A truly modern Royal
It was some kind of fairytale.
It was a life coloured by euphemism and innuendo. In 1980, when Princess Margaret was celebrating her 50th birthday, one newspaper profile, hanging onto the protocol of Royal reporting, praised the “fairytale marriage” between the princess and Antony Armstrong-Jones. The fact that the marriage did not last was, the writer suggested, because “the couple were too much alike”. Still, they had produced two “delightful” and “handsome” children, and separated “with a dignity and reticence deserving of the highest respect”.
“Where royalty is concerned,” the report concluded, “there are few standards by which achievement can be measured: but at 50, Princess Margaret has a present crowded with interest and a past full of contrast and colour”.
Contrast and colour. What strangeness can be contained within those words. In royal protocol, where all behaviour is circumscribed, contrast and colour are a euphemistic nod and a wink away from condemnation. There are other, kinder, ways of looking at it. Writing in 2000, with the finishing tape in sight, Margaret’s biographer Christopher Warwick described her life as a rollercoaster, an analogy which conveys the jolting unpredictability, but none of the nuances, of a life which more than once came close to threatening the fabric of the constitution, but which subsequently faded into autumnal notoriety.
Another of her biographers, Theo Aronson, characterised her as “unsympathetic, daunting, edgy”.
“She had this very sexual, sensuous quality,” Aronson said. “She was very attractive and alluring. She looked like someone special. People forget what she was like in her heyday, she used to sparkle. She was very chic indeed and in many ways, she was sharper than Jackie Kennedy.”
Royalty is a business which does not appreciate surprises. Every eventuality must be planned for, the better to smooth the paths of unquestioned heredity. Death is no exception.
In 1950, as was the custom, the Press Association issued newspapers with notes to be used for obituary purposes. The press release, typed, double-spaced in the purple ink of a Roneo machine, has attained with hindsight the power of prophecy.
“She brought to her Royal duties a new understanding and interpretation of the relationships between Royalty and the King’s subjects, combining regal dignity and a serious view of her responsibilities with an innate sense of fun and an ability to relax completely among her friends.”
This, remember, was when she was not yet 20 years old. From there, the prose slips into the flushed admiration of a Hollywood fanzine. “Slim and petite, with deep blue eyes set wide apart in an oval face, she had an unfailing sense of dress coupled with an eager delight in life and a gay sense of humour which focused the admiration of countless millions – most of whom had never seen her – on the second daughter of King George the Sixth and Queen Elizabeth.”
In photographs, where deference cannot be masked by euphemism, Margaret’s retreat from innocence is more obvious. On Thursday 11 May 1978, when her decision to divorce Lord Snowdon was announced, The Scotsman published a photographic tribute to her life. The first shot was an innocent-looking family snap. Margaret, aged five, and her sister, then nine, are dressed identically, in scoop neck pullovers and tartan skirts, with white socks and sandals. Their mother, the Queen Mother, wears a hat pulled over her eyes, and cradles the skin of a dead fox over her left arm. Privilege could not be worn more easily.
From there, things get more complicated. On her ninth birthday, Margaret is photographed in a fluffy white dress and a string of pearls. By early adulthood, men start to appear, most notably the handsome figure of her future husband Antony Armstrong-Jones (later Lord Snowdon). In the cutest, and most seemingly normal of these, she and Snowdon sit with their children, Lord Linley (13) and Lady Sarah (11), facing backwards in an open-top sports car. Margaret wears her hair pulled back, and up, like Elvira, and Snowdon cradles the wheel like The Saint. It is all very modern.
The eye skips to the bottom of the page, and a photograph from a year later. Now separated from her husband, tanned and grinning, she is, the caption notes, “dressed as a Sultana” for a fancy dress party on Mustique. She looks a strange fruit.
The contrast, though, is in the eye of the beholder. There is nothing about any of the pictures of Princess Margaret which would unsettle the readers of Hello! Instead, the viewer is left wondering what happened in between the Kodak moments. What were the emotions that held the smiles in place?
It is possible, and tempting, to see the life of Princess Margaret as one in which authority and privilege were both exploited and undermined. Her behaviour has tested the patience of royalists, and given ammunition to those who wished to portray the monarchy as an institution that has slipped out of touch. But there were limits to her wilful behaviour. Unlike the following generations of Royals, Margaret usually managed to pull back at the point when her actions threatened the security of her position. Reportedly, it was she who rebuked Sarah, Duchess of York, when the younger Royal was photographed sucking the toe of a Texan who was not her husband. She is said to have told her: “Not once have you held your head in embarrassment. Clearly you have never considered the damage you are causing us all. How dare you discredit us like this?”
