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The life and death of Princess Margaret

Birth and Childhood

Princess Margaret Rose was born on 21 August 1930, the younger daughter of the Duke and Duchess of York. She was born at Glamis Castle in Scotland and was the first major royal to be born in Scotland since Charles I over 300 years earlier.

At the time of her birth, she was fourth in line to the throne behind her uncle David, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII), her father (later George VI), and her sister, Princess Elizabeth (later Elizabeth II).

The York family grew up close, and Elizabeth and Margaret were doted upon by their parents. They lived at 145 Piccadilly in London and spent time at the Royal Lodge in Windsor. Princess Margaret was educated by a governess, Marion Crawford, in lieu of traditional education alongside her sister.

Queen Mary touring London’s dockyard area with Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, May 1939. Photo: Federal News Photos / Library and Archives Canada / PA-125804 (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons

In January 1936, Princess Margaret’s grandfather King George V died, and her unmarried uncle, David ascended the throne as Edward VIII, though he would remain uncrowned. His scandalous love affair with the twice-divorced American Wallis Warfield-Simpson threatened to push the monarchy into a crisis, and rather than give up Wallis, he abdicated the throne that December, leaving his younger brother Bertie, Princess Margaret’s father, as the new king.

Her father was coronated the following spring as King George VI, and Princess Margaret became second in line to the throne.

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Princess Margaret was ushered to Birkhall at Balmoral with her sister but were then sent to Sandringham and finally Windsor Castle, where they spent the remainder of the war. Questions were raised about sending the princesses to safety in Canada, but Queen Elizabeth wouldn’t hear of it, “The children won’t go without me. I won’t go without the King. And the King will never leave.”

At the end of the war, Princess Margaret joined her family on the balcony at Buckingham Palace and then disappeared into the crowds with her sister to enjoy the victory celebrations.

A Royal Scandal

King George VI died on 6 February 1952 after a battle with lung cancer, and Princess Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth II. Princess Margaret, in her grief, turned to Group Captain Peter Townsend for comfort. Group Captain Townsend had been one of her father’s equerries and became The Queen Mother’s comptroller. Princess Margaret and The Queen Mother moved out of Buckingham Palace and into Clarence House upon Elizabeth’s accession to the throne.

Group Captain Townsend was divorced from his wife in 1953, with whom he had two children. Princess Margaret was infatuated and informed The Queen that she wished to marry him. The Queen was required to give consent to the marriage, but Parliament, the Cabinet, and the Church of England were firmly against the marriage, stating they would not approve. They were not keen to relive the 1936 Abdication Crisis.

During the ensuing controversy, Group Captain Townsend was posted to Brussels, and press speculation abounded for two years. It was revealed in 2004 that The Queen and Sir Anthony Eden, the then-Prime Minister, drafted a plan that would allow Princess Margaret to marry Group Captain Townsend provided she and any children were removed from the line of succession.

But before any further consideration could take place, Princess Margaret issued a statement on 31 October 1955:

“I would like it to be known that I have decided not to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend. I have been aware that, subject to my renouncing my rights of succession, it might have been possible for me to contract a civil marriage. But mindful of the Church’s teachings that Christian marriage is indissoluble and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before others. I have reached this decision entirely alone, and in doing so, I have been strengthened by the unfailing support and devotion of Group Captain Townsend.”

Love and Marriage

On 26 February 1960, Princess Margaret’s engagement to Antony Armstrong-Jones, a photographer, was announced, and on 6 May of that year, she married him in the first televised royal wedding. Her wedding dress was designed by family favourite Norman Hartnell and has acquired a reputation as one of the most stylish royal wedding dresses of all time.

Their wedding took place at Buckingham Palace with Queen Ingrid of Denmark as the only foreign royal guest (other royal families did not think it was appropriate for a king’s daughter to marry a photographer, and skipped the ceremony), and Princess Margaret was given away by her brother-in-law, Prince Philip.

In 1961 the couple became the Earl and Countess of Snowdon (Armstrong-Jones gained a secondary title, Viscount Linley). Later that year, their son David was born, and a daughter, Sarah, followed in 1964.

As a wedding present, Princess Margaret was given a 10-acre parcel of land on the island of Mustique, which would become a haven and a retreat for her later on.

Happily Ever After?

Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon continued with her royal duties after her marriage. She travelled around the world representing The Queen in Jamaica, Tuvalu, Dominica, the United States, Canada, Australia, the Philippines, Denmark, Japan, Swaziland, and China.

Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon with Lyndon B. Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson at the White House in 1965. Photo: White House (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons

Princess Margaret had always displayed a taste for artistic and musical pursuits and was an adept pianist. Her patronages reflected her tastes, and she was also invested in health and welfare charities.

The Earl and Countess of Snowdon had a troubled, volatile marriage, and over the course of the 1960s, they drifted apart. Both had affairs, but none was more infamous than Princess Margaret’s affair with Roddy Llewellyn, which reportedly began in 1973. Though it ran for several years, it wasn’t until photographs of the two from Mustique were published in the News of the World in 1976 that Princess Margaret and her husband publicly admitted that their marriage was over.

Their divorce was finalised in 1978, and the Earl of Snowdon remarried later that year. Princess Margaret never remarried. On 13 January 2017, the Earl of Snowdon died in his sleep and their son, David, became the 2nd Earl of Snowdon.

Health Problems

Princess Margaret was a lifelong smoker, a trait she shared with her father. She quit in 1991, but not before she’d had part of her left lung removed. She was hospitalised with pneumonia in 1993 and had a stroke on Mustique in 1998. In 1999, she scalded her feet in a bathtub accident and thereafter suffered mobility issues. She used walking supports or sometimes needed to use a wheelchair.

In 2001, she suffered further strokes that left her paralysed on the left side of her body and affected her vision. The last time she was seen in public was at Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester’s 100th birthday celebrations that December.

Princess Margaret died on 9 February 2002 at King Edward VII Hospital in London after suffering another stroke. A private funeral was held on the 50th anniversary of her father’s funeral, and her remains were cremated and placed in her parents’ tomb in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.

Her nephew, Prince Charles, released a video message after her death stating:

“My darling aunt had such dreadful times in the past few years with her awful illness, and it was hard for let alone her to bear it, but for all of us as well – particularly as she had such a wonderfully free spirit. She lived life and lived it to the fullest and from that point on it was even harder for everybody to witness this…”

The Queen Mother died seven weeks after her younger daughter, at 101 years of age.

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