'M' In Monarchy
She was an unpredictable and free-spirited princess, but was Princess Margaret much more of a royal misunderstood?
JUNE 28th, 2020
lamourous, rebel, regal, boorish, fascinating, formidable – there have been many labels pinned upon the Queen’s late younger sister, Princess Margaret, throughout the years. Though perhaps one which is the most accurate - misunderstood. Whether it be her outlook on life, family dramas or how a member of The Royal Family should conduct themselves – she has consistently been painted as the tiara-adorned villain. Whilst this unjustly image has been forced onto the public; history paints a different portrait – one which pours light upon a determined royal princess who placed the institution she loved above everything, even her own happiness.
Much like the young Princess Elizabeth, Princess Margaret Rose Windsor was born into a branch of The Royal Family very much with a supporting role. The two young princesses and their parents, The Duke and Duchess of York, were once-removed from the line of succession. This meant that the strain and pressure of kingship was gracefully absent from the princesses' beloved father’s life. And whilst Margaret was fourth-in-line to the throne at the time of her birth, her Uncle David – and any future children he would have – would take precedent, and thereby the senior roles within the monarchy would never befall the York’s or their children.
That all changed in 1936 with the abdication crisis. Overnight, Margaret’s shy and – wrongly presumed – weak father became king. It was more than a shock to the system for the two princesses, particularly the incumbent King’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth. As the newly named King George’s life changed alongside his consort, Queen Elizabeth, so did their children’s. Gone was 145 Piccadilly – the York’s town house in London, and in place of the cosy and homely feel of the “grand old home”, as the King described it, was the majesty and opulence of Buckingham Palace.
With the changes in residences, came the changes in the line of succession. With the unexpected departure of King Edward VIII and his future wife Wallis Simpson, Margaret suddenly became not only the daughter of a King, but the sister of a future Queen. The pressures of royalty, which had not been destined for her, were placed upon the tender shoulders of a young girl with alarming force.
Bestowed the new title of ‘The Princess Margaret’, in acknowledgment of her relation to the king, Margaret increasingly struggled with the newfound life destiny had unfairly placed upon her family. Frequent absences from her parents as they undertook tours across the Commonwealth, left her feeling frustrated – though it was the change in tone of her relationship with her adored sister which had the most devastating effect.
After her father’s ascension to the throne, the trajectory of the two princesses’ lives changed. Their parents, whose loving and affectionate attitudes were unique for the Royal Family at the time, had always strived to treat Elizabeth and Margaret the same. No one was ever deemed more important than the other. The moment Elizabeth became heiress to the throne, with lightning speed, Margaret suddenly found herself sometimes ostracised. Where once the princesses had attended home-schooling lessons together, Margaret would time and time again find herself alone. Playtime with her sister became less common as Elizabeth attended lessons on the constitution and protocol in preparation for her future as Queen. And whilst Margaret never felt unloved, the seeds of inferiority were sown.
As the war broke out and the princesses were moved to Windsor Castle, Margaret began to showcase more of her ‘free-thinking’ personality. Unlike her more cautious sister, Margaret threw caution to the wind. Independent, fierce (if needed), and fearless in her loyalty to her family, Margaret was never afraid to steal the show (again, if needed). This ‘shoot from the hip’ attitude was demonstrated in the annual Pantomime the princesses performed for their family. The main part was usually alternated between Elizabeth and Margaret, though the youngest princess usually took the spotlight. The differences between the York Princesses would lead to George VI declaring that “Elizabeth is my pride, and Margaret is my joy.”
This ability as a scene stealer wasn’t always unintentional. As the two princesses grew into young women, their personalities became more different. Sensible, contained and a deep thinker, Elizabeth was constantly aware (and reminded) of her impending future. For Margaret, she was fun, unyielding in her pursuit of thrills, and unapologetically a good time. In a typically straight-to-the-point comment, Margaret once described herself, as “the woman which out parties the men, out drinks the drunks and outshines the stars.”
Throughout her young teenage years, although she occasionally embraced her rebellious streak, and rarely – if ever – apologised for it, her loyalty to the Monarchy, and by extension her sister was unquestionable. After the shattering death of her father, and the ascension of Elizabeth to the throne, like a lioness protecting her cubs, she would actively defend her sister to whatever end. It was this outlook which eventually caused her the most pain, and what hurt her deeply, was the realisation that it was her sister which had inflicted it.
Peter Townsend was a dashing, handsome war hero and royal equerry. His relationship with Margaret was mostly a secret, until it became public on the day of her sister’s coronation. For the young princess, Captain Townsend was a stabilising influence. His charismatic personality and deep devotion to the monarchy was a winning concoction. Margaret thought so, as did the public, but as a recent divorcé the Church of England and Parliament were not as keen.
As the couple became more public, they prepared to announce their planned engagement. The British people were firmly on the couple’s side, though the Queen eventually refused to give them her blessing. With unreserved swiftness, Margaret’s relationship with Peter Townsend ended. For the princess, it was a betrayal by her sister that she would never fully make peace with. With her zest for freedom and rebellion against the palace’s more stringent protocols, she was utterly heartbroken that the Queen would side with the establishment and not her little sister. For Margaret, she struggled to understand how duty could take precedent over family. Though time is a great healer, and eventually she would understand the difficult choice Elizabeth faced, irrespective of whether she ever fully agreed with it.
