Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, (Margaret Rose; 21 August 1930 – 9 February 2002), was the younger daughter of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, and the only sibling of Queen Elizabeth II.
Margaret spent much of her childhood years in the company of her older sister and parents. Her life changed dramatically in 1936, when her paternal uncle, King Edward VIII, abdicated to marry the twice divorced American Wallis Simpson. Margaret’s father became King, and her older sister became heir presumptive with Margaret second in line to the throne. During World War II, the two sisters stayed at Windsor Castle, despite suggestions to evacuate them to Canada. During the war years, Margaret was considered too young to perform any official duties, and instead continued her education.
After the war, Margaret fell in love with Group Captain Peter Townsend. In 1952, Margaret’s father died, her sister became sovereign, and Townsend divorced his first wife. Early the following year, he proposed to Margaret. Many in the government felt that he would be an unsuitable husband for the Queen’s 22-year-old sister and the Church of England refused to countenance a marriage to a divorced man. Margaret eventually abandoned her plans and, in 1960, accepted the proposal of the photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, who was created Earl of Snowdon by the Queen. The couple had two children and divorced in 1978.
Margaret was often viewed as a controversial member of the royal family. Her divorce earned her negative publicity and she was romantically linked with several men. Her health gradually deteriorated in the final two decades of her life; a heavy smoker for most of her adult life, she had a lung operation in 1985, a bout of pneumonia in 1993, and at least three strokes between 1998 and 2001. She died at King Edward VII Hospital on 9 February 2002
Margaret was born Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret Rose of York on 21 August 1930 at Glamis Castle in Scotland, her mother’s ancestral home. The Home Secretary, J. R. Clynes, was present to verify the birth. The registration of her birth was delayed for several days to avoid her being numbered 13 in the parish register. At the time of her birth, she was fourth in the line of succession to the British throne. Her father was Prince Albert, Duke of York (later George VI), the second son of King George V and Queen Mary. As a grandchild of the Sovereign in the male line, Margaret Rose was styled Her Royal Highness from birth. Her mother was Elizabeth, Duchess of York, the youngest daughter of the 14th Earl and the Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorne. The Duchess of York originally wanted the names Ann Margaret, as she explained to Queen Mary in a letter: “I am very anxious to call her Ann Margaret, as I think Ann of York sounds pretty, & Elizabeth and Ann go so well together.” King George V disliked the name Ann, but approved of the alternative “Margaret Rose”. She was baptised in the private chapel of Buckingham Palace on 30 October 1930 by Cosmo Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Her godparents were: the Prince of Wales (her paternal uncle, for whom his brother the Prince George stood proxy); Princess Ingrid of Sweden (her paternal cousin, for whom another cousin Lady Patricia Ramsay stood proxy); the Princess Victoria (her paternal great-aunt); the Lady Rose Leveson-Gower (her maternal aunt); and the Hon David Bowes-Lyon (her maternal uncle).
Margaret’s early life was spent primarily at the Yorks’ residences at 145 Piccadilly (their town house in London) or Royal Lodge in Windsor. The Yorks were perceived by the public as an ideal family: father, mother and children, but unfounded rumours that Margaret was deaf and dumb were not completely dispelled until Margaret’s first main public appearance at her uncle Prince George’s wedding in 1934. She was educated alongside her sister, Princess Elizabeth, by their Scottish governess Marion Crawford. Her education was mainly supervised by her mother, who in the words of Randolph Churchill “never aimed at bringing her daughters up to be more than nicely behaved young ladies”. When Queen Mary insisted upon the importance of education, the Duchess of York commented, “I don’t know what she meant. After all I and my sisters only had governesses and we all married well—one of us very well”. Margaret was resentful about her limited education, especially in later years, aiming criticism at her mother. However, Margaret’s mother told a friend that she “regretted” that her own daughters did not go to school like other children, and the employment of a governess rather than sending the girls to school may have been done only at the insistence of King George V.
George V died when Margaret was five, and her uncle succeeded as King Edward VIII. Less than a year later, on 11 December 1936, Edward abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American, whom neither the Church of England nor the Dominion governments would accept as Queen. The Church would not recognise the marriage of a divorced woman with a living ex-husband as valid. Edward’s abdication left a reluctant Duke of York in his place as King George VI, and Margaret unexpectedly became second in line to the throne with the style The Princess Margaret to indicate her status as a child of the sovereign. The family moved into Buckingham Palace; Margaret’s room overlooked The Mall.
