Elizabeth Windsor is known to the world as Queen Elizabeth II, but to her sister, Princess Margaret, she was always “Lilibet.” The two women loved each other, but they were very different people. Elizabeth was calm, responsible and conservative, while Margaret was rebellious. And as a result, their relationship was complex to say the least.
Elizabeth was never supposed to be queen – when she was born, her grandfather King George V was on the throne, and after him her uncle Edward was supposed to follow. It was only because of Edward’s abdication that Elizabeth became heir presumptive. Her father was made King George VI, and young Elizabeth was groomed to take the crown after him.
Edward’s abdication of the throne caused a seismic shift in the royal family, and young Margaret most definitely felt it. She was only six years old, but she could tell that her elder sister was suddenly being treated with more favor. Allegedly, the little princess once complained, “Now that Papa is king, I am nothing.”
However, despite the tribulations at the time, the children did have moments of normalcy. In her unauthorized 1950 book The Little Princesses, former royal governess Marion Crawford said the little girls fought like regular siblings. She wrote, “Neither was above taking a whack at her adversary if roused. Lilibet was quick with her left hook.”
As for Margaret, Crawford wrote, she was “more of a close-in fighter, known to bite on occasions.” She added, “More than once, I was shown a hand bearing royal teeth marks.” The young girls frequently fought over toys and clothes, and Elizabeth’s usual complaint, Crawford remembered, was “Margaret always wants what I want.”
In The Little Princesses Crawford also detailed the differences between the sisters. She remembered how the children received a spoonful of barley sugar from their father every night. Crawford continued, “Margaret pushed the whole lot into her mouth. Lilibet, however, carefully sorted hers out on the table, and then ate it very daintily.”
Because Margaret would never become queen, her parents reportedly spoiled her somewhat as a child. As she grew older, she was allowed to take more and more liberties, even though people in the royal circle disapproved. Her father especially doted on her, reportedly once saying, “Lilibet is my pride, Margaret my joy.”
Writing for U.K. newspaper The Telegraph in 2002, journalist Sarah Bradford recollected something the daughter of a courtier told her. She reportedly said, “The King spoiled [Margaret] dreadfully… She used to keep her parents and everyone waiting for dinner because she wanted to listen to the end of a program on the [radio].”
And yet, despite her sometimes non-conventional behavior, Margaret was very popular with the public. She broke the rules – she was sometimes seen smoking in public, a big no-no back then – and it fascinated people. Unlike her sister Elizabeth, who needed to remain modest at all times, Margaret could wear daring dresses with low necklines. As a result, she became a fashion icon in her own right.
When her father died of lung cancer in 1952, the 21-year-old Margaret was devastated. Elizabeth, though, was married with children by then. According to The Telegraph, the elder sister wrote in a letter to a friend after it happened, “Mummy and Margaret have the biggest grief to bear for their future must seem very blank, while I have a job and a family to think about.”
Elizabeth’s official coronation took place in 1953, one year after her father died, when she was just 25 years old. It was a huge occasion for Britain, especially since this coronation was to be the first ever one broadcast on television. But the cameras picked up something they weren’t supposed to see: Princess Margaret being intimate with married war hero Peter Townsend.
All Margaret did was pick a bit of lint off of Peter’s lapel. But for the media of that day and age, such a gesture was shocking, and a sure sign that the two of them were in a relationship – which they were. That one piece of lint caused a massive scandal that reportedly strained the bond between Elizabeth and Margaret.
Townsend divorced his wife and proposed to Margaret, but the scandal was far from over. As queen, Elizabeth was head of the Church of England, which strongly disapproved of divorce. For a royal princess to marry a divorced person was practically unthinkable – and Margaret needed Elizabeth’s permission to do so.
Elizabeth wanted her sister to be happy and tried to come up with compromises, but she couldn’t change royal protocol. If Margaret chose to marry Peter regardless of the consequences, she would have to give up her royal title. Consequently, neither she nor any potential children of hers would ever get near the throne.
Margaret ended up breaking off the engagement, and in in October 1955 she released a statement, saying, “I would like it to be known that I have decided not to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend. I have been aware that, subject to my renouncing my rights of succession, it might have been possible for me to contract a civil marriage.”
Margaret’s statement added, “But, 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 any others. I have reached this decision entirely alone, and in doing so I have been strengthened by the unfailing support and devotion of Group Captain Townsend.”
In 1978 Peter published an autobiography, Time and Chance, in which he spoke about his relationship with Margaret. He said, “She could have married me only if she had been prepared to give up everything – her position, her prestige, her privy purse. I simply hadn’t the weight, I knew it, to counterbalance all she would have lost.”
In 2019 royal expert Angela Mollard told Australian magazine New Idea’s podcast Royals that the Queen hated having to sound the death knell for Margaret’s relationship, and that the latter became bitter as a result. Angela continued, “There was very much a cooling for a number of years – Margaret felt she had been betrayed by her sister.”
Angela went on, “… The Queen was, first and foremost, committed to country, it had to come before family. People at the time said she was devastated.” But, she claimed, Margaret eventually forgave her sister for her part in the matter. She said, “Margaret grew to realize that really the Queen had had little choice at the time.”
But even after the Townsend affair, Margaret was a magnet for scandal. The writer Gore Vidal always maintained that the princess told him, regarding her relationship with Elizabeth, “It was inevitable, when there are two sisters and one is the Queen, who must be the source of honor and all that is good, while the other must be the focus of the most creative malice, the evil sister.”
