Princess Margaret was 13 when she first met Royal Air Force Group Captain Peter Townsend in 1944. A decorated war pilot, Townsend had been sent on a six-month assignment as equerry to the King George VI, Margaret’s father. Margaret and her 17-year-old sister, Elizabeth, were both entranced by his good looks and heroic past. “Too bad, he’s married,” Elizabeth said of the 29-year-old.
Townsend quickly became a favorite of the entire royal family. The king truly admired him: “I wish I had had a boy like him.” His temporary appointment was made permanent and he was on call 24 hours a day as the king’s personal assistant, wherever the king happened to be. This put quite a strain on Townsend’s already troubled marriage.
Separated most of the time from his wife and children, Townsend was indispensable to the royal family, playing cards with the queen, riding bicycles with the princesses and stalking with the king. He accompanied the king and family on official duties.
Margaret grew into a lively beauty with a talent both for music and mimicry. Many proclaimed that if she had not been a princess that she might have been a highly successful actress. I believe she could have given her contemporaries Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly stiff competition for the best parts and for space in the movie magazines. Indeed, although she hated the press, as she grew up, the press became obsessed with her. They reported on her every move, every party, every outfit, every person she was seen with. There was constant speculation about whom she would marry.
Little did anyone know that Margaret already had someone in mind.
As the king developed lung cancer and arteriosclerosis, Townsend became even more important to the family and the family became less and less aware of the growing relationship between him and the princess. Distracted by the king’s death and her own sudden ascension to the throne, the new queen was completely surprised when her sister revealed her feelings and requested permission to marry the recently divorced Townsend. Elizabeth was initially supportive and even invited the couple to dine with her and her husband that evening, but she knew it would not be easy. To avoid scandal, she had Townsend transferred to her staff instead of heading her mother’s household (where he had intimate daily access to the princess).
Their mother, now Queen Mother, was less surprised by the news—she had been warned of the situation by another courtier but had refused to believe it. Now, she chose to ignore it. The family asked Margaret to wait awhile before making any decisions, perhaps hoping that the romance would run its course. . . [Read Part II]