Princess Margaret’s romance scandal at Queen’s Coronation

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Princess Margaret was known as the rebellious younger sister of Queen Elizabeth II. Often associated with the ‘doomed’ destiny of royal spares, Margaret’s tumultuous life has been put down to her role — or lack thereof — within the monarchy. The Princess’s glamorous and extravagant lifestyle more than once earned her a spot in the headlines but it was a quick encounter that put her at the centre of the media’s attention and, consequently, brought a family crisis to the Palace doors.

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Queen Elizabeth had been monarch for over a year by the time of her Coronation on June 2, 1953. 

Within that time, gossip about her younger sister’s love life had been circulating, and an intimate moment at the crowning event finally confirmed the long-suspected rumours. 

During the Coronation, Margaret was spotted picking some fluff off the shoulder of divorced equerry Peter Townsend, with whom the Princess was believed to have been conducting a love affair. 

Townsend, a war hero and a royal householder, was 16 years her senior and a divorced father of two, previously married to Rosemary Pawle from 1941 to 1952. 

He had met a teenage Margaret when he became equerry to her father, King George VI, and the pair formed a close friendship which at some point after the King’s death turned romantic. 

Divorced, untitled, and employed within the Royal Household, Townsend was considered an unsuitable match for the Princess, and so the couple conducted their relationship in private, with rumours about their romance kept out of the British press until their encounter at the Coronation. 

At the time of the event, Margaret was 22 and Townsend, then recently divorced, was 38. 

Christopher Warwick, the princess’s official biographer, wrote in his book Princess Margaret: A Life of Contrasts, of Townsend’s own account of the gesture: “It was on leaving the royal retiring room [after the Abbey ceremony] that Princess Margaret, looking ‘superb, sparkling and ravishing,’ found Peter among the throng. ‘As we chatted,’ he wrote, ‘she brushed a bit of fluff off my uniform.’”

The former equerry is quoted as saying: “‘It didn’t mean anything to us at the time. It must have been a bit of fur coat I picked up from some dowager in the Abbey. 

“I never thought a thing about it, and neither did Margaret. We just laughed over it. But that little flick of her hand did it all right. After that, the storm broke.’” 

Once in the public domain, the widespread speculation about the Princess’s clandestine romance posed the threat of a family crisis and forced the Queen to balance her duties as a sister and reigning monarch who also heads the Church of England.

Margaret and Townsend discussed marriage, and the Princess privately accepted a proposal. However, it was not that simple: his divorced status was to become a major obstacle.

As a princess in line to inherit the throne under the age of 25, Margaret had to acquire Queen Elizabeth’s permission to marry. As a sister, the monarch was willing to allow the union, but as head of the Church, she faced challenges. 

The Church did not recognise divorce or remarriage while the spouse of one party was still living. Therefore, to avoid having to contradict the church, the Queen asked her sister to wait until she was 25 to marry. That way, she would not need the monarch’s permission. 

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Townsend was subsequently sent to Belgium to work outside the Royal Household, and despite the long distance, the pair maintained their relationship until 1955. 

When Margaret celebrated her 25th birthday, the public awaited a decision regarding her impending marriage, in spite of the fact that she never officially confirmed the romance. 

Ultimately, the Princess decided not to marry Townsend. A statement, drafted by the pair in Margaret’s name, read: “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.”

It is widely accepted that Margaret decided to end her relationship with Townsend because of religious conflicts. It has also been said that the Princess may have realised that a marriage with the former royal equerry may not have lasted.

In contrast to popular culture’s depictions of the romance, Margaret would not have been required to relinquish her royal titles, roles and incomes to marry Townsend. 

As revealed in 2004, Queen Elizabeth and her Prime Minister drew up a plan that would have permitted Margaret to remain a princess and keep her state funding and duties. She would, however, have had to surrender her place in the line of succession. 

In 1960, Margaret became engaged to fashion photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones. They married later that year and had two children, David (now Lord Snowdon) and Sarah (now Lady Sarah Chatto). 

Margaret and Antony endured a tempestuous marriage, with infidelity on both sides. The Princess became the first British senior royal to obtain a divorce since Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves in 1540. 

Meanwhile, Peter moved to France and married a young Belgian woman who was said to have a strong resemblance to Margaret. 

Townsend and Margaret did not meet again until the early Nineties, which is thought to be the last time they saw each other. 

Princess Margaret died in February 2002 at the age of 71, seven years after Peter died, aged 80.

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