To some, such a remark carries with it the whiff of hypocrisy. If Discredit was a ship, Margaret might have launched it. She was among the first generation of Royals to live under the microscopic gaze of the telephoto lens. There had been infamous photographs of her, in a swimsuit, with a lover, which had made the jump from the gossip columns to the news pages of the world’s press. There were stories, too, about nude bathing parties on Mustique, and photographs to go with them. Occasionally, such pictures have surfaced, though their emergence was slower and more circumspect than would be the case today.
Emma Tennant, in her memoir Burnt Diaries, recalls an incident in which she purloined photographs of Margaret and her lover Roddy Llewellyn from the family album, with the intention of selling them to raise funds for a literary magazine.
Tennant wrote: “I thrust Princess Margaret – there’s no time to see if she’s actually naked, but the picture gives at first glance that impression – into my shirt … Roddy Llewellyn comes into my bosom, too: he’s very much in focus, attentive, even loving, clearly an amorous couple is what this holiday snap announces …”
Such is the volatility of our attitudes to royalty that, in death, Margaret, the royal rebel who managed to break the rules but somehow stay inside the big tent of royal protocol, is likely to be viewed as a precursor to that other rebel, Diana, who was cast out. Diana, though, took public sympathy with her, where Margaret was more likely to shelter in the shadows of the royal palaces. Sometimes, this behaviour is described as brooding. Another interpretation is that she was a princess who knew her place, and that place was not one where behaviour had to be modified to suit the whims of public expectation. Those used to be the rules.
It is possible, also, to see hers as a life in which nothing happened. Reviewing Christopher Warwick’s Princess Margaret: A Life Of Contrasts, the critic Craig Brown observed: “She has always been exceptionally comfortably off, never had a job, and only once travelled on the London Underground. In 70 years, she has been married once and moved house twice. For the past 50 or so years, she has lived in exactly the same place.
“She has two children, both happily married. Perhaps the publishers might consider a second printing with a new title, Princess Margaret: A Very Samey Life.”
Much of what is written about Margaret is, at best, speculation. Interviews were infrequent, and conducted through veils of deference. Pre-Diana – the age of royalty to which Margaret belongs – there were strict taboos. Some questions could not be asked. This rule applies to her confidantes, too. Despite continuing a public career as a photographer, Lord Snowdon, her ex-husband, has managed to avoid revealing anything significant about their life together. Her long-term lover, Roddy Llewellyn, has been profiled often, but to little effect. He recently compared the (largely hagiographic) biographies of the princess to a noxious pudding in which innuendo and hyperbole were mixed together: “You add finely sliced gossip, you season with suggestion and provocation, you allow to simmer for 20 years – and the end result is uneatable.”
One of the few opportunities to hear the clipped tones of the princess discussing her life came in 1981, when she was a guest on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. Her musical choices suggested a life which straddled the borders of convention. There was Rule Britannia, as sung at the last night of the Proms with Sir Colin Davis conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Scotland the Brave by the Band of the Royal Highland Fusiliers, Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer by the Pendyrus Male Choir, and an extract from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.
So far, so serious. But what of Sousa’s march King Cotton or Rock Rock Rock by Carl Ravazza and Sid Phillips and his Band? And what price Sixteen Tons, by Tennessee Ernie Ford, a record she liked because she had heard it in a traffic jam and it had cheered her up?
The revelations in that Roy Plomley interview were few, but they did help colour in a few of Margaret’s attitudes. She complained she had been “misreported and misrepresented” since she was 17; she was afraid of the dark; Buckingham Palace was a “very, very cosy house”. She reminisced, too, about her formative years, and her love of music and ballet. She had written songs, she said, and had occasionally tread the boards, playing principal girl in pantos before audiences of 600, mostly comprising troops and estate workers. Her earliest memory, she recalled, was of being in a pram and being told not to bounce it up and down. She was, as many have attested, not good at taking instruction.
There were hints, in the margins of the Plomley chat, of the strange circumstances of her childhood. Margaret might, and did, think of herself as a country girl who lived for her ponies. But this was also a girl who was taught history while, in a significant sense, existing at the centre of it. It was the sudden abdication of Edward VIII on December 11, 1936, which catapulted King George VI onto the throne, making his first daughter Elizabeth the heir presumptive. Thereafter Elizabeth – or Lilibet as she was known – was educated separately, in preparation for the throne. The effect of all of this on Margaret was not clear, though the stain of divorce – the unbreachable protocol which felled Edward VIII – would cast a dark pall over her adult life.
Of the moment when her father became King George VI, she recalled: “My first impression was of having to leave home and go to Buckingham Palace, which we didn’t know very well, and battling through those enormous crowds who were surrounding my father and mother.”
