‘party princess’ – drinking, smoking and cultivating friendships with a variety of celebrities, actors and musicians.
c1967: Princess Margaret chatting to Richard Burton and his wife Elizabeth Taylor, with Sir Michael Redgrave behind them. (Photo by Douglas Miller/Keystone/Getty Images)
It is arguably these elements of Margaret’s personality and lifestyle that made her such a fan-favourite on the Netflix TV series The Crown. Played by Vanessa Kirby, the first series charts Princess Margaret’s doomed relationship with Peter Townsend, while the second series explores her romance with Antony Armstrong-Jones (who Margaret married in 1960).
In the third series of The Crown, Princess Margaret is played by Helena Bonham Carter. “If Bonham Carter can capture even a fraction of her extraordinary, world-class rudeness, then audiences are surely in for a treat,” wrote Dominic Sandbrook for HistoryExtra.
But did you know…
Princess Margaret was the first member of the British royal family to be born in Scotland for more than 300 years
Princess Margaret was born on 21 August 1930 in Glamis Castle, Scotland, the family seat on her mother’s side. At the time of her birth, she was fourth in line to the throne through her father, Bertie (later King George VI). Although her parents hoped to call her Ann, the name was vetoed by her grandfather King George V, so they instead opted for the name Margaret Rose – which was later affectionately shortened to “Margot” by those close to her. According to the Independent, the registration of Margaret’s birth was delayed for several days to “avoid her being number 13 in the parish register”.
c1930: Queen Elizabeth, wife of King George VI, with her daughters princesses Elizabeth (left) and Margaret Rose. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Margaret has a number of other ‘royal firsts’ linked to her name: her wedding to photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones in 1960 was the first British royal wedding to be broadcast on national television, while her divorce, 18 years later in 1978, was the first for a senior royal since Queen Victoria’s granddaughter Princess Victoria Melita ended her marriage to Ernest of Hesse in 1901.
The real history behind The Crown
Want to know even more about the real events from history that inspired the drama? Read more from the experts…
Margaret had a close relationship with her sister, Queen Elizabeth II – but fought with her as a child
Margaret and Elizabeth enjoyed a relatively ordinary upbringing for children of their wealth and social position, and like many sisters with a close age gap they weren’t averse to a bit of sibling rivalry. Marion Crawford, who worked for 17 years as a governess for the family, wrote in an unauthorised biography titled The Little Princesses that they were “two entirely normal and healthy” little girls. “Neither was above taking a whack at her adversary if roused,” she disclosed. “Lilibet [Elizabeth] was quick with her left hook. Margaret was more of a close-in fighter, known to bite on occasions.”
c1936: Queen Elizabeth II (as Princess Elizabeth) and her younger sister Princess Margaret in the grounds of the Royal Lodge, Windsor. (Photo by Lisa Sheridan/Studio Lisa/Getty Images)
Biting aside, the pair maintained a close relationship into adulthood. Margaret served as a bridesmaid during Elizabeth’s marriage to Prince Philip in 1947, while Elizabeth gifted Margaret a 20-room apartment at Kensington Palace following the latter’s wedding to Antony Armstrong-Jones in 1960. According to Vanity Fair, Margaret installed a direct line to Buckingham Palace from her desk at Kensington Palace, thereby allowing the two sisters to frequently call one another.
Margaret had nightmares of disappointing the Queen
Being the sister of a reigning monarch may have taken its toll on Margaret. According to the journalist Craig Brown, author of Ma’am Darling:99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret, the princess had recurring nightmares about disappointing Elizabeth. When a novelist asked Margaret if she ever dreamt about the Queen, Margaret replied that she had nightmares of being “disapproved of”.
Princess Margaret (left) with her sister, Queen Elizabeth II, and her baby niece Princess Anne, c1951. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
As might be expected for a member of the royal family, Margaret lived a life of luxury. According to Brown, an average morning for the princess in her mid-20s began with breakfast in bed and finished with a “vodka pick-me-up” and four-course lunch:
An extract from Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret by journalist Craig Brown.
Margaret fell in love with an older man who may or may not have been married at the start of their relationship
Unlike her sister Elizabeth, Margaret was under no immediate pressure to marry. In her early twenties, she began a relationship with her father’s equerry, Group Captain Peter Townsend – a man 16 years her senior. Townsend had two children with his wife, Rosemary Pawle, and was considered – at least by royal standards – a commoner on a modest income. For the young princess, their relationship was her first experience of romantic love.
Although Margaret’s relationship with Peter Townsend is frequently referred to as an ‘affair’, it is not clear when they started their romance. Townsend divorced in 1952, and some sources suggest that he didn’t become close to Margaret until after the death of her father, King George VI, on 6 February 1952.
