The mental and physical health of Princess Margaret: fact-checking The Crown season 4

Princess Margaret, played by Helena Bonham Carter, has a real health scare that sees history threaten to repeat itself.

Helena Bonham Carter plays Princess Margaret in The Crown

Princess Margaret, played by Helena Bonham Carter, has a less high-profile role in season four of The Crown – but she still gets her moments in the spotlight.

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One of those moments comes in 1985, when she has a major health scare; another comes when she is forced to confront her own melancholy and mental ill-health.

Here’s the full story behind those storylines in The Crown.

What was wrong with Margaret’s lungs?

As her friend Anne Glenconner, formerly Anne Tennant, puts it in her autobiography: “Princess Margaret had been on a steady decline since 1985 when she had had part of a lung removed.” (Anne is played by Nancy Carroll in The Crown, and appears in plenty of the Mustique scenes.)

On 6th January 1985, she underwent surgery for the removal of part of her left lung. “It looked as if history was about to repeat itself,” writes her authorised biographer Christopher Warwick. “It was certainly true that the spectre of her father’s final illness, and his operation at much the same age for the removal of a cancerous left lung, was uppermost in many people’s minds.” (King George VI, played by Jared Harris in The Crown, had the diseased lung removed in 1951 but died the following year.)

We don’t know if Margaret went to the doctors after coughing into a handkerchief, looking down and seeing it was spotted with blood (that old film trope). But we do know that, at the Royal Brompton Hospital in Chelsea, the surgeons made an incision from her shoulder to her waist and took out a section of lung.

However, to everyone’s relief, the section of lung they removed was declared completely “innocent”.

Princess Margaret in The Crown

What other health problems did Margaret have?

To start with, not many. In 1978 she became very ill with hepatitis and then when viral pneumonia, but Christopher Warwick insists: “Though it was true that she was less robust than either her mother or sister, she had never been as susceptible to illness as some, particularly in the press, seemed to insist.”

On February 7th 1980, after she’d been admitted to hospital to have a skin lesion removed, Princess Margaret wrote humorously in a private letter to a fellow Margaret – the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: “I write belatedly to thank you for your kind letter. I just had to have some things dug out of my face but luckily everything went well and we’re not worrying.” She followed this up with thoughts and questions on the political events of the day.

But Margaret’s lung health was more of a concern.

The Princess was an utterly relentless smoker. Derek Jacobi once recalled: “She smoked continuously, not even putting out her cigarette when the soup arrived, but instead leaning it up against the ashtray.” Reports of her non-stop smoking are everywhere; she smoked around 60 cigarettes a day.

For the next few years, Margaret continued to live large. Anne Glenconner writes of staying with her at Kensington Palace for most of 1990, and their lunches at the Ritz and shopping trips and long late-night drinking sessions. Then there were evenings of singalongs while Margaret played the piano, and charades, and jigsaw puzzles, and dancing.

Princess Margaret in 1993 Getty
Princess Margaret in 1993 (Getty)

Then in early 1993 she was admitted to hospital for five days, suffering from pneumonia. Warwick writes: “It was enough to make her find the will and the determination to give up smoking once and for all.”

In 1994, Princess Margaret she had a stroke at a friend’s house in Mustique, though she may have been experiencing small strokes in the months before. Over the next few years she had several small strokes, and in 2002 she died in hospital after suffering a final stroke.

Did Margaret go to therapy for mental health problems?

Margaret did go to counselling during her marriage to Tony Armstrong Jones (played by Ben Daniels in season three). The Christopher Warwick book notes: “They did most certainly seek the help of a noted Harley Street psychologist, in an attempt to sort things out between them.” It was, unfortunately, not a success.

Craig Brown’s book Ma’am Darling also mentions a solo trip, one-off trip to see a consultant psychiatrist attached to Westminster Hospital (Dr Peter Dally) after Tony persuaded her to seek psychiatric help in 1966.

It’s rather more difficult to find any information about Margaret seeing a counsellor post-divorce, as dramatised in The Crown – but who knows, perhaps she made a private visit?

Princess Margaret in The Crown 3

Did Margaret carry on going to Mustique?

During her marriage, visiting her house in Mustique offered Margaret “a break from her husband”, as Anne Glenconner puts it.

And after her 1978 divorce, Margaret continued to see Roddy (so, for the first two years of The Crown season four). They were frequent visitors to the island of Mustique, but in early 1981 Roddy told Margaret that he was planning to marry another woman. And that was the end of that.

Margaret carried on going to Mustique, but she later passed on the house to her son David who rented it out in the high season as a holiday let – so she was restricted to going to visit her old bolthole only when it was free from holidaymakers.

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