Did Margaret two-time her war hero lover?


They had once shared a bedroom. But then the Queen and Princess Margaret became separated by a platoon of pen-pushing gatekeepers who, since 26-year-old Princess Elizabeth’s recent elevation to Sovereign, measured out every minute of her busy schedule.

No more easy informality between two Royal sisters united against the world.

Entering the opulent Belgian Suite at Buckingham Palace, Margaret, then 22, curtseyed to her sister and kissed her on both cheeks. At the Queen’s urging, she took a seat on a gold silk chaise longue.

Princess Margaret, pictured here in an official portrait in 1958 aged 28, wanted to marry her father's former equerry Group Captain Peter Townsend

Princess Margaret, pictured here in an official portrait in 1958 aged 28, wanted to marry her father’s former equerry Group Captain Peter Townsend

Margaret had a confession to make. In the minutes that followed, she finally told her sister the immense secret that she had kept to herself for many months: that she had fallen in love with Group Captain Peter Townsend, their late father’s former equerry, and wanted to marry him.

Tall, slim, with piercing grey-blue eyes and an unwavering gaze, Townsend was every inch the matinee idol – and a war hero to boot. He was one of ‘The Few’ – a courageous Battle of Britain pilot who had helped save the nation from Nazi conquest, his RAF uniform decorated with the medals attesting to his gallantry.

Since the premature death of their father, King George VI, earlier that year, Margaret had increasingly relied on Townsend as she tried to cope with the darkness that overwhelmed her.

Whisky, pills, tranquillisers and cigarettes did little to help with the pain. Only Peter – soothing, calm and gentle – could lighten her moods.

But it wasn’t the fact that he was almost 16 years her senior with two young sons that had prompted Margaret to see her sister. The real reason was that he was about to get divorced – a major issue in an era when the break-up of a marriage was still frowned upon.

As third in line to the throne behind Prince Charles and Princess Anne, Princess Margaret had to obtain the Queen’s permission before she married anyone – let alone a divorcé. Her older sister, meanwhile, was Defender of the Faith, with standards that she could not deviate from.

Princess Margaret, pictured here with Eddie Fisher in 1953, with whom, she may have had an intimate relationship

Princess Margaret, pictured here with Eddie Fisher in 1953, with whom, she may have had an intimate relationship

But times were changing.

Would Elizabeth grant her glamorous younger sister permission to marry a divorced man?

She held Margaret’s happiness in the palm of her hand.

That brief conversation was the start of a Royal drama which would go on to divide church, state and public opinion for years to come.

The couple’s fate would remain engulfed by uncertainty and fevered media speculation until November 1955, when Princess Margaret made a momentous broadcast. ‘I would like it to be known,’ she announced, ‘that I have decided not to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend.’ But why did she make that decision? Was it, as TV series such as The Crown would have us believe, because the Queen and the Establishment expressly forbade her to marry Townsend? I believe not.

I will reveal why I consider that explanation to be a myth that has persisted for nearly seven decades – and that far from banning the marriage, the Queen was deeply sympathetic to Margaret’s plight and even risked damage to the monarchy to help her.

A more likely reason for the end of the affair was that Princess Margaret, a beautiful young woman of 25 with the world at her feet, simply fell out of love with her older fiance.

In the most intriguing twist, she may even have been involved in another intimate relationship at the same time – with Eddie Fisher, the 1950s singer and future husband of Hollywood legends Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Reynolds.

When the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, then 18 and 14, met the handsome Peter Townsend on his first day as an equerry at Buckingham Palace in 1944, both were captivated. ¿Bad luck ¿ he¿s married,¿ the future Queen is said to have told Margaret

When the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, then 18 and 14, met the handsome Peter Townsend on his first day as an equerry at Buckingham Palace in 1944, both were captivated. ‘Bad luck – he’s married,’ the future Queen is said to have told Margaret

When the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, then 18 and 14, met the handsome Peter Townsend on his first day as an equerry at Buckingham Palace in 1944, both were captivated. ‘Bad luck – he’s married,’ the future Queen is said to have told Margaret.

Before long, the two girls were regular visitors to Townsend’s grace-and-favour home in Windsor, spending time in the garden with him and his wife Rosemary, or riding out together.

Friends soon noticed Townsend was always ready to drop everything and ride with Margaret. For her part, she regarded him as a companion and a brother figure.

Others saw it differently.

Eileen Parker, the former wife of equerry Mike Parker, observed caustically: ‘Rosemary had to stand aside while Princess Margaret, hardly out of ankle socks, entertained her husband.’

