Helena Bonham Carter puts in a magnificent performance as Princess Margaret in The Crown season three, as her marriage with Anthony Armstrong-Jones (Ben Miles) enters its death spiral.
Meanwhile, both are engaged in extra-marital affairs – but it’s Margaret who faces public scrutiny.
Here’s what you need to know about the real-life events behind Netflix’s royal drama:
Was Princess Margaret and Tony’s marriage in trouble?
Tony Armstrong-Jones and Princess Margaret (aka the Earl and Countess of Snowdon) tied the knot in 1960, as we saw in season two of The Crown when they were played by Matthew Goode and Vanessa Kirby; they had two children, David and Sarah, in 1961 and 1964.
While it was never an easy relationship, things really began to go wrong from 1965 onwards when they returned from their trip to America – as dramatised in season three by The Crown’s new stars, Ben Daniels and Helena Bonham Carter.
Lord Snowdon addressed rumours of a rift when he told reporters in 1967: “Nothing has happened to our marriage. When I am away – and I’m away quite a lot on assignments for my paper – I write home and I telephone like other husbands in love with their wives. I telephoned today.”
But speaking to her biographer Christopher Warwick, Princess Margaret responded: “He never rang or wrote when he was abroad, which made it awkward when friends asked for news of him.”
The two were engaged in a battle of wills about where to renovate or build a house that would be “theirs” – on top of their residence at Kensington Palace. Tony apparently ignored their agreement, and went ahead with his plans for a Sussex cottage; in turn, she build a house on a plot of land given to them as a wedding present on the West Indian island of Mustique. Neither wanted anything to do with the other’s pet project – but perhaps this was just a symptom of their failing relationship.
Tony was reportedly a serial adulterer, and in 1972 he began an affair with his production assistant Lucy Lindsay-Hogg, who would become his second wife. During this time he accused Margaret of her own affairs (including with Robin Douglas-Home, who she insists was just a platonic friend).
According to Warwick’s book ‘Princess Margaret’, “Princess Margaret had never wanted, much less envisaged, the type of ‘open’ marriage she was now a party to. On the other hand, as a 35-year-old woman, possessing both looks and intelligence, and having a great liking for people, she could hardly be expected to abandon herself to a life of emptiness.”
So in 1973 she took up with a young man called Roddy Llewellyn.
Did Princess Margaret have an affair with young Roddy Llewellyn?
On 3rd September 1973, 43-year-old Princess Margaret met 25-year-old Roddy Llewellyn at the Café Royal in Edinburgh. They were introduced by Margaret’s lady-in-waiting Anne Tennant, who had invited them both to a house party she was hosting with husband Colin Tennant.
Born in 1947 as the younger son of Olympic show jumping gold medallist Sir Harry Llewellyn and his wife Christine Saumarez, Roddy (played by Harry Treadaway) went on to become a landscape gardener, gardening journalist and author; he was also an aspiring pop star and sometime TV presenter. But in his 20s he was still finding his way.
The Warwick biography is circumspect about their relationship, saying that Margaret and Roddy had a “loving friendship” and describing him as “the young man who was to help revive in her some of the joie de vivre which events of recent years had dulled.”
However, it is widely reported that they had an eight-year love affair lasting from 1973 to 1981. It would change both of their lives.
In 2002, Roddy reflected on his relationship with Margaret, saying: “I didn’t think about the consequences of such a high-profile affair. If we all had crystal balls, we’d all know which horse to back, wouldn’t we? I was just following my heart.”
Both he and Margaret were “fond of charades and sing-songs”, and – as we see in season three – she sang Sophie Tucker’s old music hall number Red Hot Mamma while he accompanied her on the piano.
The real-life Roddy also met the actors who’d be telling his story in The Crown, as Bonham Carter told the Sunday Times: “He came to tea with me and Harry, who plays Roddy. He was so fun and warm — that’s what she needed. He’s very musical. He started singing a song in my kitchen…
“He said they found each other just at the right time. They were both very lost, both felt somewhat outsiders, just not quite accepted by the family—or not quite good enough. Her confidence was really undermined by the breakdown of her marriage. He also gave her fun at a time when she hadn’t been having much.”
Were Roddy and Margaret photographed on the beach in Mustique?
Princess Margaret began taking Roddy to Mustique, the island in The Grenadines owned by her pal Colin Tennant. She called her new house Les Jolies Eaux, and it was Roddy who laid out and helped maintain the garden during their relaxing getaways.
It was a private and secluded spot – but in 1976, everything changed when the News of the World published long-range pap shots of Margaret and Roddy relaxing together on the beach.
There was nothing particularly saucy about the images, but they did show Roddy in his little Union Jack swimming shorts and Princess Margaret relaxing in a swim-suit; the papers also published a shot of Margaret visiting Roddy at his Surrendell Farm commune. A scandalised media portrayed the Princess as a predatory older woman cheating on her poor husband Tony.
