Princess Margaret: from glamorous royal to a slide into tragedy

Princess Margaret was an almost impossibly glamorous symbol of Britain's postwar journey from austerity to modernity. But then Britain hit the buffers – and so did Margaret's fortunes. Dominic Sandbrook asks, where did it all go wrong for Queen Elizabeth's younger sister?

Princess Margaret attends the premiere of Captain Horatio Hornblower, Leicester Square, 1951. (Photo by Ron Burton/Keystone/Getty Images)

During the spring of 1976, senior advisers to Queen Elizabeth II approached the prime minister, Harold Wilson, with a problem. After almost 16 years, her sister Margaret’s marriage to the photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones was in trouble. The princess had retreated to the Caribbean island of Mustique recently with her latest lover, Roddy Llewellyn, a would-be gardener almost two decades her junior. The affair was common knowledge on Fleet Street, and the palace wanted to nip speculation in the bud by announcing Margaret and Lord Snowdon were to separate.

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Wilson believed he had the ideal solution to curb the media sensation this would cause. He had long been planning his resignation, so suggested that the palace break the news a day or two afterwards as it would be overshadowed by the political fallout. But he was wrong. For when Margaret’s separation was announced on 19 March, it made the front page not just of every British newspaper, but in countless papers worldwide.

Margaret was, after all, not just a princess. She had always been a star and darling of the gossip columns – seen as naughty, witty, sexy and difficult in the public imagination. At a time when the monarchy’s image seemed unshakeably staid, she stood out. It was said that people dreamed of the Queen dropping in for a cup of tea and cake. Nobody would have said that of her sister. Margaret’s tastes ran more to coffee and a cigarette, or, in her later years, a large glass of whisky or gin. She was fun – and that made her dangerous.

At a time when the monarchy’s image seemed unshakeably staid, she stood out

Even by the standards of the British royal family in the 20th century, Margaret’s life had a soap-opera quality. It was not a comparison she would have enjoyed, since almost everybody who met her commented on her herculean, world-class snobbery. But as the younger daughter of George VI, who was never realistically going to ascend to the throne, she was assigned her role in the drama at a young age and seemed incapable of breaking out. From the beginning, the press depicted her as the stereotypical younger sister: pretty but undisciplined. This was a cliché, of course, but one from which she never escaped.

Becoming the socialite

Born in 1930, Margaret was often described as the sharper of the reluctant monarch’s two girls, and the more indulged. Even when she was a teenager, one visitor remarked that she was “full of character and very tart”. The diplomat Duff Cooper, who met her when she was in her late teens, wrote that she was “a most attractive girl – lovely eyes, lovely mouth, very sure of herself and full of humour. She might get into trouble before she’s finished.”

He was right about that. By the time Elizabeth got married in 1947, Margaret was already becoming the spoiled socialite who would dominate column inches for decades. The society photographer Cecil Beaton found it a challenge to take her picture, complaining that she had “been out at a nightclub until 5.30 the morning before and got a bit tired after two hours’ posing”. Her former governess Marion Crawford once lamented: “More and more parties, more and more friends, and less and less work.”

In some ways, perhaps, this reputation, which defined Margaret well into the 1950s, was not such a bad thing. She was an attractive young woman in her early twenties, so who could blame her for enjoying herself? What was more, Britain at the time seemed a tired, grey, threadbare country, still hidebound by rationing, still scarred by bomb damage, still run, by and large, by the old men who had won the war.

If the Queen appeared a breath of fresh air, then Margaret seemed to bring more than a dash of Hollywood-style glamour

If the Queen, who succeeded George VI in 1952, appeared a breath of fresh air, leading her country into a New Elizabethan age, then Margaret seemed to bring more than a dash of Hollywood-style glamour. The papers breathlessly recounted how she would dance into the small hours with aristocratic friends. As one of her biographers, Tim Heald, remarks: “Photographs from the time show an almost impossibly glamorous figure. Hats, bouquets, handbags are all apparently permanent fixtures, as is a wide seductive smile.”

Too seductive, perhaps? Sexual morality was a source of immense anxiety in the mid-1950s. The headlines were full of so-called juvenile delinquents and the teenager was becoming a national obsession. As Britain moved from austerity towards affluence, commentators warned of the dangers of homosexuality, prostitution, teenage pregnancies and general moral degradation. It was against this background that, at the coronation in 1953, a few eagle-eyed observers spotted Margaret brushing a bit of fluff affectionately from the uniform of Group Captain Peter Townsend, her late father’s equerry.

Not only was Townsend 16 years older than Margaret, he was a divorced father of two. He proposed marriage and she was minded to accept, but when politicians and press alike held up the monarchy as an unimpeachable bulwark of tradition in a changing world, the match was bound to be controversial. Besides, it had not been so long since the abdication crisis of 1936, which some people thought came close to destroying the monarchy altogether. As prime minister, Winston Churchill was said to be dead against the marriage, and the People newspaper even claimed that it “would fly in the face of royal and Christian tradition”.

