Princess Margaret & Peter Townsend: All The Details About Their Relationship

When we think about royal romances, the love stories of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle and Prince William and Princess Catherine come to mind. Not only are they two of the more recent royals to tie the knot, but their marriages were celebrated worldwide and the weddings themselves were illustrious events. Some Royal romances, however, weren't so lucky. King Charles and Princess Diana, for example, had one of the most high-profile wars within the firm that led to the then-heir to the throne getting divorced — a huge no-no. But his path forward was arguably carved for him by none other than his aunt, Princess Margaret, the royal maverick whose own strenuous love life and divorce cracked the royal mold on its head.

Any fan of "The Crown" Season 1 knows that Margaret went against royal traditions in more ways than one, but her romance with Group Captain Peter Townsend was one of the most rule-breaking relationships in modern royal history. Not only was their age gap immense, but Townsend's status as a divorcee threw hurdle after hurdle in the couple's way. Margaret and Townsend never made it down the aisle together nor had a royal wedding. Instead, they sacrificed their love for one another in the name of duty to the crown. It is, easily, one of the saddest stories to come out of the firm to date.

Margaret and Peter met when she was a teenager

One aspect of royal life that has remained true for years is that the family is often surrounded by members of their staff. This can range from secretaries to assistants, and when a young Princess Margaret met Peter Townsend, he was working as King George VI's equerry — basically, a senior personal assistant who oversees all aspects of a royal's life. His access to the most intimate moments within the royal family certainly cannot be overstated. Margaret's father and his two daughters went on a three-month-long South African tour in 1947, when she and Townsend connected in a different, more romantic way (via Radio Times). Margaret was just 17 at the time, 16 years younger than Townsend, and though the two had crossed paths before given his role within the family, the trip solidified their connection.

In her biography of Margaret, journalist Anne de Courcy detailed the princess saying of their time on tour: "We rode together every morning in that wonderful country, with marvellous weather. That's when I really fell in love with him" (via Radio Times). As further noted by People, the two were said to have adjoining rooms on a trip to Belfast that same year, and once Margaret's father died and Townsend was promoted within Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother's household, the pair became closer than ever.

Peter divorced his wife in 1952 and proposed to Margaret in 1953

Though Queen Elizabeth's children certainly normalized divorce within the royal family, it was — and still is — seen as a last resort. Princess Margaret arguably paved the way for her niece and nephews to break the royal romance mold, and in 1952, Peter Townsend divorced his wife and proposed to Margaret shortly thereafter. As noted by the BBC, Townsend cited adultery on his wife's part as the reason for the divorce, and the romance between him and Margaret blossomed thereafter.

But, in a biography released about the princess entitled "Ma'am Darling: 99 Glimpses Of Princess Margaret," Colin Brown detailed that Margaret and Townsend's timeline started much earlier than 1952/1953, and though they had already been in each other's lives since the princess was a teenager, their romance allegedly began during that aforementioned trip to Belfast (via People). Margaret and Townsend were said to have begun their affair all the way back in October of 1947, five years before he divorced his wife. At the time of the trip, Townsend was 32 years old and a father of two children — Margaret was still 17. Margaret was sent to Belfast, Northern Ireland, to christen her very first ship, and Townsend was right alongside her.

There was a catch that prevented Margaret from marrying right away

You'd think that the day you say "yes" to marrying someone would be the happiest of your life, but for Princess Margaret, it was anything but. There were multiple hurdles that stood in the way of her and Peter Townsend's happiness, namely his status as a divorcee. As noted by the BBC, the government — then run by Prime Minister Winston Churchill — and the Church of England looked unfavorably on divorce and as such would not allow Margaret and Townsend to marry. 

Yet another aspect that stood in the couple's way was Margaret's age — at just 23 years old, she fell uniquely under the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 and required Queen Elizabeth's permission to marry Townsend. As the head of the Church of England, the queen was in a difficult position and instead informed her sister — along with the English government — to wait until she turned 25. That way, the Royal Marriages Act wouldn't apply to her so harshly and she could decide for herself.

Although two years passed and Margaret and Townsend pushed their impending nuptials, Elizabeth still refused to grant the couple permission. This forced Margaret's hand, and she once again returned to the British government for leniency. As the BBC detailed, however, Prime Minister Anthony Eden was now in power, and he had been through a divorce himself. There seemed to be a glimmer of hope.

