The Queen’s late sister, Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, led a colourful life in the public eye and was considered the most carefree. Some might say interesting, of the two sisters, due to her lesser responsibility compared to Elizabeth and some of the events that occurred during her life.
Margaret Rose was born in 1930, four years after her sister, Princess Elizabeth, at Glamis Castle in Scotland, which was her mother’s ancestral home. At the time of her birth, George V was the reigning monarch, making Margaret the fourth-in-line to the throne. Margaret’s mother, the then Duchess of York, wanted to call her second daughter Ann Margaret, as she thought the two names worked well together. However, George V disliked the name Ann and so the couple arrived at the name Margaret Rose.
Margaret was baptised in Buckingham Palace’s private Chapel.
At the age of five, Margaret moved up a place in the succession when George V died and her uncle ascended the throne, becoming Edward VIII. When he abdicated less than a year later, Margaret was suddenly, and unexpectedly, made second-in-line to the throne. She was then known as The Princess Margaret to reflect her status as the child of the King. The former-York family swapped their Picadilly residence for Buckingham Palace, and Margaret’s bedroom overlooked The Mall.
As a child during the Second World War, the young Princess and her sister’s safety were of the utmost concern. The Queen famously said about leaving London during the Blitz: “The children won’t go without me. I won’t leave without the King. And the King will never leave”.
Margaret and Elizabeth stayed at Windsor Castle for most of the war, though it was popularly said they were at a house in the country. When the air-raid siren sounded, the Princesses were taken into the dungeons of the castle, in which bathrooms had been installed, making a more luxurious sort of bomb shelter. There is an amusing anecdote in which the sisters were shown some simple hat boxes sitting in the dungeons, which contained the Crown Jewels!
At the end of the war, the Royal Family appeared on the balcony at Buckingham Palace with Prime Minister Winston Churchill, celebrating the end of the conflict. Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth were allowed to go down into the crowds incognito and be just another in the swathes that surrounded the Palace, chanting: ‘We want The King! We want The Queen!’
Princess Margaret went on her first trip abroad in 1947 to South Africa, as part of a State tour with her parents and sister. She enjoyed the trip immensely and got to know the King’s equerry, Captain Peter Townsend, who was her chaperone.
Later in 1947, Margaret was a bridesmaid at the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten. Prince Charles was born in 1948, making Margaret the third-in-line to the throne again. With the birth of Princess Anne in 1950, Margaret was then made fourth after her niece.
After the death of her father in 1952, Margaret was bereft; she was prescribed sleeping pills to help her cope with the loss and her faith helped her through this hard time.
In February 1953, Margaret accepted RAF Group Captain Peter Townsend’s proposal of marriage but had to ask permission from the new Queen for the marriage to go ahead. The law still applies, however, it has now been altered so that only the first six people in line need the Monarch’s permission to marry.
The news of the proposal caused a stir within government and Royal circles. Townsend was divorced with two children; Churchill’s government was against the match and the papers called it “unthinkable”, saying it “would fly in the face of Royal and Christian tradition”. National polls, however, showed support for the Princess’s choice of partner. If Margaret wanted to be with Peter, she would have to renounce her Royal privileges, as the Church of England did not allow remarriage of a divorcee within the Church.
Elizabeth told her sister that, with her upcoming coronation and planned tour of the Commonwealth after, it was not unreasonable to ask her sister to wait a year. Counsellors encouraged The Queen to send Peter abroad, but she refused and transferred her sister’s beau to her household from Clarence House, where The Queen Mother was living with Townsend as Comptroller of the Household. Churchill arranged a post for the Captain in Belgium. Eventually, Margaret decided against the match and released a statement announcing this, due to “the Church’s teachings that Christian marriage is indissoluble” and her “duty to the Commonwealth”.
It would be seven years before Margaret married photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones; the couple had been careful to conceal their relationship and so the engagement in February 1960 took the press by surprise. The Princess reportedly accepted Armstrong-Jones’s proposal after learning that Peter Townsend was to marry a young Belgian, who bore a striking resemblance to Princess Margaret. The wedding took place at Westminster Abbey and was broadcast on television. Despite the public support for the marriage, most European Royal Families disapproved of a Royal Princess marrying a lowly photographer. Queen Ingrid of Denmark was the only foreign Royal to attend the wedding.
The couple’s honeymoon was spent on Royal yacht in the Caribbean for six weeks. Colin Tennant, a reported suitor of the Princess, gave Margaret a plot of land on his private Caribbean island of Mustique as a wedding gift. The newlyweds had an apartment in Kensington Palace, 1A, which is now where The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge reside. Royal Central conducted an interview with Christopher Warwick, biographer of Princess Margaret, on the apartment and Princess Margaret.
Two children followed the marriage in 1961 and 1963: David, Viscount Linley and Lady Sarah Armstrong-Jones. Both were born by caesarian section at Margaret’s request. In 1961, Antony was created Earl of Snowdon and so Margaret became ‘The Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon’.
