Princess Margaret’s final years
Season five of The Crown, beginning in the early 1990s, sees the gradual decline of one of its most vibrant and controversial characters, charting the failing health of Princess Margaret, once a dazzling beauty and staple of the gossip columns. Anne de Courcy maps Princess Margaret’s life and final years, and considers what might have led to her early death…
In February 1999, the 68-year-old Princess Margaret was holidaying on Mustique, in her private villa Les Jolies Eaux. One morning, she went into the bathroom to wash her hair. Stepping into the bath, she inadvertently turned on the bath taps instead of those of the overhead shower. The water that gushed out of them was, thanks to a faulty thermostat, near-boiling.
Janie Stevens, lady-in-waiting and friend to the princess, became alarmed by Margaret’s non-appearance and went into the bathroom, where she found the Princess sitting dazed on the edge of the bath, her feet appallingly scalded and in great pain.
The incident, which left Margaret hospitalised, was a well-publicised episode in a broader period of declining health and spirit, a sorry trajectory for the Queen’s sister, once the sparkling face of the royal family.
Princess Margaret’s early life
Princess Margaret was born at her mother’s home, Glamis Castle, on 21 August 1930. She was four years younger than her sister, the then Princess Elizabeth. At the time, their parents, the Duke and Duchess of York, had no idea of the future that awaited them.
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With an older brother, the future Edward VIII, as heir to the throne, the Duke of York had believed that he and his family (‘we four’, as he often described them) would continue to lead the quiet and peaceful life they so enjoyed. But Edward’s abdication in December 1936 catapulted not only the Duke and Duchess, as the new king and queen, into public roles for the rest of their lives. It also altered the relationship between their two daughters.
No longer was Margaret simply the younger sister of an older sibling, but of someone who would one day become the most important figure in the kingdom – while she remained, merely, the younger sister.
Read more about the history behind each episode of The Crown season 5:
- The Crown S5 E1: ‘Queen Victoria Syndrome’ and a second honeymoon
- The Crown S5 E2: Prince Philip’s ‘keeper of secrets’ and Andrew Norton’s book on Princess Diana
- The Crown S5 E3: exiled royals and the al-Fayeds
- The Crown S5 E4: the Queen’s “annus horribilis” and Princess Margaret’s relationship with Peter Townsend
- The Crown S5 E5 real history: ‘Camillagate’ tapes and a “war council” for the monarchy’s survival
- The Crown S5 E6 real history: the Romanovs’ murder, and Philip’s “spiritual companionship”
- The Crown S5 E7 real history: the introduction of Martin Bashir, and a royal education
- The Crown S5 E8 real history: Diana’s Panorama interview causes fireworks
- The Crown S5 E9 real history: the divorce settlement between Charles and Diana
Separation of sisters
Of course, this dramatic change in status was not immediately apparent to the small child Margaret then was. But as she grew older, it was clear that Princess Elizabeth was being groomed as future queen.
The children had always done everything together, including lessons under the supervision of their governess Marion Crawford; now Elizabeth was being given twice-weekly tuition in constitutional history by Henry Marten (later Sir Henry) the Vice-Provost of Eton (conveniently close to Windsor Castle); and Margaret was unhappy that she was not included.
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In fact, all her life she would regret her lack of education and, in later days, when she visited museums, would map out programmes and take notes on objects or paintings she particularly admired, to study them afterwards.
As the princesses grew up, the difference in their temperaments was underlined by the differing roles they would play. Elizabeth, naturally more serious and responsible, had begun to realise her destiny, while Margaret was, as their governess ‘Crawfie’ put it, “warm and demonstrative”, with a well-developed sense of mischief.
“Lilibet is my pride, Margaret is my joy,” said the King. Both parents, conscious that as the girls grew up, Margaret would be relegated more and more to the background, tried to make it up to her by indulging her, something that may have encouraged a naturally rebellious streak.
When the two princesses respectively reached 18 – the age at which upper-class girls traditionally ‘came out’ – the difference in their roles was apparent. Elizabeth, in those wartime years, was in ATS uniform learning how to maintain and repair vehicle engines.
Margaret, now a pocket Venus with an hour-glass figure, was free to go to the parties that were beginning again and to take on public roles and presidencies such as those of the NSPCC and the Girl Guides Association.
She was also in love – with a glamorous war hero sixteen years older than herself. Group Captain Peter Townsend, DSO, DFC and Bar, who had been appointed equerry to her father in 1944, a job in which he saw the Princesses almost every day. After her idolised father’s death in 1952, Townsend must also have represented the security so often found with someone older.
But Townsend was divorced (although the innocent party) which meant that the Queen, as Head of the Church of England, which in those days forbade the remarriage of divorced persons, could not give her consent. At 25, if Margaret gave up much of her royal status, she would be free to marry. But when the time came, she renounced Townsend in a touching statement.
