Margaret: the Lost Princess

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Margaret: the Lost Princess: The Royal Family’s Christmas was overshadowed by another bout of ill health suffered by Princess Margaret, who had celebrated her 70th birthday last August. Diagnosed as a second stroke, this added to Margaret’s suffering from a scalding accident in which she injured her feet. Her public appearances were in heavily bandaged feet and with the aid of a walking stick. That’s how younger generations have seen her. Royalty Magazine Founding Editor Bob Houston recalls the life of the Princess who was the great Royal beauty of her day, but who seemed stalked by misfortune as the “Little Sister”.

Second fiddle was never a natural instrument for Margaret to play. She was always too lively, too restless and too much made for the limelight . Yet she was not only the second-born daughter of the future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, but second to an elder sister who had all the staid virtues a future monarch required. While Margaret was a sparky royal firework, Elizabeth was quiet, dutiful, shy, traditional and ever so slightly dull.

Had the little princesses, as they were once called, been ordinary girls at a party, it would be Margaret – pert, pretty, full of personality, born to shine – who attracted all the attention and all the boys while Elizabeth would have been the wallflower. There was not much to choose between them when it came to looks: both sisters were beautiful, but it was significant that Margaret’s beauty was dark and dramatic, two adjectives which aptly described her later life. It is difficult to think of a privileged life of wealth and deference as having drawbacks, but Margaret knew only too well what they were. Her royal birth denied her the outlet for musical and acting talent which, in a different life, would have made her a showbiz star. In her youth, and even in today’s more open monarchy, it was inconceivable that the daughter of a king would tread the boards. It was only among her family and friends that Margaret could use her gifts of mimicry, her skill as a pianist and her ability to to entertain. Her father, King George VI, found her perennially amusing.

The public view of her had to be different, and much more decorous. As a result, pictures of Princess Margaret looking bored proliferate, and from time to time she was depicted in the press as a royal waste of money who refused to perform sufficient public duties. The charge was unfair – it was not for nothing that the Queen awarded Margaret the Royal Victorian Order for public service in 1990 – but like most ideas which make controversial headlines, it stuck. In the public view, Margaret was the rebel who baulked at toeing the royal line, and was shown up daily by her dutiful elder sister. Margaret’s tragedy, though, was that she was far from being a rebel in this particular way.

Of all members of the Royal Family, she has always been the one most on the qui-vive for lapses in due deference. All a friend had to do to earn Margaret’s ire was to refer to King George VI as “your father” or the Queen as “your sister”. The miscreant would be sharply reminded of the full majestic title – “I take it you mean His Majesty King George VI”, Margaret would say – and would mostly likely be crossed off the royal guest list there and then. Much more sombre proof that Margaret was mindful of her royalty came with the Townsend affair of 1953-1955. Had she truly been the rebel so often depicted, she would have snapped her fingers at those who tried to stop her marrying the divorced war hero and gone off to live happily ever after with the one man she truly loved. As is all too well known, though, she renounced Group-Captain Peter Townsend for the sake of her family, the monarchy and the church none of whom could give her anything meaningful to replace him. From her point of view, giving up Townsend was a wrong turning in her life and Margaret never worked her way back to the main road.

When she finally married, aged 29, in 1960, it was almost an act of defiance which even the Royal Family could not deny her. It was significant that when she became engaged to Anthony Armstrong-Jones, the future Lord Snowdon, Margaret told the Queen and Prince Philip of her intention. This was not the normal way royal marriages are made. The newcomer’s suitability needs checking first; all the more so because Armstrong-Jones was not just a commoner, but one who had no family links to the aristocratic pool from which many royal spouses had been chosen in the past. Margaret and Tony, as they came to be known, came from two different worlds and those worlds collided violently. She doubtless wanted to join in the freer, less circumscribed life his career as a leading society photographer gave him, but her royalty got in the way. He could never settle down to royal existence, and the result, in 1978, was the first divorce to come really close to the throne.

At that juncture, and far too late, there was talk that had Margaret not been denied the chance to marry Peter Townsend, both she and Lord Snowdon would have been a great deal happier. As it was, the Townsend affair gave the first push to a roller coaster of frustration and failure which hurtled faster and faster down the slope as time went on. After the divorce, Margaret drank and smoked too much, giving rise to health scares. She had controversial love affairs – notably with the much younger Roddy Llewellyn – which inevitably ended in grief and scandalous headlines.

Latterly, Princess Margaret has been a model of healthy living – no smoking, little drinking, plenty of dieting to keep her weight down – but with her strokes, the excesses of former years caught up with her just the same. And then came the scalding accident. A sad story, even though attempts have been made to depict the 70 year-old Margaret as a matriarch beaming fondly on the happy marriages of her two children. But perhaps that is the saddest fate of all – to start life with so much promise, talent, beauty and privilege, and end up an old lady getting her pleasures vicariously, through the lives of others. (Extract © Royalty Magazine Vol. 16/12)