As a princess, Margaret was subject to the Royal Marriages Act which requires royals under the age of 25 to receive the monarch’s permission to marry. After that, they need only Parliament’s approval. By the end of the two-year waiting period, Margaret would have reached 25 and Elizabeth would no longer be in the awkward position of denying permission, which she surely would have done despite her love for her sister. All of the royal family was sincerely religious and the queen was—and is—a stickler for duty. As head of the church, she would not have ignored the church’s tenets about divorce. Nevertheless, everyone seemed to believe that Margaret would be able to marry Townsend if she just waited.
But many church leaders, government leaders and senior courtiers were working against the couple. As the crisis grew, the Queen Mother apparently withdrew more and more from her daughter and Queen Elizabeth seemed to be “ostriching”, as one biographer put it, burying her head and hoping things would end well.
Margaret and Townsend wrote a steady stream of love letters and spoke frequently on the phone, each believing they would be married once she was 25. As the date approached, Prime Minister Anthony Eden (himself divorced and remarried) threatened that the proposed marriage would require Margaret to surrender her right to the throne (she was number three at the time), forfeit her income from the Civil List, give up her title and royal status, marry outside of the church and live abroad for several years at least. Most, if not all of this, was untrue. Nothing in British law would require her to forfeit her income, status or right of succession. However, she could not have married in the Church of England and they probably would have been asked to live abroad until things were calmer. Neither Margaret nor Townsend seems to have been aware of their true legal status. For her part at least, Margaret was in constant communication with church leaders, corresponding and meeting with bishops as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury on the matter.
Then, quite suddenly, the crisis was over. Both had reached a breaking point: Margaret and Townsend called it off. It is difficult to know whether the extreme emotional distress, the princess's potential loss of royal status and income, or their strong Anglican faith was the determining factor. Very recent evidence has even suggested that Margaret had been falling out of love by the end--in his memoirs, Townsend said their love had been as strong as ever. Together, they drafted a statement explaining that “mindful of the Church’s teachings” she had decided not to marry Townsend. They saw each other a few more times, reportedly parting in tears, during the next few years until Townsend married someone else in 1959.
The crisis may have been over, but the story of their love haunted Margaret’s public image all of her life and was one of the top items in her obituaries when she died in 2002. The greatest irony was that, in 1978, Princess Margaret became the first royal highness to divorce, setting a precedent for three of the queen’s four children. Two of them have even remarried—Prince Charles to a divorced woman and Princess Anne to a former equerry.
The crisis was more than a romantic tragedy; it was a foreshadowing of things to come. The royal family’s tendency to avoid difficult topics and to misinterpret public feeling would negatively impact them again and again, from the marital foibles of Charles and Diana to the scandalous shenanigans of Sarah Duchess of York to, most seriously, the family’s response to Diana’s death, which has been captured so well in the Oscar-winning film, “The Queen.” After 50 years of ignoring problems or trying to sweep them under the carpet, the royal family was deeply shaken by the public’s reaction to their reaction to Diana’s death. As with the Margaret-Townsend affair, they saw it as a private matter. Today, at last, they’ve come to realize that, for them, private matters are public matters. Partially in response to this, they are making the royal family smaller by giving fewer people titles, official duties and income from public sources. And, they have actual public relations professionals working for them, instead of relying on crusty old courtiers to advise them in these matters.
Inevitably, another royal scandal will one day present itself. We shall see if the lesson of Margaret and Townsend has indeed been learned.