As Warwick remarks, “It was perhaps inevitable that Princess Margaret’s friendship with Roddy Llewellyn should hit the headlines at some stage, but it is ironic that when it did Lord Snowdon was regarded as the injured husband with no hint of his own relationship with Mrs Lindsay-Hogg being ‘leaked’ to the press.”
In a statement, Roddy said: “I am not prepared to comment on the events of last week. I very much regret any embarrassment caused to Her Majesty the Queen and the royal family, for whom I wish to express the greatest respect, admiration and loyalty. Could we please be permitted by the media who have besieged us to carry on with our work and private lives without interference.”
How did Margaret and Tony’s marriage end?
Based on interviews with Margaret herself, Warwick writes: “For Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon the early 1970s were years of rapid marital decline. If he was at home during the day, Snowdon locked himself in his study, only to venture out at night. Most often he would not return until morning. And if, for example, the Princess and Tony should happen to pass in the hall of their house at Kensington Palace, a grunt was the response the Princess came to expect to anything she said.
“For the most part she encountered nothing but a heavy silence ‘like a brick wall,’ or occasionally would discover antagonistic notes left on her writing table. There had been times, too, when Snowdon delighted in belittling the Princess in front of guests or in hurling her royal rank back at her without reason.”
But the couple were still trying to keep up their marital issues a secret from the public. According to Warwick, “the Princess and Lord Snowdon were obliged to maintain appearances, even though the inevitable recriminations made this increasingly difficult. To all intents and purposes the couple had started to lead separate lives, but until this was formally recognised, and all pretence could cease, Lord Snowdon had to accompany his wife on some of her official engagements as part of the façade.”
However, things were quickly becoming untenable. In 1973, on a disastrous family holiday to Italy, Tony apparently blanked his wife entirely and then packed his bags and went home, leaving her with the kids. They agreed to separate and, after the Roddy/Mustique story broke, Tony finally moved out of the Palace as requested.
In 1976, the two officially announced their separation – the news conveniently overshadowed by Harold Wilson’s resignation. They divorced in 1978 after 18 years of marriage.
At the time, divorce was an extremely big deal; in the years since, it has become less of a scandal for the royal family, and three of the Queen’s four kids have since ended their marriages.
Margaret and Roddy’s relationship petered out in 1980 or ’81, and he went on to marry Tatiana Soskin and have three daughters of his own. Margaret never remarried, while Tony immediately married Lucy Lindsay-Hogg; they divorced in 2000.
How did the Queen react to the affair and the divorce?
“What may be taken as read is that no member of the immediate Royal Family was enamoured of Princess Margaret’s new friendship,” Warwick writes. “Even so, their concern for her was no less great and, contrary to press reports soon to appear, no ultimatum along the lines of ‘give Roddy up or stand aside’ was ever issued to her.”
The Queen had apparently tried to keep the peace during Margaret and Tony’s marriage, and watched the situation anxiously. Anne Tennant (aka Lady Anne Glenconner) also claims that Queen Elizabeth confided in her at Margaret’s funeral: “I’d just like to say, Anne, it was rather difficult at moments, but I thank you so much for introducing Princess Margaret to Roddy because he made her really happy.”
But it seems Margaret was not wildly impressed with her own mother’s reaction. She’d been disappointed at her mum’s reaction to her engagement with Peter Townsend, and now, as official biographer Christopher Warwick writes, “A decade later, affection for Lord Snowdon meant that her eyes were not fully open to the sad truth of Princess Margaret’s marriage and that she was unlikely to adopt anything but a stance in favour of keeping the marriage together.”
Real-life history behind The Crown season 3
If you’re curious about the stories and events that inspired Netflix’s The Crown, we’ve got all the big questions covered with these in-depth features…
Did Princess Margaret overdose – or try to kill herself?
In The Crown season three, Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) is devastated to hear that her little sister Princess Margaret has overdosed on pills. Did she do it deliberately? Even Margaret herself isn’t quite sure.
Though the scene is set in 1976 after the Mustique incident and just before the Palace officially announced Tony and Margaret’s separation, this actually seems to refer to an incident in 1974 when Roddy was taking a breather away from Margaret in Turkey.
Here’s Warwick’s account: “During his absence in that autumn of 1974, Princess Margaret suffered a nervous breakdown ‘brought about by Tony’s silences and insensitivity’. It was this collapse, though dramatically exaggerated by one of her friends in particular, that gave rise to a story that Princess Margaret had attempted to commit suicide by swallowing a small number of mogadon tablets.
“The Princess dismissed the idea as completely ridiculous: ‘I was so exhausted because of everything that all I wanted to do was sleep… and I did, right through to the following afternoon.'”
The Crown season 3 is available on Netflix now