On June 2, 1953, Queen Elizabeth II was crowned at Westminster Abbey amidst a constitutional formality in which every movement and every word had been determined by history and precedent. After the ceremony Queen Elizabeth's younger sister, Margaret Rose, then 22, was observed talking in an animated and happy fashion to one of the Queen's equerries; during their conversation she casually brushed a piece of fluff from his RAF uniform – a gesture that could hardly have been further removed from the formality of the ceremony just concluded.

The moment was noticed by press reporters and in overseas newspapers the following day accounts of the glittering Coronation were accompanied by speculation that the Monarch's sister was in love with one of the Buckingham Palace courtiers who, it had quickly been determined, was divorced. The British press held off from telling the story for a couple of weeks but then – perhaps bearing in mind their earlier experience of censoring news of Margaret's uncle Edward and his affair with a divorced woman – decided to publish it. The equerry was identified as Group Captain Peter Townsend.

It will perhaps never be known who put the greater pressure on Princess Margaret to give up the idea of marriage to Townsend but it must have been either Queen Elizabeth herself – Supreme Governor of the Church of England – or the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Geoffrey Fisher. Perhaps both. They would have told her that it was impossible for the Queen to give her consent to her sister, a princess in line of succession to the throne, to marry a divorced man. After nearly three years of uncertainty Princess Margaret made her own decision and in October 1955 announced that “I have decided not to marry Group Captain Townsend” – adding her thanks “to all those who have constantly prayed for my happiness.” It would be difficult to say that those prayers were ever answered. Perhaps there were years of happiness with the photographer Anthony Armstrong–Jones whom she married in 1960 but they ended quite quickly and by 1976 they had separated and were later divorced. Thereafter the quality of her life deteriorated under the pressures of a hedonistic existence in London and the Caribbean; slowly her heavy smoking and drinking began to take their toll.

For many years Princess Margaret undertook her fair share of Royal duties but it was one of the unfair consequences of her unhappy affair with Townsend that the British public rather turned against her, a tendency that was accelerated by gossip and press reports about the company she was keeping – that of the much younger Roddy Llewellyn, in particular.

History may see Princess Margaret as a symbol of the dysfunctional Windsors – poised between her uncle Edward who gave up his throne for a woman and her nephew's wife who fought for to be her own woman until her cruel death. Margaret was not strong enough to give up her status and privileges or to rebel against the system – of which she was a victim.

RAY FLEMING

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