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The Truth Behind The Crown: Princess Margaret

Nigel Brown
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The first two series of Netflix drama The Crown generated a massive amount of interest in the monarchy, drawing a huge number of viewers into the tensions and intimate relationships within the British Royal Family.

One of the series’ most captivating characters – besides, of course, The Queen and Prince Philip – has been Princess Margaret, introducing her to a new generation as a glamorous socialite with a quick wit, sharp tongue and a passionate disposition. 

Often seen as living in her sister’s shadow, Princess Margaret’s dalliances with the limelight served to make her one of the more controversial members of the Royal Family, but this public persona – and The Crown itself – only go so far in revealing the true character of this strong-willed and elegant historical figure. 

At True Royalty, we pride ourselves on going deeper, so join us as we take a closer look at the Princess who would never quite be Queen.

Margot: the early years

Known affectionately as Margot within the Royal Family, the young Princess Margaret was only fourth in line to the throne when born – after Edward VII, George VI and her sister Lilibet. There was little expectation of the Crown ever passing down her father’s branch of the Royal Family tree; the assumption was that having become King, Edward would produce his own children.

George VI, Elizabeth and Margaret were unexpectedly thrust further into the limelight on 11th December 1936, when King Edward VIII brought about a constitutional crisis by abdicating the throne to pursue marriage to American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. All of a sudden, Princess Margaret was third-in-line – a sometimes awkward position that would alter her relationship with her sister forevermore. 

At the outbreak of World War Two, Margot was the only member of the Royal Family not to undertake any official duties during the conflict. This freed up her time to focus on more leisurely endeavours such as learning to sing and play the piano – pastimes that would serve her well in her adulthood as a social butterfly. 

The dynamic between Princess Margaret and the future Queen seemed to be established even at this early stage. The sisters’ governess Marion Crawford had noted Princess Margaret’s tendency of becoming the centre of attention at parties, and the tendency of Princess Elizabeth to let her. “It’s so much easier when Margaret’s there – everybody laughs at what Margaret says,” Elizabeth is reported to have said. 

A passionate Princess

Princess Margaret and Princess Elizabeth had a great fondness for one another, even if it was widely accepted that Margot shone more brightly in a social milieu than her somewhat more reserved sister. 

The two Princesses were thick as thieves throughout much of their youth, and this was rarely more in evidence than on 8th May 1945, when Margaret and Elizabeth begged their parents to be allowed out in public to celebrate VE Day, after Nazi Germany had surrendered to the allied forces. 

Unable to resist the pleading of his darling daughters (George VI is said to have described Elizabeth as his “pride” and Margaret as his “joy”), the King permitted the Princesses to step out in public incognito – along with an entourage of trusted staff and friends of the family. One of those was the King’s equerry Peter Townsend, and the night of liberated celebration that followed may have played some part in what ultimately became a forbidden romance that would – to a great degree – change Margaret’s life.

Peter Townsend would accompany Margaret on other trips, for example when he chaperoned her during a three-month state tour of Africa in 1947. Over time, the relationship became far more than professional, blossoming into a romantic companionship – despite Townsend’s marriage and his two children. 

Margaret’s paramour had divorced by the time he proposed to the Princess in 1953, but the story had far from a happy ending; the constitutional difficulty posed by the prospect of a Royal marrying a divorcee was still – at that time – insurmountable. Despite the best efforts of the Queen and Prime Minister Anthony Eden to smooth the way for a marriage, the union was repeatedly blocked by the Cabinet and Margaret ended up publicly announcing that she had chosen not to wed Peter Townsend.

The Crown’s portrayal of the obstacles between Princess Margaret and the love of her life see Margaret apportioning much of the blame to her sister, but the reality of the matter was far more nuanced and bound up in constitutional complexities.

An Unhappy Marriage?

After a number of high-profile reported suitors, Princess Margaret took great pains to keep her relationship with photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones under wraps – away from the prying eyes of the press. After two years of courtship, the couple were married on 6th May 1960 – with Margaret reportedly having accepted Armstong-Jones’s proposal just 24 hours after hearing that Townsend was planning to marry a young Belgian woman. 

The marriage of Princess Margaret to the Earl of Snowdon marked the first Royal Wedding to be broadcast on television, and bolstered Margaret’s reputation as a socialite by expanding her social circle to include middle class bohemian artists. The overall effect was a union that created an impression of the Royal Family breaking down the barriers of the British class system.

Unfortunately, the hastiness with which Margaret supposedly accepted the proposal precipitated what ultimately came to be a dysfunctional relationship with her new husband. The Earl of Snowdon’s voracious sexual appetite made for an uneasy relationship with his new, very public role, and an unhappy relationship with his wife.

The couple had their first child in 1961 and their second in 1964. It was reportedly 1966 when Margaret began to pursue her own relationships outside of the marriage, and by the 1970s the couple had drifted apart. Their divorce was finalised in 1978, making it the first time a senior Royal had divorced in 77 years, the significance of which was reflected in the pronounced and derisive ballyhoo the announcement was met with in the media. 

The Real Margaret

The Crown paints a compelling portrait of Princess Margaret as the product of a spoilt upbringing, a glamorous merrymaker who drinks heavily and chain-smokes from the moment she wakes to the moment her head hits the pillow. Yet the portrayal could be argued to be reductive in characterising her as someone whose life is defined by the breakdown of her relationship with Peter Townsend. Such are the limits of the ensemble TV drama. 

Find out about the real Margaret at True Royalty TV, in two of our favourite documentaries about the Princess A Tale of Two Sisters: Elizabeth and Margaret and Princess Margaret: Her Real Life Story.

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