“Too bad he’s married…” Margaret was just 14 years old when Elizabeth told her the bad news. The future queen has noticed the looks of her younger sister. It is true that he is attractive, the new squire of dad. A tall and handsome gentleman, fifteen years his senior, hero of the war which is ending. “Ace” of the Royal Air Force with ten German planes shot down over the English Channel, the group-captain Peter Townsend left the army to become George VI’s aide-de-camp, and s’ settle in Buckingham, in the privacy of Windsor.
It will take another seven years for Peter to see similar feelings arise in him for Margaret, now such a pretty young woman. Their romance would have been tied in 1952. That year, the princess lost her father. Elizabeth inherited the crown, Margaret and her mother retired to Clarence House, with Peter Townsend as chamberlain. That year, the group-captain left his wife. That year, the first rumors at court …
In April 1953, in the secret of their relationship, Peter Townsend asks Margaret to marry him. Impossible. The Anglican Church, over which his family also rules, prohibits remarriage of a divorced person. Fourth in line of succession, and regent in the event of her sister’s disappearance, how could Mrs. Townsend ascend the throne? Under the Royal Marriage Act of 1772, Elizabeth would also have to give her approval, and break dogma. Impossible.
The only solution, prescribed by the young queen in person: wait until 1955. Margaret will be over 25, and will be able to do without the royal assent of Her Majesty, who will no longer have to pronounce on the thorny question. On condition of renouncing her titles and her place on the throne, the younger can marry in just marriage; civil wedding certainly, but fair. And to calm the press excited by the idyll, Peter Townsend will be transferred two years to Brussels as attaché of the Royal Air Force.
Margaret and Peter’s reunion exclusively in Match
On August 25, 1955, Margaret celebrated her 25th birthday. The press, for its part, celebrates the “day when the princess is free to marry”. Coming from all over the world, they are three hundred – a record – waiting for her in front of Balmoral where she is staying. British subjects also support it. Less than a quarter of the population oppose marriage, according to polls. Behind the scenes, Prime Minister Anthony Eden and the Queen draw the outlines of the union, and its consequences for the monarchy, despite numerous reservations: British political class, Anglican Church, heads of state and government of the Commonwealth …
Her Majesty has long been suspected of having hindered her sister’s happiness. The opening of government archives in 2004 proved the contrary. From the height of her three short years of reign, Elizabeth was prepared to amend the Act of 1772, so that her sister would remain in their kingdom, retain her titles, and the Crown grant.
On October 12, 1955, in the midst of an incredible media uproar, Peter Townsend returned to his island. On the 13th, he entered through the back door of Clarence House. It comes out two hours later, and surprised by the journalists, coward: “yes I’m happy tonight” . Two days later, dozens of journalists from around the world lay siege to Allanbury House, the country home of a cousin of the Princess, where the couple are to meet. Among the reporters, Philippe Le Tellier of Paris Match who will get the scoop: the only photo of Margaret and Peter together after their reunion.
I wish it was known that I decided not to marry the group-captain Peter Townsend
There will be another weekend in the countryside. Four dinners too. The press, until then optimistic, begins to wonder. Until this communiqué from Margaret on October 31, 1955, rare and overwhelming in its frankness: “I would like people to know that I have decided not to marry the group-captain Peter Townsend. I knew that, subject to my waiving my inheritance rights, it would have been possible for me to contract a civil marriage. But aware of the teachings of the Church that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and aware of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before others. I made this decision on my own and in doing so I was strengthened by the unwavering support and dedication of Group Captain Townsend ” .