Years later, Margaret confessed to her friend Anne Glenconner that it was during a Royal tour of South Africa in 1947, when she was 16, that she realised her attachment to Townsend was more than platonic. ‘We rode together every morning in that wonderful country, in marvellous weather. That’s when I really fell in love with him,’ she said.

Before long, the two girls were regular visitors to Townsend’s grace-and-favour home in Windsor, spending time in the garden with him and his wife Rosemary, or riding out together 

Before long, the two girls were regular visitors to Townsend¿s grace-and-favour home in Windsor, spending time in the garden with him and his wife Rosemary, or riding out together

Before long, the two girls were regular visitors to Townsend’s grace-and-favour home in Windsor, spending time in the garden with him and his wife Rosemary, or riding out together

Those who witnessed their interaction dismissed Margaret’s behaviour as no more than a teenage crush which would soon fizzle out. It was not to be.

Following the King’s death in 1952, Townsend was offered the post of Comptroller of the Queen Mother’s household, enabling him to stay within the Royal fold and grow ever closer to Margaret as his marriage failed.

In a memoir three decades later, he wrote that she ‘gave me what I most lacked – joy’.

The Princess was, he said, ‘a girl of unusual, intense beauty, confined as it was in her short, slender figure and centred about large purple-blue eyes, generous, sensitive lips, and a complexion as smooth as a peach’. Were they lovers? Townsend was too much of a gentleman to kiss and tell. Yet, given that they were about to embark on a high-profile affair, it would seem unusual if they did not explore the physical side of their relationship. As one writer observed: ‘In later years when Margaret fell in love, she did so with a deep and almost reckless physical abandon.’

By the time Margaret had her fateful meeting with her sister at Buckingham Palace at the end of 1952, the relationship was an open secret among Royal staff.

For the Queen, her sister’s news that day had been unwelcome, coming so near her Coronation just a few months hence.

She knew and liked Peter Townsend, appreciating the calm manner he had always displayed with her often-difficult father. But she was torn. She was no longer just Margaret’s big sister. She was Queen with constitutional duties and obligations. As one courtier argued: ‘She was very fond of Peter in the old days. If she had been on her own, she wouldn’t have minded about Princess Margaret’s desire to marry him.’

Following the King¿s death in 1952, Townsend was offered the post of Comptroller of the Queen Mother¿s household, enabling him to stay within the Royal fold and grow ever closer to Margaret as his marriage failed. In a memoir three decades later, he wrote that she ¿gave me what I most lacked ¿ joy¿

Following the King’s death in 1952, Townsend was offered the post of Comptroller of the Queen Mother’s household, enabling him to stay within the Royal fold and grow ever closer to Margaret as his marriage failed. In a memoir three decades later, he wrote that she ‘gave me what I most lacked – joy’

A few days after their meeting, the Queen invited Margaret and Townsend to join her and Prince Philip for supper at the Palace. It was, according to Townsend, an agreeable evening, with Philip making jokes about the predicament facing the couple.

One unforgettable impression lingered; namely, as Townsend recalled, ‘the Queen’s movingly simple and sympathetic acceptance of the disturbing fact of her sister’s love for me’.

The rose-coloured glasses were soon removed.

Shortly after the dinner, Townsend went to see the Queen’s private secretary, Tommy Lascelles, to tell him that he and Princess Margaret were deeply in love and wished to marry. According to Townsend, a visibly shaken Lascelles exploded: ‘You must be either mad or bad!’

Lascelles subsequently saw the Queen and outlined the provisions of the 1772 Royal Marriages Act. Under its terms, Margaret could not marry without the Sovereign’s permission until she reached the age of 25. Even then, it would be legal only if both Houses of Parliament did not raise any objections within 12 months.

Elizabeth knew that bishops and politicians alike would oppose the match because Townsend was not just a commoner but a divorcé who would not be allowed to marry in church. Besides these constitutional and ecclesiastical minefields, Margaret would have to surrender her titles, her place in the succession and her civil list allowance – the equivalent of £200,000 today.

Not only would she become plain Mrs Peter Townsend but the couple would be obliged to live abroad for a time to avoid embarrassment to the monarchy.

Whether this scenario was fully explained to the anxious lovers is unclear – Lascelles had certainly given them hope by saying: ‘It is not impossible.’ But both agreed to a plan whereby Townsend would be posted to Brussels to allow the dust to settle.

Reluctantly, the pair had accepted their fate, setting their sights on a wedding two-and-a-half years hence, as soon as possible after August 21, 1955 – Margaret’s 25th birthday.

When her much-anticipated birthday finally arrived, Margaret spent the day not in her lover’s arms but rowing across a loch at Balmoral with friends.

