Sep 20, 2015
The Myth of Princess Margaret's Tragic Life
If you know anything about Her Royal Highness The Princess Margaret other than she was Queen Elizabeth II's sister, you likely know this.......................................Princess Margaret was forced to give up the man she loved and it ruined her life.
Except, if that's what you know, then you know a myth. Not the facts.
Yes, Princess Margaret was subject to the Royal Marriages Act 1772 which required that she have the monarch's approval for her marriage. Yes, it's true that when Margaret fell in love with a divorced man (he was the innocent party in the divorce) the Queen was instructed by her government to not give Margaret permission to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend. If she married Townsend, she would have to renounce all her rights to the throne. So Margaret gave up her dashing Captain and went on to live a dissolute, self-indulgent life. But when painting that romantic tale of star-crossed lovers, here's what no one likes to bring up.........................Margaret still could have married him anyway.
Because Princess Margaret wasn't being forced to give up the love of her life. She was being forced to make a choice.
And what would the consequences of choosing Peter Townsend have been?
Not much. This isn't the 16th century where disobeying the monarch is treason and could get you sent to the Tower of London and your head chopped off.
Margaret was informed that to marry Peter Townsend she would have to renounce all her rights to the throne which would mean these consequences:
1 She would lose her place in the line of succession and could never be Queen
2 She would be removed from the Civil List losing her government income
Let's take a closer look at those two consequences...............
Consequence One --- Princess Margaret loses her place in the line of succession and can never be Queen
Princess Margaret, at that time, was third in line to the throne.¹ The Queen's children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne, were ahead of her. So there were two people ahead of her and plenty of people after her. There was no danger that the throne would be empty if Margaret wasn't there to sit on it.
We even have an example of this consequence from within Queen Elizabeth II's reign. His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent became engaged to a Catholic and so by the Act of Settlement 1701 would lose his place in the line of succession upon marriage and could never be King.² What that did not mean was that Prince Michael gave up being a royal highness. He was still titled as "His Royal Highness." Giving up his place in the line of succession did not affect his children ------ his children by his Catholic wife stayed in the line of succession.
So if HRH The Princess Margaret had married Group Captain Peter Townsend she would have stayed "Her Royal Highness" and her children would still be in line to sit on the throne in the remote event of everyone ahead of them dying. Only Margaret, herself, could never have been Queen..............and really what was the likelihood of her ever being Queen anyway?
Which was a good thing for the country and Princess Margaret because Margaret didn't like responsibility and official duty. She didn't enjoy serious studying. And being the monarch after World War II was all about serious study, responsibility and official duty. It wasn't like the days when the king could spend his time attending social events and mistresses. The modern-day British monarch was expected to work. That wasn't Margaret. She was temperamentally unsuited to being Queen. By marrying Peter Townsend, Princess Margaret would have taken herself out of the line for a position she wouldn't have wanted and would only have made her unhappy in the extremely unlikely chance of it being thrust upon her.
So the sum total of Consequence One ---- not anything of any significance.
Consequence Two --- Princess Margaret is removed from the Civil List losing her government income
If you don't know what the Civil List is, it's the "list of sums appropriated annually by Parliament to pay the expenses of the sovereign and his or her household." The sovereign's household included members of the royal family. At the time of Margaret's Townsend marriage crisis (which ended in 1955), the Princess was considered part of the household. She was added to the Civil List in 1952 with an income of £6,000, rising to £15,000 when she married. (FYI: In 1952, average annual earnings in the UK was £375 so £6,000 was a lot of money.) In theory, the amount the royal family members were paid was supposed to cover their expenses for doing their official royal duties of christening ships and opening factories and attending village fêtes and doing charitable work. It was supposed to buy their clothing for those outings and pay for staff to organize it, etc. In practice, it all depended on how many royal duties that person did as to what their expenses were. And Margaret was never known for doing a lot. (As time went on she did a lot less eventually being known as the laziest member of the royal family. In 1993, Princess Margaret and almost all the royal family were removed from the Civil List and in 2013 the Civil List was discontinued entirely.)
So Margaret would have lost a source of a very nice income. Did this mean that she was going to have to live strictly off her husband's salary and end up being some middle-class housewife? No. Absolutely not.
