LONDON—As the many skeletons in the Windsors’ cupboard go, the one involving the queen’s younger sister has for a while now been safely dormant. That’s partly because it was so overshadowed by the more recent saga of another young love broken by cruel royal behavior, the tragedy of Princess Diana.
But now, threaded into the plot of the first season of the Netflix series The Crown like a forgotten but never-staunched emotional wound in this dysfunctional family, comes the story of Princess Margaret and her lover, a World War II hero called Group Captain Peter Townsend—played, respectively and well by Vanessa Kirby and Ben Miles.
At the time, in the 1950s, the affair triggered a familial, constitutional, and political crisis that consumed the nation for months and far transcended in its impact even the national trauma caused by the death of Diana.
The first thing to note because of its public effects on the story is that the young Margaret was a ravishing beauty—a beauty so natural that it endured in portraits by two very different generations of royal photographers, first Cecil Beaton and then Tony Armstrong-Jones (who married the princess in 1960).
But the story really began in 1944. King George VI needed a new equerry, the aide whose job it was to stay closest to the monarch, day and night, wherever he went. He decided to reach beyond the normal pool of blue-blooded courtiers and, in a daring experiment, to enlist an outsider.
He chose Townsend from the ranks of the Royal Air Force, a fighter pilot decorated for his heroism in the Battle of Britain when, seriously outnumbered, the RAF defeated the German Luftwaffe. (The strain of the battle and later operations was so great that Townsend had been grounded twice and, before he was called to serve the king, had been a flight instructor.)
When Townsend arrived at Buckingham Palace, the future queen was 18 and Margaret was 14. Both daughters soon realized that their father felt refreshingly comfortable with Townsend, and to them also he was a breath of fresh air—a glamorous, relaxed, avuncular influence in a court full of protocol-stiffened flunkies.
Townsend was married but he became so devoted to the King that his marriage began to suffer because of long absences at the palace and his having to travel wherever in the world the king went. Even then, because he was 15 years older than Margaret, there was no hint that his relationship with her would develop from that of the trusted family companion to that of a potential lover.
One of the first outsiders to sniff out that Margaret had developed a crush on Townsend was the debutante daughter of a new American ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, 18-year-old Sharman Douglas, who arrived in London with her father Lewis Douglas in 1947.
Douglas was introduced to Margaret at a palace garden party, and they bonded swiftly as kindred spirits. Watching Townsend with the king, Douglas asked, “who is that dreamboat?”
Margaret explained Townsend’s role in a way that made clear that Townsend had sacrificed his private life in order to serve the king—and that his intimacy with the king, who treated him almost like a member of the family, was a source of deep annoyance for the old-guard of courtiers.
But, as Douglas became a member of what the newspapers called “the Margaret Set” of privileged royal and upper class party swingers, she discovered the elaborate game that Margaret was playing to cover up the true depth of her relationship with Townsend.
Margaret’s ebullience was in great contrast to the solemnness of her sister’s style.
At the age of 21, Elizabeth knew full well what her destiny would be. She had no choice. When her father died she would be queen. The courtiers had already identified someone they thought was a suitable husband for a future monarch, Prince Philip of Battenburg, whose Greek and German ancestry seemed a model for the preservation of the Windsor bloodline. Technically, this was not an arranged marriage; Elizabeth could have rejected Philip. But she probably reckoned that he was as good a prospect as she could hope to get within the rules of the game.
The same courtiers, aware of Margaret’s closeness to the king’s equerry and increasingly alarmed by it, recruited a series of upper class young bucks to escort Margaret on her nights out on the town with Douglas and other debutantes. But Douglas was close enough to Margaret to see that these so-called chinless wonders were being used by her as beards. Newspaper gossip columns talked them up as serious prospects without suspecting that her real love was a lot closer to home.
All this careful cover fell apart publicly on the day that Elizabeth became queen in June 1953. It was the first televised coronation, and a glorious production of royal theater. The BBC cameras caught a detail, just a fleeting moment, but it was electrifying and sensational: Margaret, standing beside Townsend, brushed a speck of dust from his uniform.
George VI had died in February 1952. Released from his duties as equerry, Townsend had been transferred from Buckingham Palace to the residence of the widowed Queen Elizabeth, now the Queen Mother, at nearby Clarence House, where Margaret also lived.
By now, Townsend was divorced, and early in 1953, while they were alone together at Windsor Castle, Margaret and Townsend had decided that despite all the pressures that they knew would be exerted on them that they were inextricably in love and would marry.
