How the Rogue Princess Margaret of ‘The Crown’ Went Off the Rails
A new documentary airing on PBS tracks a royal train wreck, from fairy tale to tragic end. It’s a cautionary tale for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
Toward the end of a major new two-part BBC documentary on Princess Margaret, airing on PBS this weekend, her chauffeur, David Griffin, appears.
Griffin is a jocular Cockney with the attitude of a man who has probably seen everything in the way that those who serve royalty often do. In the case of Princess Margaret there was a lot to see.
Griffin tells the story of taking the princess for a ride in her Rolls Royce in Windsor Great Park, the bucolic spread around Windsor Castle. With Margaret is the young man who was at the time referred to by the press as her toy boy, Roddy Llewellyn.
Margaret asks Griffin to pull up so that she and Llewellyn can go for a walk. A few minutes later another Rolls appears and pulls up alongside. It is the queen and she asks Griffin where Margaret is. He explains that she has gone for a walk.
Then, as he tells the story to Hannah Berryman, the documentary’s director, he gives a wink and says, “Well, I didn’t say she was with Roddy. She didn’t ask.”
He knew that the queen would not have been amused to know that the toy boy was taking a stroll with her sister; the monarch and her family detested Llewellyn and the queen would have felt like the royal park was being defiled by his presence.
But Griffin was always the discreet servant he was hired to be and, eventually, was called upon for a final act of discretion. When Margaret died of a stroke in 2002 he was instructed to destroy a large cache of her letters from the past decades.
“I stuffed them into some large Glad bags, chucked them in the bin and set fire to them. Whoosh! All gone!” he recounts.
There have been various phases in the life of the Windsors when document destruction has been necessary in order to protect the monarchy from scandal. The most serious came toward the end of World War II when Winston Churchill sent a special team into Germany as it fell to retrieve documents from the Nazi foreign ministry that recorded conversations between the Nazi leadership and the Duke of Windsor, from the time before the war when he openly consorted with Hitler.
David Griffin’s bonfire of the letters may seem minor in comparison but it mattered just as much to the royal family at that moment. Margaret’s last years were spent in a series of dissolute episodes and in the company of a bizarre cast of celebrities, rogues and ill-chosen lovers.
The documentary tracks the whole of Margaret’s life, a passage from fairy tale girlhood to nightmare burnout. It arrives at a good time to serve as a primer for the next season of Netflix’s version of the great royal soap opera, The Crown.
Earlier seasons have shown Margaret’s emergence from a barely-compliant prisoner of royal protocols into a slinky and highly-sexed libertine married to an equally louche Antony Armstrong-Jones. That version of Margaret was played with lubricious enthusiasm by Vanessa Kirby. The coming version will be played by Helena Bonham Carter, an entirely different prospect and one that seems perfectly fitted to Margaret’s highly combustible middle age.
The Crown has bought into the theme that the life of the queen’s younger sister began as a tragic story of young love thwarted by institutional forces beyond her control. Margaret took a great deal of trouble to cultivate this belief and The Crown provides a suitably Victorian villain, replete with moustache, the courtier Tommy Lascelles.
A teenage Margaret fell in love with a divorced man who was 15 years older than she was, RAF Group Captain Peter Townsend, an aide to Margaret’s father, King George VI. The romance ended in 1955 when Margaret made what seemed a self-sacrificial statement that there would be no marriage because of the “Church’s teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble.”
That cemented a view that persisted for decades of Margaret as the victim. But it was a view that was seriously undermined in 2004 when state papers, embargoed for 50 years, revealed that Margaret had written to the prime minister at the time, Anthony Eden, saying that she was no longer certain that she wanted to marry Townsend. It was inconvenient news to Eden, himself divorced with a younger wife, who had boldly decided to support the marriage.
Once Townsend confessed to the romance, Lascelles had sent him into exile for two years as a diplomat in Brussels, with a promise that after that time the question of marriage would be reconsidered. During that interregnum Margaret gathered around her a nocturnal crowd that was dubbed “The Margaret Set” and she began to a have a lot of fun. Suddenly the prospect of marriage to Townsend would have looked like the end of fun.
Later, as the documentary explores in detail, Margaret fell into the embrace of the swinging young photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones – “snapshot Tony” as a disapproving toff observes – and, once they wed, the fun went way beyond conventional ideas of marriage.
In the documentary Griffin’s bracing below-stairs observations of Margaret are counterpoised with those of people at the other social extreme, those of high enough rank to see and collude with her adventures as her marriage with Armstrong-Jones breaks down and she – like him – goes trawling for sex.
The best of these observers come from the curious entourage of blue-bloods that obliges the royals by serving as a voluntary concierge service, particularly women with titles like lady-in-waiting, lady of the royal bedchamber and woman of the royal bed chamber.
Of these the star is without doubt Lady Anne Glenconner, the wife of the man who for most of his life played host and ringmaster to Margaret’s mobile palace of personal pleasures and debauchery, Colin Tennant, aka Lord Glenconner.
