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02 December 2009

Margaret & Peter: The Princess and the Equerry


Royal history -- and the Romance genre -- are filled with star-crossed love affairs between a pair of social unequals. The Romance formula tends to follow the Duke and the Babysitter trope where the man is the lofty brahmin while his lady love is the Cinderella figure, daring to love above her station. However, romance novels inevitably deliver the happily-ever-after, although the road to the altar may be a rocky one.




Sans happy ending, the story of the real-life romance between Princess Margaret and Group Captain Peter Townsend rocked the headlines of the mid 1950s.




Younger sister to Britain’s current Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Margaret Rose was born in 1930 to the Duke and Duchess of York. The girls’ father would ascend the throne as George VI on the December 10, 1936 abdication of his older brother Edward VIII—to marry his lover, the twice divorced American Wallis Simpson.




But within twenty years another star-crossed Windsor romance would make headlines.


Group Captain Peter Townsend, slender and sensitive, was a decorated RAF pilot for his bravery at the Battle of Britain. In 1944 at the age of twenty-nine he was made a temporary equerry in the service of George VI. Townsend had a wartime wedding in 1941 to a girl he barely knew, Rosemary Pawle. His royal appointment came with a grace-and-favor cottage at Windsor and he and Rosemary moved in with their two young sons.




But Townsend’s job required him to travel with the king, leaving Rosemary stuck at Windsor with their children—and Townsend with plenty of time to become acquainted with the princesses. His first impression of the fourteen-year-old Margaret was that she was “unremarkable,” though he did notice that the color of her dark blue eyes were “like those of a tropical sea.” He gets points for poetry but none for syntax. Townsend was also impressed with the way the adolescent princess would make “some shattering wisecrack,” after which, “to her unconcealed delight, all eyes were upon her.” During family gatherings, although Margaret was not the most important person in the room, she was well aware at how to become the center of attention.




As a young girl Margaret had the reputation for being the “palace brat,” in the words of a courtier. But after Elizabeth wed their cousin Prince Philip of Greece on November 20, 1947, for the next several years, she would be regarded as one of the world’s most glamorous and eligible bachelorettes. The American Press dubbed her “Britain’s No. One item for public scrutiny,” opining that “People are more interested in her than in the House of Commons or the dollar crisis.”

Physically, she was the perfect package, a pocket Venus dressed in Christian Dior’s radical and exceptionally feminine “New Look,” accessorized with peep-toe platform heels. And when she wore Dior, ten million Englishwomen followed suit. At a whisper over five feet tall, Princess Margaret (she dropped the “Rose” in 1947) was “perfectly made” with a waspish twenty-three-inch waist and thirty-four-inch bustline. Young adulthood had mellowed the golden hair of her childhood to a rich shade of brown. Her mouth was a sensuous red pout; her eyes, as Group Captain Peter Townsend so rhapsodically observed, were deep pools of dark blue, and her kilowatt smile and vivacity made her the life of every party. Where the other females in her family were dowdy, Margaret was the epitome of chic.


She was now mature enough to make official visits on her own. In February 1948, she toured Amsterdam, accompanied by equerry Peter Townsend. Tongues wagged as she danced every number with him at the ball hosted by the International Culture Center in her honor. Townsend would later write in his memoirs, “Without realizing it, I was being carried a little further from home, a little nearer the Princess.”

The princess was gaining a reputation as a party girl. Her coterie of friends, known as the “Margaret set,” consisted of the age’s society belles and young lordlings. Naturally, there was rampant speculation as to which of these “chinless wonders” she would marry. Shocking polite society at the age of nineteen, Margaret was caught smoking in a West End restaurant, affecting the louche, 1920s style of using a long ivory cigarette holder. Not only did her behavior cause a national commotion, but, predictably, it sparked a trend. Margaret’s cigarette habit, which she flaunted in a photograph taken at Balmoral when she was fifteen, would catch up with her in time, snuffing out her life when she was in her early seventies, although she came from a family of long-lived women.

But heart and lung problems would arrive decades in the future, and might just as well have been light years away for a teenage princess who was hell-bent on being the center of attention wherever she went. And she was fully aware of her allure. She once dared a dance partner to “look into my eyes. Do you realize that you are looking into the most beautiful eyes in the world?” With a bit of self-mockery Margaret admitted that she was parroting a newspaper quote about her, but in many ways she believed her own press.

