10 Facts About Princess Margaret | History Hit

10 Facts About Princess Margaret

Jon Bauckham

21 Dec 2020
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Princess Margaret (Image Credit: Eric Koch / Anefo, 17 May 1965 / CC).

While certainly not the only member of the royal family to have found themselves embroiled in scandal, it’s fair to say that Princess Margaret (1930–2002) lived a more eventful life than most.

The youngest child of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother), Margaret is best remembered today for her party-loving lifestyle, her sharp fashion sense, and her turbulent relationships.

Indeed, despite the close relationship that the siblings enjoyed as children, Margaret was often viewed by her family as the polar opposite to her sensible elder sister, Princess Elizabeth, who would go on to be crowned Queen Elizabeth II.

Here are 10 key facts about Princess Margaret’s life.

1. Princess Margaret’s birth made Scottish history

Princess Margaret was born on 21 August 1930 at Glamis Castle in Scotland, making her the first senior member of the royal family to be born north of the border since King Charles I in 1600.

Located in Angus, the sprawling country estate was the ancestral home of her mother, the Duchess of York (later the Queen Mother).

At the time of her birth, Margaret was fourth in line to the throne, immediately behind her sister, Princess Elizabeth, who was four years her senior.

Glamis Castle in Angus, Scotland – the birthplace of Princess Margaret (Image Credit: Spike / CC).

2. She unexpectedly moved up the line of succession

One of Margaret’s first major public appearances came in 1935 at the Silver Jubilee celebrations of her grandfather, King George V.

When the monarch died the following year, Margaret’s uncle briefly took the throne as King Edward VIII, until his famous abdication in December 1936.

With her father reluctantly proclaimed King George VI, the princess quickly moved up the line of succession and assumed a far greater role in the national spotlight than most people had initially imagined.

Anne Glenconner has been at the centre of the royal circle from childhood, when she met and befriended the future Queen Elizabeth II and her sister, the Princess Margaret. Anne spoke to me from the resplendent saloon at Holkham Hall to discuss her truly remarkable life - a story of drama, tragedy and royal secrets. A story she reflects on with a charming sense of humour and true British spirit.
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3. She was a lifelong lover of music

Before her father’s accession to the throne, Princess Margaret spent much of her early childhood at her parents’ townhouse at 145 Piccadilly in London (later destroyed during the Blitz), as well as at Windsor Castle.

Never shy about being the centre of attention, the princess demonstrated an early aptitude for music, learning to play the piano aged four.

She enjoyed singing and performing, and would later discuss her lifelong passion for music in a 1981 edition of the BBC’s long-running radio programme Desert Island Discs.

Interviewed by presenter Roy Plomley, Margaret chose a particularly diverse selection of tracks that included both traditional marching band tunes as well as the coal-mining song ‘Sixteen Tons’, performed by Tennessee Ernie Ford.

4. A book about her childhood caused a major scandal

Like her elder sister, Margaret was raised by a Scottish governess named Marion Crawford – affectionately known by the royal family as ‘Crawfie’.

Coming from humble origins, Crawford saw it as her duty to make sure the girls had as normal an upbringing as possible, taking them on regular shopping trips and visits to swimming baths.

After retiring from her duties in 1948, Crawford was showered with royal privileges, including being able to live rent-free at Nottingham Cottage in the grounds of Kensington Palace.

However, her relationship with the royals was irreparably damaged in 1950 when she published a tell-all book about her time as a governess entitled The Little Princesses. Crawford described the girls’ behaviour in vivid detail, recalling the young Margaret as “often naughty” but with “a gay, bouncing way about her that made her hard to discipline.”

The book’s publication was viewed as a betrayal, and ‘Crawfie’ promptly moved out of Nottingham Cottage, never to speak with the royals again. She died in 1988, aged 78.

5. The princess celebrated among the crowds on VE Day

During the Second World War, Princess Margaret and Princess Elizabeth were both sent away from Buckingham Palace to stay at Windsor Castle, where they could escape the German bombs.

However, after years of living in relative seclusion, the young sisters famously went incognito among the British public on VE Day (8 May 1945).

After appearing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with their parents and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Margaret and Elizabeth then disappeared into the adoring crowds to chant: “We want the king!”

Having pleaded with their parents, the teenagers later ventured out into the capital and continued partying past midnight – a story dramatised in the 2015 film, A Royal Night Out.

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6. She was unable to marry her first true love

As a young woman, Princess Margaret kept a busy social life, and was romantically linked with a number of very wealthy suitors.

However, she fell head over heels for Group Captain Peter Townsend, who was serving as an equerry (personal attendant) to her father. A hero of the Battle of Britain, the dashing RAF pilot would have normally been an attractive prospect.