Thereafter, the country’s slide into war removed any hints of normality which may have remained.
She told Plomley that she was not shown family portraits or relics during childhood. These were in storage throughout the war years, only being returned to the family homes when she was aged 15: “When one’s eyes are rather waiting to be opened to the beauties of life.”
Her experience of war was far from the powdered egg and rationing endured by the majority of the population. She spent the first few months at Balmoral, and was said to be proud that her national insurance number started with an “S”, indicating residence in Scotland.
“Suddenly,” she told Plomley, “we were asked to pack and move to Windsor, to the castle, when the Nazis invaded Belgium and Holland, because they were getting rather close and we packed for the weekend and stayed for five years”.
For this appearance, she was voted Castaway of the Year, a title which contained obvious, but accidental, echoes of her later life on Mustique.
At the start of Princess Margaret’s life, the world could be seen in more innocent hues. She was born at Glamis Castle, near Forfar, on August 21, 1930. A profile from the Sunday Express, written in 1960, with the benefit of 30 years’ contemplation, recalled the moment with a descriptive fervour which was part Old Testament, part vampire movie. “At 22 minutes past nine on that stormy August evening, the thin protesting cry of a newly born child rose above the rattle of the rain on the ancient castle windows. Through this rain and under flickering spears of lightning beacons blazed out the news from the hilltops around Glamis.
“Soon the whole wide sky was afire announcing to the world the birth of a new princess – the first royal baby to be born in Scotland for more than 300 years.
“John R Clynes, the Home Secretary of the Labour of the day, was the first outsider to see the new arrival. She lay in a tiny cot all six pounds eleven ounces of her, eyes firmly closed, face puckered and red.
“ ‘I have never seen a finer baby,’ ” Clynes declared gallantly, so paying her the first of what was to become a tedious Niagara of compliments. None of those who stood round the cot in the castle – the child’s father, the Duke of York, the surgeons, the Home Secretary – could have dreamed of the changes that would so soon engulf first the Royal Family, then the world. Who among them could foresee that soon her uncle David would leave the Throne to marry a woman whose marriage had been dissolved and that in the course of time her own love for a man who had divorced his wife would cause storm clouds to gather around the monarchy?”
It is not just meteorology which conspired to produce unlucky portents. Her father, the Duke of York, later to become King George VI, is said to have delayed the registration at Glamis post office because the certificate would have been Number 13.
It was, nevertheless, a birth that was greeted with considerable fanfare. On Hunter’s Hill, near Glamis, a huge bonfire was lit – a 600ft tower of brushwood by some accounts – and a crowd of 4,000 gathered to celebrate with dancing and barrels of beer.
The first few years of Margaret’s life did not match the first few days. In fact, she was kept away from public view so efficiently that rumours abounded that she was deaf and dumb. These stories only abated when, at a royal wedding, her grandfather George V lifted the four-year old princess up and stood her on the edge of the balustrade of Buckingham Palace. Christopher Warwick quotes her cousin, Lady Mary Clayton, as saying that this was the King’s way of ending the rumours and saying: “Here is my granddaughter. There is nothing wrong with her.” The princess was said to be terrified.
Most reports of her childhood comment on her independent spirit and gay nature. Many of the stories which emerged from behind the palace walls were trivialities, the significance of which only becomes apparent later. Was it important that in the hours after birth, the infant Margaret could not be dissuaded from sucking her thumb? Christopher Warwick cites this as evidence that her strong-willed personality was present from birth.
Firsthand accounts of Margaret’s childhood are based on the thinnest of anecdotes. Her governess, Marion Crawford – known as “Crawfie“ – was a graduate of the teacher training course at Moray House college in Edinburgh. She was with the Royal Household for 15 years, when she left to get married. Crawfie became briefly notorious for writing a book about her time in the Royal household called The Little Princesses, which was authored against the instructions of the Queen. The book was serialised in the United States in the Ladies Home Journal, an event which caused a flurry of anguished correspondence from Buckingham Palace, despite the banality of the text. According to Warwick, ”doing a Crawfie” quickly became royal shorthand for a betrayal of trust.
Nevertheless, a few details of royal naughtiness have emerged from beneath the blanket of discretion. At the age of three, according to Warwick, Princess Margaret knew all the words to the Easter hymn There Is A Green Hill Far Away. Later, as her curiosity developed, a teaching programme was devised which included the best children’s books. These included selections from Jane Austen, Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson. Black Beauty was said to be a favourite text, and Warwick claims that Princess Margaret could recite by heart the words of The Little Red Hen. She was less fond of Alice in Wonderland, and told one interviewer that she had been haunted by the tale’s “nightmare ingredients: claustrophobia, falling down unseen holes, grotesque animals that talk”.