Yet Group Captain Peter Townsend saw his own version of the princess, asserting, “Behind the dazzling façade, the apparent self-assurance, you would find, if you looked for it, a rare softness and sincerity. She could make you bend double with laughing; she could also touch you deeply.” If those sound like the sentiments of a man in love, they were. The very married equerry had fallen hard for the boss’s daughter, describing her as “a girl of unusual, intense beauty, confined as it was in her short, slender figure and centered about large purple-blue eyes, generous, sensitive lips and a complexion as smooth as a peach. She was capable, in her face and her whole being, of an astonishing power of expression. It could change in an instant from saintly, almost melancholic, composure to hilarious, uncontrollable joy. She was by nature, generous, volatile. . . .”
By then Townsend’s marriage to Rosemary Pawle was headed for rocky shoals. In August 1950 he was promoted to Master of the Household, a permanent position requiring a one hundred percent commitment to King George.

The infatuation between courtier and princess was mutual. In his memoirs Townsend recalled falling asleep in the heather one afternoon after a picnic and being gently awakened by someone protectively covering him with a coat. It was Margaret, her face almost close enough for a kiss. Townsend whispered to her, “You know your father is watching us.” Margaret laughed, and left to rejoin the king, who had been leaning on his walking stick, observing the socially mismatched couple from a distance. “Then she took his arm and walked away, leaving me to my dreams,” the equerry wrote.

A true Daddy’s girl, Margaret was devastated by her father’s death on February 6, 1952. The ascension of Elizabeth to the throne also meant eviction from Buckingham Palace, where the new sovereign would reside with her young family. Margaret and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, as George VI’s widow would now be styled, moved into Clarence House, adjacent to St. James’s Palace.

Peter Townsend was on hand to console Margaret during the mandated period of court mourning for the late king, claiming in his memoirs that “the King’s death had left a greater void than ever in Princess Margaret’s life.” The death of George VI also meant that Townsend was out of a job. Luckily, the Queen Mum liked him, and appointed him Comptroller of her Household.

But he had something to cry about as well. A couple of years earlier, his lonely wife Rosemary had taken a lover, John de Laszlo, the son of a prominent society portraitist. Rosemary’s infidelity may have triggered a switch in Townsend’s subconscious: the freedom to fantasize about a deeper relationship with Margaret.

On December 20, 1950, the thirty-eight-year old Townsend had been granted a divorce on the grounds of Rosemary’s “misconduct” with de Lazlo, making the courtier the “innocent party” in the proceedings. Two months after the decree was issued Rosemary and de Lazlo married.

In Time and Chance, Townsend’s memoirs, which were published in 1978, he wrote, “It was then [February, 1953] that we made the mutual discovery [in an empty drawing room at Sandringham] of how much we meant to each other. She listened, without uttering a word, as I told her, very quietly, of my feelings. Then she simply said ‘That is how I feel, too.’ It was, to us, an immensely gladdening disclosure, but one which sorely troubled us.”

Peter Townsend’s memoir described their mutual passion in terms that might be familiar to Romance readers: “Our love, for such it was, took no heed of wealth and rank and all the other worldly conventional barriers which separated us. We hardly noticed them; all we saw was one another, man and woman, and what we saw pleased us.”

According to the lovestruck equerry, “Marriage . . . seemed the least likely solution; and anyway, at the prospect of my becoming a member of the Royal Family, the imagination boggled, most of all my own. Neither the Princess nor I had the faintest idea how it might be possible to share our lives.”

And yet, Townsend insisted that they intended to become united in every way, “God alone knew how—and never be parted.” Queen Elizabeth was said to be sympathetic to their wishes; but the Queen Mother, despite liking Townsend personally, was very upset by the news. In fact, no one was particularly enthusiastic about Townsend as a viable beau for Margaret. For one thing, the courtier’s romantic aspirations were far above his station; for another, his divorce, despite the fact that he had been the injured party, was a permanent blot on his social status.

However, the stickiest wicket was that because Margaret was under twenty-five years old, she was still subject to George III’s Royal Marriage Act of 1772, which meant that she required the sovereign’s permission to wed someone. But the monarch is also the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and. As much as the queen might have wished her sister to be happy, Elizabeth could not therefore condone or sanction her marriage to Townsend.

Yet the queen didn’t quash her younger sister’s expectations entirely. Instead, she advised Margaret (who was still only twenty) to wait until she was twenty-five, when she could apply directly to Parliament for permission to wed Townsend and the decision would be in their hands

However, Margaret’s little romantic secret revealed itself after Elizabeth’s coronation ceremony on June 2, 1953. As the royal family was processing out of Westminster Abbey, the Fleet Street press discovered that the princess had a tendre for Peter Townsend. She approached him outside the abbey, and in an affectionate, intimate gesture, delicately plucked a bit of fluff off his RAF tunic (in which she thought he looked especially sexy). Unlike today, where the news would be tweeted across the Internet within milliseconds, the British press maintained a discreet code of silence about the event—for a while, anyway. Twelve days after the coronation, on Sunday June 14 The People broke the news by insisting that there was no truth at al to the “scandalous rumors” being spread about the affinity between Margaret and the Queen Mother’s Comptroller of her Household, asserting, “It is quite unthinkable that a Royal Princess, third in line of succession to the throne, should even contemplate a marriage with a man who has been through the divorce courts.”