The 50,000-acre estate had attracted 300 or so reporters and photographers who had arrived to see the dramatic conclusion of what was, by now, widely regarded by the public as a fairytale romance. Would she sacrifice all – her position, her family and her fortune – for love? Or would she conform to religious, government and Royal convention and remain a forlorn, lonely Princess?

The world held its breath, waiting for a decision. Or as one newspaper insisted: ‘Come on Margaret! Please make up your mind!’

Inside one of Balmoral’s lodges, Margaret wrote down the reasons for and against the romance. ‘For: I couldn’t live without him.’ And against: ‘Because it does harm to the Queen.’

Days beforehand she had written to Prime Minister Anthony Eden. In a hugely significant and sensitive handwritten letter, which was made public 50 years after it was written, she made it clear that she planned to meet up with Townsend that autumn to see if the spark of love still remained after their two-year separation.

‘My dear Prime Minister,’ wrote Margaret. ‘I am writing to tell you, as far as I can, of my 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 – especially on my birthday on August 21 – 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. I do certainly hope to see him while he is there.

‘It is only by seeing him in this way that I feel I can properly decide whether I can marry him or not. At the end of 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.

‘The Queen, of course, knows I am writing to you about this but no one else does and as everything is so uncertain I know you will regard it certainly as a confidence.’

It was an extraordinarily candid and practical letter which gave the Prime Minister time to shape his own response. So when he arrived at Balmoral in early October for the annual traditional Prime Minister’s visit, he brought good news.

He had asked the Lord Chancellor, Lord Kilmuir, for his view on the Royal Marriages Act. In a scrawled response to Eden marked ‘Top Secret and Personal’, Kilmuir stated that the Act probably did not even apply to Princess Margaret.

‘This Act has no pride of ancestry, is badly drawn and uncertain and embarrassing in its effect,’ he wrote, adding that it was no longer ‘appropriate to modern conditions’. In other words, Margaret was free to marry Townsend.

He concluded: ‘I think that at least 75 per cent of the electorate would be in favour of the marriage being somehow allowed.’

Furthermore, Margaret was informed that she would keep her title, her Civil List payment – which, upon marriage, would increase to £15,000 (approximately £400,000 today) – and her Royal duties. At some point in the future, Townsend might even be given a title as well as his own official allowance.

The only sacrifice Margaret would have to make was to ask the Queen to remove her and her future children from the line of succession. As her chances of becoming monarch were remote, it was no hardship. The other stipulation was that she would have to marry in a civil ceremony.

As Paul Reynolds, a former BBC Royal correspondent, observed: ‘Far from opposing her sister’s marriage, the Queen’s attitude was summed up by Eden in a letter to Commonwealth prime ministers: ‘Her Majesty would not wish to stand in the way of her sister’s happiness.’

Princess Margaret, right, declared her love to Group Captain Peter Townsend, pictured rear, to her elder sister Elizabeth

Princess Margaret, right, declared her love to Group Captain Peter Townsend, pictured rear, to her elder sister Elizabeth

The next morning, October 13, Margaret returned from Balmoral to London by train. Once reunited with Townsend, the couple seemed blissfully happy in each other’s company, sharing intimate dinners at the homes of friends.

One friend later observed: ‘I had seen her in the company of several young escorts during her teens; and later, of course, Tony [Antony Armstrong-Jones, her future husband]. But she never was, or would be, so naturally suited to a man as she was to Peter. You simply could not doubt this was that once-in-a-lifetime love that we all dream about.’

This may well have been wishful thinking. The truth of the matter was that, as she had previously made clear to Eden, Margaret was no longer entirely sure of her feelings.

In the two years since they were forced to part, Townsend had altered. The man she first knew – the dashing fighter pilot who became a confidant of her beloved father – was now 40, stuck, through no fault of his own, in a dead-end job in Brussels and obsessed with his hobby as an amateur jockey. As she once said, somewhat rhetorically, to her official biographer Christopher Warwick: ‘How do you know after two years apart whether you do want to marry somebody?’

Eden, whose primary aim was ‘to protect the position of the Queen’, was, however, becoming concerned that further delay could damage the monarchy. He expressed his worries to Her Majesty’s new private secretary Sir Michael Adeane, who told him that ‘the Queen had done all that was possible to bring a decision nearer’.

On October 24, Margaret and Townsend met once again, feeling, in her own words, ‘thoroughly drained, thoroughly demoralised’.

Just 11 days after they had first seen one another following their mutual exile, they decided that they could no longer continue together.

In that brief time, they had mutually decided that their love no longer burnt as brightly as it had in the beginning.

Townsend drafted a statement outlining why they should not marry. When Margaret read it she told him: ‘That’s exactly how I feel.’