There are other fragments of anecdote in which our image of the adult Princess can be anchored. There is the story, told to illustrate her charm, of an incident in which Sir James Barrie found the Princess, aged three, playing with a toy: a miniature table with two tiny flowerpots on it. “Is it really yours?” he asked. In reply, the Princess nodded. “Yes,” she said, “it is yours and mine.”
There is speculation, too, that she was a spoilt child, a condition which may have been caused by the efforts of her elders to compensate for the greater status afforded to her sister. Last year, Lady Mountbatten told a television documentary: “I suspect her parents were a little indulgent to make up to her that her destiny was going to be rather different.”
Her childhood nickname, after all, was said to be P2, for Princess Number Two. Another of her childish nicknames was said to be Rose Bud. This was not in reference to the symbol of lost innocence in Citizen Kane. The nickname was given to her by her sister, because her name was Margaret Rose, “but she was too young to be a real Rose”.
The Royal biographer, Theo Aronson, plays down suggestions that Margaret was jealous of her sister’s role. “People say that she walks in her sister’s shadow, but she would never have wanted to have been Queen. In fact, she’s probably quite glad that she wasn’t the eldest child. She once said that she couldn’t think of anything more wonderful than being what she was. She was, after all, a wealthy, indulged, princess.”
There is said to have been a great bond between the sisters. There is a story that she threw a tantrum on the day of her father’s Coronation when she learned that her sister was going to wear a train, but that she was considered “too young”. She is said to have stamped her feet in protest, and was duly awarded a train. There is a similar story from her teens, as she prepares for a fancy dress party, dressed as an angel. In the story, her mother says: “Margaret, you don’t look very angelic, darling.”
“All right,” Margaret replies, “then I’ll be a Holy Terror”.
In royal lore, Margaret’s character is frequently contrasted with that of her sister. The young Elizabeth was said to be a representative of the Coburgs, being serious and dedicated. She was said to be similar to the mother of Queen Victoria, and Prince Albert. Margaret was different, and was said to be imbued with the characteristics of her Hanoverian predecessors. She was said to be playful and highly strung. Her schoolroom at the Palace was a former nursery overlooking the gardens, in which she kept two cabinets full of precious things, such as the silver ornaments from her christening cake.
Otherwise, childhood details are scarce. Still, there is something suggestively other-worldly about the sweet tales of tea parties and games of Sardines, which were replaced in later years with card games such as Animal Grab, Old Maid and Racing Demon. Margaret was said to be fond of cakes and ice cream. This being wartime, an age in which social responsibility was at a premium, press reports made it clear that she always kept to her ration of chocolate.
In a book about the Royals published in 1950, Dermot Morrah made great play of the four- year age gap between the two sisters. Elizabeth had strong memories of George V, but to Margaret “he is a remote and cloudy figure” (he died when she was five). There was said to be a keen sense of competition between the sisters, with Margaret always trying to catch up. From this came her impish sense of humour, her piano playing, her skills at mimicry. She was also said to be vivacious and mercurial. “Her diminutive stature makes her liveliness all the more conspicuous,” Morrah wrote. “All her life she will have an especially quick view of the comedy of the world. One of her youthful utterances: “Papa, do you sing ‘God save my Gracious Me’? ’ holds a good deal of the secret of her personality.”
When she went out, Princess Margaret was always accompanied by Crawfie, her governess, and a detective who remained on duty in the wings of the royal nursery at night.
By her mid-teens, Margaret was regarded by her family as a “flirt”, because of her interest in the officers who were on guard at Windsor Castle during the war. Her interest in clothes was also well-established, and her dress sense and fondness for make-up was said to have caused the Queen some concern.
The intrigue started almost as soon as Margaret began undertaking official duties. At the age of 16, she accompanied her parents and sister on a tour of South Africa, leaving Crawfie at home. This tour marked the end of her formal education, and the beginning of her public life. Halfway through the tour, a ball was given in honour of her sister, Princess Elizabeth. According to legend, the older sister found Margaret sitting out a dance, and asked her why. “You look after your Empire,” Margaret, was reported to have replied, “and I’ll look after my life.”
If there was a conflict of interests in this remark, Margaret failed to see it. Hindsight, though, is an unreliable guide. There was no reason why she should feel constrained. Royal behaviour was not subject to critical conjecture or scrutiny at this time. It had its own logic and momentum.