As the glamourous royal began to return to public life from the desolation of her ended relationship with Captain Townsend, a new Margaret embraced her unruly side. Partying until the early hours, singing at the piano, and the more than frequent blunt remarks; each earned her an arduous reputation. For those within her illustrious circle, they loved the Princess’ partying ways. Others weren’t so complimentary.
One who embraced her disobedience was Anthony Armstrong-Jones. A photographer and philanderer of his own right, Armstrong-Jones was more than a match for the princess. He eventually proposed with the news of the engagement taking the press by surprise. The couple married at Westminster Abbey in a ceremony which became the first Royal Wedding to be televised. Over three-hundred million people tuned in to see Margaret dazzle in a Norman Hartnell dress and the Poltimore tiara.
The marriage, though filled with deep affection and love, and produced two children, David and Sarah; it was extremely fiery. After being gifted a plot of land by friend Colin Tennant on the Island of Mustique, both husband and wife actively participated in extra-marital affairs. After the couple divorced, the affairs caused unsavoury headlines and speculation which reduced the once respected royal to tabloid fodder.
It was at this point where the princess began to gain her public reputation as a hellraiser and snob. Though behind the headlines was a royal who was fracturing at an alarming rate. By the early 1970’s, Margaret had begun “a loving friendship” with Roddy Llewellyn – an exciting young man seventeen years her junior. After images of the pair at a beach appeared on the front pages of the newspapers, Roddy took an impulsive trip to Turkey. Fragile and paranoid, Margaret became emotionally distraught, resulting in her overdosing on sleeping pills. “I was so exhausted because of everything, that all I wanted to do was sleep,” she said of her actions.
Whether the overdose was accidental or deliberate has been hotly debated throughout the years. But irrespective of the truth, it changed Margaret – and also her sister the Queen. Gone were the resentments of the past, and both women reaffirmed their undying loyalty for one another.
The press continued to write salacious stories about the princess. Some never landed, though others had a catastrophic effect on her popularity and standing within society. One such story, was a trip to Ireland. The press quoted Margaret as referring to the Irish people as “pigs”. Buckingham Palace swiftly issued a statement denying the claims, though the damage was already done. The rest of the tour was a disaster. Demonstrations and protests followed the princess wherever she went, and security was doubled in the face of physical threats.
The tour left Margaret open to vitriolic abuse, both privately and publicly. Deemed untrustworthy, unruly and undignified, palace aids began to remove her from more senior engagements. Whilst these decisions upset Margaret, they were tame compared to the public descriptions from politicians. “A royal parasite”, “floosie” and a “tiara-wearing whore” were insults which were casually thrown her way. Newspapers also pulled Margaret apart by commenting on her fading looks, accusing her of being a sexual predator and sleeping around. The continuing character assassination became too much and resulted in her dialling down her public role.
Though she rarely publicly acknowledged the harassment she endured, on a BBC Radio Four interview she described her experiences with the press as “hurtful and unsettling.”
“One has to pull through though. I’ve learnt that ignorance is the true bliss of life. Focusing on my role within the monarchy and supporting the Queen is of paramount importance. I rarely have time for headlines anymore,” she said.
Margaret’s later life was marred by illness and disability. After years of smoking and heavy drinking, her body had begun to fail. Suffering two strokes which had left her visually impaired and paralysed on her left side, she died in 2002 at the age of seventy-one.
Princess Margaret’s life can be easily spilt into two differing avenues. The public perception, and the private reality. The press, who painted her as this brutish and unforgiving monster, rarely acknowledged the ground-breaking work she achieved. Long before Princess Diana, Margaret was a staunch supporter of those suffering with HIV and Aids. Her former Lady-In-Waiting, Lady Glenconner, whose own son Henry sadly died from the disease, described the effect Margaret had on him and fellow patients at the London Lighthouse Hospice.
“She would visit frequently and always knew each patient’s name and condition. Don’t forget, Margaret was fighting their corner long before the Princess of Wales, or anyone else was for that matter. She never judged, and although she wasn’t particularly tactile like Diana, she always managed to make Henry and the other patients smile. Whether it was for a week, an hour, or five minutes, she would give them the greatest gift by simply being there – the gift of forgetting they were ill.”
Unlike Diana, Margaret never allowed photographers to accompany her when she visited. Believing that those dying from HIV and Aids should be rewarded the dignity of privacy, her visits remained a secret until last year. The revelations were an insight into the Princess Margaret the public rarely saw. They demonstrated her ability to show compassion and empathy without the need for the world to see it; and it vastly contrasted with the public image the press had constructed for her.
That construction resulted in the princess’ popularity diminishing in her later life. Though interestingly, her friends have argued that if the media would’ve have given her a fair chance, she would have most certainly been as popular than Princess Diana, and maybe even her own sister, the Queen.
Princess Margaret was a royal enigma that still hasn’t been solved. Her character was built with such complexity that it is no wonder she was deeply misunderstood. But one aspect which cannot be denied was her love and loyalty to her sister, Elizabeth. She fought her corner, as well as sometimes fighting her too. Yet in the end, the survival and dignity of the Monarchy was her guiding light. Yes, she may have been blunt and refused to suffer fools willingly. There may have been times when her actions brought that dignified image of royalty into question, but her determination to fix her wrongdoings was unmovable. In the end, her love for Queen, country and the hope for a peaceful and fulfilling life should be the labels that define her. To quote Queen Elizabeth, who poignantly stated in 2002, in what would be one of their last meetings: “Margaret, I may be the Queen, but you put the ‘M’ in Monarchy.”
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