More barriers stood in Margaret and Peter's way

Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend made it through a number of hurdles early on in their relationship, but even after she turned 25, Margaret faced barriers from both Queen Elizabeth and Parliament. As noted by People, she still needed consent from the government to marry Townsend, and it became crystal clear that they would not permit her to marry without meeting a certain number of caveats.

Though she had sympathy from Anthony Eden, the then-prime minister who had been divorced and remarried (via the BBC), there was only so much he could do. In order to appease the princess and allow her to marry Townsend, Eden agreed to change the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, excluding Margaret and any of her future children from the line of succession. By doing so, Margaret and Townsend would no longer need her sister's stamp of approval and, surprisingly, the queen agreed to the amendment. "Her Majesty would not wish to stand in the way of her sister's happiness," Eden wrote to his fellow politicians when proposing the change. "Exclusion from the succession would not entail any other change in Princess Margaret's position as a member of the royal family," he concluded.

Margaret and Townsend finally saw a path forward, but was it too much for the princess to give up in exchange for her love?

The princess finally ended their engagement in 1955

Though Queen Elizabeth and Parliament gave Princess Margaret a way forward so she could marry Peter Townsend, it would've required her to give up her and her future children's positions in the line of succession. It seemingly was too monumental of a position to give up, and on October 31, 1955, Margaret announced to the Commonwealth that her engagement to Townsend was over (via iNews). Margaret's decision was hers and her to make alone, and even though there was a possibility she and Townsend could have a life together, she ultimately put duty to the monarchy — and to her sister — over her relationship.

"I would like it to be known that I have decided not to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend," Margaret announced (via iNews) on that fateful day, acknowledging that a path forward had been presented to her, however with consequences. "I have been aware that, subject to my renouncing my rights of succession, it might have been possible for me to contract a civil marriage," she continued. "But mindful of the Church's teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before any others."

What severed Margaret and Peter's relationship for good?

Though Princess Margaret was the party responsible for announcing the end of her engagement to Peter Townsend after years of hurdles, barriers, and familial tension, there are some conflicting accounts as to who broke up with whom. Of course, as aforementioned in her statement, Margaret announced that she had ended things with her late father's equerry. But, as reported by iNews, some have indicated that Townsend was the one to call things off given how much was on the line for the princess. 23 years later, he released his autobiography and addressed going their separate ways for the first time.

"She could have married me only if she had been prepared to give up everything — her position, her prestige, her privy purse," Townsend wrote in his autobiography, as noted by Harper's Bazaar. "I simply hadn't the weight, I knew it, to counterbalance all she would have lost," he continued.

Further reflecting on their difficult decision to end their love story before their marriage even began, Townsend recalled the moment when they both knew that they had to pull the plug on their relationship, even coming up with Margaret's announcement together. "When it was done, we looked at each other. There was a wonderful tenderness in her eyes which reflected, I suppose, the look in mine," Townsend wrote (via The Telegraph).

Peter relocated shortly after things ended with Margaret

To say that Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend's relationship was disruptive is a bit of an understatement. After the two went their separate ways, Margaret returned to her habits — indulging in her illustrious life as always — and Townsend said goodbye to the United Kingdom. After years of working for the royals in an incredibly close capacity, Townsend picked up his things and moved to Belgium, and for a good reason. 

As noted by The New York Times, the romance between Margaret and Townsend had been the biggest hurdle the royals endured since King Edward VIII abdicated the throne so he could marry divorcee Wallis Simpson — still too fresh in the public's memory, the public didn't exactly like Townsend.

After staying in Belgium for a time, Townsend once again relocated, this time choosing France as his destination. Apart from releasing his autobiography in 1978, he lived a relatively quiet life. He got remarried in 1959 to Marie Luce Jamagne, who some even say shared a striking resemblance to Margaret (via The New York Times). The couple went on to have two children.

Margaret later got married, but for an unlikely reason

Just as Peter Townsend got remarried, marriage was on Princess Margaret's mind. After her engagement came to an end, the princess was feeling the clock ticking louder and louder — at 26, she was starting to push the age slightly of when she could tie the knot with an eligible bachelor. 

As noted by The Telegraph, only one man in her immediate circle of friends wasn't in a relationship, a one Billy Wallace. He proposed to Margaret on a number of occasions, and she finally agreed, telling her friends, "[It's better] to marry somebody one at least liked." Their engagement was over in a flash, however, when Wallace had a brief affair while on vacation. Next on the princess' radar was Antony Armstrong-Jones, a photographer she had crossed paths with. Surprising just about everyone with the news, Margaret kept their relationship under the radar given the media scrutiny she was receiving at the time — the two eventually got married, but not for the reason you may think.

