15 December 2009

An Affair to Remember: Princess Margaret, Part 2 of 2

[Read Part I] It is hard to imagine today that the cause for alarm was that Townsend was divorced, but at that time, there had not been a divorce in the English royal family in more than 400 years and the Church of England, of which the queen was the supreme leader, did not condone divorce. Divorced people were not accepted at court. Even more disturbingly for the Queen Mother, for Queen Elizabeth II, for senior courtiers and for the government, the issue of divorce had been at the center of the abdication crisis less than 20 years earlier. One of the key reasons Edward VIII had abdicated was because he wished to marry a woman who had been twice divorced. His position as head of the Church of England and as the moral symbol of the British Empire was untenable. Since he had never particularly wanted to be king, he chose the woman over the crown. His decision was irresponsible in the eyes of the royal family, thrusting his less confident brother, George VI, onto the throne and forcing his young nieces into a permanent spotlight. The Queen Mother, particularly despised him, believing that the stress of kingship (rather than heavy smoking and a lifetime of poor health) had led to her husband’s early death.

Margaret’s desire to marry Townsend reawakened all of those ill feelings. The royal household managed to keep the romance quiet for a bit. There were rumors but the press did not break the story until the princess behaved indiscreetly while awaiting her carriage following the queen’s coronation—she was seen brushing fluff off Townsend’s uniform and a media firestorm ensued. The Royal Air Force sent Townsend out of the country to a two-year posting in Belgium. On the advice of the government, Margaret and Townsend were asked not to see each other for at least one year and to wait another year after that before deciding to marry.

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.

Public opinion was divided with many taking the side of “true love” and others supporting Margaret’s duty to uphold certain values. As her birthday approached, things reached a boiling point. Unwilling to deliver the coup de grace, the queen avoided Margaret as much as possible but allowed her to meet Townsend at the homes of friends and relatives as long as they were not photographed together. For three heady weeks in October 1955, they dined and talked amidst growing pressure. The press hounded them, hiring helicopters to fly over the houses where they were staying.

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.


  1. I love how she acted indiscreetly by brushing a bit of fluff off of Townsend's uniform. While today that would mean nothing, it says alot about what a restrained time and world that they lived in. Call me an old fashioned romantic, but I think the moment when the two love interests finally allow themselves to hold hands very briefly is often so much more charged than when they tumble into bed together.

  2. I agree. I think we have lost a sense of romance when we lost our sense of restraint. We also seem to have lost the idea of deep commitment. But, I'm a Romantic, with a big 'R'--I'll take Jane Austen over Jackie Collins any day.

  3. yeah, I like Jane Austen more than romance stories today.

  4. As someone who is interested in the royals, the love story between Peter Townsend and Princess Margaret has interested me. I had found Margaret to be stunningly beautiful from the moment that I saw a photograph of her for the first time. I may not have known her personally, but I do believe that the final years of her life were somewhat messy and sad, primarily due to having a rocky and failed marriage. I have often wondered whether or not she may have led a much happier life had she married Peter Townsend. I, too, have also heard from one of her biographers, Christopher Warwick, that she terminated her plans to marry Townsend due to her supposed faltering and doubts of her love for him. Speaking out of vague memory of what I remember of that letter, I am curious as to who that letter was addressed to. I have no doubt that Margaret would have written it, but could she have been speaking from the heart with the utmost sincerity when she wrote the content within that letter? I have a feeling that Margaret was a very private person, would not speak frequently about personal matters and, when she did, had a tendency to "cover up" or even lie about these sorts of things. Again, like I said, clearly I did not know Margaret personally and this is only what I can sense about her. Like I said, she may have written or declared that her love for Townsend was wavering, however, at the same time, there is evidence that strongly suggests that her love for Townsend was eternal.

  5. This piece was helpful to me in writing my own piece about Margaret's children. I have cited this piece where appropriate. Thank you!


    PS: How do you like the telling of the story on The Crown (Netflix)?

    1. I am delighted to be of assistance! I didn't have much to include in the "Royal Ladies of Nov. 27" so I have added a spotlight on Sarah with a link to your book.

      I signed up for Netflix specifically for The Crown but haven't had a chance to watch it yet. I need to make it a priority!!