21 July 2015

A royal marrying a divorced person??? Surely not!

Captain Peter Townsend (1914 – 1995) was a successful Battle of Britain fighter pilot but in 1941, he was shot down in a dog fight and wounded. Also in 1941 he married Rosemary Pawle and had two sons.

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
in c1953

This reminded the nation very much of a similar crisis before the war. Back in 1936 Edward Prince of Wales had caused a constitutional crisis by proposing marriage to Wallis Simpson, an American who had divorced her first husband and was still married to her second husband. People were horrified at the idea of Edward and Wallis on the British throne, but they didn't seem to care if Princess Margaret married a divorced man.

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.

Wallis and Edward Duke of Windsor married in France
June 1937

When the princess and Townsend were reunited at Clarence House in October 1955, they were still hopeful of a future together. But the Cabinet decided that if the marriage went forward, then a Bill of Renunciation would be placed before Parl­iament, strip­ping Margaret of all her royal rights, privileges and income. This was spelled out to the princess, clearly!

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.


Anonymous said...

Margaret was nowhere near the throne. We thought she could have married anyone!


Andrew said...

My step mother hated the Royal Family from thereon in. While my step mother was of humble origins and lived for a time in a hut on the banks of the Murray River when she was a child, she hated the the system that prevented Margaret from marrying the person she loved. My now about 80 year old step mother blamed our Queen. She had the say.

Hels said...


I also think that was the main reason. In Edward's case, the Prime Minister Mr Baldwin made it clear that the Government and the oversees Dominions did not approve of his plans to marry Wallis. Commonwealth ambassadors in London rushed to express their disapproval.

In Margaret's case, the Government and the overseas Dominions (the Commonwealth) clearly did not rush to express their disapproval.

Hels said...


*nod* I have heard that expressed by other people as well. Princess Margaret did not have an easy time during her adolescence and 20s. People here felt at least if she could marry that man she loved dearly, she would have a more settled life.

But the people I blame the most are Queen Mary (Mary of Teck), Margarent's paternal grandmother who died in 1953. And Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, Margaret's mother. Both of these tough women thoroughly disapproved of Edward's behaviour and set impossible standards for Margaret as well. What a shame... she needed their support.

columnist said...

It is indeed an interesting letter, which as you say, casts a new perspective on the affair. And how strange it all seems this far away, when divorce is quite commonplace. But I think there is an important lesson here - the context. The recent archival footage of Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret [appearing to] be encouraged to give the Nazi salute by the then Prince of Wales (Edward VIII) and presumably the then Duke of York (George VI) as cameraman, with their mother the then Duchess of York, (Queen Elizabeth) was in 1933, which is a factor, (the context) that makes a huge difference, to say nothing of the mockery in their actions, not the support implied by the Murdoch-owned Sun in its *expose*. The Duke of Windsor's subsequently more *favourable* view of the Nazis in 1937-39 is of course a significant mark against him, and certainly one which by then was more than frowned upon by the Royal Family then headed by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, and by the British Government in the run up to the declaration of war on Germany in 1939.

Slight typo in your text: Edward VIII became king in 1936, (not 1938).

Hels said...


oops not just a "slight" typo! The date January 1936 makes all the difference in world affairs. Thank you.

How _very_ strange it all seems this far away. Not allowing people to divorce, or taking their children away from them if they did divorce, was brutal. It locked people into a lifetime of misery. I presume the royals thought that exiling Capt Townsend would bring the princess back to the straight and narrow path. Instead it led to a life of broken marriage, excessive drinking, strange men, boredom and extravagant spending.

But then who knows? Perhaps she would have become the royal black sheep anyhow, even had she been allowed to marry her true love.

columnist said...

I meant to say regarding context, it is all too important to understand the agenda of the writer of articles (aka film footage) such as that in The Sun, (knowing as we do Murdoch's anti Royal Family views, which doubtless endorsed this so-called "revelation" in the family footage of the two princesses). I do concede the argument that the Royal Family too have their "agenda", and their wish to diminish the disgrace of the former king emperor after his abdication; it is perhaps no surprise therefore the reaction of Queen Elizabeth at the prospect of Princess Margaret marrying a divorcee, given the RF's embarrassment at the behaviour of the Duke of Windsor both with married women prior to Mrs Simpson, and his Nazi leanings well into a stage when anyone who had them was obviously traitorous to Britain. For that he was quite rightly never forgiven by his younger brother and his queen, and lived a rather sad irrelevant life in exile in France; for all his physical frailties - and the self-inflicted killer (smoking) - George VI was deeply respected and mourned when he died at the age of 57.

Hels said...


