Following the recent wedding of Princess Eugenie and Jack Brooksbank, we take a look at other princesses who have married commoners. Here is the story of Princess Margaret and her photographer husband, Antony Armstrong-Jones.
Princess Margaret was always one to do things her way, and Antony “Tony” Armstrong-Jones was far from the typical royal suitor.
Born 7 March 1930, Antony grew up in a wealthy – but not aristocratic – London family. It wasn’t until his parents’ divorce and his mother’s subsequent remarriage to an earl that his mother became Countess of Rosse. Despite his mother’s title, Antony was very much a commoner and led a life far different from that of his future wife, Princess Margaret.
His introduction to photography came at the age of 16 when Antony contracted polio while on holiday at the family’s home in Wales. During his six-month recovery, he experimented with a camera to pass the time. This experience also impacted his future charitable works with the disabled, as he suffered from a shortened and withered leg due to the disease.
Antony attended Eton College and later, Cambridge University. When he failed his architecture exams at Cambridge, he made the decision to pursue photography.
The future Lord Snowdon was part of a wild and bohemian set and loved taking fashion and theatre photography. He was also an accomplished portrait photographer and became known for his photos of British royals, including his future in-laws, Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh.
It was during this time he met Princess Margaret at a dinner party. She was still recovering from the loss of Group Captain Peter Townsend, after opting to give up the relationship with the divorcé rather than give up her title. As younger sister to The Queen, Margaret didn’t have the same responsibilities and often struggled to find her place. She liked to push boundaries, and frequently mixed with artists, actors, and creative types. It made sense that she was attracted to someone like Antony, however opposite he might have been from the royal family.
The pair soon became an item, and after hearing of Peter Townsend’s engagement to another woman, it is said she jumped at accepting her proposal.
The engagement of Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones was announced in February 1960. It came as a surprise to many that she was marrying a commoner – she was the first to do so in centuries – but overall the mood of the country was excited for their princess.
They married on 6 May 1960 in front of 2,000 guests and a TV audience of 300 million worldwide. It was the first royal wedding in history to be broadcast on television.
Antony was created 1st Earl of Snowdon (commonly referred to as Lord Snowdon) after the marriage, with Princess Margaret now styled Countess of Snowdon.
The couple welcomed their first child in 1961. David, Viscount Linley, now the 2nd Earl of Snowdon, was followed by a daughter, Lady Sarah (now Lady Sarah Chatto) in 1964.
But despite the feeling that maybe Princess Margaret finally got her happily ever after, their relationship was tumultuous. Lord Snowdon’s photography career continued to go from strength to strength, but as a creative free spirit, he was never suited for royal life. They had explosive rows, and in his book, Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret, Craig Brown discusses Lord Snowdon leaving his wife horrible notes, such as one titled “Twenty Four Reasons Why I Hate You.”
Rumours of Lord Snowdon’s bisexuality ran rampant, as well as alleged affairs with both men and women. Princess Margaret began conducting extramarital affairs herself, and when she was photographed in Mustique with Roddy Llewellyn, a man 17 years younger, the public humiliation caused an even bigger rift in the marriage.
The couple separated in 1976 and eventually divorced in 1978. Margaret was the first royal to be granted a divorce since 1901 when Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Princess Victoria of Edinburgh, divorced her husband, Grand Duke Ernest of Hesse.
As rocky as it may have been, the Snowdons’ marriage and subsequent divorce paved the way for future British royals. The idea that Princess Anne, Prince Charles, and Prince Andrew would all get divorced, or Princes William and Harry would marry commoners (and a divorceé) would have been unheard of not so long ago. By erasing the stigma of royal divorce or marrying a commoner, Princess Margaret was a trailblazer.