In Match, Jean Farran recounts, behind the scenes, the days that led to the final renunciation. Touched by the unhappy conclusion of Margaret’s romance, the journalist nevertheless welcomes his choice, that of reason: “Western monarchies do not ask princes to be intelligent or workers, but to be the embodiment of morality. And the sin they must be afraid of committing is to think of them (…) Their job is, in a word, to be unhappy in order to be exemplary ” . Our journalist had promised him a place in the great history of the monarchy, and another in “the less solemn annals of great loves”. On one point at least, Jean Farran was right. Margaret is remembered as the unhappy princess, sacrificing great love on the altar of royal reason
A sort of Breton drizzle was falling. The day hesitated. It was the indecisive hour called between dog and wolf. She was standing on the sidewalk, alone and helpless with her red velvet fascinator stuck to the top of her head. In front of her stood the immense architecture of Saint Paul’s Cathedral. “The Cathedral of the British Empire” all open. The nave was packed. In the center, a chair and a prie-dieu awaited him. On the steps two symbolic men watched for the princess: the Lord Mayor of London and RP Matthews. The State and the Church.
She was 50 meters from them. When she began to walk in their direction, the television spotlight took over. The crowd surrounding him fell silent. realizing that something bad was happening. Despite the Rolls and the mink, Margaret was singularly pathetic. She moved forward with a mechanical gait like sleepwalkers do. Her face was livid, her big doe eyes were cloudy, and she had that pout in her mouth that girls often get from the dreadful gymnastics of sobs. She stooped at every step and one could fear for a moment that she would fail. But she recovered, she straightened up, even finding – at the end of the journey – the strength to smile as one hurls an invective.
20 million viewers have witnessed it, Margaret courageously took the path she had chosen, the one that goes up and where she is alone. England discovered another Margaret in this young girl kneeling in the cathedral with her head in her hands. Until now she had been the enfant terrible of the royal family, the one who slips on waxed floors, who says impertinence or who yawns when we talk about serious matters. Providence had largely provided her with these minor faults such as playfulness or insolence which we see today that the common mainspring is character.
As a young girl, she fell in love with the handsome aviator officer Peter Townsend. He was divorced and the father of two children. The worst possible match. She dared to be bored with the young people of the world. It was really impossible. A part of English public opinion was resigned to seeing her give a head butt, in line with Uncle Edward.
For two years that Peter Townsend had been exiled as air attaché in Brussels, she had not stopped writing to him and telephoning him. She was patient because she waited until she was twenty-five and could get married without the permission of her sister the queen. Margaret was said to be the stubborn little girl. She wanted to be happy, she would be.
And lo and behold, just as she hit the mark, here after bringing Townsend back, after seeing him regularly for three weeks, after behaving like a bride to him, after spending four dinners and two weekends. -end in his company, Margaret said no.
In Saint Paul’s Cathedral where the fiftieth anniversary of the death of a pioneer in the field of cribs was being celebrated this evening. Margaret ceased to be Berenice defending her love against the laws of the State, she became the tender Iphigenia sacrificing herself to obey the orders of the divinity. England wondered how this singular change had taken place, how this new princess was born, dearer to her heart because she was more pitiful and more courageous. The whole mystery of the Margaret-Townsend tragedy lies in this question.
Two momentous interviews controlled the princess’ decision. The first took place on Thursday October 27, two weeks after Townsend returned, and Margaret visited the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Fisher. Geoffroy Francis Fisher (sixty-eight) is an important figure. He is in fact the pope of the 40 million men and women belonging to the Anglican Church. Church founded four centuries ago by Henry VIII whose experience in divorce matters was considerable since he had seven successive wives.
Fisher comes in the order of precedence before Prime Minister Mr. Eden and just behind the Princes and Princesses of the Blood. His hairless face has become famous throughout the Commonwealth since he placed the crown on Elizabeth’s head which made her at the same time the Queen of England and the head of the Anglican Church.
“He looks a lot like a Labrador dog,” said American comic Danny Kaye of him when he was in Margaret’s entourage. This observation amused the Archbishop enough, who had gone so far as to say to him, not without humor: “The difference between us is that you are comic voluntarily, whereas I never am, except involuntarily. “
Her black outfit is as grim as it is comical: a hat with the edges held up by an elastic band, a frock coat, fabric leggings with small buttons. Besides, not giving, working and competing in Puritanism with his wife who gave him six boys.
