Princess Margaret

Monday 11 February 2002 01:00

Princess Margaret assumed a particularly royal aura in later life: she was diminutive in stature, a little austere, often unsmiling. She evinced sharp intelligence and the power of her personality expressed itself forcefully. But for an earlier generation she projected a different image – that of the angelic Princess Margaret Rose, a beauty, a gilded representative of post-war youth, whose life appeared vested with dreams of future happiness.

Born in 1930, the younger daughter of a sovereign's younger son, she spent the first six years of her life in the quiet domesticity of the family home in London, 145 Piccadilly, at a time when her father, the Duke of York, had no conspicuous role to play. Following the Abdication of her uncle King Edward VIII, the Duke of York was crowned as King George VI and she became the younger sister of the Heiress Presumptive, but this did not in itself give Princess Margaret a conspicuous role to play either.

Margaret Rose Windsor, Princess of Great Britain and Northern Ireland: born Glamis, Angus 21 August 1930; CI 1947; GCVO 1953; Royal Victorian Chain 1990; married 1960 Antony Armstrong-Jones (created 1961 first Earl of Snowdon, 1999 Baron Armstrong-Jones; one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1978); died London 9 February 2002.

The absence of a role was her tragedy. Whereas her father's life was fulfilled when he was called, reluctantly, to serve as King, the Princess never received such a call. As a teenager and a young girl in her twenties, there was a chance that Margaret might have made a grand alliance, either abroad or into one of the great aristocratic British families. This did not happen, and there was no possibility of her carving out a career on her own. She was tied into the role of being a supporting member of the royal cast, with the mixture of privilege and restriction that this demanded, the occasional tedium relieved by the opportunity for glamorous travel or to take a small part in national affairs.

Until her father's death in 1952, when she was 21, Princess Margaret was part of a close-knit family. Then she became the companion of her mother, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, at Clarence House – before the drama of Group Captain Peter Townsend and her marriage to the photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones. No princess today would be required to make the same sacrifices to an ideal of monarchy, and in many ways it was extraordinary that Princess Margaret should have had to do so in those years after the Second World War.

On the one hand the Princess's natural talents were eclipsed by her royal status, on the other her intelligence made the fulfilment of her royal duties at times irksome to her, and the position of younger sister to a dutiful and successful sovereign denied her the chance to make a significant contribution to the House of Windsor. Unlike some members of the Royal Family she never found a particular cause to adopt, though she was associated with the arts, especially the ballet, and the Girl Guides, and had her share of regiments and other patronages.

Furthermore, her royal status prevented her in the 1950s from marrying the entirely suitable man of her choice, a royal equerry, for the sole reason that he had passed through the divorce courts. Forty years on, in 1992, a divorced princess – Margaret's niece, Anne, the Princess Royal – was permitted to marry an (unmarried) equerry: Commander Timothy Laurence. Something which would now be accepted quite naturally was in that decade impossible. After the very public Townsend affair, when the choice between love and duty was rehearsed in the full glare of the press, Princess Margaret's life bore elements of compromise.

In her twenties she was a radiant beauty – as the photographs of Tony Armstrong-Jones and Cecil Beaton confirm: slim-waisted, bright-eyed and with the lovely skin of the Windsor ladies. Even in her thirties (I recall seeing her enter the hairdresser René's in 1966 and it was true even before the maestro's ministrations), she was ravishing. In later life, with her wide mouth and pronounced lipstick, her high-piled auburn hair, the eyes still bright albeit the lines were gathering, she combined Hollywood star glamour with the stern looks of her 19th-century ancestors.

The tone of Princess Margaret's voice could be described as affected, if not as old-fashionedly aristocratic as her mother's nor as executive as the Queen's. Her delivery was studied, measured and dry, and would have suited drawing-room comedy. Added to this was her penchant for smoking; one of her accoutrements, until she gave up the habit in the mid-1990s, was a long cigarette holder. This slightly forbidding exterior concealed a kind heart. She was warm and supportive, wise if wayward, a devoted daughter, sister and mother, and – disappointingly for those who enjoy a royal feud – one who remained on friendly terms with her mercurial ex-husband, the Earl of Snowdon.