From the start, the most devoted adversary to a marriage, as soon as he sensed where things were going, was one of the most powerful courtiers in Buckingham Palace, a lean, tall figure with lacquered hair parted in the center, steel-rimmed spectacles, World War I moustache, and dressed in the manner of the 1920s called Tommy Lascelles.
When Townsend told Lascelles that he was determined to marry Margaret, Lascelles replied: “You must be either mad or bad.”
At the same time, Margaret had told the queen.
Lascelles advised the queen that under the Royal Marriages Act of 1771 Margaret would either have to obtain the queen’s consent or wait until she was 25, at which point she would no longer need consent from the queen but would need the consent of Parliament.
The queen, who was close to her sister, told her, “It is not unreasonable for me to ask you to wait a year.”
The response of others was not so reasonable. Winston Churchill, who was in a new term as prime minister, was not immediately hostile but his wife, Clementine, to many people’s astonishment, was fiercely opposed. To her it was too much of a replay of the constitutional crisis created when Edward VIII insisted on marrying the divorced American, Wallis Simpson, and when told he had to choose between marriage and the crown he abdicated—a specter that also turned the Queen Mother against Margaret’s intentions.
Townsend was summoned by Lascelles and, in effect, exiled—to a diplomatic post in Brussels. Margaret agreed not to see him for a year, until she was 25.
The lovers may have believed that the opposition to their marriage would relent. And when they were reunited after a year they were just as passionately involved as before, as friends enabled them to have discreet weekends together in a series of country houses.
But in that year Lascelles had quietly and systematically prepared all the institutions of the state to crush the affair. A new prime minister, Anthony Eden, told Margaret that if she persisted she would have to renounce her royal rights and income (Eden himself was divorced). Nonetheless, Margaret was not cowed. In an act of remarkable courage she confronted the leader of the Anglican church, the archbishop of Canterbury, and his bishops at Lambeth Palace, the archbishop’s seat, and asserted her defiant love for Townsend. The archbishop (putting the cant in Canterbury) threatened that if she went ahead she would be refused the holy sacraments.
The church had not broken her nerve. The attempt to portray the constitutional consequences as grave did not persuade large parts of the country and popular opinion loudly rallied to Margaret.
Lascelles had one final card left and played it. An editorial in The Times, then not just a newspaper but the thundering voice of the establishment, said that the queen was a symbol for all her peoples, family life, and social order. And that the marriage of Margaret and Townsend would not be regarded as a marriage at all by vast numbers of the queen’s people.
It was Townsend, more than Margaret, who saw the lethal inference: that by marrying him she would be compromising the integrity of her sister’s reign—at a moment when the young queen was desperately trying to preserve a balance between her feelings for Margaret and her duty as head of state.
The lovers had one more weekend together and then, on Oct. 31, 1955, Margaret issued a statement (written by Townsend) that began “I have decided not to marry Group Captain Townsend… 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 others…”
Of Lascelles, Margaret told friends: “I shall curse him to the grave.”
After that, her life was progressively troubled in private and in public. Her marriage to Armstrong-Jones ended in 1978. She then had a series of lovers and often spent bacchanalian months on the small private Caribbean island of Mustique. She drank and smoked heavily. With the great love of her life long in the past the British public viewed her tabloid-covered rogue behavior as unbecoming. The queen was by then the most revered monarch of modern times.
This highly simplified narrative, describing a truly regal and devoted queen in contrast to her wastrel sister making noises off stage, took root, but it was far too simple. Someone close to the royal family told me that of all the royal family it was the Queen Mother who was most distressed by Margaret’s behavior and decline and that Margaret was equally upset at the pain she had caused her mother.
But there was a strange twist yet to come.
The Diana tragedy and the queen’s uncharacteristic mishandling of it, where she appeared a lot less compassionate toward Diana than her subjects, was followed by an extraordinary intervention by Margaret. (Margaret and the queen had appeared together like two widows in deep grieving black at Diana’s funeral.)
Margaret took it upon herself to go through all the correspondence between Diana and the Queen Mother and “weeded” it of anything that cast a bad light on how Diana had been treated by the family as she endured Prince Charles’s carnal pursuit of Camilla Parker-Bowles. In this Margaret seemed aligned with the queen’s view that Diana had disrupted the otherwise serene majesty of the palace, no matter how false that picture really was, and that damage limitation was necessary.
In 1959 Peter Townsend married a young Belgian woman who bore a striking resemblance to the young Margaret. He died in France in 1995.
Princess Margaret died in London in 2002 after suffering at least three strokes and a bout of pneumonia.