Conscious of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury has traditionally played a prominent role in matters of this kind. His predecessor, Doctor Lang, leaned powerfully on Baldwin nineteen years ago to get Edward VIII to abdicate or renounce Mrs. Simpson. The ex-king of England was to speak frankly in his memoirs of “the sinister and haunting presence” of Doctor Lang.
It was Margaret who went to see Doctor Fisher when the protocol ordered the opposite. Margaret did not intend to share a decision with him, but to seek advice and clarification.
Lambeth Palace, which in the heart of London borders the Thames for 200 meters, is like the one who lives there: sad and austere. It is a medieval castle with red brick walls blackened by smoke and humidity. Two towers and countless battlements give it the appearance of a feudal fortress.
The interview, which took place in a living room on the first floor, lasted fifty minutes. “I am not a master of the laws of the Anglican Church,” the Archbishop said in substance. It prohibits a divorced person from religiously remarrying if the first spouse is still alive. Even beyond the Anglican Church, it is about the principle of the indissolubility of Christian marriage. There is also a very recent precedent: that of one of your relatives, Lady Anson, who is divorced. The Anglican Church did not consent to celebrate her marriage to HH Prince George of Denmark and it was a Lutheran pastor who performed this marriage. Besides, you know that your feelings and those of the group captain Peter Townsend have all my sympathy. It is up to you to judge whether your responsibilities allow you to be satisfied with a civil union that the Church will ignore. “
Margaret did not argue. Distraught, in tears, she left the palace through a back door, wanting to prevent her face from reading the movements of her heart. The Archbishop was once again saying “no” to the religious wedding. Margaret had only one way to be happy, civil marriage. It remained to be seen whether this eventuality was compatible with her being heir to the crown: Margaret comes third after Elizabeth’s two young children.
History is full of the unexpected. Margaret can be called to reign. Twenty years ago, the infant Elizabeth was no closer to the throne than Margaret today. Can you imagine Queen Margaret aka Mrs Townsend, head of the Puritan Anglican Church, having as her husband and Prince Consort a man who is religiously married to another woman? Because as long as Townsend and his ex-wife live, they will be husband and wife to the Church.
Margaret understood this. And she decided to embark on her uncle’s path, to give up her prerogatives, to stop being a Princess. She owed England nothing more. She would no longer have any rights or duties. She could choose happiness.
In the evening, more elegant than ever in a white satin dress, she entered the Opera where La Fiancée vendue was being performed. Doctor Fisher was there as well as Philip of Edinburgh, another declared opponent of this union. She did not speak to the first and jostled the second who barred her way at the entrance to the lodge. Her firm face spoke of her intentions, she declared war on Church and Court.
It was Townsend who held the language of renunciation
The next afternoon, she left Clarence House in Daimler accompanied by her companion. She was leaving for a long weekend. A van of the royal household preceded her with 20 suitcases. She considered herself a bride who is going to join her groom.
It was not appropriate that they lived under the same roof. She would live at Uckfield House with Lord Nevill, 80 kilometers from London. It is a very large low house with a complicated design, a series of uneven buildings built of red brick and covered with ivy, surrounded by grass, the cheerful and peaceful abode of happy weekends. Townsend would descend ten miles away, to Eridge Castle, to Lord Nevill’s brother, the Marquis of Abergavenny.
