Royal rebel: Why it’s time to reconsider the enigmatic Princess Margaret

February 9, 2022
Princess Margaret was more complex than our emotionally straightforward monarch 
CREDIT: Bettmann

The perception is that she drank too much and partied too hard but, behind her façade, the Queen’s sister was devout, kind and insecure

While the Jubilee anniversary is always poignant for the Queen, 20 years ago it was also devastating as her beloved sister, Margaret, died three days later on February 9, aged 72, following cardiac complications. Although devoted to her only sibling, the Queen considered Margaret “a total enigma”. 

The Diana of her day, the press and public could not get enough of Princess Margaret. Captivating in couture, she was the antithesis of a fusty royal. As a young woman, she was considered the cleverest and most progressive member of the Royal family. Her son, Lord Snowdon, told me that his mother “was a woman ahead of her time”. Frank Sinatra declared of her: “The best ambassador England ever had.” However, the death of George VI in 1951, when Margaret was 21, was a life-long blow to the Princess. 

To understand Margaret, you have to view her life through the lens of her relationship with her father and her faith. The popular perception is that Margaret drank too much and partied too hard in a bid to drown out her despair. Broken-hearted after her father’s death, she fell in love with his former equerry, Group Captain Peter Townsend. Further agonies followed as the strictures of the day forbade her marriage to Townsend, her first love, a divorcee 15 years her senior. 

After her failed marriage to Anthony Armstrong-Jones, and then the public discomfiture over her affair with the landscape gardener Roddy Llewellyn, 17 years her junior, Margaret never found the long-term love that she craved. The pulverising sense of abandonment after her father’s death was a recurring theme.  

Recently, I researched the life of Princess Margaret and was delighted to discover a bright, loyal, captivating woman, largely misunderstood. One of Margaret’s oldest friends, Lady Penn, explained: “I was devoted to her and she had so many admirable qualities. Kindness, intelligence and a deep sense of duty. She was a wonderful mother and both of her children adored her.” 

Lady Penn’s daughter, Fiona Wemyss, who “practically grew up with Margaret”, said: “Sometimes she could be tricky and was playing the Princess, but she was the funniest, warmest, kindest woman I have ever known. We spent so much time helpless with giggles. I have spent my life defending her character because she is so easy to misunderstand.” 

Key to Princess Margaret’s character is that she was a consummate Daddy’s Girl. While the Queen was closer to her mother growing up – they shared a love of dogs, horses and racing – the more artistic Margaret was devoted to her father, who worshipped her. As Townsend observed: “Princess Elizabeth was the King’s pride. Princess Margaret was the King’s joy. She enchanted him.” Sharing her father’s quick wit but also his hot temper, only Margaret could soothe him. According to society photographer Cecil Beaton, only Margaret “could save the King from himself in an awkward moment or when his notoriously short temper flared into one of his ‘gnashes’”.

As the younger sister of the future Queen, Margaret was over-indulged by her parents, especially her father, who forgave her anything. Queen Mary, by contrast, considered her spoilt and “espiègle” (mischievous). Margaret was more boisterous and attention-seeking than her sister, yet their nanny, Marion Crawford, said that the youngest Princess had the “softest of hearts”. 

The author J M Barrie recalled attending her fifth birthday party, when a table was piled with presents that sent Margaret into “a frenzy of glee”. A special gift was placed beside her plate. “Is that really your very own?” asked an envious Barrie. “It’s yours and mine,” responded Margaret.   

On February 5 1952, after a day’s shooting party at Sandringham, King George VI listened to Margaret play the piano for him after dinner. His eldest daughter was on a tour of East Africa. After 10.30pm, he kissed Margaret good night. He always kissed Margaret – and only Margaret – three times. Once on each cheek and then again, such was his adoration of her. That night he died in his sleep from lung cancer. At his funeral, Margaret’s wreath bore the simple message: “Darling Papa, from his ever-loving Margaret.”

Being the second child of the King was not easy for Margaret, who, in terms of character, had greater star quality than her sister. Aged six, when she learnt that her father was to become King, she said unhappily: “I used to be Margaret of York and now I’m nothing.” After her father died, she felt cut adrift, confiding to a friend that she had “an awful sense of being in a black hole”.  

The King’s death strengthened Margaret’s emotional reliance on Townsend, who was made comptroller of the Queen Mother’s household. For all her brash insouciance and imperious tendencies, Margaret was insecure, her hauteur a compensation for her feelings of inadequacy. Townsend observed that behind her flinty façade lay “a rare softness and sincerity”. 

What drew Margaret and Townsend together was their shared belief system. The Princess considered Townsend “a spiritual explorer” like herself. She allowed Townsend a rare glimpse of her sacred inner world. A committed Christian, Margaret’s unwavering faith informed her critical decisions. Her knowledge of the Bible was so comprehensive that she was ready to be confirmed at 14, although she still had to wait until she was 17. Her private prayer group played a seminal part in her early twenties. 

In 1953, the Church of England threatened to bar the Princess from taking the sacrament if she and Townsend married. (The clergy later admitted that the Church had been wrong to make such an announcement.)  

Contrary to popular belief, one of the strongest reasons for not marrying Townsend, according to her friends, was not the prospect of forsaking her regal perks and rank but the fact that, in the long run, it was easier to turn him down than to forgo her right to Holy Communion. It is telling that after she made her decision not to marry, the first person that she told was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Geoffrey Fisher, her spiritual mentor. She drove to Lambeth Palace, where he exclaimed: “What a wonderful person the Holy Spirit is.”

During the Townsend affair, the Queen acted with characteristic sensitivity and kindness towards the couple. She invited him to dine with her and Prince Philip and Townsend was struck by the “Queen’s movingly simple and sympathetic acceptance of the disturbing fact of her sister’s love for me”. 

The timing of the affair was disastrous, as the Queen was preparing for her Coronation. The attitude of the Queen Mother was to put her head in the sand and not to interfere. “She was not a mother to her child,” Lord Charteris said ruefully of the Queen Mother at the time. The Princess was grieving her father, her mother was emotionally inaccessible, and her sister was no longer as available to her – wrapped up as she was with matters of state and her young family. Townsend was Margaret’s solace.

The Queen was right; Princess Margaret was an enigma. She was more complex than our emotionally straightforward monarch. Maybe at this time of remembrance, the Queen will read the simple and beautiful prayer that her sister wrote: “When we with worldly things commune/ And prayerless close our door/ We lose our precious gift divine/ To worship and adore.”

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