The Crown has covered significant ground across its five-season run, charting activity both within the royal family, from love affairs to in-fighting, and events beyond its tightly marshalled parameters.


One of the central storylines in the earlier seasons of the Netflix drama is the relationship between Princess Margaret (played by Lesley Manville in season 5 ) and Peter Townsend (played by Timothy Dalton), which surfaces once again in the latest chapter.

Margaret's appearance on long-running BBC radio series Desert Island Discs prompts Peter to write the Princess a letter, but the correspondence and subsequent meetings transport Margaret back to the heartbreak she suffered when their relationship collapsed. That leads to a heated exchange with the Queen in which Margaret blames her sister for "denying" her marriage to Peter.

Elizabeth, by contrast, sits silently as the Princess airs her decades-long grievance in the series.

Margaret and Peter dancing at an event
Lesley Manville as Princess Margaret and Timothy Dalton as Peter Townsend in The Crown. Netflix/Keith Bernstein

But what role did the Queen play in their relationship? And what's the true story behind Margaret and Peter's romance? Read on for everything you need to know.

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Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend true story - did they really have an affair?

The first the public knew of the duo's love affair was when a perceptive journalist spotted Princess Margaret 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 that point, the affair had been in full swing for quite some time, although various reports differ on the time frame.

Peter had joined the royals on a three-month tour of South Africa in 1947 when Margaret was 17 and he was 37 – he was married at the time and had two children. In her 2008 book Snowdon: The Biography, which unpacks the life of Margaret's ex-husband Antony Armstrong-Jones, 1st Earl of Snowden, journalist Anne de Courcy wrote that Margaret told a confidante: "We rode together every morning in that wonderful country, with marvellous weather. That's when I really fell in love with him."

In 1952, Margaret's father had died and her sister had become Queen, leaving the princess grief-stricken and lonely. Townsend was appointed Comptroller of her mother's household and the two became very… close.

Princess Margaret (L), Princess Elizabeth and Group Captain Peter Townsend at Ascot, 1951. Getty
Princess Margaret (L), Princess Elizabeth and Group Captain Peter Townsend, Ascot, 1951.

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 news spread, 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. 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.

peter and margaret out for a stroll
Ben Miles as Peter Townsend and Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret in The Crown.

Why did Princess Margaret decide not to marry Peter Townsend?

In a statement released in 1955, 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: "She could have married me only if she had been prepared to give up everything – her position, her prestige, her privy purse.

"I simply hadn't the weight, I knew it, to counterbalance all she would have lost."

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.

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 January 13th 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.

Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones after they announced their engagement. Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones after they announced their engagement.

How accurate is The Crown?

In dramatising the affair, 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.

But what we don't really know is how the scandal affected Margaret and Elizabeth's relationship.

"At the end of the day, you have to make a dramatic choice because we're not making a documentary about the royals," said Manville. "It has to be dramatically interesting. You have to hold your audience, so your story has to have an arc."

She added: "I'm not sure what he [showrunner Peter Morgan] left out, but I imagine that the agenda has to be that you're making a drama, and you have to make that drama interesting, and give it peaks and troughs, and highs and lows, and balance."

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.

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.

You can watch seasons 1-5 of The Crown right now on Netflix. Sign up for Netflix from £6.99 a month. Netflix is also available on Sky Glass and Virgin Media Stream. Looking for something else to watch? Visit our TV Guide or Streaming Guide.


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