Princess Margaret was a considerable personality. She enlivened and occasionally exhausted the many gatherings of friends over which she presided. At parties she loved to stay up late, singing or playing the piano in a way fashionable in the 1950s and earlier. She had an interesting circle of friends. She moved in that society which relished feuds and firm loyalties – her friends were, in principle, friends for life, but she was a naughty enemy.

Of all modern princesses she was the one most closely in touch with movements in contemporary art and ballet. She befriended Kenneth Tynan and understood modern theatre. She was painted by Bryan Organ and Pietro Annigoni, photographed by David Bailey and sculpted by Sir Jacob Epstein. She was a good actress and a superb mimic. She was unconventional by nature, analytical, sharp and outspoken, qualities which ill suited her position as a member of the Royal Family and made her consistently unpopular with the press.

The key to her character was a spirit of generosity to which even she might not have admitted. Here can be found a contradiction. Princess Margaret had a flair for causing minor irritations in the cause of getting her own way on the small matters of life. Yet, on the larger issues of life she willingly gave way – the question of her possible marriage to Townsend or the divorce from Snowdon. On these occasions she acted from a sense of what was right (in the first instance) and what suited the other party, not her (in the second). It could be said that she won her skirmishes, but conceded the final battles.

Princess Margaret was born on 21 August 1930, in Glamis Castle, the romantic Scottish home of her maternal grandparents' family, the Strathmores, the Home Secretary remaining in attendance for 16 days prior to the birth. She was educated at home with governesses, her early years occasionally enlivened by encounters with the great men of the day. The playwright Sir James Barrie was impressed when he attended her fifth birthday party and admired a present in the place of honour. "Is that really your very own?" he asked, and she placed it between them and declared: "It is yours and mine." Her childhood was led in comfortable domesticity, with her shy, loving father and warm-hearted mother, and her already rather more serious sister, four years her elder, Princess Elizabeth. Their lives were not so unlike those of other high-born families, until the Abdication in 1936 propelled her father on to the throne. The Duke of York became King George VI with less than a month's notice, and wholly without preparation.

Even as a child Princess Margaret was considered difficult. "Méfiez-vous," warned Sir Frederick Ponsonby, Treasurer to her grandfather King George V, when the child approached: trouble inevitably followed. Others saw her in a more positive role, noting that even at a young age there was always laughter at her end of the table. Queen Mary told her Lady-in-Waiting that her granddaughter was "so outrageously amusing that one can't help encouraging her".

The early years of the new reign were spent at Buckingham Palace and Royal Lodge, Windsor, but during the Second World War the Princesses spent most of their time at Windsor Castle, which was considered safer. They never had much of an education even by the standards of those days, and certainly there was no thought that either of them should attend a university. "I was brought up by the Grenadier Guards," Princess Margaret joked in later life. Their education even compared badly with their counterparts in Europe. As the writer Randolph Churchill put it: "Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother [had] rather old-fashioned views on how girls should be brought up. She did not believe in stuffing them full of book learning. She never aimed at more than bringing her daughters up to be nicely behaved young ladies. She had no intellectual ambitions for them." Nor was Margaret taught to play tennis, though a natural aptitude for the piano was encouraged.

After the war, Princess Margaret emerged into public life, adopting her mother's dedicated approach to her duties as her example. Again, though, no attempt was made to identify her with any particular charity or cause, as is the way with the generation that followed. The Royal Family went to South Africa in 1947, their last happy time together, for soon afterwards Princess Elizabeth married and then the King fell victim to the illness which killed him, aged 56, in February 1952. In the later years of her father's reign, Princess Margaret became well known in Europe, travelling to Holland, Italy and France on public engagements, and at home she was a prominent society figure, and centre of the so-called "Margaret Set", while undertaking a share of royal duties.

