The Other Townsend Affair

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Princess Margaret’s brief, ill fated early ’50s engagement to the divorced Group Captain Peter Townsend, whom she couldn’t wed without losing everything thanks to the prohibition on British royals marrying divorced persons as stipulated in the now largely defunct Royal Marriages Act, was the first great royal scandal of her older sister, Queen Elizabeth ll’s, reign. What would’ve made a far greater scandal, had it been widely known at the time, was that Margaret allegedly wasn’t the only member of the House of Windsor to have recently kept loving company with a member of the Townsend household. For Rosemary Townsend, a daughter of the landed gentry who’d impetuously married Peter after a 2 week courtship in 1941, was rumored to have not stood idly by once it became clear that her already estranged husband was regularly bedding the king’s 18 year old younger daughter around 1948. After flirting with Margo’s dad, King George Vl, for years, and also no doubt being aware of the curiously Victorian marital arrangement between Their Majesties, in which Queen Elizabeth performed her wifely duties in every department except the conjugal one, which she abhorred, and therefore looked the other way with relief when her husband sought sexual healing elsewhere, Mrs. Townsend embarked on a short lived, discreet affair with her husband’s majestic employer.

It should be noted, however, that George Vl, who was already dying from lung cancer by 1948, and underwent a serious operation as well as nearly losing one of his legs resulting from severe arteriosclerosis in 1949, couldn’t have been up to much in the bedroom in the final years of his life. Still, his favorite equerry’s wife wasn’t his only married mistress during his final days on this earth. Rosemary would also soon tire of the king’s attention, and seek solace elsewhere. By the time George Vl died she was embroiled in a long term liaison with Alan de Laszlo, whom she later married, son of society painter Sir Philip de Laszlo, which subsequently led to her husband hypocritically divorcing her on the grounds of adultery! Needless to write, there was no mention during the court proceedings of either Mrs. Townsend’s previous affair with the late king, or Group Captain Townsend’s current affair with Princess Margaret.

While the British press and courts were kept oblivious of George Vl’s coveting of his favorite equerry’s wife, it was an open secret among the aristocracy, as were virtually all the Royal Family’s closeted skeletons both then and now. Two such nobles who didn’t keep their mouths shut concerning the matter, and marveled at the hypocritical equanimity with which Queen Elizabeth, that so called paragon of morality, presided over it all, were Ian Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll, and his one time wife, Margaret, Duchess of Argyll. Both spilled the proverbial beans to their former daughter-in-law, Lady Colin Campbell, who later wrote about the matter, as well as disclosing various other heretofore unknown revelations concerning the House of Windsor’s most beloved octogenarian besides, in her biography, The Queen Mother, The Untold Story of Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, Who Became Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother.

Lady Campbell, and for that matter also Penelope Mortimer in her classic biography, The Queen Mother, break down George Vl and Queen Elizabeth’s marriage as having been a pathetically one sided love affair that might never have taken place had the two suitors the then Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon was most ambitious to wed, first a diplomat named James Stuart, and shortly thereafter the then Prince of Wales, later Edward Vlll, and later still the Duke of Windsor, possessed any desire to marry her. Although she settled for matrimony with the stuttering, awkward Prince Albert, Duke of York, later King George Vl, especially after his mother, Queen Mary, bullied her into it, she nonetheless contrived to have sex with her husband as seldom as possible. Starting with a honeymoon in which she came down with a mysterious case of whooping cough, Elizabeth rarely, if ever, shared a bed with George Vl throughout their 29 year marriage. She solved the problem of them having children by twice agreeing to an archaic form of in-vitro fertilization, which produced their two daughters, and she resolved the dilemma of her husband’s libido by allowing him mistresses.

Aside from his ongoing liaison with actress Evelyn Laye, whom Albert began seeing before he met his future wife, Elizabeth also tolerated, and likely abetted, the affair between her spouse and her close friend, and Lady-in-Waiting, Lady Maureen Stanley. It’s doubtful, however, that the Queen Mother ever engaged in an extramarital affair, especially given her apparent disdain for carnal love. Despite this, it was well known among the royal court at the time the Duke of York ascended the throne that his wife was maintaining an amorous friendship with a married art curator, who’d recently been appointed Surveyor of the King’s Pictures, named Kenneth Clark. His son, Alan, is quoted in Hugo Vickers’ biography Alice, Princess Andrew of Greece, describing his father’s assessment both of the late king and his relationship with Queen Elizabeth. Alan states his father thought George Vl was a jealous idiot, who wasn’t above throwing an occasional temper tantrum when his wife and her friend were about to step out of the palace for a private tete a tete, and he also states his father frequently referred to the queen as his “girlfriend.” By the late ’40s, however, this relationship, whatever its nature, seems to have dissipated.

It was in 1944 that Group Captain Peter Townsend, a much decorated Royal Air force pilot who’d been among the first to shoot down a German warplane over Britain at the start of WWll, and his wife, Rosemary, entered the royal household when he was appointed an equerry to the king. The Townsends immediately caught the attention of the amorous George Vl, and his equally hot blooded pubescent daughter, Princess Margaret. Unlike Margo, whose growing affection toward the new equerry didn’t become apparent until three years after his appointment, the king began flirting with Mrs. Townsend almost immediately, and in full view of his seemingly approving wife. In 1945 George Vl agreed to become godfather to the Townsend’s second son, Rupert, which traditionally within royal court circles is a sign the monarch is having an affair with the newborn’s mother, and might very well be the child’s real father. In the future the king’s grandson, Charles, Prince of Wales, would serve as godfather to the only sons of two of his married mistresses: the now former Camilla Parker Bowles, and the late Dale, Lady Tryon. Despite this, however, there’s no indication the ongoing flirtation between king and courtier’s wife exploded into a full blown affair until said wife discovered her husband was having an affair with His Majesty’s younger daughter. That occurred in 1948.

