The True Story Behind Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon's Tumultuous Marriage

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·8 min read
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Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

From Redbook

  • Season 4 of Netflix's The Crown premiered on November 15, 2020.

  • The show's third season focused on her marriage to Lord Snowdon, just as earlier seasons looked at her relationship with her first love, Peter Townsend.

  • This is what you need to know about Margaret's marriage.

The Crown deep-dives into the royal family's past, with episodes that explore the mysterious life of Princess Alice of Battenberg, the well-intentioned but ill-fated royal documentary, and the blossoming relationship between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles.

One oo the most "did that really happen" storylines worthy of a daytime soap is that of the tumultuous marriage of Princess Margaret and her husband, Lord Snowdon—a.k.a Antony Armstrong-Jones. Portrayed flawlessly by Helena Bonham Carter and Ben Daniels, we soon realize that the once young and energetic couple are now middle-aged and struggling to hold on to their passionate relationship—all while under the watchful eye of the British media.

"Margaret had a terrible relationship with the press and always felt terribly misunderstood,” Bonham Carter told Vulture in October, adding, “she never had a say. Margaret never actually expressed herself.”

And while the dramatized version of their relationship was scintillating, what really happened in real life?

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

1958: Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones meet.

Photo credit: Keystone-France
Photo credit: Keystone-France

According to The Telegraph, three years after publicly declaring the end of her scrutinized relationship with divorcé Group Captain Peter Townsend (who was 16 years her senior), Margaret met Lord Snowdon. Then 28, the princess was a staple of London's elite nightlife scene, so it was fitting that she and the photographer first saw each other at a private dinner party. Apparently, his "impish smile" charmed her.

However, Town & Country reports that their affair didn't begin until a few months later, with the couple doing their best to stay under the radar.

Photo credit: Bettmann
Photo credit: Bettmann

"Nobody knew about their relationship, there wasn't a whisper about it, " Snowdon biographer Anne de Courcy told the magazine. "She would see him in secret at his studio and yes, he would join her at parties, but no one could pinpoint which man she was interested in. The press focused more on the ones who were seen to be eligible. They didn't think of Tony who was often in the background."

1959: They pull off an undercover engagement.

During the Christmas holiday in 1959, Vanity Fair reports that Armstrong-Jones asked for Queen Elizabeth II's permission to propose to her sister. She approved, but with one condition: they wouldn't reveal the news to the public until after the queen's third son, Prince Andrew, was born in February.

Photo credit: Keystone-France
Photo credit: Keystone-France

They agreed to the terms, and following a low-key proposal in December 1959 (two months after Margaret received a letter from Group Captain Townsend informing her that he'd become engaged), the pair publicly announced their engagement on February 26, 1960. Despite the happy news, Armstrong-Jones reportedly had multiple affairs before they tied the knot. He was linked to actress and dancer Jacqui Chan (which we got a glimpse of in season 2 of The Crown) along with actress Gina Ward. Additionally, he shared a not-quite-confirmed relationship with married couple Jeremy and Camilla Fry; it was later revealed he fathered a daughter with Camilla, who was born just weeks before his wedding to Margaret.

Yes, the scandal is real.

1960: Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon's fairy tale wedding is televised.

Photo credit: ullstein bild Dtl. - Getty Images
Photo credit: ullstein bild Dtl. - Getty Images

Princess Margaret, then 29 years old, and Armstrong-Jones, then 30, were married in an elaborate ceremony at Westminster Abbey on May 6. And fittingly—the couple often described as "bohemian" by the press—were trendsetters, as their ceremony was the first-ever royal wedding to be televised. It was viewed by more than 20 million people internationally.

In front of 2,000 guests, the bride was escorted down the aisle by her brother-in-law, Prince Philip, who took the place of her late father, King George VI. Margaret wore a silk organza Norman Hartnell gown with a skirt that had 30 meters of fabric. And instead of following the tradition of donning a family headpiece for her big day, according to Vogue Australia, she wore the diamond encrusted Poltimore tiara that she bought herself in an auction.

The wedding party and select guests returned to Buckingham Palace for the reception (where they reportedly had 12 cakes) and the bride and groom performed the traditional balcony waive that we still can't get enough of.

Photo credit: Central Press
Photo credit: Central Press

The pair moved into Kensington Palace after returning from their honeymoon, and Armstrong-Jones was given the title Earl of Snowdon a year later.