The footage published in The Sun was from c1933, when the two princesses were still toddlers. The Sun defended its decision to release the images, saying they offered a fascinating insight in the warped prejudices of the future King Edward VIII. I don't know whether that was The Sun's real motive or not, but including the very young girls was just nasty. And irrelevant. Shame on The Sun!!

I think context is always important, but never more so than for Princess Margaret's issues, coming so soon after the war. It seems that Edward was never forgiven by his younger brother and his queen for his irresponsible sexual history, his ridiculous marriage and his pro-German sympathies. But worst of all because Edward dumped all the royal responsibilities on George and probably shortened King George's life.

James said...

A large part of the apparent prudishness of the English royal succession rules, is due to the fact that the monarch is also the head of the Church of England. Even though she was not high up in the order of succession, Margaret was the queen's sister. And the guilt by association would have been too much. Not that I agree with what happened.

Prince Charles has admitted on national television to being an adulterer. This doesn't seem to be any impediment to him becoming king and head of the Church of England. But I suspect if he was female it would be a different story, even today.
That said; Camillla (also an adulterer) will technically be Queen (though she wants to be called Queen Consort).
One wonders if it's worth having royalty when people like Camilla have to forgo church marriages and titles because of their private lives.

Hels said...


*agreed* If the British royal family had barred all adulterers and philanderers from the throne throughout history, there would have been be no-one left to rule. King Charles II had at least a dozen children with his married mistresses, and he gave them all titles and estates. King Edward VII slept his way through the actresses and noble women of the nation. And probably the same situation in every other nation that had a royal family.

But while no-one cared too much about adulterers and philanderers, they drew the line at marrying a divorced person. How hypocritical! And I think you are correct that lax sexual standards were not extended to female royals.

Sally Acton said...

Yes, it's an incredible double standard, in this day and age, that while both Charles and Camilla are equally adulterers, she will add the qualifier 'consort' to her title of Queen, in deference to the fact that she is "damaged goods", but Charles will simply be called King, full stop. Perhaps he should be entitled "sort-of-king".

Norom Halbewitz said...

Or King Consortof? :)

Hels said...


As much as I loathe sexual double standards, the title King/Queen Vs Consort is not one of those cases. The king or queen is the royal who is sitting on the throne. His or her spouse is the consort, regardless of gender.

The only case (that I can think of) where the spouse was granted an equal, royal title was when Queen Mary wouldn't return to Britain unless her husband William was also given the title and role of king. Parliament agreed and they were known forever after as King William and Queen Mary.

Hels said...


Very cute!

While we are talking of consorts, I bet Prince Phillip was not very pleased to be walking three paces behind the queen.

elegancemaison said...

"I was quite young at the time and thought the story was both deeply romantic and tragically doomed." So was I Hels.

Then in 1960, due to my father's attachment to the RAAF, I was living in Australia at the time of Princess Margaret's wedding to Anthony Armstrong-Jones (given the title Lord Snowdon on his marriage). My mother and I listened to the wedding ceremony live on the radio in South Australia and were thrilled.

Despite all the political and Anglican high church censorious attitudes towards PM's relationship with a divorced commoner (was that an unmentioned factor?) in her later married and divorced life she was subsequently shown to be a wilful and demanding character. My own father-in-law danced with her when she was Chancellor of Keele University - one of the chosen few whom she asked to be provided because he was known to be a good dancer and to be witty and entertaining. As a Scot and uninterested in English royals, he didn't care a jot and as his son ( my husband) remarked, " he gave it some welly", which she apparently enjoyed. And to her credit she sent a letter of condolence after his death several years later.

Though back to Captain Townsend, I found it particularly saddening that the woman he married after losing PM was almost her double. Maybe that was his 'type' as they used to say. He seemed have had a happy second marriage whilst Margaret became a tragic figure.

And look what a mess of divorces there are in the current British royal family.

Hels said...


of course you are right about the Anglican high church's refusal to allow a royal to marry a divorced commoner, unless that royal was prepared to give up his/her titles, incomes and every other privilege.

However here is the kicker. During the war so many families had been devastated, including the royal family. (Prince George the Duke of Kent was killed in a Sunderland flying boat in 1942) So many women were left widows or single for life... that a happy marriage would have been warmly accepted by the entire nation.

I hope Captain Townsend's second marriage was happy. Not much seems to be written about him, his second wife and his third child.

nerrida said...

Queen Elizabeth 11 appears as a once removed cousin on my Dutch Jewish tree. Her Sainsbury cousin married my g.g. aunty, a van den Bergh. Never know what naughty things they get up to. ��

Hels said...


that is amazing, thank you.

The thing about royal genealogy is that almost all the connections are well known, especially since royal children typically had a limited range of royal European families they could marry into. I am assuming your great great aunt was not a royal herself.