Princess saddened by death of forbidden suitor

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Group Captain Peter Townsend, Battle of Britain veteran and the man Princess Margaret gave up when she was 25, putting duty before love, has died in France at the age of 80.

The Princess, who stunned the nation in 1955 by announcing that she would not marry Group Capt Townsend, so avoiding a rift between the monarchy and the Church of England, fulfilled her duties at Ascot races yesterday, but Buckingham Palace said she had been saddened by the news.

Group Capt Townsend died on Monday night, reportedly after suffering from cancer, at the home outside Paris which he shared with his wife, Marie-Luce, for 37 years.

The Princess's love for the Group Captain captivated Britain and the Commonwealth in the 1950s. She was 23 and he 39 when they fell in love, although they first met when Group Capt Townsend was an equerry to King George VI 10 years earlier. They were unable to marry because of the 1772 Royal Marriages Act, which stated that no descendant of George III under the age of 25 could marry without the consent of the sovereign. Group Capt Townsend had been divorced in 1952 and the Queen was advised that it would be unconstitutional for her to consent. For two years, until she was 25, the nation waited to see whether the Princess would renounce her rights of succession and enter into a civil marriage with the man she loved.

Sir Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister, advised separation as the immediate solution and, after nine years in the Royal Household, Group Capt Townsend was sent to Brussels as an air attache. He did not see the Princess for two years. When her 25th birthday came, a sympathetic nation was shocked by a statement issued from Clarence House by the Princess, but written mostly by a selfless Group Capt Townsend.

It read: "I would like it 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 teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before any others."

In his 1978 autobiography, the Group Captain said: "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."

In 1959, he married Marie-Luce, a 20-year-old Belgian, and went on to have two daughters and a son in addition to the two sons from his first marriage.

Marie-Luce was sent a message of condolence by the Queen yesterday. In 1960, the Princess married the photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones, Lord Snowdon, but was divorced in 1978.

Obituary, page 18