At 17, Margaret was appointed Colonel-in-Chief of the Highland Light Infantry. On November 20, 1947, she was chief bridesmaid at her sister’s wedding. Two years later, she took a month’s holiday in Italy. As early as this, there were signs that the 20th century’s fascination with celebrity and glamour might be in conflict with the traditional protocols of royalty. As one report put it: “Though her visit was partly intended to convey, and did convey, a message of goodwill to Italian people who had fought against us under Mussolini but had returned to their traditional friendship with England before the end of the War, the princess went with complete informality hoping merely to see beautiful scenery and enjoy the delights of the Mediterranean spring … Unfortunately the excitement of seeing a real princess was too much for the reporters who crowded about her whenever she went out to shop or bathe, and her walks abroad turned, as one English newspaper protested, into a “diurnal bear garden”.
The Italian trip included a private reception with the Pope, which she attended black gowned and veiled. Informal messages of goodwill were fine, but this meeting was roundly denounced by conservative Protestant groups. After meeting the Pope, she drove from Italy to Switzerland, then on to Paris – she had learned to speak French under her governess the Vicomtesse de Bellaigue.
Morrah’s book identified Margaret as a representative of those who had not been old enough to fight in the war. “The generation on the hither and more carefree side of the gap now looks to Margaret as their natural representative; and she with her natural gaiety, energy and endless capacity for healthy enjoyment is ideally fitted to play the part. When she is seen, as she constantly is, taking the lead in the ballroom or on the racecourse, she is properly asserting the right of all the young men and women of her age whom she now represents to their fair share of youthful joy.”
These words, written as the glue of wartime resolve began to dissolve, contain the formula which would test the traditional urges of the monarchy. What is a “fair share of youthful joy”? To Dermot Morrah, such a remark might suggest nothing more than approval for the varied programme of royal duties undertaken by Margaret. Examples of these included being shown around Scotland Yard by the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, spending a day in juvenile court, and visiting the Grand National.
“She has the inner seriousness which often goes with a keen sense of humour: and nothing could be more distorted than a picture of her as a spoilt child, headstrong and tempestuous,” asserted Morrah. “It is an assumption not infrequently made whenever high spirits are combined with small stature: probably if Margaret were twice her actual weight it would occur to nobody to be so naively surprised at her refusal to be overawed by the solemnity of the tradition that overhangs her. There is in fact a dash of absinthe in her character which is the most piquant of her charms.”
If it had been a fairy story and not a morality tale, Margaret’s life would have unfolded from her ill-starred relationship with Group Captain Peter Townsend. Townsend was a Battle of Britain hero, who had joined the Royal household as an Equerry of Honour in 1944.
The first public sign of her affection for him was a moment of unguarded tenderness during the 1953 Coronation, when she picked a piece of fluff from his uniform. Townsend had shot down 11 German aircraft during the war, but this heroism was overshadowed by his status as a divorcee. The Cabinet, and the Times – then a reliable indicator of Establishment thinking – opposed the marriage, despite the fact that Townsend was deemed to be the innocent party in his divorce, and had custody of his two sons. Still, the relationship provoked serious rumours of an engagement in 1955, when he returned from a posting as air attach to the British Embassy on Brussels.
The relationship with Townsend ended officially in November 1955 when Clarence House issued a statement, signed “Margaret” which read: “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 teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before any 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.”
Given the measured tones of this language, and its inadequacy at masking real hurt, it is worth speculating what extravagances were buried in the contemporaneous descriptions of the princess and her behaviour. You might, if you chose, find a thesaurus full of excitement in the word “vivacious”, a frequent term to describe her activities.
“I think the Townsend episode threw a shadow over her life,” observes biographer Theo Aronson. “But I don’t think that the marriage, if it had happened, would have worked. He was too old, she was too young and in later life, he became rather stodgy, while she retained much of the sparkle and vitality. At the time, she still needed to live her kind of life.
“But her great renunciation of him was decidedly misunderstood by the public. At the end of the day, it was a choice between being Mrs Peter Townsend, living in exile on the continent, or remaining a princess. She was very aware of how privileged she was to live as a princess and so I don’t go along with assumption that a blighted romance drove her to drink. We’ve all got over failed romances.
“Townsend was quite a vulnerable man. That was not unlike Margaret’s father, George VI, who was also rather diffident and gauche. In many ways, George VI set a standard for the men in her life. She never went for the man they expected, instead she rather liked sensitive, gentler men. She just didn’t like butch, macho men. And it wasn’t a case of being attracted to opposites. Like the men she went for, Margaret was a sensitive woman, a very vulnerable woman. She wasn’t tough at all.”