Throughout her marriage, Margaret was followed by rumour and scandal of affairs, including with Lady Sarah’s godfather, Anthony Barton. Robin Douglas-Home, the nephew of former Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home, was also rumoured to have a relationship with the married Princess. Margaret claimed it was purely a platonic relationship. However, the letters she wrote to him were sold years later and revealed a closer relationship than was initially claimed. Actor John Bindon, who had spent time in prison, sold a story to the Daily Mirror of his alleged affair with Margaret on the island of Mustique, but The Queen’s sister denied this.
In 1978 Antony and Margaret divorced. The marriage had begun to fall apart in a public way, and the photographer jetting around the world for work and The Princess’s busy schedule meant the couple spent less and less time together. Pictures of the Princess with the young Roddy Llewellyn were published in the tabloids and the next month Antony and Margaret announced their split. She was the first senior Royal to divorce since 1901 (Princess Victoria of Edinburgh, the granddaughter of Queen Victoria, was divorced from her husband, Ernest, Grand Duke of Hesse, citing “invincible mutual antipathy”).
Margaret undertook many tours on behalf of her sister, The Queen, beginning with a tour of the Caribbean in 1955 followed by Jamaica in 1962. The United States, Japan, Canada, Australia, Tuvalu and Dominica, the Philippines, Swaziland and China were all destinations on her tours.
Margaret had wide interests and became a leading figure for many patronages and organisations she worked with, including the National Society and the Royal Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (now known as the NSPCC).
Being a fan of the ballet, Margaret became the first President of the Royal Ballet and was a President of the Sadler’s Wells Foundation, the infamous dance school. The Ambulance and Nursing Cadets of the St. John Ambulance Brigade received the Princess’s support and she later became Grand President of the St John Ambulance Brigade and Colonel-in-Chief of Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps.
Margaret was a Brownie in the 1st Buckingham Palace Brownie Pack (formed in 1937) and she became a Girl Guide when too old for the Brownies. The Queen’s sister also served as President of Girlguiding UK from 1965 until her death.
Princess Margaret received Honorary Doctorates from the Universities of Cambridge and Keele and was a Master of the Bench of Lincoln’s Inn. For her military appointments, whilst still Countess of Snowdon, she was made Colonel-in-Chief of the 15th/19th The King’s Royal Hussars and The Royal Highland Fusiliers.
Margaret received honours, often those chosen personally by The Queen for personal service. In 1995, she received the Dame Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order and had to wait until 1990 for her Royal Victorian Chain. She was also awarded the Dame Grand Cross of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, which was for her work with St John Ambulance.
Margaret also received foreign orders and decorations, such as the Grand Cross of the Order of the Netherlands Lion in 1948 and the Order of the Brilliant Star of Zanzibar, First Class. Others included the Grand Cross of the Order of the Crown of Belgium and the Order of the Crown, Lion and Spear of Toro Kingdom (Uganda). In 1971, she received the Order of the Precious Crown, First Class (Japan).
During the latter years of her life, Margaret suffered severe bouts of ill-health. She had smoked since she was a teenager and enjoyed drinking, which may well have contributed to her declining health. The Princess had part of her lung removed in 1985 and people speculated about this, remembering George VI’s problematic lungs. Six years later she quit smoking but suffered from a serious bout of pneumonia in 1993.
In 1998, Margaret had a stroke whilst in Mustique, one of her favourite places. In 1999, Margaret scalded her feet badly which meant she often needed assistance walking or used a wheelchair. Two more strokes occurred in the early stages of 2001, leaving Margaret partially paralysed on her left side with little sight remaining in one eye.
Princess Margaret’s last appearances in public were for her mother’s 101st birthday celebrations on the balcony of Buckingham Palace and Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester’s, 100th birthday. In a more private environment, her last appearances were the Chelsea Flower Show and the 80th birthday service of The Duke of Edinburgh in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, in June 2001.
In February 2002, aged 71, Margaret suffered a further stroke in hospital that she did not survive.
A private funeral was held for The Queen’s sister a few days later, as she had requested. Unusually for a Royal, Margaret was cremated; her ashes were placed in the tomb where her father was buried in St George’s Chapel, Windsor. A national memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey for the late Princess for the public to pay their respects since the funeral had been private.
The Queen Mother passed away just seven weeks after her daughter and was interred alongside her husband.
In 2006 parts of Margaret’s estate were auctioned off by Christies, with some money going to charities such as the Stroke Association; the remaining funds went to pay inheritance tax. Some notable items include a Fabergé clock, selling for £1.24 million, and the tiara worn to her wedding, which sold for £926,400. In the same year, Burberry’s Spring Collection drew inspiration from the Princess’s look in the 1960’s. In 2007 an exhibition called ‘Princess Line – The Fashion Legacy of Princess Margaret’ opened at Kensington Palace, where British designers showcased looks based on Margaret’s style over the course of her life, showing that, even years after her death, the Princess was still revered and remembered.