The Crown S5 E4 real history: the Queen’s “annus horribilis” and Princess Margaret’s relationship with Peter Townsend
Episode four, ‘Annus Horribilis’, opens with a tearful Queen Elizabeth preparing to make a public apology at the Guildhall. As we hark back to the events that led to this statement, the royal family endures one knockback after another…
Princess Margaret watches this televised statement from her living room, her own eyes filled with anguish. Later, we discover she has reunited with Peter Townsend, a man she declares “the love of her life,” and is furious at her sister’s previous prevention of their relationship. Let’s dig beneath this narrative, and unearth the historical truths of episode four…
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What happened during 1992, Queen Elizabeth’s “annus horribilis” (horrible year)?
The year 1992 saw the demise of not one, but three of the Queen’s children’s marriages. In March, it was announced that Prince Andrew and Duchess Sarah Ferguson would legally separate, an announcement soon followed in April of the divorce of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips. In December, the third announcement came, with the royal family declaring that “with regret, the Prince and Princess of Wales have decided to separate”.
When did Princess Anne marry Timothy Laurence?In this episode, we see Anne declare that she will marry Timothy Laurence. “You cannot have all of me,” she tells her mother, the Queen. “And I will not give all of me. I will marry Tim.”
And marry him, she did. It was not long after her separation, in December 1992, that they made their vows. As the Church of England did not allow remarriages following divorce, they married in Scotland with only 30 guests.
In June 1992, came the publication of Andrew Morton’s Diana: Her True Story, which Sarah Gristwood describes as a “damning portrayal of what Diana saw as an unfeeling husband and uncaring monarchy”. Diana’s communication with Morton makes up much of the narrative in episode three, as she shares her experiences via tapes.
Unfortunately, the upset of 1992 did not relent. On 20 November, the Queen and Prince Phillip’s 45th wedding anniversary, a fire tore through Windsor Castle. Within three hours of it being spotted, there were 225 firefighters from seven counties attending the scene. At the peak of the operation, 36 pumps were discharging 1.5m gallons of water.
However, the damage still proved devastating, and over 100 rooms were destroyed.
This could not have happened at a worse time – the country was, as Sarah Gristwood says, “in the grip of a recession” and rejected the Conservative government’s declaration that they would pay for repairs, leaving the royals to foot the bill. To contribute to the costs, the royal family opened state rooms in Buckingham Palace to the public.
The official completion date for Windsor’s restoration was five years to the day after the fire, on the 50th wedding anniversary of the Queen and Prince Phillip.
Did Queen Elizabeth make a public address at Guildhall?
Queen Elizabeth did make a public address at the Guildhall, and only four days after the Windsor fire. It was during a celebration of the 40th anniversary of her reign as monarch.
In this episode of The Crown, Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, demands her daughter stays at home due to illness. Her Majesty refuses: “It’s a lunch to celebrate me,” she says, “I can’t pull out. And I don’t want to pull out.”
Queen Elizabeth II did, indeed, attend the lunch and the televised speech went ahead. “1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure,” she remarked, her voice thick with cold.
Who was Peter Townsend?
Peter Townsend was sixteen years older than Princess Margaret, and had been an officer in the RAF. The two met when Townsend was appointed as equerry to Margaret’s father, George VI, in 1944 – a job which involved him seeing both Margaret and Elizabeth almost daily.
And Princess Margaret fell in love. The relationship was concealed by the royal family, until the Queen’s Coronation Day. Margaret was spotted by a journalist removing a piece of fluff from Townsend’s uniform – a brief, yet affectionate gesture – and the action was taken as confirmation of their rumoured romance. The press went wild.
Did Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend spend an afternoon in the crimson drawing room at Windsor Castle?There is a touching moment depicted between Princess Margaret and Townsend in this episode, following the Windsor fire, where they discuss an afternoon they shared together in its crimson drawing room long ago, during their secret courtship.
Peter Townsend confirms this did happen in his 1978 memoir, Time and Chance: “We talked, in the red drawing room at Windsor Castle, for hours – about ourselves. She [Princess Margaret] listened, without uttering a word, as I told her, very quietly, of my feelings. Then she simply said: ‘That is exactly how I feel, too’.”
In The Crown, the two remember how they shared their wishes for the future: “Like our plans,” Margaret says, “I’m afraid the crimson room did not survive”.
Why did the relationship between Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend end?
There was a key issue that prevented the two from marrying – Townsend was divorced. This meant the Queen, as Head of the Church of England, could not provide her consent.
In 1955, Princess Margaret had two options: to give up much of her royal status and marry Townsend, or to renounce him and remain a royal. She chose the latter: “I have decided not to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend,” she said in a statement in the October of that year, also noting she was “mindful of the church’s teachings that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth”.
Were photographs of Sarah Ferguson leaked?
Yes, and it was another incident that contributed to the Queen’s “annus horribilis”.
Sarah Gristwood says: “August 1992 saw the Daily Mirror publishing photographs of the Duchess of York by a swimming pool, having her toes sucked by her ‘financial advisor’ John Bryan.”
This incident, snapped by an Italian tabloid photographer during the duchess’ holiday in southern France, is just one example that the drama leans on to demonstrate the growing differences in the relationship between the royals and the press.
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The royal family’s relationship with the press is also addressed in series one, and their privacy is respected far more than in later episodes. There is a moment when Elizabeth is in Africa, shortly after becoming queen. “Knowing that she had just lost her father,” historical consultant Robert Lacey told HistoryExtra, “photographers bowed their head and put their cameras on the ground, not taking photographs. We know that happened – chapter and verse.
By the 1990s, the royals represented something very different for the tabloids, and in this season the drama chooses to depict this evolving lack of deference or respect.
In reality, the duchess – still legally married to Prince Andrew – was at Balmoral when the photographs were published. In a much quoted though possibly apocryphal moment, Prince Philip reportedly handed Sarah a copy of the paper and quipped: “There but for the grace of God go I”.
Princess Margaret was one royal who didn’t mask her feelings. In a letter to the duchess following the incident, she wrote: “You have done more to bring shame on the family than could ever have been imagined,” adding that “Not once have you hung your head in embarrassment even for a minute after those disgraceful photographs.”
Did the Queen often speak on the phone with Princess Margaret?
The sisters were extremely close, and had a direct phone line running between their homes so they could talk to each other whenever they wished.
“Goodnight, Lilibet,” Princess Margaret says in the final moments of this episode, referencing the nickname used by close family for the Queen since her childhood years. “I do love you.”
“I love you too,” the Queen replies.
This is a touching exchange made bittersweet when we consider the timeline of the drama contrasted with the final years of Princess Margaret’s life; the Queen’s younger sister died in 2002 after a significant period of ill health.
Lauren Good is the digital editorial assistant at HistoryExtra, She joined the team in 2022 after completing an MA in Creative Writing, and she holds a first-class degree in English and Classical Studies, during which she studied ancient history and philosophy