The royal ratpack, the Margaret Set, began when she fell into the orbit of “Sass” Douglas, the daughter of the American ambassador, and Margaret has claimed that the Set, if it existed, was Douglas’s. Her cousin, Margaret Rhodes, disputed this, telling Christopher Warwick that, socially, the princess was a “planet round which everyone revolved”.
By stealth, the flashbulbs blasted away at the restraints which had previously guarded media coverage of the royals. This was Margaret the movie star. Here she was, smoking from a three-inch cigarette holder at the Dorchester Hotel. Here she was, picked out by a telephoto lens, sunbathing on an Italian beach. Here she was, dancing the cancan in fishnets and a frilly petticoat.
Boredom, it seemed, was not an option.
There were tales of long evenings with up to five male escorts, of her fondness for the musical soft soaping of the crooners. She was at home, it was said, at the ballet or the Crazy Gang. When gayness meant playful exuberance, she was one of the gayest girls in the world.
This, it is worth stressing, was at a time when privilege, and the exploitation of it, was an unquestioned bonus of a royal pedigree. Questions were not asked. However, the price of a film star existence was a full-time tenancy in the gossip columns, and a flurry of rumours which – according to royal protocol – were undeniable.
In 1957, there were suggestions of a romance with Lord Patrick Beresford, the younger brother of the Marquis of Waterford. He was a square-jawed equestrian type. But nothing came of it.
Her propensity for ecumenical controversy returned in 1959, when she met Canadian lawyer Mr John Turner. He was a Catholic, and were the relationship to progress to marriage, Margaret would have required special permission from the Queen, and would have been required to renounce her royal privileges. The rumours were enough to provoke statements from less tolerant branches of the Anglican church which feared that the Church of Rome was about to make a claim on the throne. Mr Turner returned to Canada.
In December 1959, Townsend married Marie-Luce Jamagne. In the same week, Margaret agreed to marry Antony Armstrong-Jones. Margaret pre-dates the fashion for royal soul-bearing, but the timing supports the notion that she made her decision on the rebound.
She first met Armstrong-Jones in April 1956, when he was hired to take the photographs at the wedding of Colin Tennant and Lady Carey, the Earl of Leicester’s daughter. Over a year later, they danced together at a Halloween ball at the Dorchester. In 1958, after he visited Buckingham Palace to take pictures of Princess Anne and Prince Charles, the romance began. Armstrong-Jones’s work as a photographer allowed him frequent access to the royal palaces, and meant his visits did not attract speculation. He also had a studio in Rotherhithe, where the couple were able to meet in secret.
On 26 February, 1960, the couple were engaged, and the following month they appeared together in the royal box at Covent Garden. The marriage took place at Westminster Abbey on May 6, 1960, before a worldwide television audience of 300 million. It was a traditional royal pageant, a glass coach, a white veil, and a vow in which the princess promised to obey her husband. The honeymoon was a six-week cruise through the warm and remote waters of the Caribbean. On their return, the couple set up house in an apartment in Kensington Palace.
In May 1961, the public announcement that Margaret was pregnant was made, and in October, Armstrong-Jones was given the title Earl of Snowdon. There were two children from the marriage: Lord Linley was born on 3 November, 1961, and Lady Sarah Armstrong-Jones on 1 May, 1964.
When, in May 1978, after years of speculation and rumour, they decided to divorce, the marriage to Snowdon – a bohemian figure by royal standards – was presented as a reaction against the constraining hand of the establishment which had prevented her marriage to the man she loved. Whatever the truth of the matter, the growing distance between the couple had been obvious to all.
Divorce was approached with caution. Separation from Snowdon was confirmed on March 19, 1976, with an announcement from the Queen’s press secretary, noting her sadness, and the fact that no pressure had been brought to bear on the couple. The announcement was made three days after the surprise resignation of the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. The Palace may have hoped that their news would be lost amid the political speculation, but if so, they miscalculated. At a time of sweeping public expenditure cuts, Margaret’s indulgences had become an embarrassment. The Labour MP Willie Hamilton had turned Margaret-bashing into a hobby. He had called her an “expensive, extravagant irrelevance.”
Some royal observers have suggested that her behaviour was the most damaging royal scandal since Edward VIII. Not since Henry VIII had a member of the royal family been divorced.
A leader in the Times was, nevertheless, forgiving. It read: “It is never possible to judge the standards of conduct to be expected from the Royal Family in isolation. The Queen and her family reflect as well as represent the community … All that may be reasonably be asked of the royal family is that in their private life they should act within the broad limits of customary conduct among the people of this country. Divorce does now come within these limits.”
