Group Captain Peter Townsend once wrote of Princess Margaret:
“Behind the dazzling facade, the apparent self-assurance, you would find, if you looked for it, a rare softness and sincerity. She could make you bend double with laughing; she could also touch you deeply. [She was] a girl of unusual, intense beauty, confined as it was in her short, slender figure and centred about large purple-blue eyes, generous, sensitive lips and a complexion as smooth as a peach. She was capable, in her face and her whole being, of an astonishing power of expression. It could change in an instant from saintly, almost melancholic, composure to hilarious, uncontrollable joy. She was, by nature, generous, volatile […]”
Peter was born in Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar) in 1914 to Lieutenant Colonel E. C. Townsend and his wife. He joined the Royal Air Force in 1933 and served as a pilot throughout World War II. In 1941, during the war, he married Rosemary Pawle and the following year their eldest son, Giles, was born. A second son, Hugo, was born in 1945. In 1944, before the war ended, he was appointed an equerry to King George VI and was made a wing commander for life in 1949.
In August 1950 Peter was made Master of the Household and in 1952, after George VI died and was succeeded by Elizabeth II, he moved to Comptroller of the Queen Mother’s household. By this time, however, a relationship with the Queen Mother’s younger daughter, Margaret, was underway.
Around the time Peter was made Master of the Household, his marriage was breaking down. Thanks to a mismatch of personalities and Peter’s work-related absences, he soon found out that Rosemary was conducting an affair. “It was a difficult and sometimes heartrending time,” he wrote, “With the growing conviction on us that a breakup was inevitable.”
When exactly attraction first began between Peter and Margaret is unclear, but it certainly began while George VI was still alive and may very well have been known to the King, who likely chalked it up to a schoolgirl crush. After all, Margaret was young and socially isolated – the close quarters the Royal Family shared with their staff sometimes proved conducive to close, albeit strange, relationships. Likely it was considered somewhat safe by Margaret’s parents – Peter was older, married and in their employ. The idea of him acting on Margaret’s affection was unfathomable.
George VI’s death in February 1952 brought about momentous change for the couple. Not only did Peter segue to the Queen Mother’s household, but Margaret left Buckingham Palace for Clarence House. No longer the King’s daughter, she was the Queen’s sister, and she lost not only a beloved father, but a sister who had been her closest companion to the “top job.” Margaret and Peter spent more and more time together and the Queen Mother, apparently unaware of the depth of the feelings at play, at one point arranged a tea for her, Margaret, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh with the Townsends at Adelaide Cottage which, you know, sounds awkward.
Peter and Rosemary were granted a divorce on December 20, 1952 on the grounds of his wife’s infidelity, begging the question of to what extent did he feel guilty for his own emotional affair? And on that last point, well, we don’t know when or how the relationship progressed on those grounds. He later said that he spent that Christmas at Sandringham with the Royal Family and the early months of the new year at Windsor Castle. It was here, in the Red Drawing Room, while everyone else was out, where Peter finally told Margaret that he was in love with her and she responded that she felt the same way. But that scene, while very sweet and quaint, is also highly useful, isn’t it? It ensures that Margaret can’t be branded the “other woman” and that Peter maintains his image of the wronged party in his own divorce.
Rumors about their relationship had been swirling around court for months and if there is even a question that George VI was aware of his daughter’s affections, then it’s hard to believe that Peter and Margaret had never once had this conversation until early 1953.
Whatever the case was, Margaret spoke to the Queen and the Queen Mother, both of whom were sympathetic and neither of whom were thrilled. The Queen Mother, reportedly, broke down in tears when discussing the issue with a confidante, a rare occurrence for her. Likely the scenario brought back bad memories of the Abdication, this being particularly hurtful given that the woman at the center of it was her own daughter.
Peter handled telling the Queen’s Private Secretary, Sir Alan Lascelles, whose response was, “You must be either mad or bad.”
Apparently no one took the time to explain to either half of the couple how difficult and laborious securing a marriage would be. As Margaret later said, “Had he said we couldn’t get married we wouldn’t have thought any more about it. But nobody bothered to explain anything to us.”
This last part doesn’t ring particularly true either; after all, Margaret had to have had some inkling that the marriage would be frowned upon and if she had that, then it stands to reason she might consider why. Margaret turned 23 in 1953 and, as third in line to the throne, she was required to seek the Queen’s permission. If she waited until she was 25 then she no longer needed the Queen’s permission, but would need Parliament’s consent. Due to Peter’s divorced status, it was considered highly scandalous and improper for a close relation of the Head of the Church of England to contravene the Church’s teachings by marrying a divorced person.
For the time being the situation was contained in a waiting game to get through the coronation, however after Margaret was photographed removing a piece of fluff from Peter’s tunic at the ceremony, the British press finally ran the story.
Lascelles and the Queen’s Press Secretary told the Queen that their advice was that Peter be sent away immediately. She refused. They then went to the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who personally liked the match, but also confirmed that the British Cabinet and the Commonwealth Prime Ministers were opposed to the marriage. Churchill also urged the Queen to send Peter away. With this information in hand, Elizabeth agreed that Peter should leave England for two years. He was given a choice of Brussels, Johannesburg or Singapore – he chose Brussels.
