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The Unconventional Life of Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon

Madeline Hiltz
(Photo Credit: Mara Vivat/ Getty Images)

The Royal Family has always had controversial members. Long before Princess Diana defied royal tradition and Prince Harry went through his wild party years, another Royal Family member captured the world’s attention. Queen Elizabeth’s younger sister, Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, was arguably one of the most popular royals of all time. Throughout her life, Princess Margaret made worldwide headlines for her scandalous love affairs, her party-girl reputation, and her strong personality.

Princess Margaret’s early life

Photograph of Princess Margaret taken in the 1940s

Photograph of Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, taken in the 1940s. (Photo Credit: AFP via Getty Images)

Princess Margaret’s full name was Princess Margaret Rose Windsor, Countess of Snowdon. She was born on August 21, 1930 at Glamis Castle in Scotland, making her the first royal child to be born in Scotland in more than 300 years. She was the second daughter of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (later known as “The Queen Mother”). Her older sister was Queen Elizabeth II. Interestingly, Princess Margaret’s birth registration was delayed for several days to “avoid her being number 13 in the parish register.”

Princess Margaret’s life drastically changed in 1936 when her uncle, King Edward VIII, abdicated the throne to marry Wallis Simpson. After her father ascended the throne as King George VI, her older sister Elizabeth became the heir presumptive. Although Princess Margaret was second in line for the throne, she often found her secondary role in the royal family challenging to accept.

Princess Margaret and Queen Elizabeth on bicycles

Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret pose on bicycles in Windsor, England on April 4, 1942. (Photo Credit: Lisa Sheridan/ Stringer/ Getty Images)

After their father became King, Princess Margaret and Princess Elizabeth were moved to Buckingham Palace. However, during the Second World War, the royal sisters were moved to Windsor Castle, just outside London. During the Second World War, Princess Margaret was not expected to undertake any public or official duties. However, she managed to stay busy at Windsor Castle by putting on pantomimes at Christmas, meeting important figures including General Eisenhower and Eleanor Roosevelt, and entertaining young guards’ officers stationed at the Castle.

“The Margaret Set”

Princess Margaret at the premiere of Hamlet, 1953

Princess Margaret at the premiere of Hamlet, 1954. (Photo Credit: ullstein bild Dtl./ Getty Images)

The press began taking an interest in Princess Margaret’s social life in the late 1940s. By the 1950s, Princess Margaret had solidified herself as one of the world’s most eligible socialites. She was physically beautiful, with bright blue eyes, and began socializing in high society among celebrities and young aristocrats. According to Princess Margaret’s authorized biographer, Christopher Warwick, “there were only two women that the international press were interested in, and that was Princess Margaret and Elizabeth Taylor.”

The Margaret Set was a group of Princess Margaret’s close friends during the 1950s. The group was almost entirely male, and engagement or romance rumors between Princess Margaret and numerous male members of her friend group were often reported. Princess Margaret was rumored to have had alleged romances with more than 30 young bachelors who were part of the famed Margaret Set.

Controversial romance with Peter Townsend

Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend

Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend, circa 1955. (Photo Credit: ullstein bild Dtl./ Getty Images)

Princess Margaret is perhaps best known for her many failed love affairs and romantic scandals that infiltrated their way into the worldwide press. Princess Margaret’s most famous love affair involved a much older man named Peter Townsend.

Unlike her sister, Princess Margaret had no pressure to immediately marry – hence, why the media often linked her to so many eligible bachelors. Princess Margaret first met Peter Townsend when she was 14-years-old, though their romance didn’t start until the princess was 22-years-old. Peter Townsend was 16 years older than Princess Margaret and was an officer of honor to King George VI from 1944 to 1952.

Townsend was married with two children when he and Princess Margaret fell in love. It is unclear when exactly Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend began their affair. Some reports suggest that Peter Townsend and Princess Margaret were romantically involved with each other as early as 1947 when Princess Margaret was just 17 years old. However, more likely is that the couple grew closer after the death of Princess Margaret’s father in 1952.

