Princess Margaret’s tragic real-life story

Featuring royals like Princess Margaret, Netflix’s The Crown goes through great lengths to make the show as historically accurate as possible, despite being considered fictional. That’s not to say liberties are never taken, of course. Members of the royal family live extraordinarily private lives, and, as such, there are just some things we’re never going to really know about them. “There’s an interesting balance to be struck between trying to be truthful and authoritative and not being too syrupy,” Matt Smith, the actor who stars as Prince Philip in Seasons 1 and 2, told Forbes. “This is the reason that [the royal family has] endured — they’ve never allowed us behind the palace walls.” 

If you’re a fan of the series, you’ve already met Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth II’s younger sister and only sibling, played by Vanessa Kirby in the first and second seasons. Season 3 will introduce viewers to Helena Bonham Carter’s portrayal of Princess Margaret, and it’s set during a dramatic time in the princess’ life. While The Crown has delivered a mostly accurate portrayal of Margaret’s life, her real-life story is well worth knowing. This is the tragic true tale of Princess Margaret.

Princess Margaret was made out to be "wicked as hell"

Being the kid sister to the eventual queen was not without its challenges. “When my sister and I were growing up, she was made out to be the goody-goody one,” The Queen, a 1996 biography of Queen Elizabeth II, quotes Princess Margaret as saying (via PBS’ Frontline). “That was boring, so the press tried to make out I was wicked as hell.”

Although Margaret obviously did not agree with that assessment of her character, it’s true that she and her sister were opposites. “The queen, even when they were girls, always kept an eye on her sister because Margaret could be wayward. She could be cheeky. She could be naughty,” Christopher Warwick, author of the authorized biography Princess Margaret: A Life of Contrasts, revealed to The Cut. “In terms of personalities, Elizabeth and Margaret were as different as chalk and cheese.”

Princess Margaret was disliked at a young age

Princess Margaret was beloved by her father, King George VI. “He used to look at her as if he couldn’t believe this enchanting thing was his daughter,” a courtier told The Telegraph. The daughter of one of the late king’s courtiers added, “The King spoiled her dreadfully. She was his pet … she was always allowed to stay up to dinner at the age of 13 and to grow up too quickly.” But her father was one of the only ones smitten by her.

“The courtiers didn’t like her much — they found her amusing but … she used to keep her parents and everyone waiting for dinner because she wanted to listen to the end of a programme on the wireless,” the courtier’s daughter revealed. “I remember my father despairing of her.”

Even Margaret and Princess Elizabeth II’s governess, Marion Crawford, thought the young princess crowded out her older sister. “We really are trying to separate them a bit because Princess Margaret does draw all the attention and Elizabeth lets her do that,” she’s quoted as saying. Crawford even requested Margaret be excluded from parties so Elizabeth could attend without her.

Princess Margaret lost "the love of her life" in her 20s

King George VI was known to refer to his two daughters, Princess Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret, as “pride” and “joy,” respectively (via Express). And, just as King George VI loved his girls, they, too, loved him. Margaret was especially close to the king. 

Christopher Warwick, the author of the princess’ authorized biography, Princess Margaret: A Life of Contrasts, told The Cut, “The love of her life was one man, and he was the man who died before she was 22, and that man was her father, the king, whom she adored.” 

On Feb. 6, 1952, King George died suddenly at the age of 56. According to his biography, his death was later determined to be caused by a coronary thrombosis. Some time before, the king had been diagnosed with lung cancer and had one of his lungs removed. King George is thought to have passed away in his sleep in the early morning hours. The night before, he spent time playing with his grandchildren, Charles and Anne, and dining with his beloved daughter Margaret.

Princess Margaret's doomed relationship

Princess Margaret began a secret relationship with Group Captain Peter Townsend in the early ’50s. Townsend was married, but later divorced his wife and proposed to the princess. Margaret said yes, but they continued to keep their romance quiet.

“At the time,” History explained, “divorce was considered a major scandal, and it was unthinkable for a royal to marry both a commoner and a divorced man.” If Margaret were to marry a divorcee, it could appear as if Queen Elizabeth condoned divorce — something that was very much disapproved of by the Church of England.

