Watching this year’s Platinum Jubilee, commemorating 70 years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, one cannot help but admire how Elizabeth has lived so long and has guided Great Britain through the passing of the 20th century into the 21st century. Throughout her reign, she has provided moral support on behalf of the British people and preserved the traditions of the British monarchy while simultaneously adapting its institutions to modern change. As a fan of The Crown miniseries, I have been very fascinated by the history of the British monarchy and the ways in which it has evolved over time. One royal figure whom I find particularly intriguing is Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth’s younger sister, who earned renown as the first celebrity princess due to her glamorous demeanor, vivaciousness, and star quality. Since she and Elizabeth had fundamentally different personalities, I am deeply curious about what Princess Margaret would have brought to the monarchy if their roles had been reversed and whether she would have made a better queen. As a charismatic and energetic individual, Princess Margaret certainly had a significant degree of potential which she could have utilized as queen.
During their childhood, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret led a sheltered life with their parents, Prince Albert, the Duke of York, and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the Duchess of York. As second in line to the throne, their father did not have the expectation of becoming king, as he was deeply timid and struggled with a speech impediment. He took comfort in the company of his family, which he referred to affectionately as “we four,” and doted on both of his daughters, referring to Elizabeth as “my pride” and Margaret as “my joy.” Even at an early age, Elizabeth and Margaret displayed highly divergent character traits: While Elizabeth was reserved, serious and introverted, Margaret was energetic, extroverted and had a delightful sense of humor. There is some speculation that Margaret was Prince Albert’s favorite child, as he spoiled her and allowed her an unwarranted degree of freedom in practicing naughty behavior. Although she and Elizabeth sometimes quarreled, they were very close and did everything together, and before their father’s ascension to the throne it seemed that nothing would tear them apart.
However, the abdication of Prince Albert’s older brother Edward VIII brought about a fundamental change in the young princesses’ lives. Their father now became King George VI, a role that he had dreaded, which resulted in Princess Elizabeth’s elevation to heir apparent. Consequently, she was educated in British constitutional history and the responsibilities of being a monarch, while Princess Margaret was given lessons in French and playing the piano. This experience likely engendered some jealousy in Margaret, who later regretted that she had not had an opportunity for the royal education that her sister received. Nonetheless, being second in line also gave her more freedom than Elizabeth would have enjoyed since Margaret did not carry her sister’s responsibilities as future monarch, and she would utilize this freedom in becoming a celebrity princess over the following years.
As Elizabeth and Margaret reached adulthood, they participated in social occasions, including parties and the V-E Day celebrations that marked the end of the Second World War in Europe. Both princesses received widespread publicity, but Margaret constantly eclipsed her sister as the center of this media attention because of her glamor and vivaciousness. The newspapers constantly talked about a series of eligible suitors who were always seen in Margaret’s company. As their father’s health deteriorated, both princesses increasingly took on public functions, including speechmaking and appearing at ceremonial events. While Elizabeth brought her sense of formality and responsibility to her speeches, Margaret often injected her sense of humor, which endeared her to audiences. However, their father’s death proved devastating for Margaret, as she had been very close to him, and her sister’s ascension to the throne now left her with an uncertain role, which would often place Margaret in conflict with the royal establishment that she was a part of.
During the early years of her sister’s reign, Margaret became the center of a major scandal which, many believed, threatened the integrity of the monarchy. She had fallen in love with Group Captain Peter Townsend, a divorced man sixteen years her senior who served as palace equerry and was captured on camera brushing some fluff off his uniform following Elizabeth’s coronation. The newspapers quickly caught onto this incident and made a sensation of Margaret’s romance with Captain Townsend. While Elizabeth was personally supportive of her sister’s desire to marry the man she loved, she occupied a difficult position as head of the Church of England, which did not recognize divorce. Therefore she urged Margaret to wait two years until she reached the age of 25, when she would be able to legally marry without the required consent of the monarch. After these two years had passed, Margaret was allowed to meet with Townsend again, but she subsequently made a public announcement that she had decided not to marry him, putting her royal duty before love and her personal happiness.
In the years following the Townsend scandal, Margaret became extremely sad and despondent, drinking excessively and having multiple affairs. She found a new love match in Antony Armstrong-Jones, a successful photographer who captured the emerging trends of the 1960s’ fashion revolution. They were married in an elaborate ceremony that was broadcast around the world, but the queen’s advisors were doubtful of Antony’s prospects for being a good husband to Margaret, as he had led a bohemian lifestyle and was known to be bisexual. During the initial years of their marriage, Margaret and Tony seemed to have a fruitful and happy life together. They took on a highly publicized tour of the United States, during which they met a variety of Hollywood celebrities and dined with President Lyndon Johnson at the White House. However, over the subsequent years their marriage was characterized by emotional abuse and mutual infidelity. Tony resented royal protocol and being overshadowed by Margaret’s publicity, and the media coverage of her affair with Roddy Llewellyn, a designer eighteen years her junior, finally resulted in a divorce between Margaret and Tony.
By the time of Margaret’s divorce, the public perception of her had changed significantly. She was no longer seen as a celebrity princess but as an embarrassment to the monarchy, and her extravagant lifestyle had led many taxpayers to question the value of spending their tax money to fund the royal establishment. Nonetheless, Margaret continued to support her sister’s reign and presided over several philanthropic organizations, but she would never again enjoy the celebrity status that she had once held. This role was subsequently filled by Princess Diana, who captured the hearts and minds of the British people through her kindness, compassion, and empathy.
What Princess Margaret would have brought to the role of monarch and whether she would have made a better queen is open to debate. As a highly extroverted, vivacious, and down-to-earth individual, she would have certainly brought much charisma and energy to the role, and she might have brought a level of connectivity with the British people much earlier than Diana did. However, Margaret was also known to have a narcissistic and entitled streak which made her difficult for members of the royal household staff to work with, and on several occasions, she alienated people with insulting remarks. In addition, she did not have the diplomatic skills and formality that Elizabeth possessed, and therefore it is likely that while Margaret would have thrived on being the center of attention, she would have dealt poorly with handing the responsibilities of leadership. Conversely, it is also possible that if Margaret had been queen, she would have grown into the role, thus combining her charisma and energy with a new maturity and sense of responsibility.
While Princess Margaret was largely denied the opportunity to shine and was forever overshadowed by her more celebrated older sister, she played an important role in shaping the monarchy’s adaptation to the changes of the late 20th century. As the first British royal to get a divorce since Henry VIII, she set a precedent for subsequent members of the royal family to end their unhappy marriages, and she brought a significant level of energy and charm to her role as princess. Furthermore, although her relationship with Elizabeth was contentious at times, Margaret was always supportive of her sister as a bastion of moral support for the British people. Their closeness was strongly demonstrated by the queen’s shedding of tears during Margaret’s funeral, a notable occurrence since Elizabeth rarely displayed such emotions in public. While The Crown miniseries portrays them as having an often acrimonious and bitter sibling rivalry, historically their sisterly bond remained intact despite its many ups and downs. As Queen Elizabeth II enters her 70th year as monarch, it is vital that we remember Princess Margaret’s contributions to the monarchy’s continuity and evolution as a revered British institution.