Group Captain Peter Townsend, who was once in a relationship with Princess Margaret, pictured getting into a car, c1955. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
Margaret chose her “duty to the Commonwealth” over marrying for love
Margaret’s relationship with Townsend was revealed to the public when an eagle-eyed journalist spotted the princess affectionately plucking a piece of lint from Townsend’s jacket during the Queen’s coronation at Westminster Abbey in 1953.
Later that year, in April 1953, Townsend proposed to the 22-year-old princess. Because Margaret was under the age of 25 at the time – and because she was so closely linked to the line of succession – the Queen’s consent to the marriage was required by the Royal Marriages Act of 1772. Faced with an impossibly difficult decision – and with varying pressures weighing down on her – Elizabeth asked Margaret to wait for a few years.
The princess and Townsend agreed to the request, planning to marry when Margaret turned 25. But just two years later, on 31 October 1955, Margaret released the following statement:
“I would like it to be known that I have decided not to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend. I have been aware that, subject to my renouncing my rights of succession, it might have been possible for me to contract a civil marriage.
“But mindful of the Church’s teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before any others.”
Had the Queen decided to stop Margaret from marrying Townsend? Not necessarily. (Although if the Netflix series The Crown is to be believed, Elizabeth had told her sister that she would no longer be a member of the family if she went ahead with the marriage.)
A copy of the front page of the London Daily Mirror from Tuesday 18 October 1955. (Photo by Bettman via Getty Images)
Papers released at the National Archives in 2004 show that the Queen and the then-prime minister Anthony Eden had drawn up a plan that would have permitted Margaret and Townsend to wed. There was, however, a ‘small’ catch: Margaret, and any children produced through the marriage, would be removed from the line of succession. The final draft of the proposal was produced on 28 October 1955, just three days before Margaret announced that she would not be marrying Townsend.
As Townsend himself put it, in his 1978 autobiography Time and Chance: “She could have married me only if she had been prepared to give up everything – her position, her prestige, her privy purse. I simply hadn’t the weight, I knew it, to counterbalance all she would have lost.”
An estimated 300 million people watched Margaret marry Antony Armstrong-Jones…
In February 1960, Margaret announced her engagement to photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones. The revelation surprised the media, who speculated that Margaret accepted the proposal shortly after learning that her former flame Peter Townsend intended to marry a 19-year-old Belgian woman named Marie-Luce Jamagne.
Three months later, on 6 May 1960, Margaret and Armstrong-Jones exchanged vows in a spectacular ceremony at Westminster Abbey. It was the first British royal wedding to be broadcast on television, and an estimated 300 million people tuned in to watch the occasion. Some 2,000 guests were invited, including the former prime minister Winston Churchill, Queen Ingrid of Denmark, and the king and queen of Sweden.
6th May 1960: The bridal group at Buckingham Palace at the wedding of Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
In comparison to the nuptials of Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, which took place during the post-war austerity of 1947, Margaret’s wedding was a lavish affair. Featuring 20 wedding cakes, a 60-foot floral arch and a dress made from more than 30-metres of fabric, the event reportedly cost £26,000 in total, with the honeymoon – a six-week jaunt on the royal yacht Britannia – adding an additional £60,000 to the bill. Following the honeymoon, the newlyweds moved into apartments at Apartment 1A, Kensington Palace. They went on to have two children: David, born on 3 November 1961, and Sarah, born on 1 May 1964.
1964: Princess Margaret with Lord Snowdon and Viscount Linley at Kensington Palace shortly after the birth of her daughter, Lady Sarah Armstrong-Jones. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
Margaret’s marriage ended in 1976 when her affair with another man, Roddy Llewellyn, was made public. The biographer Christopher Warwick has since suggested that Margaret’s most enduring legacy was establishing public acceptance of royal divorce. Her relationship history was a sad one, he wrote, but it did help make the choices of her sister’s children – three of whom divorced (Prince Charles, who married Lady Diana Frances Spencer in 1981 and divorced her in 1996; Princess Anne, who married Captain Mark Phillips in 1973 and divorced him in 1992; and Prince Andrew, Duke of York, who married Sarah Ferguson in 1986 and divorced her in 1996) – easier than they otherwise might have been.
Princess Margaret died on 9 February 2002 at the age of 71 at The King Edward VII Hospital after suffering a stroke and developing heart problems.
Helena Bonham Carter and Ben Daniels as Princess Margaret and her husband Lord Snowdon. (Image by Des Willie / Netflix)
Rachel Dinning is Digital Editorial Assistant at History Extra.
This article was first published on History Extra in September 2018