The Unnecessary War of the Snowdons

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Today marks the anniversary of the announcement of Princess Margaret’s engagement to Antony “Tony” Armstrong-Jones, the photographer, who passed away earlier this year. Their marriage would famously end in divorce in 1978, the first for a senior member of the royal family in the House of Windsor, ironic only in that Tony would also be the first commoner in 400 years to marry a monarch’s daughter.

Tellingly, what would attract the couple to each other in the first place would, in many ways, be their undoing. And while they showed promise in the early stages of their marriage, and complemented one another when it came to tackling aspects of their public duties, they were wildly unmatched when it came to existing day-to-day, a fact that would become apparent within a few years of their wedding.

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Margaret and Tony first became acquainted in 1958, and by the following year were conducting a full-blown relationship that was largely kept under-the-radar, even to many close friends. Tony worked as a photographer, his career having grown so successful that even the renowned Cecil Beaton had grown envious, particularly when a few years previously Tony had been called upon to photograph the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and their two young children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne.

Tony’s biographer, Anne de Courcy, described Margaret at the outset of their relationship with:

“At twenty-eight she was at the height of her beauty and charisma, poised, stylish, and groomed to perfection. In one of the long and elegant evening dresses that made the most of her petite, feminine figure, swathed in furs and glittering with diamonds, she was an icon of glamour, exuding an aura of sophisticated, challenging sexuality, with a glance that could turn from melting to icy in a moment. She was imperious, wilful and, if she was bored, showed it – at one small buffet supper dance given in her honour, when her host asked her: ‘Ma’am, will you start the dancing?’ she replied: ‘Yes – but not with you.’

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Three years previously Margaret had publicly ended an affair with Captain Peter Townsend, a former equerry of her father, George VI. Marrying Townsend, a divorcé, would have meant not only giving up a life of financial privilege, but her royal status. However, the factor that Margaret’s religion played is often overlooked, with more emphasis being placed on her sister the Queen’s position as the head of the Church of England. In fact, Margaret was deeply religious and going against the Church’s teachings on divorce and the sanctity of marriage was a not-insignificant consideration.

Nevertheless, Townsend was Margaret’s first love and the fact that marriage turned out to be impossible was devastating to them both. It would be in October 1959, when Tony was in the middle of his first visit to Balmoral Castle, the Queen’s Scottish residence, that Margaret learned via a letter from Townsend that he was planning to marry a 19-year old Beglian girl named Marie-Luce Jamagne.

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By Christmas, Margaret and Tony were engaged. To what extent the engagement was an emotional response to Townsend’s nuptials in anyone’s guess, but even if it was, that shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the couple weren’t in love. It was, in fact, very much a love match, so much so that there were many who questioned whether Margaret fully understood the more bohemian and independent nature of her husband-to-be, or whether Tony understood the realities of life within the royal fold. One friend went so far as to say:

“These people aren’t for you, Tony. They will chew you up and spit you out. I know it’s a physical thing at the moment, but at the end of the day for goodness sake, don’t do it.”

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Nevertheless, the Queen’s consent was willingly given, though as she was nearly eight months pregnant with her third child at the time, she asked that an announcement be postponed until after she had given birth. On February 19, 1960 Prince Andrew was born and on the 26th, the Palace made the announcement that Margaret was engaged to be married.

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Margaret and Tony were married at Westminster Abbey on May 6th, the first royal wedding to be broadcast on television, an event which attracted 300 million viewers. Among their wedding presents was a strip of land in Mustique, a place that would have great significance to Margaret later in life and is still associated with her today.

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Initially, Tony took to royal life fairly well. He had no qualms about playing a supportive role at public engagements and accompanying Margaret as she carried out her work. He seemed unfazed by the hierarchy, minutia and nuances of day-to-day palace life. He got on remarkably well with the Queen and Philip,  the latter of whom once wrote a letter to Tony that included an arrow to his signature and the note, “Try and bring yourself to call me this!”

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Almost immediately after getting married he realized that he wanted children and on November 3, 1961 the couple’s first child, David, was born at Clarence House in London. He would be followed two and a half years later by Sarah on May 1, 1964. When Margaret was pregnant with David Tony finally accepted a title, the Earl of Snowdon, on the grounds that should, God forbid, the crown ever pass to his wife or her descendents, it wouldn’t do for a former Mr. Jones to ascend the throne. As such, David was styled as Viscount Linley until his father’s death this year.