On the morning of June 29, 1953, Peter went to Clarence House to say goodbye to Margaret before she left for a tour of Rhodesia with her mother. He later said that neither felt the parting was particularly dramatic, knowing that his departure had been postponed until she was back in the country and that, at worst, their marriage had only been delayed a couple of years.
Margaret and the Queen Mother spent the next several days touring the country before the Queen Mother informed her daughter that Peter’s departure for Brussels had been moved up to the following day, the day before they were due to return to England. For the next four days Margaret disappeared from public view, left for Salisbury and only returned to the tour schedule until the tail end of the schedule. The official reason given was that she had fallen ill, however the likelier scenario is that she pitched a (justified) fit and refused to continue her engagements.
The idea behind the separation, of course, was that the couple’s feelings would fade. Unfortunately for everyone else, that didn’t happen. Peter and Margaret stayed in almost daily contact thanks to letters and telephone calls, and in July 1954, Peter made an incognito trip back to London to visit Margaret at Clarence House.
Margaret turned 25 on August 21, 1955, more than two years after Peter was forced to leave England. The press, well aware of the relationship, camped out as close to Balmoral Castle (where the Royal Family was at the time) as possible in the hopes of capturing the story of an announcement. But none was forthcoming – indeed, the Queen refused to discuss the matter with her sister, which is difficult to imagine but does speak to the Queen’s rather famous conflict avoidance. As for the Queen Mother, she told her daughter she was too upset to discuss the situation.
Regardless, Margaret and Peter were reunited on October 13 at Clarence House and spent the next several days enjoying each other’s company, socializing with friends and, likely, preparing for what they considered an imminent engagement. In the background, the Cabinet was thrashing out the issue and coming up against brick walls – most visibly that of Lord Salisbury, a conservative MP who was wildly offended by the idea of the Queen’s sister marrying a divorced person.
The Government drafted a Bill of Renunciation that allowed for Margaret to marry Peter, but only by way of stripping her of all of her rights and privileges, including income. She would be forced to have a civil wedding ceremony and live abroad for an undetermined period of time – knowing full-well how that played out for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, it could very well have been forever. This fate was laid out for Margaret on October 23 when she spent the weekend visiting the Queen and Philip and she couldn’t have helped but realize the idea of this ending happily was slim to none.
As Peter later wrote, “We were both exhausted, mentally, emotionally, physically. We felt mute and numbed at the centre of this malestorm.”
Apparently, Peter didn’t feel like he could ask Margaret to make the sacrifices her sister’s government required of her. Without talking to her, he wrote out a renunciation for her and on October 24, they spoke and he realized she had come to the same conclusion. As he said:
“We had reached the end of the road. Our feelings for one another were unchanged, but they had incurred for us a burden so great that we decided, together, to lay it down.”
Together they finalized the statement he had drafted, however Margaret was asked by the Cabinet to wait a week before delivering it. On October 27, she informed the Archbishop of Canterbury of her decision (who was delighted) and that night accompanied the Queen and Philip for the President of Portugal’s visit. It was noted in the press that despite sitting next to one another, Margaret and Philip never said one word to each other – this was because Philip had been vehement in his opposition to the match and, frankly, the two didn’t really get on in the best of circumstances.
The couple said a final goodbye to one another at Clarence House on October 31. Margaret then made her public statement, which said:
“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. I am deeply grateful for the concern of all those who have constantly prayed for my happiness.”
The traditional moral placed on this story is that Margaret should have been allowed to marry the man she loved. Her subsequent marriage was unhappy and her life is tinged with sadness and vulgarity – all of that could have been sidestepped, so the story goes, if she had been allowed to marry Peter Townsend. But that’s a tricky way of thinking, for it assumes this madcap decision made by a mercurial woman in her early 20s and a man 16 years her senior was some sort of fairy tale.
From a purely optical and political vantage point, of course, Margaret should have been allowed to marry Peter. Not for nothing, but this is the exact scenario playing out with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle today, though Harry is the monarch’s grandson, not a sibling. No one is raising an eyebrow and how could they when in the years since 1955, Margaret and three of the Queen’s children divorced?
But personally, how would this have played out? Would Margaret have been able to live a life of an exiled former princess who lived off of her husband’s salary? Probably not, but to her credit she knew this – she turned this offer down. And not for nothing, but Peter wasn’t begging her to run away with him. He advised her to stay put too. Had they been allowed to marry and for Margaret to retain her position, would they have worked? Maybe. They would have had about the same shot that any May-December romance has when one party is entering into a life-long commitment without any actual experience or wisdom.
Perhaps what matters most is what Margaret thought of the entire debacle with hindsight. Lascelles, the private secretary who failed to properly explain the matter to her back in 1953, lived out the rest of his life in a small apartment in Kensington Palace, where Margaret also lived after her own marriage. She never spoke to him. Indeed, when she once encountered him walking, decades later, she remarked to her companion, “There goes the man who ruined my life.”
Four years after the affair ended, Margaret learned that Peter married a Belgian woman, Marie-Luce Jamagne, a 20-year-old dead ringer for the princess. Within months, Margaret entered into her own marriage to Antony Armstrong-Jones, with the assumption for many being that she did this in emotional response to learning Peter had moved on. Peter and Marie-Luce had one daughter, Isabelle, and remained married until Peter’s death in France in 1995.
Margaret and Antony’s marriage ended in divorce in 1978.