On this day in history : 31st October 1955 – Princess Margaret announces that she will not be marrying Group Captain Peter Townsend….
A brief statement from the Princess was broadcast on the radio during the evening – read by the BBC’s John Snagge – it came as an interruption to the normal programme schedule….
Princess Margaret and Group Captain Townsend had first met when she was just 14-years-old…. He was Equerry to her father, King George VI – and twice her age, married, with two children….
Townsend filed for divorce in November 1952 after his wife had an affair…. It was also around this time that Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend fell in love…. The relationship became known to the public after Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation in June 1953; a newspaper reporter noticed Princess Margaret flick a piece of fluff from Townsend’s uniform jacket – an intimate gesture between two people who are obviously close to one another…. The story broke in newspapers all around the world….
In an effort to dampen the Press interest, in what was viewed as a scandal, Group Captain Townsend was sent to Brussels on a two year posting as an air attaché at the British Embassy…. Princess Margaret, being under the age of 25, had to have the consent of the Queen to marry a divorced man…. The Queen, being the Head of the Church of England, was in a difficult position – the Church was firmly against a union between the pair…. If Princess Margaret had been over the age of 25, she would need the approval of the Government…. Prime Minister Winston Churchill advised this would be highly unlikely…. Amongst the general public there was much support for the couple….
Even with Townsend away in Brussels speculation surrounding their relationship continued…. The couple reunited in 1955, at the end of his posting…. Princess Margaret was now over the age of 25…. Anthony Eden was now Prime Minister – and under his direction it was decided that if she were to insist on marrying Group Captain Townsend she would be stripped of all her royal privileges; this included her home and her income….
It had always been assumed Princess Margaret, torn between royal duty and the man she loved, had bowed to pressure from the Church, Parliament and her sister, the Queen…. However, in 2009 a handwritten letter from Princess Margaret to Prime Minister Anthony Eden was discovered….which shed a somewhat different light…. The letter, dated 15th August 1955, suggests that she was uncertain of her love for Townsend – and that she needed time to decide what to do…. She told the Prime Minister she hoped to be in a position to inform him and other Commonwealth Prime Ministers of her intentions at the end of October or early November….
“Mindful of the Church’s teachings that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put the considerations before others”….
But actually, regardless of the wording of her statement, it seems the decision was hers – and hers alone….
In May 1960 Princess Margaret married photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones (to become Lord Snowdon) – but they divorced in 1978….(the first royal divorce since King Henry VIII)….
Princess Margaret died in February 2002 – she was 71…. Group Captain Townsend had died seven years earlier, aged 80….