New book lifts lid on the Queen and her sister Princess Margaret

From BBC Studios for ITV
Wednesday 22nd April 20

Princess Elizabeth makes her first broadcast, accompanied by her younger sister Princess Margaret on October 1940 - Credit: Getty Images

University of East Anglia lecturer Michael L Nash analyses the relationship between the Queen and Princess Margaret in a revealing new book

Once upon a time there were large families, and there were large royal families.

Then these families shrank to one or two, and so did royal families.

This meant a dramatic shift in family dynamics.

From having relationships with many siblings, there was only one, or perhaps two.

Many of us, if not most, now come from families with only one or two children, so we can readily relate to this study.

Unlike us, they did and do not live in one house, but many. The Queen moves every year from one of five residences to another within the United Kingdom.

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One of the two private residences, Sandringham, therefore plays an important part in this book, and often focusses on the Norfolk connections.

The Queen was a Londoner born, in 1926, but when her mother, was expecting another child in 1930, she wanted to return to her own family home, Glamis Castle, in Scotland, for the birth.

This was because she confidently expected it to be a boy, the Prince of Scotland. It turned out however to be another girl.

As no more children were born to the king and queen, this birth was crucially imported for the future of the two girls and their relationship with each other. It decreed the destiny of them both. If the second child had been a boy, he would in time have become king. Elizabeth would never have been queen. That old rule, that boys took precedence over girls, was only changed in 2011.

In is new book, Andrew Morton does not mention something picked up by legal historians at that time, namely that if a man left only daughters, they succeeded to his property, (and sometimes even his titles, if he had any) equally.

The Crown devolved as real property (what the Americans call real estate). Therefore, in law, both daughters had an equal right to succeed. Questions were asked in Parliament, but MPs were assured that the elder would become Queen.

Nevertheless, the law was not changed, only the practice. It is significant that in all our history, no king has ever died leaving only daughters. One wonders if Princess Margaret knew all this. Joint sovereignty is not unknown, and we have two examples of joint sovereignty in our history.

There was a further ghost in the wings. When the king, George VI, died at Sandringham in 1952, he was 55 years old; the queen was 51. Supposing she had been pregnant? It was unlikely, but not impossible.

There had been an instance in living memory when this had happened. The King of Spain had died in 1885, leaving two daughters and a pregnant queen.

What should be done? A period of five months elapsed while all was in suspension. Then the widowed queen gave birth to a son. The Spanish prime minister announced: “We have the smallest amount of king it is possible to have!” That king had only died in 1941.

In the event, the Queen Mother (as she now was) was spared that physical examination, but the proclamation of the accession of the new sovereign was delayed because she had been abroad.


Elizabeth and Margaret with their mother at The Sandringham Show in 1946 - Credit: Archant

Within that tour, so dramatically cut short, lay another story, playing up the relationship between the sisters. The visit to Australia, taking in East Africa and Ceylon en route, was originally to have been undertaken by the king and queen, taking Princess Margaret with them.

She had been looking forward, not only to the warm sunshine and adulation, but to the companionship of the king’s equerry, Peter Townsend, with whom she was been conducting a secret affair. Now, because of the king’s illness, it was her sister and her husband who would be undertaking this tour.

As Morton puts it: “Then there was her new wardrobe that looked accusingly at her every time she went into her palace apartment. Instead, she headed for Sandringham, bone-chilling, bleak and boring (!)” It was no wonder that the Princess could “barely raise a smile of farewell”.

Sometimes it seemed that everything conspired against a happy relationship between the sisters. One week after her sister and her brother-in-law had flown off to East Africa, they were back again, for the king had died at Sandringham. It was a further turn of the wheel of destiny.

Her sister was now Queen and sovereign. From being in the mainstream, the princess was now in a side channel. From being the sovereign’s daughter, she was now only her sister.

To anyone who had seen the face of the king at the airport as he had waved his daughter off, his death could have come as no surprise; and yet it did; not surprise, but paralysing shock.

For his wife and daughters, it was very difficult. Yet the elder daughter was the first to recover.

She said: “Margaret and mummy have the biggest grief to bear as their futures seem very blank, while I have a job and a family to think of”, with her trademark practicality.

So where did this leave Margaret and her relationship with Townsend, himself of course removed from the mainstream too, though now moving to Clarence House with the Queen Mother? The potentially explosive relationship was discussed at Sandringham in December 1952, along with the plans for the coming coronation.

King George VI had referred to his daughters as “His pride (Elizabeth) and his joy (Margaret)”, yet this is too simplistic.

Elizabeth, the serious one, now trapped forever in the royal system, had her lighter side; and Margaret, the vivacious ball of energy, her violet eyes dancing with mischief, also had her serious side. Both were genuinely religious, something Morton does not explore.

Elizabeth followed a traditional but low-church path, very biblical in its practice; whereas Margaret tended very much towards the High Church element, making the practice of taking Holy Communion central to her observance. (I myself attended a service in the Royal chapel in Windsor Great Park, at which the princess and her husband, Tony Armstrong-Jones, both took communion).