You see, my guess is that Margaret was already rich. I can only call it a guess because, unlike everyone else's wills, royal wills aren't public documents. Royal wills are kept sealed. So I can't say I know for a fact that when Margaret's father, King George VI, died that he left Margaret an inheritance. But I sincerely doubt that he left his adored younger daughter without a penny. I think her father left Margaret quite a lot of pennies. So even without the Civil List income Margaret would have had the wealth she inherited from her very wealthy father.
But that's not all Margaret would have had to depend upon. Margaret's family, in case you hadn't noticed, was extremely rich. The richest family in Great Britain. So cut off from the Civil List, Margaret's mother, HM Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, and her sister, HM Queen Elizabeth II, would have given HRH The Princess Margaret a generous allowance. That was quite normal for rich British families...........daughters, even after they were married, would still get an allowance from their families. (If you watch "Downton Abbey" you might remember Lady Grantham's American mother speaking about the allowance she gives to Lady Grantham [episode 3X02]. So even rich American families followed the custom of continuing to support their daughters married to British aristocrats.) Indeed, when Princess Margaret was dropped from the Civil List in 1993, thereafter the Queen footed the bill for Margaret and paid for her sister from out of her own income. According to this March 6, 2000 article, the Queen provided Margaret £219,000 for official expenses while a search of the 1999 Court Circular shows that Princess Margaret only did 23 official engagements³ for the entire year. So the Queen took care of Margaret financially even when she did next to no "work"4 in return.
And here's something else Margaret and her husband would have gotten ----- a "grace and favour" home. What's that? Public housing. But not some roach-infested dump in an inner-city project with high crime rates. In this case it's royal public housing. Homes that the monarch lets people live in at her "grace and favour" either rent-free or at extremely reduced rent. They range from apartments to cottages up to palaces. (The small apartments and cottages are for staff.) This includes Kensington Palace. Kensington Palace where Charles and Diana as Prince and Princess of Wales lived. Where Diana continued to live even after the divorce.
Even after Prince Michael married a Catholic, he and his Catholic wife were allowed to live in a "grace and favour" home in Kensington Palace.5 Margaret spent her life living in a "grace and favour" home in Kensington Palace. (Princess Margaret's old home is now the home of William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.) So where would Margaret have lived after she married without royal permission? You can bet it would have been exactly where she ended up living when she later married Antony Armstrong-Jones with royal permission..............a posh place in Kensington Palace.
Therefore, even without the Civil List income, Margaret would not have been forced to live some middle-class lifestyle dependent solely upon her husband's earnings. HRH The Princess Margaret would have had a free royal residence, her inheritance from her father and an allowance from her family.
So the sum total of Consequence Two ---- not anything of any significance...........at least not income-wise. There is one consequence, I haven't discussed.........................since Princess Margaret was no longer on the Civil List she would no longer be expected to perform official royal duties. And Margaret loathed doing official royal duties. So not having to do any would have been a positive to her.
Now, if it isn't already clear to you, Princess Margaret would not have become persona non grata to her family. Her family liked Group Captain Peter Townsend. The only reason her sister refused Margaret permission to marry him was because the Queen was instructed to by the government and the Queen has to do what the government tells her to do.
So, like Prince Michael when he married a Catholic, Princess Margaret would have continued to be invited to all the family events and included in all the family photos.
Rather than keep buying into the very popular myth of feeling sorry for Princess Margaret for being forced to give up the love of her life and how it ruined her life, think about what Princess Margaret actually gave up the so-called love of her life for..................
Princess Margaret chose to give up Group Captain Peter Townsend for a meaningless position in the line of succession and a meaningless loss of income (meaningless because it would have been compensated for).
Yet those losses weren't meaningless to Princess Margaret. Just what exactly they meant to her in terms of prestige and identity only Margaret herself could have said. But I can say this much.....................it meant more to her than Peter Townsend did.
And that's not something I can feel any sympathy for.
Her Royal Highness The Princess Margaret was a beautiful, talented, charming and vivacious woman. She was also indulged and spoiled. And when she was finally refused, she did not handle it well. If Princess Margaret's life was tragic it was because this spoiled princess valued royal prerogatives over her "great love" and used that as an excuse to spoil the rest of her life. So I'll say "No, thank you" to the myth of Princess Margaret's tragic life.