Townsend later recalled: ‘We looked at each other; there was a wonderful tenderness in her eyes which reflected, I suppose, the look in mine. We had reached the end of the road.’

Though there had been outside influences brought to bear, essentially the decision was theirs and theirs alone. During this entire saga, the Queen had been scrupulous in giving Margaret the opportunity to make her choice without undue pressure.

Not only were government mandarins working assiduously to give Margaret everything that would allow her to follow her heart but the Queen sought to make it absolutely clear that she and Margaret formed a united front, sisters together.

Behind the scenes, then, the true story was about the bond, rather than the breakage between sisters – about a key moment when the Queen was prepared to allow the Crown to be stained, if not irreparably, in order to secure her sister’s happiness.

As Reynolds said: ‘The Queen and Prime Minister Eden were working to facilitate Margaret’s romance with Townsend, not destroy it. The pervasive idea that Margaret was forced to give up her fighter pilot lover by the Queen and her advisers is a myth perpetuated in TV shows such as The Crown.’

As for Townsend, he appeared to be still labouring under the assumption that Margaret would have had to give up everything – her titles, money and Royal rights – to marry him.

As Paul Reynolds, a former BBC Royal correspondent, observed: ¿Far from opposing her sister¿s marriage, the Queen¿s attitude was summed up by Eden in a letter to Commonwealth prime ministers: ¿Her Majesty would not wish to stand in the way of her sister¿s happiness.¿

As Paul Reynolds, a former BBC Royal correspondent, observed: ‘Far from opposing her sister’s marriage, the Queen’s attitude was summed up by Eden in a letter to Commonwealth prime ministers: ‘Her Majesty would not wish to stand in the way of her sister’s happiness.’

‘There would be nothing left – except me, and I hardly possessed the weight to compensate for the loss of her privy purse and prestige,’ he later wrote. ‘It was too much to ask of her, too much for her to give. We should be left with nothing but our devotion to face the world.’

From this evidence, it seems that Margaret was not entirely forthcoming about the consequences they truly faced should they decide to marry. This perhaps explains why, for the rest of her life, she always brushed off questions about the crisis as something that happened a long time ago, most of which she had forgotten.

Warwick observes: ‘Indeed, in light of what we now know, the most obvious conclusion to be drawn is that her love for Townsend – and in all probability his love for her – was no longer as strong as it had once been and marriage was no longer an issue.’ Most likely the intention of her public renunciation, which would be accepted as fact for many decades, was simply to save face. ‘After all the hype and international press coverage… it could scarcely be publicly admitted that they had simply fallen out of love,’ says Warwick.

There is a further, intriguing twist to this romantic drama. It seems that during their years apart, Margaret may have been two-timing the Group Captain with a man who bore a remarkable resemblance to him. With his chiselled features and dreamy eyes, crooner Eddie Fisher could have been Townsend’s younger brother.

He met the Princess on numerous occasions during the early years of that decade. At one midnight gala, Margaret invited him to her table and asked him to sing or whisper his No 1 hit Outside Of Heaven into her ear.

They met again at a charity ball at the Dorchester hotel in 1953 and the following August, Fisher offered to delay his flight back to America if she wanted him to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to her – in person. Though she declined on that occasion, they were more intimate on others.

Years later, his daughter, Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher, revealed that the Princess and her father were lovers. ‘They had a beautiful romance,’ she admitted.

She first talked about her father’s affair at the Royal premiere of The Empire Strikes Back in London in 1980. As Princess Margaret walked along the receiving line, Carrie whispered to her co-stars, Sir Alec Guinness, Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill: ‘My father had sex with Princess Margaret. In a beautiful way they made love.’

As soon as she blurted out this family secret, she said: ‘I’m going to get into a lot of trouble for this.’

According to Fisher, their tryst took place when her father was 24 and Margaret was 22 – at the height of her romance with Townsend. If Carrie Fisher’s revelation is accurate, it would add a further question mark over Margaret’s long-term commitment to Townsend. The Princess’s personal correspondence with her fighter pilot lover lies classified to this day in the Royal archive at Windsor Castle, with strict instructions that it is not to be seen until 2030.

It may shed new light on the relationship. Until then, the ongoing and enduring speculation about a romance that has captured the imagination of generations of Royal watchers will no doubt continue unabated.

© Andrew Morton, 2021 

  • Abridged extract from Elizabeth & Margaret: The Intimate World Of The Windsor Sisters, by Andrew Morton, published by Michael O’Mara on Tuesday at £20. To pre-order a copy for £17.60, go to mailshop. co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193 before April 18. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.

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