She was a woman who in her time played many parts, to misquote Shakespeare.
Starting life as her father’s pet, she became fashion’s darling, tragic heroine, the centre of swinging London with her brilliant randy husband, England’s first famous cougar and tabloid fodder, a ‘loose cannon’, and finally the sad woman known as ‘walking wounded’ in London circles.
No, the touching scene where their father made the Princesses promise undying loyalty to each other, didn’t really happen. Much more dramatic was the real moment missed by script-writers, when he came back to his cosy non-royal home in Piccadilly after the abdication, and was greeted by his daughters aged ten and six in the hall, who both curtsied to him deeply, which shook him to his core (his wife was upstairs in bed with flu, overcome by all the long-drawn abdication dramas).
Princess Elizabeth soon began her apprenticeship, coached by her father, and tirelessly overseen by Queen Mary, who took the Princesses on cultural outings, checked on their education, and told their mother, the Queen, they needed more books. Typical of her light-hearted and fun-loving nature. the Queen responded by buying the complete works of P.G. Wodehouse! She also frequently interrupted the children’s lessons to take them off for some fun, to the chagrin of their governess, ‘Crawfie”.
Margaret didn’t have to study the way her sister did, and grew up to be the source of her father’s entertainment and relaxation. This special relationship ended when she was twenty-one and he died so unexpectedly. With no father and no role, equerry Peter Townsend became even more important to her than he had been since she fell in love with him in 1947, when the Royal family were touring South Africa. She was very demanding towards the man she loved, who was eighteen years older than her, and never took any account – as neither had the Royal family – of his duty to his wife and children.
Much has always been made of the fact that he was the “innocent party” in the ensuing divorce, but a husband who neglects his wife and children for his devotion to his employer, and the employer’s pretty daughter, has as much responsibility as has a lonely wife seeking love and support elsewhere.
The fact of his so-called innocence encouraged both he and Margaret to feel they could marry. Unlike the court, particularly Alan Lascelles, the Queen’s authoritative private secretary, (“are you mad or bad?”) the Queen was sympathetic.
The situation burst upon the consciousness of the world at the Coronation when Princess Margaret, decked out in diamonds and diadem and long velvet train, stood outside the Abbey chatting to the handsome equerry, and in a familiar and intimate gesture flicked an imaginary piece of fluff off his uniform as she smiled up into his eyes. The picture went around the world.
The Netflix scenes of Townsend standing on the steps of the aircraft taking the Queen to Ireland, and waving back to the imaginary cheers of the crowd were mind-bogglingly crass. Townsend was a sensible, sensitive man, far too intelligent to behave in such a tactless way, any more than he would have called the Queen by her private childhood nickname,’ Lilibet’, (I cringed as he did). He didn’t go to Ireland, but to Brussels to wait out his time.
These were the years when five foot two, blue-eyed Margaret with an eighteen-inch waist, became the darling of fashion. It was at the first Ascot of the reign when she really made her mark. It was, like ‘My Fair Lady’, a black and white Ascot, as the court were still in six months mourning for the King. By June, ladies were permitted to wear black and white, or grey, and the Princess appeared in an elegant, grey chiffon dress which set all the fashion watchers talking.
Like the Queen she also wore striking black and white outfits on the other racing days and her reputation was made. She became the most glamorous princess in the world, photographed in an exquisite Christian Dior dress on her twenty first birthday at Balmoral (she’d always hankered for a Dior dress, like just about everyone back then) and almost as dazzling as Diana before her .
When Townsend returned from Brussels, and the pair spent their anguished time together in a friend’s country house, the Netflix script writers missed a rather delicious touch… the lurking press were getting most of their inside information from the ten-year-old daughter of the host and hostess. She was having the time of her life creeping out of the house to give reporters the latest on what was going on inside the house!
Margaret’s decision, which was couched in heroic terms, had more to do with the fact that their marriage wasn’t going to work – he had no money or home – couldn’t afford even one servant. Princess Margaret, on the other hand, was accustomed to the grandest of life-styles and loved the high life. She simply wouldn’t have been able to fill her time with genteel coffee-parties with other RAF wives, or live a quiet life out of circulation, away from all her rich, grand friends. The renunciation was a recognition that she couldn’t live without her Royal status and money, rather than a religious decision
Townsend himself wrote in his autobiography years later: “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.”