1961: The couple have their first child.

Photo credit: Getty Images - Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images - Getty Images

Despite the obvious strife we see depicted between the two during season 3 of The Crown, the early part of their marriage was blissful. They welcomed son David Armstrong-Jones on November 3, 1961, and daughter Lady Sarah Chatto on May 1, 1964.

"The first few years were wonderful," Anne de Courcy, author of Snowdon: The Biography, told Town & Country. "They had a lot in common, there was banter between them—he would help her with her speeches. They [were] very close in the first few years."

Photo credit: Keystone-France - Getty Images
Photo credit: Keystone-France - Getty Images

But it wasn't too long after Sarah's birth that the princess and Lord Snowdon began to clash, largely due to their "strong-willed" personalities. While both enjoyed the lavish, public lifestyle that came with their positions, it seemed they had different priorities. As seen in season 3, Armstrong-Jones was incredibly dedicated to his career as a photographer and would spend a majority of his time working and out on assignment. Margaret would have preferred he spent more time with her.

"He had parents who split, while her parents' and sister's marriage were very happy," de Courcy said. "She expected her husband to be with her more, but one of Tony's strongest motivations was work. He had a workshop in the basement of Kensington Palace, and while she was understanding of his work commitments, Margaret didn't realize it would take him away from her so much."

Photo credit: Tim Graham - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tim Graham - Getty Images

1976: Their separation is announced following years of affairs.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Much how we saw the dramatic events unfold in The Crown's season 3 finale, in February 1976, Margaret's relationship with Roddy Llewellyn—a gardener 17 years her junior—was made public after now-infamous photos of them vacationing together in Mustique were published in the tabloids.

At the time, The New York Times reported that Lord Snowdon felt the pictures were “unbearably embarrassing,” and they announced their official separation a month later in March.

"Her royal highness, the Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, and the Earl of Snowdon have mutually agreed to live apart," Kensington Palace said in a statement. "The Princess will carry out her public duties and functions unaccompanied by Lord Snowdon. There are no plans for divorce proceedings.”

Photo credit: Anwar Hussein
Photo credit: Anwar Hussein
Photo credit: Anwar Hussein
Photo credit: Anwar Hussein

At a news conference Armstrong-Jones said, "I am naturally desperately sad in every way that this had to come.”

But though sensational, the outing of Margaret and Roddy was just the last straw in a string of extramarital affairs for both the princess and her estranged husband. In the years leading up their separation, the photographer had been linked to Vogue editor Lady Pamela Colin, actress Gayle Hunnicutt, and socialite Lady Jacqueline Rufus Isaacs. Margaret was said to have dated Lord Snowdon's college friend Antony Barton and a nightclub pianist named Robin Douglas-Home, according to the Evening Standard.

“I would like to say three things,” Armstrong-Jones said in an AP report following their separation. “Firstly to pray for the understanding of our two children, second to wish Princess Margaret every happiness for her future and thirdly to express with all humility the love, admiration, and respect I will always have for her sister, her mother and indeed her entire family.”

1978: Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon's divorce is finalized.

Photo credit: Anwar Hussein
Photo credit: Anwar Hussein

After two years of separation and 18 years of marriage, Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon formally announced their divorce on May 10, 1978. It was the first divorce for a member of the immediate royal family since 1540.

“The marriage has broken down and the couple have lived apart for two years,” said a spokesman for the Margaret at the time. “These are obviously the grounds for divorce. Naturally, Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon will continue to see each other on the same friendly basis as they have with each other over the last two years.”

The princess continued to date Llewellyn until around 1980, with the gardener marrying Tatiana Soskin (the daughter of a film producer) in 1981. As for Armstrong-Jones, in The Crown, we're introduced to the latest object of his affections, Lucy Lindsay Hogg. The two ended up getting married in 1978 and had a daughter together. However, they divorced in 2000 after it came to light that he had a son out of wedlock.

Photo credit: Chip HIRES - Getty Images
Photo credit: Chip HIRES - Getty Images

But despite the multitude of affairs and warring of wills that marred their marriage, the two were friends until Margaret's death in 2002. Lord Snowdon died in 2017.

"They always maintained a solid friendship, once the bitterness of the divorce was over," de Courcy said.

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