With hindsight, the timid deference of the reports which prefaced the divorce announcement is almost comical. In June 1976, one newspaper offered the coy “Puzzle of Van That Left Palace Early Today” above a report of a five-hour dinner date with Roddy Llewellyn. “Mr Llewellyn,” the report continued, “her former companion on the holiday island of Mustique, was reported to have driven from Kensington Palace at about 1am. He was said to be wearing a dinner jacket and dark glasses and driving a dusty blue van.”
It was a photograph of the Princess and Roddy Llewellyn on Mustique, published in the News of the World, which made the marriage untenable, but Margaret and Snowdon had separated three years earlier. The Princess’s connection with the island began in 1960 when she saw it while cruising the Caribbean on Britannia. She was gifted a ten-acre plot as a wedding present by its owner Colin Tennant, and in 1972, built Les Jolies Eaux, a coral-washed stone bungalow with access to a secluded cove. The house had a permanent staff of three. She described it as “the only place in the world where I can relax”. From 1974 Llewellyn was a frequent, and controversial, guest.
Margaret had met Llewellyn at Glen, Colin Tennant’s borders estate, and they first holidayed together in 1974. Llewellyn was invariably described in ways which underlined his lack of class – he was a landscape gardener or a pop singer, he lived on Surrendell Farm, a commune near Malmesbury in Wiltshire. He was the son of Colonel Harry Llewellyn, an Olympic showjumper, and lived a life which was happily free from everyday concerns.
He had a restaurant in Bath, Parsenn Sally, and in July 1975 had bought a 40,000 farm with a group of friends, which was supposed to be run along the lines of a commune, providing vegetables for the restaurant. There were doubts, however, about the group’s fondness for agriculture. The Princess was a frequent visitor to the commune, and the villagers of Hullavington obligingly told the press that the unconventional lifestyle of the farm suited her.
In other words, Roddy Llewellyn was not a proper royal.
In August 1977, Nigel Dempster dissected the Princess’s romantic difficulties on the constitutional pages of Woman’s Own. According to his account, the Queen had said the princess’s children were “not royal – they just happen to have me as an aunt”. Dempster also claimed the marriage to Snowdon broke up after a row over a cottage in Sussex. Snowdon had started renovating Old House as a country retreat. She wanted a house elsewhere. An attempted reconciliation in the Bahamas failed and in early 1967 she started making plans to build her home in Mustique. The marriage had lasted “six good years”, in which the two of them appeared happy with a jetset lifestyle in the company of showbusiness friends such as Peter Sellers and Britt Ekland.
Once Old House was finished they spent more time apart. Snowdon weekended there. Margaret tried to give up Llewellyn, in an effort to save her marriage, but by this time Snowdon had met divorcee film production assistant, Lucy Lindsay-Hogg. They went to Australia to make a film series, while Margaret travelled to Mustique.
According to one report, the rows between Snowdon and Margaret were so intense that one of their mutual friends, Lord Rupert Nevill, had one of them recorded and submitted it to a Harley Street psychiatrist for analysis, without saying who the participants were. The doctor’s verdict was “this lady needs help and she needs help soon”. Snowdon was said to have sent caustic notes to Margaret, including one which was said to read: “You look like a Jewish manicurist and I hate you.”
Dempster claimed a three-month parting was envisaged as a trial separation. “When Snowdon came home it was to an outsize welcome from his wife – Margaret knew nothing about Lucy Lindsay-Hogg. After the trial separation, she had every hope that Tony would be pleased to see her.
“Maybe there was even a chance, at this stage, to put all the pieces back together again. Alas, it was not to be. The possibility of a separation was discussed.”
By this time, Llewellyn was said to be recovering in hospital from a nervous breakdown. “To help Roddy get back on his feet, the Princess took charge of decorating his pied--terre and soon their friendship was back on its old standing,” Dempster wrote. Their separation was announced in March 1975.
Thereafter, her life was a slow-drift through the tree-planting and ribbon-cutting of royal duty . She would pass comment on prize bulls and vanilla tablet (four packets, bought from Mrs Isabel Wallace’s stand at the Royal Highland Show in 1981). She would pause to admire the dianthus blooms or shake hands with the Supreme Beef Shorthorn Champion.
Reports of these engagements never failed to mention her clothes. Margaret, the happy apologists of royal reporting concluded, had turned her life around. The “sad princess” who smoked 40 cigarettes a day and lived as a virtual recluse, was transformed within a year of her marital break up into a trim beauty, and a lifestyle icon. Her weight was below nine stone for the first time in a decade, her smoking was much reduced, and her alcohol intake was limited to the occasional glass of white wine. Her waking hours, which had previously lasted until 2 or 3am, had been modified, despite her occasional claims that she did not come alive until midnight.