It was time for the palace to step in and perform some damage control.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill also agreed that a scandal had to be avoided. He ordered the Attorney General to review the government’s constitutional position on such a matter and to poll the various prime ministers of the dominions within the British commonwealth for their opinions on a potential marriage between Margaret and Townsend.

Queen Elizabeth was pressured to send Townsend away on some distant diplomatic posting but was hesitant to do so, unwilling to destroy her sister’s happiness. Only after she was assured that the commonwealth ministers as well as the British Cabinet ministers opposed such a match did Her Majesty banish Margaret’s beau. Given a choice of locales, Townsend chose Brussels, the closest of his options, not merely because he might be able to visit the princess from time to time, but because it put him in proximity to his young sons. His Belgian assignment would keep him on the Continent for two years.

But the couple’s enforced separation didn’t make the thwarted royal love affair fade from the headlines. Journalists were quick to deride the palace’s outmoded mores and the Cabinet’s cowardly and hypocritical stand, given that some of the ministers were themselves divorced. Their unanimity in favor of Margaret’s right to choose her own marital destiny was overwhelming.

Michael Foot, a future Labour Party leader, wrote in the Tribune, “This intolerable piece of interference with a girl’s private life is all part of the absurd myth about the Royal Family which has been so sedulously built up by interested parties in recent years. . . . The laws of England say that a man, whether he has divorced his wife or been divorced himself, is fully entitled to marry again. In some respects, those divorce laws are still too harsh. But no self-appointed busybody has the right to make them still harsher. If these laws are good, they are good enough for the Royal Family.”

In Townsend’s absence, Margaret kept up her usual schedule of appearances, duties, and obligations; the couple communicated almost daily by letter or phone. Their close friends were certain that the couple were true soul mates and were deeply in love.

Margaret turned twenty-five on August 21, 1955 and reunited once again with her beau at Clarence House on October 13. As the queen’s permission was no longer a factor in their ability to wed, the kingdom held its collective breath to see what would happen. For the next nineteen days the couple endeavored to escape prying eyes and the pop of paparazzi flash bulbs while behind closed doors the subject of their marriage was discussed by representatives of both church and state. Clerics argued that it would be an affront to the Anglican religion, and the couple’s lay supporters insisted that the church doctrine was both outmoded and hypocritical. Why, even the current prime minister, Anthony Eden, had been divorced!

In the best of scenarios, a bill could be introduced into Parliament that would permit Margaret to marry Group Captain Townsend and permit her to retain her title and rank; her Civil List income would increase upon her marriage, as no doubt her husband would be expected to accompany her to state-related appearances. But Margaret would have to wed Townsend in a civil ceremony (as the church would not recognize the divorced groom) and agree to a two-year banishment from the United Kingdom. She’d have to renounce all rights to the throne, even though she was dropping further and further down the line of succession with each new niece or nephew. Townsend, who was a nice enough bloke, but had a tendency to waffle when the going got rough, wasn’t sure he wanted that responsibility; perhaps he was asking the princess to sacrifice too much.

For someone as literally entitled as Margaret, the dilemma was huge. And her own deeply held religious convictions were most likely a factor as well—or would be, in the long run. And—in the long run—once the first flush of newlywed-dom paled, would she regret her decision? She was a vivacious party girl of twenty-five; Townsend was a stay-at-home type of forty-one. What would happen if that sixteen-year age gap began to feel even wider as the years progressed and the still vital Margaret felt yoked to a paunchy, balding couch potato?

Her reasons may never fully be revealed or understood, but the result remains the same. Margaret issued a tidy statement of renunciation that reads like it came from the pen of a palace flack:

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 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 have been strengthened by the unfailing support and devotion of Group Captain Townsend. I am deeply grateful for the concern of all those who have constantly prayed for my happiness.”

Resigned to the inevitable, on October 31, 1955 Townsend declared, “Without dishonour, we have played out our destiny.”

Reaction to the renunciation was mixed. The inimitable wit, Noël Coward, who must have numbered himself among those who “constantly prayed for [Margaret’s] happiness,” quipped, “I hope that they had the sense to hop into bed a couple of times at least, but this I doubt.” Coward also remarked wryly, “She can’t know, poor girl, being young and in love, that love dies soon and that a future with two strapping stepsons and a man years older than herself would not be very rosy. . . .”

If you were writing their story, how would you have altered the plot, in order to reach a happy ending?

9 Comments:

Blogger Christine Trent said...

This is the whole Charles/Camilla thing in a previous generation! Elizabeth has "managed" this situation twice. Based on the photo you posted of Townsend, I can see why she fell head over heels for him, especially given her youth.

I really never knew the details of this story before. Thanks for the post!