Then came the party years: Margaret in a wasp-waisted Dior dress, long ivory cigarette holder in manicured hand, Margaret in night clubs, Margaret doing the can-can at the American Embassy, Margaret at the centre of a group of friends, her violet-blue eyes smiling first on one suitor, then another – among them Colin Tennant (later Lord Glenconner), ‘Johnny’ Dalkeith and ‘Sunny’ Blandford, heirs to the Buccleuch and Marlborough fortunes and estates respectively; ideal conventional husbands for a princess.
She was the Diana of her day, one of the two most photographed women in the world (the other was Elizabeth Taylor) and garlanded with the aura of a tragic romance.
An unlikely suitor
But Princess Margaret did not settle for domesticity with a duke. Instead, in an extraordinary divergence from conventional royal behaviour, she chose a photographer, Antony Armstrong-Jones (later Lord Snowdon) at a time when photography was regarded as a trade rather than a profession. True, Tony, as everyone called him, had been to Eton and danced at debutante balls, but when he took the photographs for Colin Tennant’s wedding to Lady Anne Coke (later Lady Glenconner, she became a lady-in-waiting to the princess), he was sent to the back door tradesman’s entrance and Anne’s father, the Earl of Leicester, derogatorily dubbed him ‘Tony Snapshot’.
Unlike other royal courtships, Margaret’s romance with Tony was conducted in such total secrecy that the first the world, and the avid press, knew of it was the announcement of their engagement on the Six O’Clock News. They were married in May 1960.
After the birth of Princess Margaret and Antony’s two children, their marriage gradually began to fall apart and, although they did not divorce until 1978, both largely went their separate ways.
Around the same time, Margaret began making annual visits to the Caribbean island of Mustique, where its owner, her friend Colin Glenconner, had given her a plot of land on which a private villa was built – Les Jolies Eaux.
In 1973, she began an affair with Roddy Llewellyn, a sweet-natured man 17 years her junior. When it was revealed, causing a tabloid scandal, Margaret was vilified; a far cry from her celebrations as a glittering young debutante.
Throughout these turbulent years, Margaret’s love and loyalty to the Queen never faltered. Although they had very different personalities, she said they rarely argued. “I’ve only twice ever had a row with my sister,” Margaret told author Andrew Duncan.
The two would speak on the telephone most days; what the Queen wished for above all was her sister’s happiness saying, much later, to Anne Glenconner: “It was rather difficult at moments, but I thank you so much for introducing Princess Margaret to Roddy because he made her really happy.”
As she entered her sixties, Princess Margaret’s health deserted her. She had smoked heavily since her early teens – although she gave up smoking in 1991 – and drunk equally heavily, mostly her favourite whisky, Famous Grouse. Already, at 54, a portion of her left lung had been removed and she suffered from migraines, bronchitis and laryngitis. Additionally, Anne Glenconner had noticed that she would often pause in mid-sentence for a few seconds before carrying on as if nothing had happened.
In 1993, she was rushed to hospital with pneumonia. Then 1998, on her annual three-week visit to Mustique, she and the Glenconners were out to dinner with friends when Margaret suddenly slumped over the table. She had suffered a mild stoke but, bar a slight speech impediment, seemed to recover well from it.
And then came the trauma of the bathtub scalding. Despite her injuries, Margaret had to leave the villa because her son, David Linley, had let it out almost immediately afterwards. Somehow Janie found them another place but she had to leave shortly thereafter. So, Anne Glenconner took over as the princess’s day-and-night nurse. She wore a buzzer around her neck at all times and, as the princess would allow no one in her room but Anne, whom she summoned constantly, it was a wearing time.
Eventually the exhausted Anne rang the Queen to say that either she must have more help or else the princess must be flown home – by Concorde, as she was not strong enough for the much longer regular transatlantic flight. The two were flown home.
Margaret’s recovery was slow and only partial, and she suffered a relapse before Christmas 2000. Three months later, in March 2001, she had a further stroke, which left her paralysed down her left side so that she now needed a wheelchair. Her sight was also impaired.
Princess Margaret's final moments and death
She was last seen in public before Christmas 2001 at the 100th birthday party of Princess Alice, the dowager duchess of Gloucester, sitting in a wheelchair, her face puffy and swollen through medication, her famous eyes hidden behind dark glasses.
Soon afterwards, after a further stroke that left her with heart problems, she was rushed to the King Edward VII’s Hospital in London, where she died peacefully in her sleep at 6.30am on 9 February 2002, her son and daughter at her side.
Her final years were a sad contrast with the lovely young woman remembered by so many and, by the Queen, as “my beloved sister”.
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)