Princess Margaret, the Queen’s younger sister, caused a constitutional crisis when she fell in love with the divorced Group Captain Peter Townsend in the early Fifties. The Queen could not consent to their marriage as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and the law at the time did not provide for Margaret, as a royal, to have a civil marriage. The episode has gone down in history as a crisis for both Margaret and the Queen, which saw the Princess having to choose between the love of her life, and her duties to her sister as monarch.
In the end Margaret chose her royal duties – although Group Captain later in life wrote how Margaret chose “her position, her prestige, her privy purse”.
In his 1978 autobiography ‘Time and Chance’, Townsend wrote: “She could have married me only if she had been prepared to give up everything.
“I simply hadn’t the weight, I knew it, to counterbalance all she would have lost.”
However, 50 years after Townsend and Margaret’s ill-fated romance ended, state papers came to light which turned that narrative on its head.
According to the Guardian, Government files held in the National Archives contain details of a secret plan hammered out between the Palace and Downing Street that could have seen Margaret, although taken out of the line of succession, still retain her royal privileges and funding – and the man she loved.
The newspaper’s home affairs editor Alan Travis, writing in 2004, explained: “The offer blows apart the belief at the time and maintained in the obituaries two years ago, that their marriage would have left her frozen out of the Royal Family and dependent on Townsend’s RAF pay.”
The files contain drafts of a letter that the then-Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, would have sent to Commonwealth leaders if Princess Margaret had decided to go ahead with the plan.
The drafts read: “United Kingdom ministers understand that it is Princess Margaret’s wish that, despite her renunciation of her right to the succession, she should continue to live in the UK and to carry out her duties as a member of the Royal Family.
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“The UK Government are, however, advised that neither her proposed marriage nor her renunciation of her rights to the succession need in themselves affect either her style and title as Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret or the provision made for her under the civil list.
“The Civil List Act 1952 provided that she should receive, on her marriage, a further sum of £9,000 a year in addition to the £6,000 a year which she has already.”
The papers also reveal how Mr Eden as PM was mindful of “the popular view that she should be allowed to marry the man she loves”, although the premier also noted “every renunciation of the responsibilities of sovereignty is a blow to the monarchy”.
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The files also makes clear that a decision had been made that the wedding would take place in a register office in London.
The state papers were released in 2004 under the 50-year rule, although many other pieces of correspondence form the period remain withheld by the Palace.
Mr Travis added: “The files show that the Queen was also prepared to reform the 1772 act so that it was restricted to the marriages of her children or grandchildren and those of the heir presumptive.
It would have meant that Margaret could marry without seeking her sister’s formal consent.”
This means that the Queen would have been prepared to discuss, in 1954, changes to the law that did not in fact happen until the 2013 Succession to the Crown Act, which came into force sixty years later in 2015.
Under the 2013 Act, only the first six heirs in line to the throne now have to ask the Queen’s permission to marry.
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