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Everything you didn’t know about the real Princess Margaret

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Portrayed by Vanessa Kirby in The Crown‘s first two seasons, and now by Helena Bonham Carter in the show’s just-premiered third season, the real-life Princess Margaret, who died in 2002, has an infamous legacy that includes numerous romances, shenanigans with the help of her ladies in waiting, and a general lust for life. 

Princess Margaret and her sister Queen Elizabeth were purportedly very close, but due to their positions in the royal hierarchy, they led entirely different lives. Elizabeth was bound to royal duties, while Margaret was more free to live a life of her own design, complete with lots of socializing and partying (think William versus Harry). 

Seemingly aware of the public’s perception of her as the antithesis of her sister, Margaret has been quoted by her unauthorized biographer, Craig Brown, as saying, “if there’s a good princess, there has to be a bad one.” According to Brown, Margaret made a conscious decision to portray the latter.

We’ve pulled some of Margaret’s boldest moments from Brown’s unauthorized biography, Ninety Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret, and the two-part PBS documentary, Margaret: The Rebel Princess, which features commentary from Margaret’s authorized biographer, Christopher Warwick, as well as Brown, many of Margaret’s ladies in waiting, and others.

1. According to Margaret: The Rebel Princess, the entire world knew about her romantic involvement with Peter Townsend, a staff member of her late father’s, before the news broke in the UK in 1953.

After serving as a pilot in World War II, Peter Townsend worked as an equerry of Margaret’s father, King George VI. Townsend was at the King’s side at all times, an arrangement that gave Townsend and Margaret ample opportunity to get to know each other. Because Townsend was so present in the royal family’s life, he became absent from his own wife and two sons. By the time Princess Margaret and Lady Jane, one of her ladies in waiting, were teenagers, Lady Jane recalls feeling “sure that Princess Margaret and Townsend were in love.” 

Although the press at large reported on the rumored relationship between Margaret and Townsend outside of Britain, there was a gentleman’s agreement on Fleet Street, where many of the major British news outlets headquarters were located, not to report on the affair in the national British news. In particular, The Daily Express, a top newspaper at the time, was actively deferential to the royal family in reporting on their affairs in the 1950s. Many press outlets followed suit, working to “sustain the fairy tale” that surrounded the royal family at the time.

Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth (who was a princess at the time), and Group Captain Peter Townsend

Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth (who was a princess at the time), and Group Captain Peter Townsend

Everything changed when Margaret displayed the “possessive gesture” of removing a piece of lint from Townsend’s clothing during Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953. The press saw the interaction as a public display of intimacy, and, interestingly, the first mention of Margaret’s relationship with Townsend was one of denial: The Sunday People, a popular tabloid at the time, broke the story in June, 1953 by saying it was “utterly untrue.” In November of 1953, other outlets began to report on Margaret and Townsend’s relationship, which had been confirmed in the months since the initial story in The Sunday People. 

2. The private life of Margaret’s husband, Antony Armstrong-Jones (also known as Lord Snowdon), included affairs and a love child that he kept secret. 

According to Snowden: The Biography by Anne de Courcey, Armstrong-Jones’s many affairs with other men and women “allegedly contributed to the deterioration of” his marriage with Princess Margaret.

Not only that, as detailed by Town & Country, Amstrong-Jones’s daughter, Polly Fry, was born weeks after his wedding to Princess Margaret. Fry spent most of her adult life thinking she was the daughter of Jeremy Fry, a close friend of Amstrong-Jones’s, until Armstrong-Jones “later acknowledged the truth.”

Antony Armstrong-Jones, or Lord Snowdon, and Princess Margaret with their children, David and Sarah Armstrong-Jones.

Antony Armstrong-Jones, or Lord Snowdon, and Princess Margaret with their children, David and Sarah Armstrong-Jones.

3. Margaret asked her lady in waiting, Jane Stevens, to act as her driver when her chauffeur was sick. 

As Stevens recalls in Margaret: The Rebel Princess, she had never driven a Rolls Royce before and had no practice. Margaret encouraged Stevens by saying “Janey, you can drive.” As the pair departed the gates and were under the arch of Buckingham Palace, Stevens remembers motorcyclists crashing into the side of the Rolls Royce. Margaret responded with “drive, drive on, Janey,” and told Stevens not to worry.

And would ya look at that? There was no way to know who was driving Princess Margaret.

And would ya look at that? There was no way to know who was driving Princess Margaret.

