The true story of Princess Margaret’s ‘forbidden love’ for Peter Townsend

How accurate is The Crown's portrayal of the royal affair?

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A period drama just wouldn’t work without an illicit romance to keep viewers entertained, and The Crown certainly delivers. However, in this case it is a real-life love story, and we already know how it ends: unhappily.

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Did Princess Margaret really have an affair with Peter Townsend? 

The first the public knew of the affair was when a perceptive journalist spotted Princess Margaret territorially picking a piece of fluff off the uniform of her late father George VI’s equerry, RAF Group Captain Peter Townsend, at the Queen’s Coronation in 1953. That gesture was enough to break the biggest royal scandal since the Abdication Crisis.

By then, the affair was already in full swing. Margaret’s father had died after the war and her sister had become Queen, leaving the princess– played by Vanessa Kirby in The Crown – grief-stricken and lonely. Townsend (Ben Miles) was appointed Comptroller of her mother’s household and the two became very… close.

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RAF Group Captain Peter Townsend pictured in Brussels in 1955

By 1953, Townsend had divorced his wife and proposed to the 22-year-old Princess. Margaret was inclined to accept, but it was not that simple: under the Royal Marriages Act 1772, as an under-25-year-old she would need the monarch’s consent to the match. This put the Queen in a really, really tricky situation, so she did what any true procrastinator does: she put things off and asked her sister to wait a bit.

When it came out, it was the Abdication Crisis all over again: could a royal marry someone who was divorced? The Church of England said no, rather emphatically. The British Cabinet said they would refuse to approve the marriage, Winston Churchill hated the thought, and the newspapers – initially, at least – were against the “unthinkable” event.

So, what next for the star-crossed lovers? Churchill arranged for Townsend to be posted to Brussels, at least until Margaret got to 25 and could marry without the Queen’s consent. But even then, she would have to renounce her claim to the throne as well as her royal allowance. Like her uncle before her, she faced a choice: love or duty?

There was an agonising wait while Margaret tried to decide what to do, and then finally – after two years – she issued a statement.

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Ben Miles as Group Captain Townsend and Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret in The Crown

Did Princess Margaret decide not to marry Peter Townsend?

The Princess explained: “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 teachings that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before 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.

In his autobiography, Time and Chance, Group Captain Townsend wrote: “I simply hadn’t the weight, I knew it, to counterbalance all she would have lost.”

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Princess Margaret pictured on 17 October 1955. Her decision not to marry Captain Townsend was announced on 31 October

Who did Princess Margaret marry?

In 1960, Margaret put her first love behind her and married society photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, later Lord Snowdon. They had two children together, Viscount Linley and Lady Sarah Chatto.

It was not a happy match, and eventually ended in divorce, which was finalised in 1978. He later remarried to Lucy Lindsay-Hogg. Lord Snowdon died on 13th January 2017.

As for Group Captain Townsend, he also remarried. During his Belgium posting he met a local, 20-year-old Marie-Luce Jamagne, and tied the knot with her in 1959.

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Princess Margaret with her husband Antony Armstrong-Jones in the happy early days, 1960

How accurate is The Crown?

In dramatising the affair, Netflix’s The Crown has kept true to life. Margaret did indeed find out about her lover’s exile to the British Embassy in Brussels while on a tour of Rhodesia – the trip on which he had been meant to accompany her. The reactions of the Cabinet, the way it divided and scandalised the press: all this comes directly from real life.

What we do not really know is how the scandal affected Margaret and Elizabeth’s relationship. It must have stretched and strained their bond to its limits as the older sister was forced to balance political concerns with her sister’s happiness – and yet, throughout their lives, the two remained close.

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What really went on between the Windsor sisters? That may forever remain between Elizabeth and the late Princess Margaret – but The Crown writer Peter Morgan’s portrayal is a believable interpretation of what might have been said behind closed doors.