Fun-loving princess whose life was clouded by unlucky romances

PRINCESS MARGARET: Princess Margaret, only sister of Queen Elizabeth II, died on February 9th aged 71

PRINCESS MARGARET: Princess Margaret, only sister of Queen Elizabeth II, died on February 9th aged 71. Her last years were not happy as, suffering from persistent ill-health and enjoying little public sympathy, she became a semi-recluse. These circumstances were a far cry from her youth when she had been much acclaimed for her good looks and vivacity. However, in recent years, she appeared to have lost not just her high spirits but also a sense of purpose.

Many of Princess Margaret's problems stemmed from her being a younger child who, despite an obvious intelligence, was never prepared for any definite role. The writer Gore Vidal once declared that she was "far too bright for her station in life". At the time of her birth on August 21st, 1930, at Glamis Castle, Scotland, home of her maternal grandparents, Margaret Rose's father was still Duke of York and had no expectation of becoming king. Her early childhood was therefore spent as an ordinary, if rather privileged, citizen.

However, in December 1936, following the abdication of Edward VIII, the Duke of York assumed the British throne as George VI and his younger daughter thereby became a royal princess. Among the changes that resulted was not just her increasing isolation from the greater part of the country's population, but also a decision by her parents that she should be educated at home and in a manner that did little to benefit her natural intellectual curiosity.

While her older sister Elizabeth was being carefully groomed for her eventual position as queen, no such attention was given to Princess Margaret's future. She was a highly imaginative child and enjoyed singing and acting, but a theatrical career was never going to be possible. The princess never cared for traditional royal outdoor pursuits such as hunting and fishing, but preferred to play the piano and read; she once declared that her favourite book was Tolstoy's War and Peace.


From the age of 18, the princess began to be seen regularly in public and became something of a fashion icon in post-war Britain. Although only just over five feet tall, she took a keen interest in clothes and contemporary culture, going out to nightclubs and jazz concerts in London. Noel Coward called her "glittering and glamorous", while Louis Armstrong declared the princess "one hip chick".

It was in these years that she first began smoking heavily, always untipped cigarettes in a long holder; "I shall never give up," she told a friend. At the same time, she made clear her preference for Famous Grouse whisky with bottled mineral water and this remained her drink of choice until obliged to relinquish all alcohol in later life.

Following the death of George VI and the accession of her sister Elizabeth to the throne in 1952, the princess was obliged to move out of Buckingham Palace, which had been her home since childhood, and into a suite of rooms at nearby Clarence House. It was now that she became close to her late father's equerry Group Captain Peter Townsend, a married man 16 years her senior. The couple's intimacy first became widely apparent when at the queen's coronation, the princess was seen brushing a speck of fluff from Captain Townsend's jacket. Gathering concern over the difference in age and circumstances between the two meant that in 1955, the princess issued a statement that "mindful of the church's teaching" she would not be marrying the now-divorced captain.

Instead, five years later, she married Anthony Armstrong-Jones, a commoner who was created Earl of Snowdon on the day of the couple's wedding in May 1960. Lord Snowdon's mother was Anne, Countess of Rosse, who lived at Birr Castle in Co Offaly and so he and his bride paid a private visit to Ireland two months after their wedding, staying both in Birr and in Abbeyleix at the home of his sister, Viscountess de Vesci. The Snowdons were back in this country again in January 1965; on that occasion an explosion shook Abbeyleix House after an electricity transformer exploded at the edge of the de Vesci estate. The cutting down of a nearby ESB pole was believed to have been the cause. However, both the princess and her husband insisted the event would not deter them from visiting Ireland again. "We will definitely be coming back," she announced. "It is so close and so easy to come here." Increasing marital discord meant they did not come back.

In October 1979 the princess caused some controversy when she was reported as having declared "all Irish are pigs" at a dinner in Chicago. She insisted that the remark had been misheard and that she had actually said "all Irish dance jigs".

During the first years of their marriage, the Snowdons appeared to be very happy together and had two children, David, Viscount Linley, and Lady Sarah Chatto. However, by the 1970s, the couple had drifted apart and both were believed to have been having affairs; the actor Peter Sellers claimed to have been among the princess's lovers.

In March 1976 they announced their official separation and were divorced just over two years later. During this period, the princess was frequently seen in the company of a man 18 years her junior, Roddy Llewellyn, taking him to stay with her on the Caribbean island of Mustique where she owned a holiday home. Princess Margaret's romance with Llewellyn did little to endear her to the public who took a dim view of her association with someone so much younger. The affair ended around 1980 when he married another woman.

Princess Margaret was said to have been intensely unhappy over the failure of her marriage, suffering a nervous breakdown two years before its formal conclusion. This was only the start of a long sequence of health problems from which she suffered thereafter. In 1978 she was admitted to hospital with gastroenteritis and alcoholic hepatitis, while two years later she entered a London clinic for an operation to remove a benign skin lesion.

In January 1985, she was obliged to have part of a lung removed, although this did not stop the princess from continuing to be a relatively heavy smoker for another decade. Illness plagued her further during the 1990s, culminating in 1998 with a first, rather minor, stroke followed by another some two years afterwards. In March 1999 she badly scalded her feet in a bathroom in Mustique, where she had given her much-loved home to her son who subsequently sold the property.

Princess Margaret now settled in London's Kensington Palace and was scarcely ever seen in public. At the time of her mother's 101st birthday, observers were shocked at the princess's appearance, sitting huddled in a wheelchair. It seemed as though, due to her strokes, Princess Margaret was suffering from loss of sight and partial paralysis.

In character, she was strong-willed and somewhat imperious, very conscious of her royal status and determined that this should be acknowledged by others. She held her family in high esteem and once attacked Sarah, Duchess of York, for bringing it into disrepute, saying: "Clearly you have never considered the damage you are causing us all."

Although she undertook many public activities and was the patron of a large number of charities, this work tended to receive less attention than did her private life and there was a widespread belief that unlike her sister she was more interested in personal entertainment than public responsibility. Through Britain's Civil List, the queen paid the princess more than £200,000 annually but, once again, it was commonly felt that she did little to merit this money. One news report early in 2001 somewhat gleefully declared that the sick princess was now "paying for her pursuit of pleasure".

More charitable commentators pointed out that the princess had never been given a role worthy of her talents and that she was forever required to stifle her natural exuberance for the sake of royal decorum. In her youth, she had been second in line to the throne, but by the time of her 70th birthday, she was 11th.

Princess Margaret is survived by her son Viscount Linley; daughter Lady Sarah Chatto; mother Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and sister Queen Elizabeth II.

Princess Margaret (Rose), Countess of Snowdon: born 1930; died, February 2002