But, with their plan to marry, the couple couldn’t keep it a secret forever. Due to the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, Margaret would need to seek the queen’s permission to marry. If Queen Elizabeth II denied her request, Margaret could then petition Parliament after one year’s time, but, as History highlighted, “that would have caused a scandal even more dramatic than her affair with a divorced man.” In the end, Margaret and Townsend broke up. The princess issued a statement saying she’d “resolved” to put “the Church’s teachings” about marriage and her “duty to the Commonwealth” above all else.

Princess Margaret planned to settle for someone else

In letters discovered decades later, Princess Margaret revealed to then-prime minister Anthony Eden in 1955 that she planned to meet with Peter Townsend in order to “properly decide” whether she could or could not marry him. “The Queen of course knows I am writing to you about this, but of course no one else does, and as everything is so uncertain I know you will regard it certainly as a confidence,” she revealed in one letter cited by The Telegraph.

Although Margaret may have seemed like she was pushed into breaking off her engagement with Townsend, these letters prove that Margaret made the final decision. The princess’ authorized biographer, Christopher Warwick, confirmed to The Cut that “Peter Townsend was not the great love of her life.” Still, ending the relationship couldn’t have been easy — especially after the entire world knew of her and Townsend’s affair.

A year after issuing a statement about ending her relationship with Townsend, Margaret accepted a marriage proposal from her friend Billy Wallace. According to The Telegraph, Margaret reasoned to her pals that it was better to marry “somebody one at least liked” than remain unmarried.

Princess Margaret found love and controversy yet again

Despite Princess Margaret’s decision to settle for Billy Wallace, the two did not marry. According to The Telegraph, the couple never made a formal engagement announcement because their relationship ended soon after they’d gotten engaged. Wallace apparently admitted to Margaret that he’d had a brief affair while vacationing in the Bahamas. “I had my chance and blew it with my big mouth, or she would have become Mrs. Wallace and I would have been able to handle her,” he is quoted as saying.

Two years later, Margaret met photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones at a dinner party. Later, Armstrong-Jones was hired to photograph Margaret — and their romance began. “Nobody knew about their relationship, there wasn’t a whisper about it,” Anne de Courcy, author of Snowdon: The Biography, told Town & Country. It was as if they were hiding in plain sight. Because Armstrong-Jones was not seen as a suitable match for the princess, the press didn’t think much of him attending parties with Margaret. When the couple announced their engagement in 1960, royal courtiers were both shocked and displeased. They thought Margaret should’ve married someone of her own class — not a “commoner.”

Princess Margaret's marriage started to fall apart within a few years

On May 6, 1960, Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones, who then became known as Lord Snowden, married. But, unfortunately, the princess didn’t get her happily ever after. 

“The first few years were wonderful,” Anne de Courcy, author of Snowden: A Biography, confirmed to Town & Country. “They had a lot in common, there was banter between them — he would help her with her speeches.” The couple was perhaps too similar in some ways. “They were both pretty strong-willed and accustomed to having their own way, so there were bound to be collisions,” de Courcy explained. And then work started to get in the way.

In 1962, Margaret’s husband took a job as the artistic advisor for The Sunday Times. “She expected her husband to be with her more, but one of Tony’s strongest motivations was work,” the author revealed. “He had a workshop in the basement of Kensington Palace, and while she was understanding of his work commitments, Margaret didn’t realize it would take him away from her so much.”

Princess Margaret's affair was made public in the tabloids

In 1961, before their relationship took a turn for the worse, Antony Armstrong-Jones and Princess Margaret welcomed their first child, David. Soon after their second child, Sarah, was born in 1964, though, their relationship began faltering. According to The Evening Standard, Margaret caught her husband talking on the phone to a woman, and it was clear that they were more than just friends. It seems, while Armstrong-Jones was away for work, he was also involved in a series of flings with other women.

