Princess Margaret: “Disobedience is my joy”

Princess Margaret Rose, the younger sister of Queen Elizabeth II, had a daring lifestyle that earned her a reputation as a free spirit. She was born on August 21st 1930, six years before her father became King George VI with the abdication of his brother, Edward VIII. Since her mid 20s, she started her day with breakfast in bed, followed by two hours of reading and an hour-long bath. Just before having lunch with her mother, she enjoyed a “vodka pick-me-up” to put her back on track. However, the intimate story of her life goes through decadence and takes the shape of disillusion and a lack of actual purpose. One of the most beautiful and sought-after women in British history, Margaret was in fact a sorrowful little girl.

When her father, King George VI, received the burden of the crown, their whole family life changed. Elizabeth would be the one to follow him to the throne, while Margaret was left sideways, deprived of most of her parents’ attention. In her mind, however, she was always her father’s favorite child.

When my sister and I were growing up, she was made out to be the goody-goody one”, Princess Margaret told Andrew Duncan, author of ”The Reality of Monarchy” (1970)

Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret by photographer Dorothy Wilding, 27 May 1946

After King George VI’s death, in 1952, Margaret’s suffering was so acute that all she really wanted was to find someone to look after her and understand the difficult position she held. In this view, in her early 20s, she fell in love with her father’s equerry, Group Captain Peter Townsend of the Royal Forces and a Battle of Britain hero, who was 16 years older than her. His relationship with the princess did not become public until the coronation of Elizabeth II on June 2, 1953, when Margaret, in a gesture of affection that was captured by news photographers, brushed some lint from his uniform.

In many ways, Peter Townsend might have been the ideal husband, but the fact that he was divorced raised strong objections from the very establishment the royal family represented. As queen, Margaret’s sister, Elizabeth, was the supreme governor of the Church of England, which forbade divorce. Moreover, in the early 1950’s, the political storm surrounding Edward VIII’s abdication in December 1936 to marry a twice-divorced American, Wallis Warfield Simpson, was a not-so-distant memory.[1]

According to biographer Theo Aronson, she once told the French poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, ”Disobedience is my joy”.

Princess Margaret at the races in Kingston, Jamaica in 1955

Despite her intense feelings for Peter Townsend, Princess Margaret chose not to marry him, in order to preserve the moral code and the integrity of the royal family. In May 1960 she married photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones, a commoner, who was then given the title Earl of Snowdon. Their tempestuous marriage produced two children, but ended in divorce in 1978, an action that ended a 400-year-old taboo on divorce in the royal family. The princess did not remarry, but her friendships with men, from prominent people like the actor Peter Sellers to less exalted ones like drifter Roderic Llewellyn, hurt her reputation.

Princess Margaret after the announcement of her engagement to Anthony Armstrong Jones

Her extravagant lifestyle often caused a storm. Her wedding cost the British government £25,000, then the equivalent of $65,000, and her six-week honeymoon on the royal yacht Britannia cost £40,000, or about $115,000. In later years, she received criticism for demanding motorcycle escorts and government helicopters to travel around Britain.[2] She was also a frequent customer of Christian Dior, for whom “she crystalized the whole popular frantic interest in royalty, a real fairy-tale princess, delicate, graceful, exquisite”. Princess Margaret was ordering multiple pieces, including the white ball gown she called her “favourite dress of all” and wore to her 21st birthday party in 1951[3].

Some members of the government called Princess Margaret “the shame of the monarchy”, but the undeniable truth is that she opened a niche for every royal that needed to escape an unhappy marriage: Charles, the Prince of Wales, and Andrew, the Duke of York, both divorced their wives. Anne, the princess royal and the queen’s only daughter, was permitted to divorce her husband and married in 1992 a royal equerry, Captain Mark Philips.

Princess Margaret wearing a Dior dress photographed by Cecil Beaton for her 21st anniversary in 1951


[1] New York Times: Princess Margaret Dies at 71; Sister of Queen Elizabeth Had a Troubled Life

[2] Idem

[3] Daily Mail: How to really dress a princess: Sixty years ago, high society fell in love with Dior