Princess Margaret at the British Industries Fair as Peter Townsend looks on

Princess Margaret at the British Industries Fair at Olympia, London. Captain Peter Townsend, the divorced Royal Air Force captain she was later refused permission to marry, stands in the background. (Photo Credit: Keystone/ Stringer/ Getty Images)

In November 1952, Peter Townsend filed for a divorce from his wife. Less than a year later, in April 1953, Peter Townsend asked Princess Margaret to marry him. Although Princess Margaret accepted his marriage proposal, she also had to get permission from her older sister, Queen Elizabeth II, because she was under the age of 25.

The couple’s decision to marry sparked a battle between the government and the British public. The Church of England had strict rules about divorce (that have since been overturned), making it difficult for Queen Elizabeth II, who was head of the Church of England, to give Princess Margaret permission to marry Peter Townsend. Princess Margaret also needed Parliament’s approval to marry Townsend. It didn’t help that Prime Minister Winston Churchill made it clear that his cabinet would not approve of the marriage.

After the couple announced their engagement, the British government sent Townsend away to work as an air attaché for the British Embassy in Brussels. Separated for two years, the couple reunited in 1955. Despite Princess Margaret now being 25, they were still denied the right to marry. The British government decided that if Princess Margaret was set on marrying Peter Townsend, she would have to give up her royal title, royal privileges, and income. On October 31, 1955, Princess Margaret announced that she would not marry Peter Townsend.

Marriage to and divorce from Anthony Armstrong-Jones

Princess Margaret on her wedding day to Anthony Jones

Princess Margaret and her new husband Antony Armstrong-Jones leave Westminister Abbey after their wedding, May 6, 1960. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

Princess Margaret was reportedly heartbroken after her engagement with Peter Townsend ended. Once again, Princess Margaret found herself as the most eligible bachelorette in all of England. Three years after she announced the end of her engagement to Peter Townsend, Princess Margaret met her future husband, Anthony Armstrong-Jones, at a dinner party.

It wasn’t until Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones announced their engagement on February 26, 1960, that the world realized Princess Margaret had been seeing someone. After seeing Princess Margaret’s first engagement end in heartbreak, Queen Elizabeth II wanted her younger sister to be happy, and was delighted to see Princess Margaret settling down.

Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones wed on May 6, 1960 at Westminster Abbey. Notably, theirs was the first royal wedding to be broadcasted on television. An estimated 300 million people tuned in worldwide to watch Princess Margaret wed Anthony Armstrong-Jones.

Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones

Princess Margaret with her husband, born Antony Armstrong-Jones, photographer Lord Snowdon attend Badminton Horse Trials on April 18, 1970 in Badminton, England. (Photo Credit: Anwar Hussein/ WireImage/ Getty Images)

After the couple returned from their honeymoon, Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones moved into Kensington Palace. In 1961, Anthony Armstrong-Jones was given the title Earl of Snowdon. After her marriage, Princess Margaret retained the title, Her Royal Highness, Princess Margaret. She also became known as Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, or alternatively just Countess of Snowdon.

Queen Elizabeth II never made Princess Margaret a Duchess even though members of the Royal Family typically receive a dukedom when they tie the knot. Technically, a Countess rank is lower than a Duchess rank.

Princess Margaret with Lord Snowdon and their two children

Princess Margare with Lord Snowdon at Kensington Palace with their son David and their daughter Sarah, circa 1964. (Photo Credit: Fox Photos/ Getty Images)

The Earl and Countess of Snowdon had two children together. Their son, David, was born on November 3, 1961, and their daughter, Sarah, was born on May 1, 1964. After Sarah’s birth, signs began to show that the marriage was falling apart. Both Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones had extramarital affairs and grew apart.

In 1976, Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones separated. Two years later, in 1978, it was announced that the couple was divorcing. Kennington Palace announced, “Her Royal Highness The Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, and the Earl of Snowdon, after two years of separation, have agreed that their marriage should be formally ended.” This was the first royal divorce since Henry VIII divorced Anne of Cleves in 1540.