“The flings used to upset her a lot,” Anne de Courcy, author of Snowden: A Biography, revealed to Town & Country. But Lord Snowden wasn’t the only one cheating. “She had some too,” de Courcy confirmed, “but never as long as his. They weren’t revenge affairs, she just wanted to feel desired.”

Both Armstrong-Jones and Margaret continued to have their separate affairs into the ’70s, but they were able to keep their liaisons from the press. That is, until Margaret and her lover, landscape gardener Roddy Llewellyn, were photographed vacationing together in the Caribbean, and, before long, their images were plastered on the covers of tabloids.

Some people wanted to strip Princess Margaret of her title

Soon after Princess Margaret’s affair with Roddy Llewellyn was made public, Antony Armstrong-Jones and the princess announced their separation. Some years later, in 1978, the couple revealed that they would be divorcing. “The marriage has broken down and the couple have lived apart for two years. These are obviously the grounds for divorce,” the princess’ spokesman told The New York Times. “Naturally, Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon will continue to see each other on the same friendly basis as they have with each other over the last two years.”

When news of her affair broke, a Member of Parliament dubbed Margaret a “parasite,” while another labeled the princess “an embarrassment to the whole nation.” And that’s just the kinds of things they said about her before she filed for divorce. After the divorce announcement was made public, John Lee, a Labor Party legislator, said he planned to question Parliament about Margaret’s titles and funds. “That is a polite way of saying that Mr. Lee will demand a cut in her salary, which is paid by Parliament, and possibly a change in her royal position,” The New York Times noted. 

Princess Margaret lived her entire life in her sister's shadow

Princess Margaret did not lose her royal title after divorcing Antony Armstrong-Jones, but she did lose — and miss out on — a lot of other things throughout her life. “When you look at Princess Margaret, she never found the happiness she should have done,” royal expert Ingrid Seward told Express. “She was always completely in the shadow of her elder sister, because her elder sister was Queen. And Princess Anne said she used to feel like an also-ran.” That is, a loser. 

Andrew Duncan, the author of The Reality of Monarchy, told the publication what Margaret once told him: “In my own humble way I’ve always tried to take some of the burden off my sister.” We may never know for sure, but you can’t help but wonder if Margaret’s ability to draw attention as a child was purposeful, a way to provide some relief to her older sister. Although she loved her big sis dearly, Margaret also felt that she could never quite compare to the queen. “I guess I’ll be second best to my grave,” a confidante of Margaret quoted her as saying.

Princess Margaret suffered with poor health for many years

Princess Margaret’s life was not only marred by tragedy, but also by poor mental and physical health. As her marriage was collapsing in the ’70s, Margaret was reported to have suffered a nervous breakdown. Margaret was also a heavy drinker, which led to her developing hepatitis in the mid ’80s. In addition to drinking heavily, Margaret was a chain smoker. According to The Guardian, Margaret began smoking cigarettes as a teenager. After her father passed away, Margaret began to smoke even more — having as many as 60 cigarettes a day.

By the early aughts, Margaret had suffered a cancer scare, repeated migraines, the aforementioned hepatitis, bronchitis, laryngitis, pneumonia, and several strokes. In 2002, after developing heart complications from a fourth stroke at the age of 71, Margaret died “peacefully in her sleep,” Buckingham Palace revealed (via Time). Margaret’s funeral was held on the 50th anniversary of her father’s death and at the same location, St. George’s Chapel in Windsor.

Despite enduring many tragedies, Princess Margaret was "a lady who loved life"

You can’t comb through Princess Margaret’s life and ignore all of the ways in which it was affected by tragedies, but that doesn’t mean Margaret’s life was all dark, all the time. Although Christopher Warwick, her authorized biographer, did confirm that Margaret ended up alone in the end, there is more to her story than just her failed relationships and heartbreak.

“It’s sad,” Warwick told The Cut, “but the idea that she was a sad woman simply is not true. There were times when she was very, very lonely. But my goodness, she was a lady who loved life and enjoyed friends. We’ve all gone through sad and unhappy times in our life and she was no different.” Warwick claimed that she was not “at all” this “sad [or] tragic character.” Despite enduring all of her many tragedies, she did not give them the power to define her.

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