3:02 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Good point, Christine! Although both Margaret and Peter were more attractive than C&C! :)

Actually (though she was just a little girl at the time), Elizabeth has lived through this sort of scandal 3 times, if you count the Abdication Crisis of 1936; when her uncle, Edward VIII, wished to marry his girlfriend, the twice divorced American Wallis Simpson (who is credited with coining the phrase "you can never be too rich or too thin.")

Edward preferred Wallis to the crown, which is how Elizabeth & Margaret's parents ended up becoming George VI and Queen Mary.

3:43 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I find it interesting that Edward gave up the crown for the woman he loved and lived a relatively happy, long life with her.

Margaret gave up Peter and so far as I know has never really been happy in her life.

Just thinking out loud.

Great info!

5:02 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Hi, Louisa!

Margaret ended up marrying Antony-Armstrong-Jones, a fashion/high society photographer in 1960. She made the decision to accept his proposal the day she received a letter from Peter Townsend telling her that he was getting married to a 19-year-old Belgian heiress. Marie-Luce Jamagne. We'll never know whether Peter was "the man that got away" from the princess, or whether Margaret might have ended up very frustrated at not really being a royal anymore, had she been able to marry him after all. Would their personalities have meshed when they had to carve a life together that didn't revolve around his capacity as her escort, rather than as her consort? Margaret's marriage to Antony Armstrong-Jones ended in divorce, which was a scandal in itself. She died in February 2002.

6:58 PM  
Blogger Christine Trent said...

Good point about Edward VIII being the third in the triumvirate of Weak Windsors. Although what with his cavorting around with the Nazis, it's probably much better that he abdicated for Wallis! Didn't Wallis get rather bored with Edward?

Something I meant to say last time is that I was also quite surprised by the huge age difference between Townsend and the princess, particularly in that she was so young when they met.

7:34 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

The age difference was quite substantial; you're right, Christine. And although I am thinking right at the moment of two very happy marriages (though, because of the age difference, sadly they did not last long) between friends of mine who were fairly young women when they wed considerably older men, when time IS on a couple's side, it can also become an enemy. So many "what-ifs"; gorgeous Peter Townsend blimped out and was something of a stay-at-home guy. Margaret might have been bored out of her mind eventually.

And you're right about Wallis. She once remarked "You have no idea how hard I work to keep the little man happy."

And the best thing that could have happened for the free world in the 1930s was Edward's abdication. Even behind the scenes after he was demoted to Duke of Windsor, he and Wallis were meeting with high-level Nazis to discuss their plans for taking Britain and then putting him back on the throne as a Nazi puppet. Good thing the British spy organizations knew about it.

4:50 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Sorry to be chiming in late--I'm catching up after a busy week. Great post! I knew about Margaret's romance with Peter Townsend, knew he was divorced, and that she eventually renounced him, but I didn't know about the age difference or that she was so young when they met and that they had known each other so long. It's a fascinating and very sad story.

10:27 AM  
Blogger Allie ~ Hist-Fic Chick said...

She was truly a beauty!! I went and looked up that famous cigarette photo of her at Balmoral, wow!! She had such a classic look to her. I really can't believe that all of this (the royal family trying to control who marries whom) was still going on even at this point in history. It's mind-blowing to me! But then again, the same thing happened with Prince Charles, who was made to wed the virginal Princess Diana. I wonder if the Queen will allow Prince William to marry Kate Middleton (although he is 27 so he should be allowed to wed without the reigning monarch's permission). I don't understand why Margaret's marrying Peter would have forced them into exile for two years. Why would that be?! Just to "teach them a lesson"?? These royals are so bizarre, and endlessly entertaining with their protocols and rules!

10:58 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Thanks for chiming in, Tracy, at any time! I always love your comments. It struck me as I was reading about them (re: the age difference) that Margaret was a precocious 14 when the seedlings of her crush were sown. How many guys of 29 or so even give serious consideration to the possibility of a romance with an adolescent girl (maybe I don't want to know the answer), unless she's perhaps a princess??

When I was in my mid-teens, geeky and with braces on my teeth, I had crushes on guys well into their 20s. But did they so much as look at me in any other way than as a dorky kid? Uh ... no.

Allie, I agree with you that the "punishment" is truly bizarre. Banishment? And yet she would also have been expected to carry out her functions as a member of the royal family, had she been permitted to wed Townsend, though her name would have been struck from the line of succession.

Does William still need Parliament's permission to wed? One reason that Margaret was advised to wait for Peter until after she turned 25 was that the monarch's position on a wedding would be mooted and the decision would be in Parliament's hands alone. Call me madcap, but I would venture a guess that the lovely Miss Middleton is no longer intacta. Is the virgin rule finally passe? (imagine accent aigu)

Does anyone know whether that law is still in effect? Janet?

10:25 AM  

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