Margaret was a Brownie in the 1st Buckingham Palace Brownie Pack, formed in 1937. She was also a Girl Guide and later a Sea Ranger. She served as President of Girlguiding UK from 1965 until her death in 2002.
At the outbreak of World War II, Margaret and her sister were at Birkhall, on the Balmoral Castle estate, where they stayed until Christmas 1939, enduring nights so cold that drinking water in carafes by their bedside froze. They spent Christmas at Sandringham House, before moving to Windsor Castle just outside London for much of the remainder of the war. Viscount Hailsham wrote to Prime Minister Winston Churchill to advise the evacuation of the princesses to the greater safety of Canada, to which their mother famously replied “The children won’t go without me. I won’t leave without the King. And the King will never leave.” Unlike other members of the royal family, Margaret was not expected to undertake any public or official duties during the war. She developed her skills at singing and playing the piano. Her contemporaries thought she was spoilt by her parents, especially her father, who allowed her to take liberties not usually permissible, such as being allowed to stay up to dinner at the age of 13. Marion Crawford despaired at the attention Margaret was getting, writing to friends “Could you this year only ask Princess Elizabeth to your party? … Princess Margaret does draw all the attention and Princess Elizabeth lets her do that.” Elizabeth, however, did not mind this, commenting, “oh, it’s so much easier when Margaret’s there—everybody laughs at what Margaret says”. King George described Elizabeth as his pride and Margaret as his joy
Following the end of the war in 1945, Margaret appeared on the balcony at Buckingham Palace with her family and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Afterwards, both Elizabeth and Margaret joined the crowds outside the palace incognito chanting, “we want the King, we want the Queen!”. On 15 April 1946, Margaret was confirmed into the Church of England.
On 1 February 1947, Margaret, Elizabeth and her parents embarked on a state tour of Southern Africa. The three-month-long visit was Margaret’s first visit abroad, and she later claimed that she remembered “every minute of it”. Margaret was chaperoned by Peter Townsend, the King’s equerry. Later that year, Margaret was a bridesmaid at Elizabeth’s wedding. Elizabeth had two children, Charles and Anne, in the next three years, which moved Margaret further down the line of succession.
In 1950, the former royal governess, Marion Crawford, published a biography of Elizabeth and Margaret’s childhood years titled The Little Princesses in which she described Margaret’s “light-hearted fun and frolics” and her “amusing and outrageous … antics”. The royal family were appalled at what they saw as Crawford’s invasion of their privacy and breach of trust, as a result of which Crawford was ostracised from royal circles.
As a beautiful young woman, with an 18-inch waist and “vivid blue eyes”, Margaret enjoyed socialising with high society and the young, aristocratic set, including Sharman Douglas, the daughter of the American ambassador, Lewis Williams Douglas. She was often featured in the press at balls, parties, and night-clubs. The number of her official engagements increased, which included a tour of Italy, Switzerland and France, and she joined a growing number of charitable organisations as President or Patron.
Her twenty-first birthday party was held at Balmoral in August 1951. The following month her father underwent surgery for lung cancer, and Margaret was appointed one of the Counsellors of State who undertook the King’s official duties while he was incapacitated. Her father died five months later, in February 1952, and her sister became queen.
Margaret was grief-stricken by her father’s death, and was prescribed sedatives to help her sleep. She wrote, “He was such a wonderful person, the very heart and centre of our happy family.” She was consoled by her deeply held Christian beliefs. With her widowed mother, Margaret moved out of Buckingham Palace and into Clarence House, while her sister and her family moved out of Clarence House and into Buckingham Palace. Peter Townsend was appointed Comptroller of her mother’s household.
By 1953, Townsend was divorced from his first wife; he proposed marriage to Margaret. He was 16 years her senior, and had two children from his previous marriage. Margaret accepted, and informed the Queen of her desire to marry Townsend. The Queen’s consent was required by the Royal Marriages Act 1772. As in 1936, the Church of England refused to countenance the remarriage of the divorced. Queen Mary had recently died, and Elizabeth was about to be crowned. After her coronation, she planned to tour the Commonwealth for six months. The Queen told Margaret, “Under the circumstances, it isn’t unreasonable for me to ask you to wait a year.” The Queen was counselled by her private secretary to post Townsend abroad, but she refused, instead transferring him from the Queen Mother’s household to her own. The British Cabinet refused to approve the marriage, and newspapers reported that the marriage was “unthinkable” and “would fly in the face of Royal and Christian tradition”. Churchill informed the Queen that the Dominion prime ministers were unanimously against the marriage, and that Parliament would not approve a marriage that would be unrecognised by the Church of England unless Margaret renounced her rights to the throne. Churchill arranged for Townsend to be posted to Brussels. Polls run by popular newspapers appeared to show that the public supported Margaret’s personal choice, regardless of Church teaching or the government’s opinion. For two years, press speculation continued. Margaret was told by clerics, incorrectly, that she would be unable to take communion if she married a divorced man.
