Princess Margaret (1930-2002) was only 14 years old when she met Townsend; her father, King George VI, made him equerry at Court. Townsend remained with the royals for nine years and rose to the position of Deputy Master of the Household. But Townsend's royal duties meant long periods from home which put his marriage under strain. Townsend sued for divorce in November 1952.
Despite the fact that Townsend was twice her age, married with two children and equerry to her father the king, Princess Margaret was rapt. After the king's death in 1952, he became Comptroller of the Queen Mother's household and he was Margaret's constant companion through her mourning period for her beloved father.
Capt Townsend and the Princess had managed to hide their feelings from public gaze until Elizabeth's coronation in June 1953; the couple were clearly in love. Of course the prospect of marriage between the Queen's sister and a divorced man raised ecclesiastical and constitutional problems - the Queen was sympathetic but the Queen Mother was not.
The Queen asked the couple to wait a year, hoping their passion would die. Townsend was promptly shipped off to the British Embassy in Brussels for two years as an air attaché, in an attempt to quell the press interest in the scandal. But exile stopped neither the romance not speculation about it.
Under the Royal Marriages Act, the Queen's consent to the Princess' marriage was necessary until she was 25. After 25, the Princess needed agreement of the British and Dominion parliaments. In Cabinet, the most vehemently opposed to the marriage was Lord Salisbury, a High Anglican who threatened to resign if a bill were passed allowing the marriage.
Princess Margaret and Captain Townsend
Firstly the Prince of Wales had been heir apparent and did in fact become king in 1936. Princess Margaret was a VERY long way from inheriting the throne.
Secondly before the war Britain had been the confident head of an enormous and powerful empire – the royal family, church and Cabinet were able to impose their will on almost everyone. After the war, Britain had bombed out cities, grieving families and endless rationing. No-one had patience for the old and rigid certainties.
Thirdly Wallis Simpson had not been from the British Empire, was not attractive and had often been married to other men. Captain Townsend, on the other hand, was handsome, British, a war hero and yes, divorced.
In the end she was the princess who could not renounce her royal birthright. The next day Margaret phoned Townsend and despite their great love, agreed to end their affair. Then she told the Archbishop of Canterbury of her decision.
Peter Townsend and his first wife divorced in 1952. Posted to Belgium, Townsend met and married a Belgian woman Marie-Luce Jamagne in 1959. Townsend died in 1995, aged 80. In May 1960 Princess Margaret married the society photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones, later 1st Earl of Snowdon. But the royal marriage was dogged by rumours of heavy drinking and sex, and the couple divorced in 1978. The Princess died in February 2002, aged 71.
Princess Margaret married Antony Armstrong-Jones in 1960
I was quite young at the time and thought the story was both deeply romantic and tragically doomed. Princess Margaret's decision not to marry had been made in the name of royal duty, under pressure from the Queen, government and Church of England. In October 1955 we heard her say: "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."
Not so long ago a letter was uncovered at the National Archives in Kew in a file called "1955 Royal Family", found by a tv producer. I have taken the information about this letter from Roya Nikkhah and Christopher Warwick in The Telegraph, 7th Nov 2009. Many thanks to them for breaking the story.
Margaret’s handwritten letter to Prime Minister Eden dated August 1955 states: "I am writing to tell you, as far as I can of any personal plans during the next few months ... During the last of August and all September I shall be here at Balmoral, and I have no doubt that during this time the press will encourage every sort of speculation about the possibility of my marrying Group Captain Peter Townsend. I am not going to see him during this time but in October I shall be returning to London, and he will then be taking his annual leave. But it is only by seeing him in this way that I feel I can properly decide whether I can marry him or not. At late October or early November I very much hope to be in a position to tell you and the other Commonwealth Prime Ministers what I intend to do. Only the Queen knows I am writing to you about this."
Christopher Warwick, Princess Margaret’s official biographer, said the letter was a significant, historical document which put a completely different complexion on the accepted version of events. Here was a very determined young woman in control of the situation, telling the Prime Minister that she has not yet decided. This was certainly at odds with what the public was led to believe. The perception was that she gave up the love of her life for duty, but this letter suggested otherwise. The letter also casts doubt on the assumption that the Princess believed she would have to renounce all her royal privileges if she married Townsend. In fact the new Prime Minister Mr Eden had ensured she would keep her HRH title and a civil list allowance. Margaret certainly knew the Government was paving the way for the marriage, if she wanted it, and the letter proved that she was involved in the process.