At 7 p.m. Lord Nevill arrived with Margaret at Uckfield House. The car was coming out soon to pick up Townsend, who could be guessed at night, huddled in the back seat. Margaret and Townsend talked until dawn. If we obviously do not know the details of this conversation, we know the meaning.“- What life will I offer you? Townsend said to Margaret. We will enter this lamentable category of social exiles. Many doors will close before us. We will go from palace to invitation in an eternal flight to a haven we will never find. But beyond ourselves there is the crown. It is not only on the head of the queen but of the whole royal family. The Englishman likes to recognize in it its virtues, not its weaknesses. The monarchy must be the example, more than the image, of the nation. “
Townsend was getting to the bottom of the problem: could Margaret live happily with the feeling of having sacrificed this dynasty, of which she is one of the links, to her happiness, that is to say to her selfishness? It was not a question of whether the Church would not rant against a civil marriage. England would have a romantic but scandalous couple before her eyes. How could the man in the street resist the temptation to leave his home under the influence of a perhaps fleeting passion, how could the humble wife for his part not listen to the forbidden solicitations when the example comes from so high? It is marriage and through it, the family, an essential cell of our Western societies, which would have borne the brunt of a happy ending to the Margaret-Townsend idyll. Nobility obliges.
Margaret burst into tears. She couldn’t think of anything to say. Townsend was right. The hero of aviation, the child who had lived the tales of Kipling in the fairy East of his first steps, who had known this empire where the sun does not set, the son of Lieutenant-Colonel EC Townsend, officer from the army of the Indies, held the true language of greatness which is that of going beyond.
The worst sin of princes is to think of themselves
It was the memory of George VI that definitely tipped the scales. “Your Father treated me like a son,” Townsend said. He trusted me. You were his favorite girl. He would like to see you happy. But not at this price, I’m afraid. He always put duty first. “
In the early hours of the morning, Margaret called her mother. Immediately the Queen Mother’s private secretary, Captain Olivier Dawny, left for Uckfield. “Her Majesty asks Your Highness not to issue a press release,” he told Margaret, “and if not, not to suggest that a marriage has been considered. “No,” said Margaret. She was uncompromising, stamped her foot like when she was ten years old in Buckingham. And with Peter she began to write the press release that put an end to her youth.
It is an extraordinary text by its tone, by its sincerity. By his contained emotion. She says everything – as one throws a bottle in the sea before sinking – she says that she loved this man, that she could have married him and that she gave it up. If there is a lie when she says, “I came to this decision entirely on my own …” , it is corrected with the following sentence: ” I have been comforted by the unwavering support and dedication of Colonel Townsend. “Two days later, at around 8 p.m., all European radio and television stations interrupted their broadcasts to read Margaret’s press release. Townsend had packed his bags with the draft press release in his pocket loaded with the tears we had shared. He was going to find on the table in his small apartment in Brussels the Bible which is still there next to Margaret’s photo.
As for the little sweetheart, she was taking her first steps as a convalescent princess in Saint Paul’s Cathedral. She resumed her royal profession, she returned to her minks, to her nurseries, to her patronage parties. Terrible profession whose singularity is to be moral. Western monarchies do not ask princes to be smart or hardworking, but to be the embodiment of morality. And the sin they must be afraid of committing is to think of themselves. Happiness is a vulgar idea, a republican idea which should not touch them. They must say, like this character from Montherlant: “What is happiness? “ Their job is to exercise their virtues, to curb their instincts, in short to be unhappy to be exemplary.
Margaret is unhappy. Margaret is sacred. A thousand times more than if she had married Townsend. Edward VII was popular before he abdicated, his photo appeared in all the humblest homes. Where else can we find it now, if not, in worldly chronicles? Any other decision would quickly have inspired indifference. Now she inspires a royal feeling: respect.
She may not know it, but by choosing the most difficult, she chose her own glory. History is already beckoning him. When Elizabeth and Philip leave for Rhodesia this winter, it is Margaret, the turbulent and unbearable Margaret, who is said to be regent of the kingdom. Other less solemn annals will inscribe it on their tablets, the annals of great loves. We will remember her beautiful tender eyes, her little girlish air, her audacity and her sincerities and this press release, finally, the most beautiful love letter that a woman has addressed to a man. Through the large door or the small one, the sacrificed princess has entered the memory of men.