With a bleak Townsend back in Brussels, the Princess embarked on her heady life of partying with all the richest, titled, and most eligible men of the time, who became known as the Margaret Set. It was during this time that she also became famous for what can only be called bitchiness -snobbish put-downs, spilling her glass of wine over the dress of a girl in a more fetching dress than hers, making people stay up into the small hours when they were tired or pregnant, obligatory curtseying, trading on her Royalty, which she did for the rest of her life.
She was twenty-nine when Townsend wrote to tell her he was marrying a Belgian girl much younger than her. Shortly afterwards she announced her engagement to the bohemian, Eton-educated society photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones. Courtiers and many others were shocked (all the officers in the mess I was stationed in at the time were angry that she was throwing herself away!)
However, Tony the commoner was created Earl of Snowdon, and got on famously, not just with the Queen and Prince Philip, but with the Queen Mother too. They remained friends until her death, and Snowdon continued to photograph the Royal family all his life.
The witty, brilliant, sexy Princess and the witty, brilliant, sexy photographer had more in common than most people realised, and for some years, they were the centre of the sixties hedonistic, sparkling world, surrounded by writers, painters, actors, wits and most of the names of swinging high society.
The marriage finally foundered on their in-ability to compromise with each other – and it has to be said, by the petty irritations of Royal life – the Princess’s maid would bring her a cup of tea in the morning but not Tony, while their nanny resisted him ever visiting the nursery. They both began affairs -Margaret’s rather more transient than Tony’s, and her first one in 1966 only a few years after their marriage .
Margaret then took up with a young man seventeen years her junior, an aristocratic out-of-work hippie and sometime gardener, Roddy Llewellyn. This was the most exciting tabloid fodder the press had had in years, on top of all the rumoured affairs, rows, and royal rages. Pictures were taken of them frolicking in the sea on holiday on Mustique, the West Indian island where Margaret had a house. This triggered Princess and Snowdon into announcing they were divorcing.
Newspapers demanded Margaret be taken off the Civil List which paid her a large sum, while Labour MPs denounced her as “a royal parasite” and a “floosie”. On 11 July 1978, the Snowdons’ divorce was finalised. In December that same year, Snowdon re-married. Margaret never did. When after some years, Roddy Llewellyn told her he was marrying someone he’d known for years, Margaret never found another real lover, though she had plenty of friendships.
For the rest of her life she was known as ‘walking-wounded’ in London society. She continued to smoke and drink heavily, party with her friends on Mustique, and eventually to enjoy her grandchildren by her admirably well-adjusted children, David and Sara.
She had several mild strokes, and then, in Mustique, she stepped into a bath which she didn’t realise was scalding. Her badly burned legs never healed, and neither did she. She spent her remaining years in a wheel chair and died at seventy-two, four months before her mother, in 2002.
It’s said that her chief legacy is that her divorce made it easier for her sister’s children – Prince Charles, Prince Andrew and Princess Anne – to divorce. Her ashes were placed inside her father’s tomb, and she wrote her own rather revealing epitaph. It’s carved on a memorial stone in St Georges Chapel Windsor:
We thank thee Lord who by thy spirit doth our faith restore
When we with worldly things commune & prayerless close our door
We lose our precious gift divine to worship and adore
Then thou our Saviour, fill our hearts to love thee evermore.
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
What to do with two pork chops? I decided we’d have them for lunch, since I prefer a very light supper. I fried them until they were nearly done, then poured in cream, grated a large courgette into the bubbling cream, added a chicken bouillon cube, a teaspoonful of garlic from a jar (lazy), a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, and plenty of grated nutmeg and black pepper. I let this all bubble until the cream was thick and crusty round the edges, the chops cooked, and then stirred in torn up leaves of spinach. Served with creamy mashed potato, we had all our vegetables suffused with the fragrant creamy sauce.
Food for Thought
Think not of the amount to be accomplished, the difficulties to be overcome, or the end to be attained, but set earnestly at the little task at your elbow, letting that be sufficient for the day.
Sir William Osler, famed physician 1849 – 1919