4.  Margaret had a soft spot for George Harrison.

In Margaret: The Rebel Princess, Margaret’s unauthorized biographer Craig Brown explains that at social gatherings and parties, guests weren’t allowed to eat until the royal family had left. However, when Margaret and Armstrong-Jones were attending a function with the Beatles, a 21-year-old George Harrison went up to Margaret and said (as paraphrased by Brown), “Sorry, but I’m hungry, and we’re not allowed to start eating until you’ve left.” According to Brown, the Princess retorted, “Well, in that case, we’d better be going,” and left with Armstrong-Jones.

Princess Margaret shaking hands with a hangry George Harrison as Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr look on.

Princess Margaret shaking hands with a hangry George Harrison as Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr look on.

5. Queen Elizabeth’s response to her sister’s love life seems to have morphed over time. 

While she was married to Antony Armstrong-Jones, Princess Margaret had an affair with Roddy Llewellyn, a landscape gardener “17 years her junior.” According to iNews, Margaret was introduced to Llewellyn through her friends Colin Tennant and his wife, Lady Anne Glenconner, in 1973.

The pair hid their relationship from the public until photos of them swimming together in Mustique in the West Indies (a destination Margaret frequented) were published in 1976. Harper’s Bazaar reports that Margaret and Armstrong-Jones got divorced in 1978, and that Margaret and Llewellyn’s relationship lasted until 1980

Roddy Llewellyn in 1978.

Roddy Llewellyn in 1978.

According to Christopher Warwick, Margaret’s authorized biographer, Queen Elizabeth quipped a remark along the lines of “What are we going to do about my sister’s guttersnipe life?” to her private secretary, Lord Martin Charteris. 

However, years later, the Queen is said to have been somewhat grateful for Llewellyn. She thanked Lady Anne Glenconner, a close friend of both Margaret and the Queen, for introducing Margaret to Llewellyn. “I’d just like to say, Anne, it was rather difficult at moments, but I thank you so much [for] introducing Princess Margaret to Roddy ’cause he made her really happy,” said Queen Elizabeth.

6. In addition to her well-known relationship with Roddy Llewellyn, Margaret also allegedly had romances with Richard Harris (who played Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter movies) and Warren Beatty.

According to Christopher Warwick, Harris and Warren were Margaret’s “putative” lovers.

Richard Harris at the premiere of 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.'

Richard Harris at the premiere of ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.’

Image: Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Warren Beatty at the SAG awards.

Warren Beatty at the SAG awards.

Image: vince bucci/Getty Images

7. Margaret didn’t get along with Princess Diana or Duchess Sarah Ferguson. 

It seems as though Princess Margaret was of the camp that neither the press nor members of the royal family should air out the royal family’s dirty laundry, regardless of whether or not it was true. Princess Margaret never forgave Diana for betraying the royal family in her 1995 interview with the BBC, during which she implied Prince Charles had cheated on her with Camilla Parker-Bowles. (Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles got married in 2005.)

A similar debacle marred Duchess Sarah Ferguson’s relationship with Princess Margaret. When those photos surfaced of Ferguson’s affair with financial advisor John Bryan, Princess Margaret saw the entire fiasco as a huge disgrace to the royal family and explicitly told Ferguson her feelings in a strongly worded letter.

8. According to Margaret: The Rebel Princess, Margaret’s friend Lady Anne Glenconner would sneak Margaret glasses of whiskey on her deathbed. 

Even though Margaret’s doctors forbade her from drinking, Glenconner used to “creep down… to the drink table and bring [Margaret] up a whiskey.” 

Princess Margaret in the late 1970s. She had a strong affinity for smoking and drinking.

Princess Margaret in the late 1970s. She had a strong affinity for smoking and drinking.

9. According to unauthorized biographer Craig Brown in his book Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret, Margaret visited her hairdresser “almost to the point of addiction.” 

Brown describes Margaret as being “fond of visiting” her hairdresser, something she often did “twice in one day.”

Those perfectly coifed curls might have been perfected over not one but two visits to her personal hair stylist.

Those perfectly coifed curls might have been perfected over not one but two visits to her personal hair stylist.

10. One of the license plates on Margaret’s cars possibly denoted when, and to whom, she lost her virginity. 

As described by Margaret’s unauthorized biographer Craig Brown in Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret, Margaret’s chauffeur, John Larkin, revealed that when he asked if she wanted her license plate transferred to new car, she confessed that the plate, PM 6450, referred to “an incident in [her] past best forgotten.” She went on to clarify that she “wanted [a license plate] that doesn’t mean anything.” 

Larkin himself hypothesized that “PM” stood for Princess Margaret, and that “6450” translated to April 6, 1950. On that date, Margaret would have been 19 years old, in the throes of her romance with Townsend. Many have speculated that 4/6/1950 might have been a turning point in their relationship.

Season three of The Crown is now available to stream on Netflix.

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