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However, there was one concession that Tony wasn’t prepared to make for royal life and that was giving up his day job. At the time of his marriage he was already a popular and well-established photographer, particularly among London’s fashion and society set – that naturally only increased once he married into the House of Windsor. It also spoke to his non-royal upbringing, which was one that instilled in him the necessity of making money and working. Indeed, even though the couple could have easily lived on Margaret’s allowance, and would have been unable to live on Tony’s, Tony insisted on contributing to their household expenses.

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However laudable, it would unfortunately begin to exacerbate the cracks that began to emerge right around Sarah’s birth. Margaret, naturally, had no job outside of her engagements and the concept was quite foreign to her. It wasn’t that she wished to take Tony’s career away from him, so much as the realities of her husband leaving for work everyday and traveling at the expense of family time was wholly alien. As de Courcy points out in her biography, her models for marriage were that of her parents and her sister and brother-in-law, all of whom spent a great deal of time together.

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Simply put, Margaret was unused to being alone and, once moved out of her mother’s household as a married woman, she depended on Tony for company, while he, in turn, was used to making his own schedule and being beholden to no one. As de Courcy put it:

“Deeply in love, seeing each other at their best, happiest and most unselfish, neither Tony nor Margaret realised that they were, au fond, accustomed to getting their own way – and making life extraordinary unpleasant for anyone who prevented them. As one friend put it sadly: ‘They were both center-stage people – and only one person can occupy the centre at any given moment.'”

Unpleasant is an understatement and both had a cruel streak, particularly Tony who had no issue with making jokes at his wife’s expense, even in public. Before one occasion Margaret asked for Tony’s advice on what to wear to a barbecue, Tony suggested the ballgown she had worn the night before and, given Margaret’s background, that that might be overdressed for the occasion didn’t occur to her. She arrived to the dinner dressed to the nines while everyone else was wearing jeans.

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Spending huge swathes of time apart, particularly when Tony traveled for work, infidelity soon became a problem, as well as increasing isolation. Tony was notorious for not checking in or returning Margaret’s calls, while Margaret became increasingly clingy and paranoid. It’s unknown when Tony first stepped out, but Margaret’s affairs are, unfortunately, better recorded. In 1966 she approached Tony’s best friend, Anthony Barton, while Tony was in India and the two began a several-month affair that would eventually be found out by Barton’s wife, Eva.

Almost immediately after the affair came to light the Bartons joined the Snowdons for an already-planned weekend visit, during which Eva told Tony. Remarkably there was no immediate acrimony, though the Bartons left almost immediately. During the goodbyes Margaret said, “I’m sure we’ll see each other again,” to which Barton responded, “I wonder.” In fact, they wouldn’t for many years, not until Sarah’s confirmation, to which Margaret personally invited the couple. When Barton’s son died, of whom Tony was godfather, the two friends were reunited, with Tony saying, “I forget what that thing in the past was – it’s all forgotten now.”

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That affair would be followed with yet another, this time with a man Margaret had known since adolescence, Robin Douglas-Home. Tony learned of the affair in early 1967 when traveling in Tokyo for work and was furious, banning Douglas-Home from entering Kensington Palace, effectively ending the relationship. Margaret, for her part, reassured her husband that, “He wasn’t nearly as good a lover as you, darling.”

To Douglas-Home, however, she wrote the following letter:

“This is to be a bleak time for love. I am only encouraged by the knowledge that I am secure in yours and I would do anything, as you know, to make you happy and not hurt you. I am hampered by thoughts and hearts being divided at this moment a real effort must be made on my side to make the marriage work.

“I feel I can do this, curiously enough, more convincingly with this happiness of security in you and feeling of being upheld by you, than without.

[…]

“What I don’t want us to do is to yearn and long, and eat our hearts out wanting something that is forbidden.

[…]

“I shall try and speak to you as much as possible but I am in fear of him, and I don’t know what lengths he won’t go to, jealous as he is, to find out what I am up to, and your movements too. […] Know that I want you – that thread that holds us is quite strong – know too that it is only because I *cannot* – that I will not be able to see or speak to you so much; know that it will always make me happy when I can do so. Trust me as I trust you, and love me as I love you.