Library filer dated 1/10/1977 of Princess Margaret (centre) and friends Colin and Anne Tennant - now

Princess Margaret (centre) and friends Colin and Anne Tennant - now Lord and Lady Glenconner - waiting on the jetty on the Caribbean island of Mustique to greet Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, during her Silver Jubilee tour of the West Indies in October 1977 - Credit: PA

The Townsend situation proved irresolvable. Margaret gave him up, and four years later married the royal photographer.

This was also not the ideal situation, because Tony was too louche and too bohemian in his private life to be an ideal royal consort. To give him his due, he made a good fist of it for some time.

But it was just the escape the princess always wanted. The trouble was that she wanted the freedom, but she also wanted her position, her title and her income. This in itself was difficult, and all of these things affected her relationship with her sister.

In the end, the lifestyles which partly destiny and partly themselves had chosen, played out before the world’s eyes and all its cameras.

From “riding in the pinewoods and across the stubble at Sandringham” with Townsend, Margaret now holidayed in Mustique, where Lord and Lady Glenconner, the latter of Houghton Hall, in Norfolk, owned the island.

They had given ten acres of land to the princess for her wedding present. This proved to be the only land and property she ever owned, and her son sold it before she died, a matter of great regret to her.

Viewed from a distance, one can see that Margaret and Tony were much more in tune with their times, and while the queen preferred to holiday at home, at Sandringham or Balmoral, given the opportunity most of the population now decamped for their holidays to Torremolinos, Ibiza, Marbella and Tenerife.

The sisters in their tastes were sometimes similar (Theatre, ballet, art) and sometimes a long way apart. They were counterpoints to each other.

Their physical appeal was much closer than is sometimes realised. It was Tony himself who was able to sum it up more easily, coming into the family as he did.

He could distance himself from both sisters and say: “Both sisters were very sexy and attractive, and I still think the Queen is now. She has the most brilliant sense of humour in private, and the most lovely giggle. She makes jokes, and she likes to be amused. Both sisters were very attractive, compelling women to me.”

The book may be full of surprises to some. Queen Mary, their grandmother, very well remembered in Norfolk and Norwich for all kinds of incidents and surprises, (her hat blowing away in the Aylsham Road when she had opened St. Katherine’s church; her incorrigible tendency to say she liked things when she visited houses for tea, so the hapless owner had to give them to her, and so on).

Both sisters were like her, although the elder respected her, and the younger thought she was always critical. Queen Mary appeared the most ramrod and glacial of all royals, and yet she had been a tomboy and herself continued to relish risqué jokes told to her by army officers!

Much of their relationship turned out to be “tit for tat”, even though they may not have intended it to be.

Thus, when Elizabeth escaped to Malta in 1949 to be with her husband on his naval duties, Prince Charles was left at home, and when she was expecting Princess Anne in 1950, she came home for the birth, and then rejoined Philip in Malta, leaving both children with their doting grandparents and Aunt Margaret. This situation was reversed years later, when Margaret went off to Mustique, leaving her children with the queen for summer in Scotland. Did either or both of them ever think of this exchange?

Margaret’s smoking and drinking and her high life style eventually led to four strokes, paralysis and loss of vision. For one who had been so beautiful, it was doubly sad that it all had to be aired in public, one of the refining cruelties of being royal.

Elizabeth and Margaret by Andrew Morton

Elizabeth and Margaret by Andrew Morton - Credit: Submitted

During this time, her sister never failed to be helpful and sympathetic, but she had to do it within the royal system, “for no-one is allowed to be ill in that family”. The queen banned wheelchairs from Sandringham and Balmoral, but it was within an attempt to encourage Margaret to walk again. When

Margaret sat in a wheelchair, the queen was quite sharp with her. “For God’s sake, Margaret, get out! That’s meant for mummy”.

The redoubtable Anne Glenconner, who had been her lady-in-waiting, was with her to the end. She read the stricken princess a book by the successor to Tony, Roddy Llewellyn, on gardening. Lady Glenconner found it boring, but Margaret seemed to like it.

At the very end, both Tony and Roddy came to see her. A true grand-daughter of Queen Mary, Margaret had planned her own funeral and cremation, and chosen all the hymns, with meticulous care.

Her sister could not trust herself to speak of her sister in public, for fear of breaking down. The royal façade does have to crack somewhere. Queen Mary herself wept openly in public when her brother, Prince Frank, died; the only time she was known to break down.
Andrew Morton is a consummate writer on celebrity.

This book is royalty as celebrity. He knows his audience. He has that great talent of readability, without which no popular writer can succeed. To his considerable credit, he has here lifted a corner of the veil, which covers all intimate relationships, and especially royal ones.

Elizabeth and Margaret: the intimate world of the Windsor sisters by Andrew Morton and Michael O’Mara is out now.

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