Shortly before Margaret and Armstrong-Jones got engaged, the princess had gotten wind of Townsend's engagement to Marie Luce Jamagne, leading some of her inner circle to believe that she only accepted Armstrong-Jones' proposal because of her ex's plans (via The Telegraph). Margaret maintained that she knew an engagement with Armstrong-Jones was just around the corner, but it certainly begs questions about its timing.

Peter further reflected on their relationship in his 1978 memoir

For so long, it seemed as though details about Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend's relationship would only exist in whispers and stolen moments. So much happened behind closed doors, was spread over continents, and was ultimately sacrificed to the firm's rules. However, in 1978, Townsend opened up about a number of aspects of their relationship in his autobiography, "Time and Chance," recounting not only the process that went into their breakup but also what it was like to fall in love with the princess.

After her father died and the two started spending even more time together, Townsend and Margaret's feelings developed at pretty much the same rate — luckily for them, it happened at the same time, too. "It was then that we made the mutual discovery of how much we meant to one another," he wrote (via Today). "She listened, without uttering a word, as I told her, very quietly, of my feelings. Then she simply said: 'That is exactly how I feel, too.'"

Just as he shared what it was like to develop feelings for Margaret, Townsend also shared how difficult it was to pull the veil over their relationship. "We had reached the end of the road, our feelings for one another were unchanged, but they had incurred for us a burden so great that we decided together to lay it down," he wrote (via The Telegraph).

The exes reunited briefly in the 1990s

Prince Harry famously said that "The Crown" — the hit Netflix drama that has documented the lives of the royals with a rotating ensemble cast — is a work of fiction (via CBS). Dramatization and heightened storylines are present in the show, of course, but viewers couldn't help but wonder if the Season 5 reunion between Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend ever happened in real life. 

In the heartbreaking episode, the long-lost exes reunited for the first time decades after going their separate ways and were seen enjoying each other's company during a garden walk, reminiscing about their relationship, and holding one another again while dancing. But did such a fairytale reunion ever happen in real life? As noted by The New York Times, the exes did in fact cross paths on more than one occasion.

After their split, Margaret and Townsend sent letters to one another sporadically but didn't reunite in person until 1992. Bumping into each other by accident all those years later, both Margaret and Townsend were at a function when they saw one another. The following year, they crossed paths once again during a luncheon at Kensington Palace. According to a guest who was present at the time, Margaret and Townsend sat on a palace sofa and struck up a conversation, "[chatting] like the old friends they were." Can you hear our requited love-stricken hearts breaking?

Sadly, Margaret did not attend Peter's funeral in 1995

Just two years after sitting on that sofa at Kensington Palace and surely talking about what could've been, Peter Townsend passed away at the age of 80. As noted by The New York Times in his official obituary, the former equerry to the king died in Paris, France, on June 21, 1995, and his death was confirmed by the British Embassy. According to a statement at the time, Princess Margaret "was sad to learn of this news," yet it was confirmed that she would not be attending his funeral (via AP News). Instead, however, Queen Elizabeth sent a message to Townsend's wife, offering her condolences.

Perhaps one of the saddest elements of Margaret and Townsend's relationship comes in the way in which it's recorded for history. Though we have his autobiography and the inside perspective of friends, the contents of the letter shared between the lovers won't be opened until 2030. The letters between Margaret and Townsend which are currently boxed up and stored in Windsor Castle will be opened on the 100th anniversary of the princess' birth (via The Telegraph). Hopefully, the public will finally witness one of the truest love stories within the royal family to ever unfold.

The law that kept Margaret and Peter apart from the very beginning is now defunct

For all the pomp that exists within the royal family and its structures, there are some systematic changes that occur over time. The biggest hurdle that stood in Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend's way was the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, and its roots are rather disturbing. As noted by History, the act was established by King George III, who took issue with his brothers marrying commoners. Passing the act enabled the king to oversee the marriages within the royal family and have the final say as to who could wed who. If the monarch didn't approve, said royal could petition Parliament, but even that path was tricky.

With all that said and the rather tragic way in which Margaret and Townsend's life unfolded, it's a bit painful to report that the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 is now defunct. It doesn't exist, period, and only the first six royals in the line of succession are required to ask the king or queen if they can marry their chosen partner. In fact, while the official record and the impact of Margaret and Townsend's romance on the law is a bit murky, their failed engagement and requirement to give up their love for the crown was said to have turned the tide, impacting the British public about marriage rules within the firm (via History).