Certainly, many people disliked Margaret and her perceived wild behavior. In 1960, after she had announced her plans to marry a non-royal man, photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, writer Kingsley Amis lamented, “Such a symbol of the age we live in, 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…”
The media noted that Margaret had agreed to marry Antony not long after Peter Townsend had become engaged to someone else. And according to rumors, Elizabeth was not happy. The story goes that Prime Minister Harold MacMillan once entered the palace to be told, “Thank heavens you’ve come… The Queen’s in a terrible state – there’s a fellow called Jones in the billiard room who wants to marry her sister.”
But none of that stopped Margaret and Antony’s wedding from being a lavish affair. It was the first British royal wedding to be shown on TV, and it had to be special. Many famous people were invited, such as Winston Churchill and the Swedish royal family. And Queen Elizabeth herself was there, dressed up in a beautiful blue gown.
Things didn’t exactly settle down after the marriage. According to diarist and royal biographer Kenneth Rose, Margaret had a spat with her brother-in-law Prince Philip in 1961 about whether her husband could be made a lord. Rose claimed in his diary that Margaret “made herself quite ill with rage.”
When the Queen and Margaret fought, it seems things got personal pretty fast. In her 2002 article for The Telegraph, Sarah Bradford told of an alleged incident where Harold MacMillan visited Windsor and came face-to-face with Margaret, who turned and shouted at her sister, “No one would speak to you if you weren’t the Queen!”
Sadly for Margaret, her marriage to Antony Armstrong-Jones didn’t last. In 1976 she was photographed with a younger man and the News of the World newspaper got hold of it. The press called Margaret a “floosie” following the new royal scandal, and reportedly, according to Sarah, Elizabeth herself complained in private about “my sister’s guttersnipe life.”
In 1978, a couple of months after Margaret had been diagnosed with a condition called alcoholic hepatitis, she and Antony were officially divorced. It was the first time that a senior British royal had been divorced since 1901. Her former husband, for his part, married again rather quickly – by December of that year he was hitched to someone else.
Did Margaret ever wish that she had been queen, rather than a so-called “guttersnipe” figure? Sarah Bradford wrote that Elizabeth “had everything her sister wanted – a handsome husband, children and, finally, the crown” and that Margaret was “subconsciously jealous of her sister.”
Bradshaw went on, “Some friends thought that Princess Margaret would have really liked to have been queen. Apart from being the sparkling leader of young society, she never had any real role to play.” She mused that despite Margaret having “talents, beauty, wit, intelligence and an unrivaled capacity to entertain,” in some ways her life was “wasted.”
One aspect of Elizabeth’s life about which Margaret was resentful, according to her biographer Christopher Warwick, was her education. After the former became next in line to the throne, she was given special lessons in history and other things it was considered good for a future queen to know, something which Margaret was left out of.
Christopher told the Daily Express in 2019 that he had talked with Margaret about the education issue. When he asked about her not being granted the same level of education as Elizabeth, even though she could have used it, Margaret had allegedly answered, “Yes, that was always a bone of contention.”
Christopher said, “She minded not having the higher education, but that doesn’t mean she was jealous of her sister for having had it.” And he claimed that Margaret had said some other things to him, too. One of them was the statement, “I’ve never suffered from second daughter-itis. I never minded being referred to as the younger daughter. But I do mind being referred to as the younger sister.”
For all her problems with living the royal lifestyle, Margaret did seem to genuinely love her sister. In 1969 author Andrew Duncan interviewed her and asked her what she thought her “role” was, and relayed the memories to the Radio Times. She answered, “In my own humble way I’ve always tried to take some of the burden off my sister. She can’t do it all, you know, and I leap at the opportunity to help.”
Margaret also mused on how the media at the time had tried to pit herself and Elizabeth against each other. She said, “When my sister and I were growing up, she was made out to be the goody goody one. That wasn’t interesting, so the press tried to say I was wicked as hell. It didn’t always work.”
Margaret continued, “I got letters, mainly from America, which said, ‘How marvellous of you to do that’, because they thought we were terribly stuffy and Victorian. Then there were critical letters accusing me of things I hadn’t done, mostly anonymous and from England. I minded those very much.”
And yet, despite all that, Margaret greatly admired Elizabeth, adding, “My sister has an aura. I’m enormously impressed when she walks into a room. It’s a kind of magic. She’s a pretty young woman and the longer she’s sovereign the more her experience will affect decisions by Prime Ministers. She’ll have an influence and be the great hope of the country in the future.”
But in the end, Elizabeth got to see much more of her country’s future than Margaret did. As the princess got older, her years of smoking and drinking sadly began to take a toll on her. A similar thing had happened to her father, who had been only 56 when he died. And in January 1985 she had part of a lung removed.
Margaret gave up smoking in 1991, but she continued drinking. Two years later she caught pneumonia, and then in 1998 she had a stroke. Sadly, over the following few years her health continued to deteriorate, and by the end of 2000 she was essentially bedridden.
Margaret had two more strokes in early 2001, and the following year she passed away. Her nephew Prince Charles released a tribute to her, saying, “My darling aunt had such a dreadful time in the last few years with this illness, it was hard for let alone her to bear it but all of us as well, particularly as she had such a wonderfully free spirit.”
Before she died, Margaret had requested was that her body be cremated. Her whole family attended the ceremony, including the 101-year-old Queen Mother, who would herself die less than two months later. However, the actual cremation took place with no mourners present. Margaret’s ashes were placed in a tomb in Windsor, beside the remains of her beloved father.
In 2016, a family friend of the royals told Vanity Fair that the day of Margaret’s funeral was “the only time anyone ever saw the Queen show her emotions in public.” Reinaldo Herrera recounted that “for a few minutes that day, as she stood by the steps of St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, watching her sister’s coffin being borne away, her eyes betrayed her.” Elizabeth has now lived for nearly seventeen years without Margaret.