Noel Botham, author of Margaret, The Last Real Princess, interviewed one of the domestics that worked for the Townsends at their grace and favor, meaning rent free, cottage on the Windsor Castle estate during this period. She states bluntly that the Townsend marriage, which like so many other World War ll era wedded unions had been entered into on a whim, was affectively over by the late ’40s. Certainly by 1948, when, while the royals and their household were staying at Windsor, Princess Margaret visited the Townsend cottage virtually every day astride her horse and demanded the all too fondly obliging Peter join her for a ride, it became obvious to Rosemary the princess and her husband were taking in far more than the scenery during their private jaunts on the estate. It was apparently obvious to everyone else, including the king and queen, as well. Perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back for Rosemary, however, occurred that same year when Peter escorted Margaret to her first solo state visit when she attended the enthronement of Queen Juliana of the Netherlands. Her all too obviously romantic attachment to Group Captain Townsend, which included insisting on only dancing with him at the several balls they attended, even led to the European press speculating upon the nature of their relationship.

Taking all this into account, Mrs. Townsend decided, instead of getting mad, to get even, and who better to cuckold her philandering husband with than his boss, the king? According to Lady Campbell, that’s exactly what happened, though as the author stated earlier it’s doubtful King George was much of a lover at that stage in his life. After a near lifetime of alcoholism and chain smoking his health was already going into rapid decline, and he would undergo a serious operation the next year which almost led to the amputation of one of his legs. Besides, Rosemary Townsend wasn’t the only married woman sharing the king’s bed at that time when Queen Elizabeth wasn’t, which was damn near all the time. Aside from Rosemary, George Vl was simultaneously keeping loving company with Lady Magdelan, Countess Eldon, wife of the 4th Earl Eldon, who was a Lord-in-Waiting and close friend of the king’s, as well as Camilla Sykes, daughter-in-law of the famed diplomat Sir Mark Sykes, 6th Baronet and the creator of the Sykes-Picot Line that divided up the formerly colonized Middle East into sovereign nations following World War l. Lady Campbell is personal friends with certain family members of these last two mistresses of George Vl, and they’ve all verified to her that these affairs took place, and did so with the Queen Mother’s blessing.

As for Rosemary Townsend, once her thirst for revenge upon her husband was satiated, she moved on from the king and onto other extramarital pursuits. By the time George Vl died in 1952 she was involved in a long term affair with Alan de Laszlo and after her husband publicly humiliated her by divorcing her on the grounds of adultery, despite his ongoing affair with Princess Margaret, she subsequently married her lover, had a son and daughter with him, and they remained husband and wife until divorcing in 1977. Not missing a romantic beat, or a chance to move up the social ladder, she married the Marquess Camden in 1978, and remained with him till his dying day in 1983. She died in 2004. To the end she refused to discuss her first marriage with the press, and was popular among the British upper crust both for her personal charm and her absolute sense of discretion.

As for Group Captain Peter Townsend, we all know how his romantic misadventure with Princess Margaret panned out. By 1955, after several years of stringing him along in the false hope that they would marry, she finally dumped him, though he was gallant enough to write her official statement to the press declaring the end of their betrothal. In it, she claimed her respect for the Anglican Church, and specifically its maxim that Christian marriage, in this case the previous Townsend marriage, was “indissoluble,” would therefore mean she’d be entering upon an adulterous union had she married Townsend. Therefore, she thought it best to put that consideration, and her duty to the British people, before her own. In reality, according to Noel Botham and the various friends and lovers of hers he interviewed for his book, Margaret never intended to marry Peter, and merely used him for some much needed publicity and attention after her older sister ascended the throne. Even Margot herself would politely hint at her lack of sincerity toward marrying the group captain when interviewed by Theo Aronson for his biography of her, which after her death he admitted she’d authorized.

Townsend was easily the biggest loser to come out of this sordid chapter in the House of Windsor. He lost his career, his marriage, bitterly divided his family, and even lost his nationality in the sense he was eventually given a diplomatic posting to Belgium, fell in love with and married a younger Belgian woman who possessed more than a passing resemblance to his lost princess, and subsequently settled down and lived in that country for the rest of his life. Unlike his first wife, Peter did eventually sell his story to the press in the form of his memoir, Time and Chance. In it he claims his royal romance didn’t begin until after his divorce. Few royal biographers of any merit now believe that, nor do they believe his relationship with Margot truly ended in 1955. Lady Campbell, for one, claims they continued to secretly rendezvous for years afterward. At least he had the discretion not to reveal the biggest romantic secret of all concerning his and his first wife’s brief, turbulent relationship with the Royal Family. One has to at least give him that much credit.

The author would like to dedicate this post to his friend, mentor, and guiding light in the world of royal biography, Lady Colin Campbell. May her new castle turn out to be an even more spectacular business success and personal venture than she ever expected!!!!!!!!