Margaret married the photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones at Westminster Abbey on 6 May 1960. She reportedly accepted his proposal a day after learning from Peter Townsend that he intended to marry a young Belgian woman, Marie-Luce Jamagne, who was half his age and bore a striking resemblance to Princess Margaret. The announcement of the engagement, on 26 February 1960, took the press by surprise. Margaret had taken care to conceal the romance from reporters.
The ceremony was the first royal wedding to be broadcast on television, and attracted viewing figures of 300 million worldwide. Despite the public enthusiasm, most foreign royal families of Europe disapproved of a king’s daughter marrying a photographer. Queen Ingrid of Denmark was the only foreign royal to attend the wedding.
Margaret’s wedding dress was designed by Norman Hartnell, and worn with the Poltimore tiara. The Princess had eight young bridesmaids, led by her niece, Princess Anne. The other bridesmaids were her goddaughter, Marilyn Wills, daughter of her cousin Jean Elphinstone and Major John Lycett Wills; Annabel Rhodes, daughter of her cousin Margaret Elphinstone and Denys Rhodes; Lady Virginia Fitzroy, daughter of Hugh Fitzroy, Earl of Euston; Sarah Lowther, daughter of Sir John Lowther; Catherine Vesey, daughter of Viscount de Vesci; and Lady Rose Nevill, daughter of the Marquess of Abergavenny. The Duke of Edinburgh escorted the bride and the best man was Dr Roger Gilliatt.
The honeymoon was spent aboard the royal yacht Britannia on a six-week Caribbean cruise. As a wedding present, Colin Tennant gave her a plot of land on his private Caribbean island, Mustique. The newly-weds moved into rooms in Kensington Palace.
In 1961, the Princess’s husband was created Earl of Snowdon, whereupon she became formally styled HRH The Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon. The couple had two children (both born by Caesarean section at Margaret’s request): David, Viscount Linley, born 3 November 1961, and Lady Sarah, born 1 May 1964.
The marriage widened Princess Margaret’s social circle beyond the Court and aristocracy to include show business celebrities and bohemians, and was seen at the time as reflecting the breakdown of class barriers. The Snowdons experimented with the styles and fashions of the 1960s.
Princess Margaret began her royal duties at an early age. She attended the silver jubilee of her grandparents, King George V and Queen Mary, aged five in 1935. She later attended her parents’ coronation in 1937. Her first major royal tour occurred when she joined her parents and sister for a tour of South Africa in 1947. Her tour aboard Britannia to the British colonies in the Caribbean in 1955 created a sensation throughout the West Indies, and calypsos were dedicated to her. As colonies of the British Commonwealth of Nations sought nationhood, Princess Margaret represented the Crown at independence ceremonies in Jamaica in 1962 and Tuvalu and Dominica in 1978. Her visit to Tuvalu was cut short after an illness, which may have been viral pneumonia, and she was flown to Australia to recuperate. Other overseas tours included the United States in 1963, Japan in 1969 and 1979, the United States and Canada in 1974, Australia in 1975,the Philippines in 1980, Swaziland in 1981, and China in 1987. During an official visit to Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1964, she was allegedly bugged by the KGB.
