Princess Margaret – The Forgotten Casualty of Edward VIII’s Abdication

Much has been written about the devastating effect Edward VIII’s shock abdication had upon the House of Windsor: his mother, Queen Mary, found it extremely difficult to come to terms with the fact that her eldest son had abandoned his Crown in order to marry an American divorcee; while Bertie, his younger brother, having been forced onto the throne in Edward’s place, was so overwhelmed by the weight of responsibility thrust so unexpectedly upon his shoulders that many believe it hastened his early demise.  And, of course, there was the ten-year-old Princess Elizabeth, who suddenly found herself occupying the unenviable position of heiress presumptive.

But there was another, often-overlooked, member of the Windsor household who suffered greatly as a result of Edward’s renunciation of the throne – Princess Elizabeth’s younger sister, Princess Margaret Rose.

Born on 21 August 1930 at Glamis Castle in Scotland, the ancestral home of her mother’s family (and which is also famous for being the fictional home of the eponymous character in Shakespeare’s Macbeth), Princess Margaret Rose was the second daughter of Bertie, the Duke of York and his wife, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon.  From a very young age, it was obvious that Margaret Rose, headstrong and unruly, was markedly different in temperament to her more dutiful and obedient older sister.  But despite her naughtiness, or perhaps because of it, Margaret Rose was the apple of her father’s eye, and grew used to being the centre of attention within the close-knit household.

Abdication

This all changed, however, with her uncle’s abdication in December 1936 and her father’s ascension to the throne as King George VI.  Almost overnight, the family dynamic changed.  Suddenly, the focus shifted from the six-year-old Margaret to Elizabeth – with her older sibling now expected to one day become Queen, Margaret found herself, for the first time in her life, relegated to wings of the Windsor family drama – quite a rude awakening for someone who had grown so used to the spotlight.

One area in which this divergence in the sisters’ relative importance became obvious was in their schooling.  Initially, neither Elizabeth nor Margaret received much in the way of formal education, aside from sporadic lessons from their governess in basic subjects like reading, writing, mathematics, and later French, with a little history and geography thrown in for good measure.

Education fit for a princess?

But for Elizabeth, at least, this all changed after 1936.  As heiress presumptive, it was now imperative that she receive an education which would adequately prepare her for her future role as Queen, and so she began taking intensive lessons from the Vice-Provost of Eton College, Sir Henry Marten.  Elizabeth was instructed on a variety of difficult subjects including constitutional history, the role of monarchy, and parliamentary procedures. Her father also took an interest in Elizabeth’s training, allowing her to look over his shoulder as he studied State papers, as well as quietly coaching her on the monarch’s duties and responsibilities.  Unfortunately for Margaret, although she was bright, it was not deemed necessary that she receive the same lessons as her sibling, and the exclusion irked her.   In fact, she would bemoan her lack of education long into adulthood.

The inequity of the sisters’ circumstances only grew more pronounced as time went on – as Elizabeth’s star continued in its ascendancy, Margaret (who dropped her second name ’Rose’ in 1947) found herself fading further and further into the background.  And then, in February 1952, another calamity struck which once again threw the young woman’s life in chaos – the unexpected death of her father, George VI.

Clarence House

With Elizabeth now installed on the throne as Queen, Margaret was obliged to move out of Buckingham Palace, her home for the past 16 years, and settle with her newly-widowed mother in nearby Clarence House.  And while some would say this was not a hardship by conventional standards, it is easy to see how it would appear to be yet another blow to a woman who felt she had little control over the direction of her life.

The next great disappointment in Margaret’s life came in the form of Group Captain Peter Townsend, her first (and some would say only) great love, with whom she had an ill-fated romance in the early 1950s.  The relationship between Margaret and Townsend was greatly frowned upon in royal circles, not least because of Townsend’s status as a divorcé.  By now, most senior members of the Royal Family, especially Margaret’s mother, harboured an absolute horror of divorce, thanks in large part to the memory of the devastation wreaked on the House of Windsor by Edward VIII’s love for his divorced mistress (and now wife), Wallis Simpson.  In the end, opposition to the relationship between Margaret and Townsend was so great that the couple eventually abandoned plans to marry in 1955 – highlighting the fact that, almost two decades after the event, her uncle’s abdication continued to cast a long shadow over the Princess’s life.

Earl Snowdon

Five years later, in February 1960, Margaret announced her engagement to the society photographer, Antony Armstrong-Jones, later Earl Snowdon.  The pair married on 6 May the same year at Westminster Abbey and went on to have two children, David and Sarah, before divorcing in May 1978, amid accusations of infidelity on both sides.  For the rest of her days, despite indulging in numerous love affairs, her decision not to marry Townsend loomed like a spectre over Margaret’s life, with many commentators posing the question: ‘what if?’

However, despite the many blows dealt her, Margaret did manage to fashion a fulfilling life for herself, mainly through her charity work which saw her lend her support to many causes, particularly those concerned with the welfare of young children.  Margaret was patron or president to over 80 charitable organisations, including the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).  In addition to her philanthropic work, she also provided support to the Queen, representing her on many foreign visits.

In later years, Margaret spent much of her time on the Caribbean island of Mustique, where she had a holiday home. But, in the last two decades of her life, her health steadily deteriorated. A heavy smoker since the age of 15, she was forced to undergo an operation to remove part of her lung in 1985. In February 1998, she suffered a mild stroke, and a year later a bathroom accident caused severe burns to her feet. A number of mini-strokes followed, which left the princess confined to a wheelchair, all but paralysed on her left side.

Princess Margaret’s last public appearance was in December 2001, when she joined the 100th birthday celebrations for her aunt, HRH Princess Alice of Gloucester. She died in her sleep at 6.30 am on 9 February 2002, at King Edward VII’s Hospital for Officers, aged seventy-one. Her body was cremated and her ashes interred next to the bodies of her father and mother (who died less than two months later) at St George’s Chapel in the grounds of Windsor Castle.

Sinead Fitzgibbon
Read more in The Queen: History In An Hour published by Harper Press