“Promise that you will never give up, that you will go on encouraging me to make the marriage a success, and that given a good and safe chance, I will try and come back to you one day. I daren’t at the moment.”

Douglas-Home would commit suicide on October 15, 1968, having suffered from clinical depression for many years.

And the Snowdon marriage failed to improve. Each took to communicating with the other through letters, often just before one or the other left town so as to avoid actual face-to-face confrontation. One from Tony read:

“I am so looking forward to coming home, but I am somewhat saddened that you again choose to ignore my advice about going to bed a reasonable time, instead staying up till 5:30 and 3:30 insensitively with Anthony [Barton] … it really isn’t good for you coninuously to stay up so late drinking and so on … If things are not going very well at the moment, then please darling do discuss things with me and I’m sure we can straighten it out. I was rather shocked that you took such pride in telling me that you had only three half-hearted affairs this time and it was much better when I was in India. All I ask is not to make it too obvious…I love you very much, darling, and everything can be all right if you want it to be. Maybe we both have made a lot of mistakes. Everyone does, but let’s try, not only for the children’s sake but also because you are such a marvellous person and I love you, to just get together and work and have fun.”

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But by the end of the ’60s, the marriage seemed past the point of saving and was increasing fueled by drugs and alcohol. Tony became less and less discreet with his own affairs, and he went out of his way to be cruel to his wife, leaving her notes which listed out the “things I hate about you” for her to find as she went about her day. One rather infamous one read, “You look like a Jewish manicurist and I hate you,” which she came upon in her glove drawer.

Margaret responded by pulling rank, a offense he couldn’t possibly counter. During one social get-together:

“Tony produced a packet of cigarettes and offered them to everyone except his wife. ‘Oh, darling, I’d like one too,’ she said. Tony lit it – and then threw it at her. ‘That’s a terrible thing to do,’ Margaret remarked angrily. ‘You might have burned this dress.’ ‘I wouldn’t care if I had,’ he answered. ‘I’ve never liked that material’ Margaret drew herself up and with all the royal hauteur of which she was capable replied: ‘We call it “stuff.”‘

On another occasion, David and Sarah returned from school complaining that the other children kept referring to them as “royal” with eye-rolls. “But darlings, you’re not royal,” Margaret responded. “And Papa’s certainly not royal.”

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In September 1973 Margaret was introduced to Roddy Llewellyn, who was 17 years her junior. They began a relationship that would last several years; at one point when Llewellyn had to travel abroad Margaret became so distressed that she overdosed on sleeping pills. In February 1976 tabloids published photographs of the two on the beach in Mustique and the next month Tony and Margaret finally released a statement that they would be formally separating, the marriage beyond repair. In Parliament there was discussion of cutting Margaret’s allowance and she was referred to as both a “floozie” and a “royal parasite.”

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The divorce would be finalized on July 11, 1978 and by December Tony had remarried to Lucy Lindsay-Hogg, who was a different person altogether from the mistress he had been keeping since his separation, journalist Ann Hills. Tony and Ann would carry on a 20-year relationship until she committed suicide on December 31, 1996.

Tony and Lucy remained married until 2000, after it came out that Tony had fathered an illegitimate child in 1998 with Melanie Cable-Alexander, an editor at Country Life magazine.

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Four years later, it would also come out that one year prior to his marriage to Margaret, Tony had in fact already fathered another child, Polly Fry, who had been raised as the daughter of two family friends, Jeremy and Camilla Fry. Tony initially refuted the claims, however in 2008 he admitted it was true.

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Margaret, for her part, spent her post-divorced life somewhat more peacefully. Her relationship with Llewellyn would evolve into a friendship and she remained close friends with him and his wife, once he married, until her death. Her later years were marked by poor health and frequent trips to Mustique, until she died on February 9, 2002.

Tony would outlive her by nearly 15 years, continuing his photography work and remaining on remarkably friendly terms with the Royal Family until the end.

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One thought on “The Unnecessary War of the Snowdons

  1. Pingback: Style Transformation Part Two: The Duchess of Cambridge (2011-2017) – Rebecca Starr Brown

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