She was fortunate to become a friend of Sharman Douglas, the daughter of the United States Ambassador to Britain, which proved a good introduction to the best aspects of American life. Sharman took her to the theatre to see Danny Kaye, and so sowed the seeds of her subsequent enthusiasm for the theatre. Elsa Maxwell, the columnist and party-giver, and always an astute observer, praised Princess Margaret's direction and production of the Ian Hay/Edgar Wallace thriller The Frog (a charity production with Colin Tennant, Raine Legge and other charity performers, staged at a London theatre in aid of needy children) in the summer of 1954. Maxwell also left this description of her, written the following year:

Clever, sensitive and quick to know her own mind, she is a girl determined not to lead a dull, uneventful routine life which so easily could be the lot of the few remaining royal princesses, though at the same time she is fully conscious of her duties and obligations to a monarchy which, in my opinion, today carries the respect of the whole free world. I do not think she would ever contemplate a loveless marriage, or one founded on expediency or the out-moded necessity of alliance with a husband of equal rank. She will never marry under those circumstances and in fact I do not believe she will marry for some time.

During the early 1950s, Princess Margaret was in love with Peter Townsend. Her love for the gallant and sensitive Group Captain had all the makings of a romantic film such as Brief Encounter. He was ideally suited in every way but one. Son of an Indian Army colonel, he had attended Haileybury and RAF College, Cranwell. He served with distinction in the Royal Air Force, was mentioned in despatches, won the DFC and bar, and the DSO. He was the favourite equerry of Princess Margaret's father, described by some as the son he would have liked to have. But the Group Captain had a wife already, and there was no question of Princess Margaret's marrying a man who had passed through the divorce courts. Their love, however, was tested by time and burnished by opposition. It lasted many years.

It was surprising how public this love affair was, given that the crisis did not revolve around declarations of intent by either party. The question of divorce was still so complicated, its mechanics were laborious and its effects dramatic; in those days guilty parties in divorce proceedings were not even admitted to the Royal Enclosure at Ascot. Whereas the Abdication crisis, with which the affair was so widely compared in the press, was only aired in public when matters reached an impasse, the Margaret-Townsend affair was freely vaunted in the newspapers after a gesture at the Queen's Coronation in 1953, when the Princess picked a piece of fluff a little too solicitously from the Group Captain's shoulder. It became a national issue, Princess Margaret receiving stern advice from Anthony Eden, the Prime Minister, who, ironically, had been through the divorce courts himself.

Eventually, in 1955, Princess Margaret renounced Townsend, issuing her famous statement: "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 others." The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Geoffrey Fisher, was one of those delighted: "What a wonderful person the Holy Spirit is," he told her. Many years later Princess Margaret still blamed the hostility of the Queen's dour private secretary, Sir Alan Lascelles, for the outcome of this episode in her life. "Run him down," she would joke to her chauffeur, spotting Lascelles at Kensington Palace on his way to post a letter.

The Townsend business had important ramifications on the question of marriage and divorce within the royal circle, involving, as it did, the sister of the head of the Church of England. Interestingly, but a decade earlier, the King had deemed it unsuitable to have a divorced government minister, and preferred not to receive divorced ambassadors to the Court of St James. But public standards were changing, and attitudes to these standards needed to change too. Princess Margaret's plight focused the national attention.

Some lonely and lost years followed for the Princess. In 1956 she contemplated the compromise solution of marrying a great friend, Billy Wallace, a well-known charmer in London society and the son of the cabinet minister Euan Wallace. He fluffed this by going to the Bahamas for a holiday after an illness, where he proceeded to enjoy a fleeting holiday romance. When, furthermore, he recounted the details to Princess Margaret, she wisely dropped him. Then, in 1958, she met a man to whom the Royal Family could make no objection, however inclined they might initially have been to do so.

It was Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, sister of the Duke of Devonshire and an Extra Lady-in-Waiting to Princess Margaret, who introduced her to Tony Armstrong-Jones, by no means intending that they should marry, but in the hope that he might amuse her. Although Armstrong-Jones represented a Bohemian way of life, he was far from ill connected. His father was a Welsh solicitor of some establishment, his mother the Countess of Rosse was well known in society, his uncle Oliver Messel was the greatest ballet designer of his generation, and his godfather was that humorous lover of royalty and their foibles, Sir Michael Duff. Lady Elizabeth was the first to be horrified when romance followed, and Princess Margaret became a visitor to Armstrong-Jones's alternative dwelling in Bermondsey, south-east London, a ground-floor room so close to the Thames that at high tide swans looked through the window.