Group Captain Peter Townsend pictured in 1940 (Image Credit: Daventry B J (Mr), Royal Air Force official photographer / Public Domain).

But unfortunately for Margaret, Townsend was a divorcee, and thus expressly forbidden from being able to marry the princess under the rules of the Church of England.

Despite this, the couple’s clandestine relationship was revealed when Margaret was photographed removing some fluff off Townsend’s jacket at her sister’s 1953 coronation ceremony (apparently a sure sign of further intimacy between them).

When it later became known that Townsend had proposed to the 22-year-old princess, it sparked a constitutional crisis, made all the more complicated by the fact her sister – the Queen – was now head of the Church.

Although the couple had the opportunity to proceed with a civil marriage when Margaret turned 25 (which would have involved forfeiting her royal privileges), the princess issued a statement announcing that they had gone their separate ways.

7. Her wedding was watched by 300 million people

Despite the protracted crisis surrounding her relationship with Peter Townsend, Margaret seemed to have put the events behind her by 1959, when she became engaged to the photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones.

An old Etonian who had dropped out of Cambridge after failing his exams, Armstrong-Jones apparently met Margaret at a dinner party hosted by one of her ladies-in-waiting, Elizabeth Cavendish.

When the couple married at Westminster Abbey on 6 May 1960, it became the first royal wedding to be broadcast live on television, watched by an astonishing 300 million people across the globe.

Princess Margaret and her new husband, Antony Armstrong Jones, acknowledge the cheers of the crowd on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, 5 May 1960 (Image Credit: Alamy Image ID: E0RRAF / Keystone Pictures USA/ZUMAPRESS).

The marriage was initially a happy one, producing two children: David (born 1961) and Sarah (born 1964). Shortly after the couple’s marriage, Armstrong-Jones received the title of Earl of Snowdon, and Princess Margaret became Countess of Snowdon.

As a wedding gift, Margaret was also given a patch of land on the Caribbean island of Mustique, where she built a villa named Les Jolies Eaux (‘Beautiful Waters’). She would take holidays there for the rest of her life.

8. She was the first royal to be divorced since Henry VIII

During the ‘swinging’ 1960s, the Earl and Countess of Snowdon moved in glittering social circles that included some of the most famous actors, musicians and other celebrities of the era.

Margaret, for instance, forged associations with the likes of fashion designer Mary Quant, although her relationship with the London gangster-turned-actor John Bindon was rumoured to have been more intimate.

Indeed, both Margaret and her husband engaged in extra-marital affairs during the course of their marriage.

As well as a liaison with the jazz pianist Robin Douglas-Home (the nephew of former prime minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home), Margaret would embark on a much-publicised affair with landscape gardener Roddy Llewellyn during the 1970s.

Seventeen years her junior, Margaret’s relationship with Llewellyn was made public when photographs of the bathing-suited pair – taken at Margaret’s home in Mustique – were printed in the News of the World in February 1976.

The Snowdons issued a statement a few weeks later formally announcing their separation, followed by a formal divorce in July 1978. As a result, they became the first royal couple to undergo a divorce since Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves in 1540 (although this had technically been an annulment).

Dr Suzannah Lipscomb is a broadcaster and Head of Faculty and Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at New College of the Humanities.
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9. The IRA allegedly plotted to assassinate her

While on a royal tour of the United States in 1979, Princess Margaret allegedly described the Irish as “pigs” during a dinner conversation with Jane Byrne, the mayor of Chicago. Just a few weeks earlier, Margaret’s cousin – Lord Mountbatten – had been killed by an IRA bomb while on a fishing trip in County Sligo, causing outcry around the world.

Although Margaret’s press spokesman denied that she had made the remark, the story deeply upset members of the Irish-American community, who staged protests for the remainder of her tour.

According to a book by Christopher Warwick, the FBI also uncovered details of an IRA plot to assassinate the princess in Los Angeles, but the attack never materialised.

10. Her later years were blighted by ill health

Like her late father King George VI, Princess Margaret was a heavy smoker – a habit that eventually began to take a significant toll on her health.

In 1985, following a suspected case of lung cancer (the same disease that had led to her father’s death), Margaret underwent surgery to have a small part of her lung removed, although it turned out to be benign.

Margaret did eventually give up smoking, but she continued to suffer from numerous ailments – and her mobility was greatly affected after accidentally scalding her feet with bathwater in 1999.

Having suffered a series of strokes, as well as cardiac problems, she passed away in hospital on 9 February 2002, aged 71. The Queen Mother died just a few weeks later on 30 March, aged 101.

Unlike most royals, Margaret was cremated, and her ashes were interred in the King George VI Memorial Chapel at Windsor.

Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon (1930–2002) (Image Credit: David S. Paton / CC).

Jon Bauckham