1 HRH The Princess Margaret was never closer than second in line to the throne. When Margaret was born, she was fourth in line, behind her Uncle David, her father and her older sister. She became second in line when her father became king. By the time her sister ascended the throne she was third in line. She kept dropping from there. At the time of Princess Margaret's death in 2002 at the age of 71, she was 11th in the line of succession after the Queen's four children and six grandchildren. (The Queen's last two grandchildren weren't born until after Princess Margaret's death. If she were alive today she would be 18th.)
2 HRH Prince Michael of Kent's place in the line of succession was restored by an act of Parliament in 2013 which revised the Act of Settlement 1701 and the Royal Marriages Act 1772.
3 I searched the Court Circular for the number of official engagements by Princess Margaret in 1999. Out of the 38 official engagements listed for her, Princess Margaret attended 23 of them and sent representatives to the remaining 15 engagements. The first number is the total number of engagements listed for the month. In parenthesis are the number of engagements Margaret, herself, actually attended.
Dec 1999 - 4 (4)
Nov - 9 (7)
Oct - 3 (1)
Sep - 3 (2)
Jul - 1 (0)
Jun - 3 (0)
May - 1 (0)
Mar - 2 (0)
Feb - 8 (6)
Jan - 4 (3)
Princess Margaret had injured herself by severely scalding her feet in February 1999, so to be fair I checked the Court Circular for the previous year when Margaret was in as good health as Margaret could be. She had 41 official engagements listed, attending 33 of them herself and sending a representative to 8 of them:
Dec 1998 - 8 (7)
Nov - 5 (5) (did three engagements on Nov 4)
Oct - 12 (11) (did two engagements on Oct 30)
Sep - 4 (4) (did two engagements on Sep 24)
Jul - 3 (1)
Jun - 3 (2)
May - 1 (1)
Apr - 1 (0)
Mar - 1 (0)
Jan - 3 (2)
Margaret turned 69 in 1999 which is not that old especially when you have access to world-class health care. Yet she was already in poor health due to the dissipated life she had led while Elizabeth, the older sister, is now 89 and still going strong having just become Britain's longest reigning monarch. (2014 official engagement numbers: Queen Elizabeth II 393 official engagements. Ninety-three year old Prince Philip did 273 official engagements. Sixty-six year old Prince Charles did 533 and his 64-year-old sister, Princess Anne, did 528. Duke of Gloucester, age 70, 280. Duke of Kent, age 79, 206. Even Princess Alexandra, age 77, who's been ill did 83 official engagements. And that should give you a sense of why Princess Margaret was known as the laziest member of the Royal Family.)
4 Princess Margaret's "work" consisted of going to the ballet, attending receptions and parties, having a parade go by her, etc. This is the list of Margaret's "work" from the Court Circular for December 1999.
15th December 1999
The Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, President, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, launched the Society's Festival of Christmas Trees at the Queen's Theatre, Barnstaple, this evening and was received by the Earl of Iddesleigh (Vice Lord-Lieutenant of Devon).
10th December 1999
The Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, President, the Royal Ballet, this afternoon attended the Kenneth MacMillan Choreographic Competition at the Royal Ballet School, White Lodge, Richmond Park.
8th December 1999
The Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, President, the Royal Ballet, this evening attended the Company's opening performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC2.
1st December 1999
The Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, President, the Royal Ballet, this evening attended a performance by artists of the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera to celebrate the re-opening of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC2.
5 At their marriage, the Queen offered Prince Michael of Kent and his wife a stately residence in Kensington Palace. Until 2002, the Kents lived at KP as their London base paying only a token rent to cover utilities. (This token rent was around £70 a week.) It was then decided a fair market rent of £120,000 would be charged for the residence and the Queen agreed pay that £10,000 a month for seven years. (The Kents continued to pay for the utilities.) It was only in 2010 that the Kents (having sold their £5.75 million country house in Gloucestershire back in 2006) became responsible for paying the full amount of the rent themselves. If this is what was done for the Queen's first cousin whose marriage made him give up all his rights to the throne, you'd better believe that a similar arrangement would have been made for the Queen's only sister.
For Britian's Queen of Mystery, read "The Beginner's Intro to the Essential Agatha Christie."
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