The pair became engaged in February 1960 to the astonishment of many, and to the undisguised fury of Armstrong-Jones's fellow photographer Cecil Beaton. They were married in Westminster Abbey in May. Princess Margaret was given away by her brother-in-law, the Duke of Edinburgh. The Armstrong-Joneses departed on honeymoon by boat on the Thames.

The Queen and Queen Mother became fond of Tony Armstrong-Jones, and remained so, though other members of the Royal Family were more traditional in their response to him. Noël Coward experienced some froideur when he mentioned the subject to Princess Marina. And Harold Macmillan liked to relate his arrival at Balmoral the previous summer to be greeted by Princess Margaret's uncle the Duke of Gloucester: "Thank God you've come . . . There's a fellow called Jones in the library who wants to marry my niece."

The marriage brought stimulation and happiness to both, but this did not last. The differences between them were eventually too great. Princess Margaret enjoyed the informality of the Sixties and sometimes gave the impression that she was more relaxed than was the case. But she was capricious. Close friends learned to be wary of her ways. At the moment that everyone was relaxing, she would surreptitiously resume her royal rank and reduce some helpless guest to dust. She was never wholly accepted in the unorthodox world of talented people that her husband inhabited. Lord Snowdon, as he became shortly before the birth in 1961 of his son, David (Viscount Linley), for his part grew increasingly reluctant to go along with the royal side of life and, as he became disenchanted with that and with his wife, he could be tetchy, was late or too informally dressed, and sometimes embarrassed his wife in public. From these stories she invariably emerges as the more sympathetic of the two.

It is a pity that this off-beat marriage, which held such popular appeal, could not have weathered its differences. The press relished incidents in which the Snowdons donned leather jackets and raced motor-bikes along the North Circular Road. The paparazzi took shots of water-skiing attempts by the couple at Virginia Water, and snaps of them informally on holiday in glamorous resorts such as Sardinia, which put them for a time into a different generation from the Queen and Prince Philip. In some ways they were almost Hollywood figures, and they certainly cut a dash on a trip to the US in 1965. Bob Hope joked: "Everyone is conscious of the royal couple's visit. I waved at a traffic cop and he curtsied back."

Nor did Snowdon sacrifice his career. He worked for the Design Council and the Sunday Times, and continued to take photographs and make films, while occasionally accompanying Princess Margaret on official duties and trips overseas. In August 1962, he stood at her side when she read the speech at the opening of the first Jamaican parliament since Independence. But he did not like playing second fiddle. As the marriage deteriorated, the Princess judged him no longer the man she had married, and sometimes he appeared as if a stranger.

Her particular generosity came to the fore when the marriage floundered. For years there were rumours of a rift and finally, in 1976, after prurient articles in certain newspapers, the couple announced their separation. Two years later they divorced. Lord Snowdon remarried and had another daughter. Princess Margaret, who had previously renounced the man she loved because Christian marriage was "indissoluble", allowed her husband to seek and find happiness elsewhere. She was and remained a reluctant divorcee, and never contemplated remarriage.

Princess Margaret remained alone, entertained by a host of friends, and spending a lot of time with the Queen and Queen Mother. Her wide circle included such diverse figures as the late John Wells, Dame Elizabeth Taylor, Colin Thubron, the late Frank Sinatra, Sir David Frost, the late Peter Sellers, Ned Ryan, Angela Huth, Sir Jocelyn Stevens and his former wife Jane, Sir Mark Weinberg and his wife, Anoushka Hempel, and the late Dame Margot Fonteyn. She was commendably disdainful of popular opinion in befriending the then youthful gardening expert Roddy Llewellyn, a relationship harassed to distraction by the tabloids.