A slide into tragedy

Polls showed the public in favour of Margaret following her heart. Yet this was a deferential age, not a populist one, and what the public thought was neither here nor there. After a two-year hiatus, Margaret duly fell into line. “I have decided not to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend,” she explained in a statement in October 1955, adding that she was “mindful of the church’s teachings that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth”. Her life might have been different if she had married the man she loved. As it was, it slid, slowly but inexorably, into tragedy. Before that, however, came the lurid saga of her relationship with Antony Armstrong-Jones, whom she married in 1960.

At first, it seemed a good match. They were both spirited, attractive, waspish and slightly raffish. They liked parties and a drink. And there seemed to be approval for her new beau. In an age when image-making was increasingly important, with magazines turning photo-journalism into a glamorous pursuit, the photographer had become a cult hero.

Only a few sceptics sounded the alarm. Armstrong-Jones’s friend and publisher Jocelyn Stevens openly told him he was making a terrible mistake. And novelist Kingsley Amis, in angry-young-man mode, thought it was a dreadful symbol of modern Britain “when a royal princess, famed for her devotion to all that is most vapid and mindless, is united with a dog-faced, tight-jeaned fotog of fruitarian tastes such as can be found in dozens in any pseudo-arty drinking cellar in London. They’re made for each other.”

For a time, though, all went well. Still in her mid-thirties, Margaret, now the Countess of Snowdon, seemed perfectly placed to bask in the glow of Sixties London, the most ‘swinging’ city in the world. She and her husband, Lord Snowdon, hobnobbed with fashionable actors and writers such as Peter Sellers and Harold Pinter, were seen in all the right nightclubs and struck precisely the right semi-bohemian note to be taken seriously by visiting American feature writers. As Time magazine famously put it: “The guards now change at Buckingham Palace to a Lennon and McCartney tune, and Prince Charles is firmly in the long-hair set.” And Margaret was a very visible symbol of change.

Damaging the royal family

In many ways, this was a triumph of style over substance. The idea that Prince Charles was in the “long-hair set” now looks laughable, and Margaret’s supposed role as a bridge between royal tradition and swinging bohemianism was no less illusory. To her friends, she cut an increasingly spoiled, sulky and unhappy figure, especially as her marriage fell apart under the pressure of affairs from both parties. Rather than witty or spiky, many people now found Margaret downright rude. She was “tiresome, spoilt, idle and irritating”, wrote the diarist Sir Roy Strong. “She has no direction, no overriding interest. All she likes is young men.”

By the early 1970s, Margaret increasingly sought refuge in her villa on Mustique, the venue for her famously boozy parties. In its way, her chosen bolthole spoke volumes. While the Queen holidayed in the bleak, windswept, thoroughly traditional country estates of Sandringham and Balmoral, the sun-drenched Caribbean island exuded exclusivity, expense and hedonism. That was just as Margaret liked it. But with headlines in Britain full of strikes, bombings and three-day weeks, it made her a natural target.

When news of her separation broke in March 1976, the press turned on her with savage gusto. Thanks to the reform of the divorce laws a few years earlier, more marriages were breaking up than ever before. Yet the royal family was supposed to be different. Indeed, people actively wanted it to be different. Much of the monarchy’s popularity during Margaret’s lifetime had been based on its image as a happy, united churchgoing family, with the Queen and Prince Philip held up as exemplary parents.

She was on the gin by mid-morning and told the caterers at an old people’s home their coronation chicken looked like sick

Thanks to Margaret, that image seemed unsustainable. By April 1978, seven out of 10 people agreed that she had damaged the royal family and whenever her most outspoken critic, Labour MP Willie Hamilton, laid into her “expensive, extravagant irrelevance”, many listened.

“The Queen and her family reflect as well as represent the community,” said The Times two years after Margaret’s marriage broke down. “They are exposed to the pressures of modern life like the rest of us.” Peregrine Worsthorne of The Telegraph even suggested that the royal family should be seen as a “normal” family in a permissive age, complete with “royal broken marriages, merry widows, disorderly divorcees, delinquent teenagers”. He was joking, but in the long run, he was more perceptive than perhaps he realised.

For Margaret, the rest of her life was a sad story after the giddy glamour of her youth. Public engagements were often disastrous. Conservative MP Matthew Parris claimed that when she visited his constituency in the 1980s, she was on the gin by mid-morning and insulted the caterers at an old people’s home by telling them their coronation chicken looked like sick. As she retreated from the limelight, her place as the nation’s leading royal celebrity was usurped by the Firm’s latest recruit, Princess Diana. She died in 2002 following a stroke, aged 71.

The obvious question is whether things could have been different. A charitable verdict would be that Margaret was trapped by the conventions of the institution, expectations of the public and sheer bad timing. Born in a much more deferential era, she came of age at a time when the public were thirsting for glamour. She became associated with a supposed golden age of carefree hedonism and was then swept aside during the inevitable hangover. No doubt she was always doomed to struggle in her sister’s shadow. History is littered with younger royal siblings who never found a meaningful role.

Yet people are not merely victims of history. Margaret may have found herself, through no fault of her own, cast in the most conspicuous melodrama of all, but she was her own scriptwriter. Nobody forced her to make her own part so dissolute, snobbish, haughty or rude. That was her own decision, and she paid a high price for it in the end.

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian who has written widely on postwar Britain. A new two-part documentary series Princess Margaret: Royal Rebel will be broadcast on BBC Two in September.

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This article was first published in the October 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine