Princess Margaret’s Revenge

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In what proved to be the final years of her life, Princess Margaret stated in an interview with author Theo Aronson for his secretly authorized biography, Princess Margaret, that, as far as she could recall, she’d only had one argument, or “row” as she called it, with her older sister, the Queen, during their entire relationship. Perhaps she was referring to an incident chronicled in Lady Colin Campbell’s book, The Royal Marriages, that occurred in 1955 at the end of her brief engagement to Group Captain Peter Townsend. Having been forced to give him up because the government wouldn’t allow her to marry a divorced man without Margaret being forced to give up everything from her title to her annual Civil List allowance, which was, given her father died unexpectedly before he could make provision for her in his will, all the money she had, Her Royal Highness was infuriated that the Queen, who’d known her little sister would be dealt such a fait accompli two years prior to Margaret being informed, nonetheless hadn’t told her, and thus prolonged an agonizingly ill fated betrothal between two lovers filled with the false hope that they would marry after all. As Colin Tennant and Billy Wallace, two of the several lovers she was bedding at the time, however, revealed to Noel Botham in his memoir, Margaret, The Last Real Princess, she’d known all along the sacrifices she would have to make in order to marry Townsend, and equally knew she wasn’t willing to make them. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time told a South African reporter for the Capetown Argus that the whole affair, in his opinion, was just a stunt. Spoiled by her father, emotionally needy to a fault, genuinely unsure of her place in the world without the reassuring presence of the late king, and not willing to accept her demoted position after his death as the most prominent member of the House of Windsor’s b list, Princess Margaret had accepted her naive courtier’s marriage proposal as a means of stealing the spotlight from the Queen, and playing out the role of the world’s ultimate romantic heroine who would inevitably sacrifice love for duty.

Margaret, however, found herself by the mid ’50s in the untenable position of being the world’s most eligible princess who was quickly running out of suitors. All of the rich and or aristocratic bachelors she’d genuinely considered for marriage were, at an increasingly furious clip, marrying other, less high maintenance, less melodrama loving maidens and leaving Margaret on the proverbial shelf. Perhaps at some point toward the end the affair Margot became so wrapped up in the fantasy she’d created that she genuinely considered marrying Townsend, provided she could find some way to retain her lifestyle’s status quo while doing so? After all, she might’ve reasoned, The Royal Marriages Act, which was the specific law keeping her and the Group Captain from the altar, only specified she had to wait until she was 25 to marry without the sovereign’s permission. What she didn’t know, but her older sister did, was that in order to maintain her title and allowance the government, plus the governments of the Commonwealth, would have to approve her marriage. Winston Churchill, just prior to the stroke that would permanently remove him from office in 1953, had informed Elizabeth ll that this was an impossibility. For reasons that remain a mystery to all the insiders that were interviewed by Theo Aronson, Anne Edwards, Nicholas Davies, Noel Botham and Lady Colin Campbell, Her Majesty chose not to inform her little sister of this fait accompli until two years later, after Margaret no longer needed her permission to wed.

Although Margaret became secretly engaged to Billy Wallace, according to his own account given to Noel Botham, only a month after she officially ended her betrothal to Townsend, she nonetheless felt betrayed by her immediate family, she especially vowed never to forgive Prince Philip and the Queen Mother for being conciliatory to her face while conspiring against her behind her back, their senior courtiers, and especially her older sister. At some point in the spring of ’55 she contrived a meeting with Elizabeth where Princess Margaret informed her of a piece of information regarding the Queen’s marriage that, up till that time, she’d prudently chosen to keep to herself. This revelation, coming as it did from her beloved little sister, devastated Elizabeth and irretrievably changed the course of her marriage. It began a chain of events, that, according to several authors, would reverberate within the Court of St. James for decades to come.

Before one delves into this fateful row, probably the most fateful the royal sisters ever had, it’s instructive to first describe the state of the Queen and Prince Philip’s marriage in the years immediately following Elizabeth ll succeeding to the throne. Determined to keep his role as minimal as possible, the Queen’s chief courtiers, led by her first Private Secretary, Sir Alan Lascelles, and with the secret blessing of the Queen Mother, did everything within their power to insure Philip had virtually no influence over the monarchy. Nicholas Davies describes in his book, Queen Elizabeth ll, A Woman Who Is Not Amused, the various means by which they drove a wedge between Her Majesty and her husband. From these men in gray, as they’re often called, refusing to change the reigning house’s name from Windsor to Elizabeth’s married name of Mountbatten, which was a direct contravening of British royal precedent, to not allowing Philip to attend Privy Council meetings, to inundating Elizabeth with busy work so she couldn’t see her husband throughout most of any given business day, his position within the new monarchy soon became untenable. Forced to give up his naval career because of his wife’s accession, yet faced with a new existence where he was made to feel utterly useless, His Royal Highness reverted to his favorite pastime: carousing about town with his friends, and womanizing.

As Sarah Bradford put it bluntly in her biography of the Queen, Elizabeth, what Her Majesty has always expected from her husband is loyalty rather than fidelity. A natural born ladies man who cheated on the Queen throughout their courtship, Elizabeth was willing to turn a blind eye to her husband’s peccadillos as long as he was willing to be discrete about them. She expected her courtiers to exercise the same discretion around her when word got back to them regarding Philip’s extramarital adventures. Bradford writes the pitiful tale in her book of a lady-in-waiting who chose to inform the Queen of her husband’s latest mistress. Met with stony silence, the lady was sacked shortly thereafter, and not long after that committed suicide.

Philip’s partners on his nocturnal jaunts were his private secretary, and former fellow naval officer, Mike Parker, his cousin and best man at his wedding, David Mountbatten, 3rd Marquis of Milford Haven, and the society photographer, who was the official photographer for his and Elizabeth’s wedding, Sterling “Baron” Nahume. It was Phillip’s cousin David who introduced him in the late ’40s to the notorious Thursday Club. An exclusively male gathering of the wealthy and well to do, the club specifically got its name from the weekly luncheons it held every Thursday at a fish restaurant called Wheelers that was located on Old Compton street, Soho, at that time the heart of London’s red light district.

The luncheons permeated with lewd conversation, dirty jokes, and raucous commentary that often concerned each member’s recent sexual encounters. The luncheons more often than not ended with all the members heading to David Mountbatten’s apartment in Grovesner Square, where the evenings would begin with card playing. Once the alcohol was flowing freely enough, young, attractive women, one for each club member, would join the fun. Nicolas Davies describes what happened next.

Playing games such as “Chase the Bitch,” the club members would bet each other to see whom could catch the designated lady. Once caught, the club man and his catch would retreat to a bedroom to engage in more intimate fun. The bedroom door was often left open so others could at least watch, if not join in. Prince Philip became such a prominent member of this club that at one point he served on its organizing committee. Philip and Mike Parker also occasionally attended parties at Baron Nahum’s apartment, which were often no holds barred orgies that often included various forms of sadomasochism. While Elizabeth became aware of the existence of the Thursday Club around the time she was pregnant with Prince Charles, Philip, and her courtiers, assured her they were innocuous gatherings, and all talk to the contrary was just idle gossip. Ingrid Seward writes in The Queen and Di, however, that both King George Vl and Winston Churchill nonetheless privately warned Prince Philip to curtail his attendance at such parties before the gossip made its way into print. By the mid ’50s, unfortunately, George Vl was dead, Churchill retired, and no one left to stand in Philip’s way when it came to satisfying his libido.

Still, despite his lack of faithfulness to the Queen, he remained profoundly attached to her emotionally, and psychologically relied far more on her, according to Lady Colin Campbell, than most lay observers realized. Having grown up a penniless orphan being shuffled around to various relatives, Philip loved the stability provided for him by his marriage to the Queen, if he wasn’t exactly in love with Elizabeth herself. Her Majesty, on the other hand, fell madly, some would argue obsessively, in love with Prince Philip at 13, and had remained in love with him, at least until an enraged Princess Margaret took her aside for a private little chat.

Prior to 1955, despite the growing emotional distance between them, the Queen was naively willing to believe her husband when he assured her he wasn’t the dirty stomp around it was often whispered he was. All that changed, according to Lady Campbell, when her beloved, trusted little sister, whom she’d grown up with and whom she was closer to than almost anyone else, certainly almost any other woman in her life up till that time, vindictively informed her of everything her husband was really doing every Thursday night when he was in London; described the gatherings in graphic detail; and informed her that everyone around the Queen already knew about it. Margaret then stormed out of the room, slammed the door shut, and didn’t speak to her sister for a year. As Campbell explains, it’s one thing for an ordinary person to be humiliated by their philandering spouse, but for a monarch to be humiliated in such a manner in front of all their inner circle, who are their nominal subjects, is more embarrassment than most sane people can bear.

This revelation, coming from her only sister, certainly changed the Queen’s view of her husband. For the next several years she emotionally withdrew from him in a manner that left no room for intimacy of any kind between the pair. Unable, and for the most part unwilling, to divorce him, the Queen sought solace in at least two male courtiers. These relationships, one platonic, the other allegedly more carnal, might’ve had serious long term consequences for her marriage and the Royal Family. As for Philip, he continued to also seek solace with other women. Most devastatingly of all, he embarked on a long term affair with his and Elizabeth’s cousin, Princess Alexandra of Kent. This affair, which has been written about by various biographers, and even hinted at by Ingrid Seward, the editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine and among the most palace approved of authorized royal biographers, had irreparable consequences on Prince Philip’s relationship with his children, particularly Prince Charles. Just how these consequences affected their father/son relationship shall be the subject of a forthcoming post.