As the car navigates the streets of London, crowds gather to catch a glimpse of the woman within. Dressed conservatively in a jacket and pearls, Princess Margaret’s calm demeanor exposes little of the heartbreak that’s about to ensue. Soon, she will announce the end of a love affair – the first of many shattered dreams for the younger sister of the Queen.
Margaret Rose was born on August 21, 1930, at Glamis Castle, the seat of the Lyon family in Angus, Scotland. Her mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, was married to George, the second son of King George V. But even though their father was royalty, Margaret and her elder sister, Elizabeth, never imagined that he would ascend to the throne.
Then, when Margaret was five years old, King George V passed away. And even though George’s brother, Edward, initially became king, he soon abdicated in order to marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee. So, unexpectedly, George took his place as King George VI, and Margaret became a princess.
Almost overnight, Margaret and Elizabeth’s worlds were transformed. Growing up, Elizabeth found herself preparing for the day that she would take her father’s place. Margaret, meanwhile, had to come to terms with being second in line for the throne. And it was during this unusual and sometimes turbulent youth that the young princess first encountered the man who would capture her heart.
Apparently, Margaret first met Peter Townsend when she was just 14 years old. A war hero from a lineage with close ties to the royals, Townsend had been chosen to serve King George and his family in 1944. In that role, he often accompanied the young Princess Margaret on excursions, and gradually the teenager fell in love with the married older man.
Then, in February 1952 George VI succumbed to fatal lung cancer. Elizabeth, who by this time was married with two children of her own, ascended to the throne as Elizabeth II. And even though the births of Prince Charles and Princess Anne made it less likely than ever that Margaret would become queen, her place in the line of succession was nonetheless about to throw her personal life into disarray.
By 1953 Margaret and her mother were living in Clarence House, a royal mansion in the Westminster district of London. And, under the guise of Comptroller of the Household, Townsend was also a part of their household. But it wasn’t long before the arrangement caused a scandal, after Margaret was caught sharing a seemingly intimate moment with Townsend during her sister’s coronation.
Soon, the world would learn their secret. Townsend and his wife had divorced, and he had subsequently proposed to the princess. And even though her suitor was 16 years older than her, Margaret had readily accepted. Divorce was still considered a taboo subject, however, and the pair faced a difficult battle for acceptance. Moreover, Townsend was considered a commoner, which made the match even less palatable to British high society.
At the time, the Church of England still took a hardline stance against remarriage. And as the head of that institution, Queen Elizabeth struggled to support her sister’s decision. Furthermore, thanks to the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, Margaret needed Elizabeth’s permission to tie the knot.
Without her sister’s permission, Margaret faced the prospect of appealing to Parliament for approval. Unfortunately, this option would likely have created an even bigger scandal. Instead, Elizabeth asked Margaret to postpone her engagement for 12 months. Meanwhile, the British media campaigned to prevent the marriage, while the government also spoke out against it.
Over time, though, the British public appeared to come around to the idea. And for the next two years, the media continued to speculate about whether the marriage would take place. Then, in 1955 Anthony Eden – himself a divorcee – became prime minister of the United Kingdom. With Elizabeth’s help, he drafted an arrangement that would allow Margaret to follow her heart.
However, Eden and Elizabeth’s plan came with one notable caveat. In order to marry Townsend, Margaret would need to forfeit her claim to the throne – along with those of any children she may have in the future. The proposal was made public on October 28, 1955, and just days later Margaret came out with an announcement of her own.
In a statement issued on October 31, Margaret revealed that she had decided to end things with Townsend. “I have been aware that, subject to renouncing my rights of succession, it might have been possible for me to contract a civil marriage,” she wrote. “But mindful of the Church’s teachings that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before others.”
Sadly, though, Margaret’s break from Townsend did not represent the end of her romantic strife. By October 1959 a new suitor, Antony Armstrong-Jones, was on the scene. A photographer from a respected family, he was considered a far better match for the young princess. Then, while Armstrong-Jones was visiting Margaret at Balmoral Castle, her lost love sent her a letter.
And the correspondence apparently revealed that Townsend was engaged to be married to Marie-Luce Jamagne, who was just 19 years of age. Allegedly, Armstrong-Jones proposed to Margaret the very next day. The princess accepted and on February 26, 1960, their engagement was officially announced.
Margaret and Armstrong-Jones were married that same year on May 6 in an elaborate ceremony at Westminster Abbey – the first ever televised British royal wedding, in fact. But even though the British media gushed over the couple’s glamorous lifestyle, trouble was brewing behind the scenes. Fueled by drink and drugs, their marital problems soon came to the fore.
Over the years, Margaret is alleged to have indulged in a number of extra-marital affairs. Eventually, in 1976 the British press leaked photographs of the princess on holiday with a much younger man named Roddy Llewellyn. Soon, she and her husband announced that their marriage was over. Margaret consequently found herself once again attempting to negotiate the tricky subject of divorce as a member of the royal family.
Fortunately, this time there were fewer complications. And in July 1978 she became the first senior British royal to divorce since 1901. The media did not appear to support her decision, however, and journalists continued to vilify her in the national press.
Despite this derision, though, history would prove to be on Margaret’s side. In fact, her actions helped pave the way towards the more relaxed attitude regarding love and marriage that exists within the royal family today. And as divorce has become more commonplace around the world, and other royals such as Charles and Diana have gone their separate ways, Margaret’s decisions seem less and less controversial from a modern perspective.
Interestingly, Margaret’s story may have also played a part in the dissolution of the Royal Marriages Act, which was repealed across the Commonwealth in 2011. Today, only the first six
individuals directly in the line of succession need to seek royal approval before tying the knot. And even though it might seem like a small change, it’s one that might have seen Margaret live a very different life.