The Princess’s main interests were welfare charities, music and ballet. She was President of the National Society and of the Royal Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Invalid Children’s Aid Nationwide (also called ‘I CAN’). She was Grand President of the St John Ambulance Brigade and Colonel-in-Chief of Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps. She was also the president or patron of numerous organisations, such as the West Indies Olympic Association, the Girl Guides, Northern Ballet Theatre, and the London Lighthouse (an AIDS charity that has since merged with the Terrence Higgins Trust)
Reportedly, her first extramarital affair took place in 1966, with her daughter’s godfather, Bordeaux wine producer Anthony Barton, and a year later she had a one-month liaison with Robin Douglas-Home, a nephew of British politician Alec Douglas-Home. Margaret claimed that her relationship with Douglas-Home was platonic, but her letters to him (which were later sold) were intimate. Douglas-Home, a depressive, committed suicide 18 months after the split with Margaret. Claims that she was romantically involved with musician Mick Jagger, actor Peter Sellers, and Australian cricketer Keith Miller are unproven. The entertainer Leslie Hutchinson, who was 30 years older than Margaret, is believed by Charlotte Breese, his biographer, to have had a “brief liaison” with Margaret in 1955. A 2009 biography of actor David Niven had assertions, based on information from his widow and a good friend of Niven’s, that he too had had an affair with the princess. Another association was supposedly with John Bindon, a cockney actor who had spent time in prison. His story, sold to the Daily Mirror, boasted of a close relationship with Margaret.
By the early 1970s, the Snowdons had drifted apart. In September 1973, Colin Tennant (later Baron Glenconner) introduced Margaret to Roddy Llewellyn. Llewellyn was seventeen years her junior. In 1974, he was a guest at the holiday home she had built on Mustique. It was the first of several visits. Margaret described their relationship as “a loving friendship”. Once, when Llewellyn left on an impulsive trip to Turkey, Margaret became emotionally distraught and took an overdose of sleeping tablets. “I was so exhausted because of everything”, she later said, “that all I wanted to do was sleep.” As she recovered, her ladies-in-waiting kept Lord Snowdon away from her, afraid that seeing him would distress her further.
In February 1976, a picture of Margaret and Llewellyn in swimsuits on Mustique was published on the front page of the News of the World tabloid. The press portrayed Margaret and Llewellyn as a predatory older woman and her toyboy lover. The following month, the Snowdons publicly acknowledged that their marriage had irretrievably broken down. There were calls to remove her from the Civil list. Labour MPs denounced her as “a royal parasite” and a “floosie”. On 11 July 1978, the Snowdons’ divorce was finalised. It was the first divorce of a senior royal since Princess Victoria of Edinburgh in 1901. In December Snowdon married Lucy Lindsay-Hogg.
While on a fund-raising tour of the United States in October 1979 on behalf of the Royal Opera House, Margaret became embroiled in a controversy following the assassination of Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma. Mountbatten and members of his family were killed by a bomb planted by the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Seated at a dinner reception in Chicago with columnist Abra Anderson and mayor Jane Byrne, Margaret told them that the royal family had been moved by the many letters of condolence from Ireland. The following day, a single press report, written by Anderson’s rival Irv Kupcinet, claimed that Margaret had referred to the Irish as “pigs”. Margaret, Anderson and Byrne all issued immediate denials, but the damage was already done. The rest of the tour drew demonstrations, and Margaret’s security was doubled in the face of physical threats.
In 1981, Llewellyn married Tatiana Soskin, whom he had known for ten years.Margaret remained close friends with them both. In January 1981, Margaret was a guest on the BBC Radio 4 programme Desert Island Discs.
The Princess’s later life was marred by illness and disability. She had smoked cigarettes since at least the age of 15 and had continued to smoke heavily for many years. On 5 January 1985 she had part of her left lung removed; the operation drew parallels with that of her father over 30 years earlier. In 1991 she quit smoking, though she continued to drink heavily. In January 1993 she was admitted to hospital for pneumonia. She experienced a mild stroke in 1998 at her holiday home in Mustique. Early in the following year the Princess suffered severe scalds to her feet in a bathroom accident, which affected her mobility to the extent she required support when walking and sometimes used a wheelchair. In January and March 2001, further strokes were diagnosed, which had left her with partial vision and paralysis on the left side. Margaret’s last public appearances were at the 101st birthday celebrations of her mother in August 2001, and the 100th birthday celebration of her aunt, Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, that December.
Princess Margaret died in the King Edward VII Hospital, London, on 9 February 2002 at the age of 71 after suffering another stroke. Her funeral was held on 15 February 2002—the 50th anniversary of her father’s funeral. In line with her wishes, the ceremony was a private service for family and friends. Unlike most other members of the royal family, Princess Margaret was cremated, at Slough Crematorium. Her ashes were placed in the tomb of her parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother (who died seven weeks after Margaret), in the King George VI Memorial Chapel in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, two months later. A state memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey on 19 April 2002.