The real reason Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend’s love affair was doomed from the start

November 14, 2022
Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend in 1953 CREDIT: Keystone

Despite The Crown’s depiction of a reunion in the 1990s, it is too simplistic to blame the late Queen for her sister’s failed romance

Decoding The Crown to identify what is true about royal history and what is concocted fiction cunningly rooted in fact has become our national pastime. The latest series includes a largely fabricated plot centred around Princess Margaret’s doomed romance with her father’s former equerry, Royal Air Force Officer, Group Captain Peter Townsend.

Scroll back to 1953 and the nation was rocked to learn that the 23-year-old Princess, the Queen’s younger sibling, had fallen in love with a dashing divorcee who was, shockingly, 16 years her senior and a father to two sons. With the horrors of “Uncle David’s” abdication – Edward VIII’s decision to renounce the throne to marry divorcee Wallis Simpson – the Royal family were rigid with terror at the thought of history repeating itself with another marital scandal guaranteed to dent monarchical stability. 

Our late Queen was put in the unenviable position of acting as arbitrator because under the 1772 Royal Marriages Act, Margaret (aged under 25 years old ) needed her sister’s permission to marry. In an echo of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, exiled from Britain, the Palace swiftly sent Townsend (who had become the Queen’s equerry in 1952) to Belgium for two years to give the princess and Peter time to cool off. Margaret endured a lonely and agonising separation; the fable fermenting that she never forgave the Queen for not sanctioning the marriage. Yet, in spite of their differences and difficulties, the sisters always remained touchingly close. Townsend maintained that the Queen acted with characteristic care and kindness to the couple. He was struck by the “Queen’s movingly simple and sympathetic acceptance of the disturbing fact of her sister’s love for me.” 

After much soul-searching, Margaret decided not to accept Townsend’s marriage proposal. The popular narrative is that Margaret didn’t want to give up her regal perks and order of succession. The myth is that she felt betrayed by her sister for preventing her from marrying her true love. 

This is what The Crown leaps on. 

Episode four is set in 1992, when the Queen gave her famous “Annus Horribilis” speech on the 40th anniversary of her succession. Who could forget those perfectly-distilled words: “1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure.” And who did not feel empathy for the Queen, rocked by the collapse of three of her children’s marriages and a devastating fire at Windsor Castle. The toll was evident on the long-suffering mother and monarch, fighting a cold when she uttered those immortal “Annus Horribilis” words. 

So far, so familiar. Yet in The Crown, the Queen, played by Imelda Staunton, goes further. She offers a public apology for the way that the Royal family has conducted its personal affairs (we are in the grip of the War of the Waleses, and reeling in the wake of the Duchess of York’s escapades with her financial adviser). Then she ends with a coded message to Princess Margaret – an acknowledgement that she ruined her sister’s life by forbidding her from marrying Townsend. 

Margaret, played by Lesley Manville, is apoplectic, raging at her sister for allowing Princess Anne to divorce and remarry, when she had been banned from her union with Townsend. She reminds the Queen that Townsend was her “sun and water” – so it is poignant that when The Queen gives her Annus Horribilis speech, she references those words in a coded message to Margaret. A sort of apology underlining the immutable fact that she loves her.

This is as fanciful but dramatically compelling as when Townsend gets back in touch with Margaret in the early nineties, after hearing her play “their’’ song on Desert Island Discs. Townsend writes to her saying that he is going to an Armed Forces reception for the crew of HMS Vanguard where they met and fell in love. (Fact: they met on HMS Vanguard in 1947 when Margaret was 17 and Townsend was King George VI’s equerry. The Royal family were on an official tour of South Africa.) While it is true that this reception did take place and that both the Princess and Townsend were on the guest list, they did not, as The Crown speculates, spend an idyllic evening dancing and reminiscing together, shortly before Townsend died in 1995.

What is true is that after three decades apart, Margaret and Townsend met one last time in the nineties. Previously, in 1958, after sustaining their friendship, they had decided that they should not meet again. Press hysteria every time they were together speculating that their romance was rekindled was too disruptive. Townsend later wrote that “public curiosity killed our long and faithful attachment. That evening, Princes Margaret and I, warmly, affectionately, said adieu.”

Thirty four years later, in the summer of 1992, they lunched for one last time at Kensington Palace with Margaret’s close friend, Lady Penn and her husband, Sir Eric, in attendance. Afterwards, Margaret, aged 61, and Townsend, then 77, walked in the garden. “It was sweet to see them together,” Lady Penn recalled. By this time, Margaret’s marriage to Antony Armstrong-Jones had failed and Townsend was still with his second wife, Marie Luce Jamagne, with whom he had three more children.

While The Crown is right that Margaret and Townsend’s love was real and enduring, it’s too simplistic to lay the blame for their separation at the Queen’s door. Less well known, is that to understand Margaret fully, you have to consider her strongly-held Christian convictions. Quietly central to her existence was her faith. The decision which the public assumed was love or duty, was also love of God. The Church of England had threatened in1953 that the princess would be barred from taking the sacrament if she and Townsend (a divorcee) married. (Later the clergy admitted that the Church had been wrong in making such a claim.) 

Margaret and Townsend were drawn together by a shared belief system. She considered Townsend “a spiritual explorer” like herself. Both later articulated that the tenderness between them was based on an existential inner loneliness. People might conclude that Margaret never recovered from her renunciation of Townsend, yet it is more likely that she never recovered from her father’s death when she was 21. King George VI died in February 1952 – which for his adored youngest daughter was a life-long indomitable blow. The kind equerry helped fill the “black hole” she experienced in mourning. The King’s death precipitated the loss of her sister, too. Now Elizabeth would be Queen and Margaret, the heiress presumptive. Margaret felt lost and alone. Townsend was her solace. 

Publicly, it’s easy to dismiss Princess Margaret’s life as a hedonistic existence steeped in privilege, yet this was at odds with her sacred inner world. In her press statement renouncing Townsend, on October 31, 1955, Margaret said that she had “reached this decision entirely alone, and in doing so I have been strengthened by the unfailing support and devotion of Group Captain Townsend. I am deeply grateful for the concern of all those who have constantly prayed for my happiness.” Townsend later concurred: “Everyone – most of all myself – prayed for her ultimate happiness.”      

Some 30 years later, Townsend wrote his own version of events in a memoir called Time and Chance; he described their parting with a chivalry and sacrifice that he seems almost to relish.  
“We did not feel unhappy. Without dishonour, we had played out our destiny. There remained only the glow of tenderness, constancy and singleness of heart. Then we, who had been so close, parted.”

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