In London Princess Margaret lived at 1a Kensington Palace, her four-storey apartment since 1962, decorated in the 18th-century style, but with an emphasis on comfort. Her Annigoni portrait hung in the entrance hall and there were works of art by John Piper, Bryan Organ, Oliver Messel and Edward Seago.

Her favourite indulgence was her bi- annual excursion to her villa on Mustique, Les Jolies Eaux, in the West Indies. Significantly she elected, without question, not to go to the island during the 1991 Gulf War. In this respect she was ill rewarded, for writers such as A.N. Wilson were quick to point out that nobody cared much if she was around or not. It was a source of sadness to her when the Mustique villa was sold in 2000.

In later years, times of controversy returned Princess Margaret to the headlines. Overheard or misheard on a tour of the US in 1979, she was reported as having described the Irish who killed her cousin Earl Mountbatten of Burma as "pigs". The storm raged for days. There must have been many occasions in her life when she questioned the point of being a royal princess.

Princess Margaret remained a zealous supporter of the various charities and organisations with which she was involved. She was Grand President of St John's Ambulance Brigade, President of the Girl Guides, President of the Sunshine Homes and Dr Barnardo's for over 40 years, and of the Dockland Settlement. Her regiments, the Light Dragoons, the Royal Highland Fusiliers, Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps and others held her in high esteem. She was Chancellor of Keele University and it would be possible to name 40 other organisations with which she was closely involved.

In 1985 Princess Margaret suffered a serious cancer operation which left her with a scar on her left shoulder said to be 18 inches long. She continued to smoke for some years. She never drank wine, preferring to nurse a whisky in the evening. Latterly she drank only Robinson's Lemon Barley Water at lunchtime. There was a period in the aftermath of her marriage when she looked overweight and over-wrought. But in recent times she had re-acquired a glamorous serenity and at her best she was a star.

There were many reasons to suppose that the turmoil of her family life, her separation and divorce, might have taken its toll on her son David and her daughter, Sarah, born in 1964. Instead, they turned out remarkably well. David Linley became a successful carpenter whose work adorns the new private chapel at Windsor Castle and the Palace of Westminster, and is sold world-wide. Sarah became a talented artist. Both married happily, Linley to Serena Stanhope, a mellow beauty and the daughter of the immensely rich Viscount Petersham, and Sarah to Daniel Chatto, an actor, who shared her preference for life out of the limelight. Sarah gave birth to her first son, Samuel, in 1996 and then to a second, Arthur, in 1999; Serena Linley had a boy, Charles, five months later. The Princess's family remained a close-knit unit.

By the time Princess Margaret was in her late sixties, it was impossible to believe that she was of the same age at which her aunt Mary, the Princess Royal, had died, looking older than her years, or her uncle Henry, the Duke of Gloucester, suffered a series of bad strokes. She looked years younger, was alert, sharp in conversation, ready for new experiences, and at a contented plateau of her life. It was therefore particularly cruel that she was laid low by what was described as "a minor stroke" in February 1998, but which soon proved to be more serious in its implications than was first announced. Her recovery was slow and the legacy of the stroke a daily burden. She became forgetful and found every encounter and engagement an effort. She was well enough to visit Mustique in the spring of 1999 but her health was further undermined when she scalded her feet badly in the bath.

From this later setback, she made only a partial recovery. She attended Prince Edward's wedding in June 1999 in a wheelchair, and was back on her feet in time for the Queen Mother's 99th birthday that August. She carried out a round of engagements in the following year, and appeared in sparkling form at the Queen Mother's 100th birthday celebrations in August 2000.

But, in March 2001, she suffered a further stroke which confined her to a wheelchair. Her last public appearance was at the 100th birthday parade for Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, at Kensington Palace in December. She flew to Sandringham with her mother for Christmas, returning by car in the New Year. After this slow, distressing illness, her death, when it came, was peaceful.

Her departure from the royal stage is a particularly sad loss for her mother, and for the Queen, to whom she was a close confidante. This unity was well captured publicly in a photograph of the three royal ladies on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on VE Day in May 1995. The survivors of "Us Four", as George VI once described them, had maintained their solidarity throughout the vicissitudes of the second half of the 20th century.

Hugo Vickers

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