She was said to have been nursed out of her black period by the Queen Mother, and to have taken diet tips from the Queen. Bread was no longer welcome on the table, and breakfasts were reduced to a boiled egg and toast. Coffee was dropped from breakfast and lunch to keep her caffeine levels low, allowing her to indulge in a cup of Earl Grey before bedtime.
“Sometimes,” a sympathetic reporter wrote, with a hint of dread, “the Princess has a yearning to ‘see the sights’ as she calls it. Then, usually after dinner, at about 10pm, her blue Rolls-Royce with two or three friends aboard, will edge out into busy Kensington High Street and turn east towards Mayfair.”
The last years of the Princess’s life were characterised by an obscurity punctured only by her frequent outbreaks of illness. Reports of her failing health were accompanied by primary-coloured reports of her life, often with the implication – sometimes stated, sometimes not – that she deserved it. In 1996, it was reported that emergency medical equipment had been fitted in her bedroom and car, and her staff trained in resuscitation procedures.
The romantic dramas of her early years were eclipsed by the activities of younger princesses, a process which was accelerated by her slide down the chain of heredity. Before the birth of Prince Charles, she was second in line to the throne. By the end of her life, she was 11th. She was left behind, too, by the attempts to modernise the monarchy, and the decline of the empire. For much of her life, it was not clear what she was for. The Queen seemed to acknowledge this when she removed her from the civil list and undertook to pay her 219,000 annual allowance from her own funds. The fluctuating popularity of the Royal family – itself a side effect of the pop star behaviour of the younger family members, and a new generation of wayward princesses – meant that there was little sympathy for a royal high roller without a definite purpose. There was, then, a whiff of disapproval about her continued smoking, despite the death of her father from lung cancer, and despite a scare of her own when a section of her left lung was removed in 1985. The removed tissue was not cancerous, and some reports said that just a few months after surgery she was smoking 30 cigarettes a day.
Her lifestyle was not suited to a health-conscious age. Her only exercise was dancing. After the dancing stopped, the most she would entertain was a swim in the Caribbean followed by a rest on a chaise longue.
The character of the princess may have had something to do with her unsympathetic reputation. “She was a charismatic woman,” Theo Aronson said, “but she was also very difficult to handle. One moment she was very friendly and approachable and the next she was very imperious. You never really know where you were with her and she could be rather sharp and caustic at times. That said, the Royals are often guarded and she tends to be rather less discrete and more outspoken than some of the others.
“She has this way of saying ‘my mother said this’ or ‘my sister said this’. Of course, you then start referring to her ‘mother’ and her ‘sister’ and she’ll look straight through you as if you weren’t there, as if to let you know that you should be using their Royal titles.”
It was her fondness for drink which attracted most opprobrium. Latterly, despite several health warnings, and serious scares, she was said to still enjoy whisky. The beginning of the end was signalled in February 1988, when she suffered a stroke while holidaying on Mustique. This left her prone to exhaustion, and gloominess. A year later, again in Mustique, she stepped into a bath and inadvertently sprayed boiling water onto her feet, causing serious injury.
There was much talk of depression, of inner turmoil. The sale of Les Jolies Eaux by her son in 1999 marked the end of her informal life, and a final bow to the expectations of protocol. It may be, that with her death, the monarchy has lost something – that part of royalty which blends deference with a naive belief in celebrity.
“She was born with everything and somehow it all seems to have slipped through her fingers,” Aronson notes. “In many ways, it’s been a sad, unfulfilled life. Like most people, she would have liked a good relationship. If Snowdon had been inclined to walk in her shadow, in the same way that Philip does with the Queen, perhaps she would have been a more anchored, happier woman.
“She was both a modern royal and a traditional royal. She was torn between meeting the standards of the monarchy and moving on. When she was born, people didn’t know what a princess was supposed to do. These days, people like Anne ally themselves to a cause and that’s sufficient. For Margaret, things were more complex. As she grew up, she was expected to do little more than look attractive and be charming. Nowadays, people expect more of a princess, they’re expected to be seen to earn their living and so she appeared to be lacking somehow.”
Aronson’s view is that Margaret’s belief in the monarchy came before everything, possibly even her own happiness. It would be wrong, he argues, to think of her as the Firm’s black sheep.
“She was more a grey sheep. When she was with Llewellyn, there was a great awkwardness in the royal family, because they disapproved of her lifestyle quite strongly. But in the last 10-15 years she came back into the fold, because she realised that her family was all she had.
“If she had been an ordinary woman, as opposed to being a royal, I think she would have been a wilder, more hedonistic character. She was always quite restrained and despite what the press said, she took her role as a royal very seriously. She was always very conscious of who she was. She was a King’s daughter.”
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