Lady Glenconner begins in cautious mode. Talking about her early life as a debutante among the Margaret crowd she denies that there was any precocious sex—it was only “heavy petting” or “snogging.” Those 1950s constraints disappear totally in the swinging ’60s.
As she explains, the two poles of the Glenconners’ social world are a great Scottish house, Glen, and the Caribbean island of Mustique where on a piece of his own land Tennant built a handsome villa for Margaret as a wedding present.
Later, with the marriage foundering, Lady Glenconner invites Margaret to a weekend house party at Glen and suddenly finds herself short of a male who can pair with the princess. (She never uses the term stud but it’s pretty obvious this is the idea.) Roddy Llewellyn, totally unknown to Margaret, is recruited. When he arrives Margaret asks if he has brought swimming trunks. It being Scotland, he has not, but the Glen pool is heated. Margaret takes him shopping and selects a scanty garment, little more than Y-fronts, imprinted with the Union Jack.
Margaret is 43, Roddy 26. She is far more sexually experienced than he is. The more she sees of him, the more she wants him and, in the eyes of discomfited friends becomes a defiant defender of him—a kind of protectress.
Roddy had so far led a rootless life, keeping afloat with the help of friends and a small inheritance. He found a creative outlet in landscaping and was proud of work he had done for a commune that occupied a remote run-down 47-acre farm in Wiltshire without any working plumbing.
Despite the primitive conditions it was a summer idyll for Roddy and he took Margaret to see it. What followed is the most incongruous episode in the Margaret saga, the discovery by the press that she was staying in what they described as an “upper-class hippie commune.”
The plumbing was fixed and a bedroom prepared specially for the couple. Margaret arrived with her usual wardrobe, including pearls that she wore to dinner. A news clip from the time, included in the documentary, shows some of the residents dressed in what appear to be medieval animal skins.
Barely glimpsed in the documentary but an evanescent presence in this train wreck of a life is Princess Diana. Margaret was no fan. She did not share the pain of her death. She disapproved of Diana’s candor in revealing to the whole world that there were three people in her marriage, the third being Prince Charles’s mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles and she seemed to resent how public support had swung so decisively to Diana and away from the queen and Charles. Margaret herself never earned that kind of public love.
At Diana’s funeral it was noticed that Margaret did not lower her head as the cortege passed. Afterward she directed that all the surviving correspondence between Diana and her mother, the Queen Mother, should be destroyed – suggesting that there had been a mutual sympathy between them, as well as reflecting the customary Windsor habit of burning letters.
The last act of the documentary unfolds in bathos. One of Margaret’s constant friends recalls an incident in Mustique in which she found Margaret lying with badly scalded feet in bath water that was far too hot. When she returned to London Griffin, who collected her from the airport, noticed the bandaged feet. It was suspected that she suffered a minor stroke.
“She started to go downhill after that,” notes the friend who, with the help of a servant had rescued Margaret from a steam-filled bathroom.
The paparazzi frequently tried to invade Mustique by boat. A special police unit was based there to make sure they were kept away, just one example of the expense to the British state of protecting her. Lady Anne, sitting on the deck of the villa overlooking wind-whipped water, enjoys explaining another protection that cost nothing: the frequently turbulent Caribbean waters that made it impossible for photographers with long lenses to get a steady platform for intrusive shots.
Eventually Tennant burned through a large family fortune and had to sell up his land holdings in Mustique, including Margaret’s villa. This provides a wonderful moment of egalitarian progress on an island otherwise unused to it.
The buyer is an engaging character named Basil Charles, a native of Mustique whom we have first met as the barman in a beach-side watering hole when Margaret set up residence on the island. He explains that he introduced the Margaret crowd to calypso and reggae.
The music had stopped for Tennant but Lady Anne notes without chagrin “Basil’s probably richer than we are now.” Basil confirms that his good fortune is beyond his wildest dreams.
Finally, a declaration of personal involvement. I am one of the talking heads in the documentary, mostly as a witness to Margaret’s early life and as a journalist colleague of Armstrong-Jones.
While debunking the way Margaret gained sympathy by bravely renouncing marriage to Townsend my concluding verdict is that she was still a lifelong victim of that huge public crisis when she was very young. It turned her into a world celebrity in a way that no princess before her had experienced. Thereafter the pursuit of celebrities became a tabloid industry for which royals are often the most sought-after bait.
Margaret’s marriage to Armstrong-Jones was used at the time as an attempt at rebranding the monarchy. Her husband had to work for a living, a novelty that the public welcomed. For a brief time they seemed to embody the idea that a new generation was shaking up the palace. But it was too big a burden for them to carry off with any conviction and Margaret never found stable ground outside the cage she had escaped from.
She died at the age of 71, a sad figure overshadowed by a sister who became Britain’s longest reigning monarch. But I do believe that by kicking over the traces in the way she did Margaret opened the way for the present Windsor princesses to become as free of constraining protocols as they are.