Princess Margaret’s health problems

Princess Margaret smoking at a Gala

Princess Margaret Smoking At A Gala Dinner For The Aids Crisis Trust, circa 1991. (Photo Credit: Tim Graham/ Getty Images)

Princess Margaret was diagnosed with hepatitis and gastroenteritis in 1978. This marked the first of many illnesses the princess would have to deal with for the rest of her life. Princess Margaret was both a heavy smoker and heavy drinker.

She started smoking cigarettes when she was a teenager, but it was only after her father’s death that her smoking became a serious addiction. Famously, Princess Margaret smoked up to 60 Chesterfield cigarettes a day at one point. During her marriage, she began chain-smoking in bed. Her breakfast consisted of vodka, and her lunches revolved around glasses of wine.

Princess Margaret talking to Elton John, 1974

Princess Margaret speaking to singer-songwriter Elton John at an event in 1974. On the right is actress Nanette Newman. (Photo Credit: David Cairns/ Stringer/ Getty Images)

In 1984, Princess Margaret’s hepatitis returned, forcing her to stop drinking. One year later, in 1985, Princess Margaret underwent an emergency lung surgery in which doctors had to remove part of her left lung. The tissue taken from her left lung was benign, but this cancer scare did make Princess Margaret give up smoking. However, three months after the operation, Princess Margaret was back to smoking nearly 30 cigarettes a day.

Princess Margaret finally gave up smoking cigarettes for good in 1993 after she was hospitalized with pneumonia. She suffered her first of many strokes in 1998 while vacationing on the Caribbean island Mustique. One year later, Princess Margaret sustained long-lasting injuries after suffering badly scalded feet while getting into a bath. Though she recovered from this injury, Princess Margaret was typically seen in a wheelchair during any public appearances from that point forward.

Princess Margaret in a wheelchair, 1991

Princess Margaret making a rare public appearance, in her wheelchair, for part of her visit to the Chelsea Harbour Design Centre, London, circa 1999. (Photo Credit: John Stillwell – PA Images/ Getty Images)

In April 2001, Princess Margaret partially lost her vision. This loss of eyesight was thought to have been a lasting side effect from the number of strokes she had suffered.

Princess Margaret not only suffered from physical health problems but also mental health problems. Reports have suggested that Princess Margaret attempted to end her life in 1974, when she took an overdose of sleeping pills.

Princess Margaret in a wheelchair at the Queen Mother's 101st birthday

Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother with (L-R) Prince of Wales, Prince William, Prince Harry and Princess Margaret (in wheelchair) outside Clarence House, London, on the day of her 101st birthday, August 2001. (Photo Credit: Tony Harris – PA Images/ Getty Images)

Her staff was unable to wake her the next day, but both the Royal Family and Princess Margaret herself denied ever being suicidal. Princess Margaret later explained, “I was so exhausted because of everything that all I wanted to do was sleep… and I did, right through to the following afternoon.” In the 1970s, Princess Margaret was treated for depression by psychiatrist Mark Collins from the Priory Clinic. Collins is known for treating celebrities and helping them with mental health issues.

Princess Margaret passed away on February 9, 2002, at King Edward VII’s Hospital in London at the age of 71. She died in her sleep after suffering another stroke.

Portrayal in The Crown

Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret

Actress Vanessa Kirby portraying Princess Margaret in The Crown. (Photo Credit: Netflix/ MovieStills DB)

Princess Margaret has been portrayed in a number of different television shows and movies. Most recently was Princess Margaret’s portrayal on the hit Netflix series, The Crown.

More from us: How Does ‘The Crown’ Stack Up To The Real-Life Royal Family?

Actress Vanessa Kirby played a young Princess Margaret for the first two seasons of The Crown. Actress Helena Bonham Carter played an aging Princess Margaret for seasons three and four of the television show. Actress Lesley Manville will play Princess Margaret for the final two seasons of The Crown.