The Passionate Princess

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In the Fifties Margaret was a fixture on the party scene and in the gossip pages

To some, she epitomized the poor little rich girl. The younger sister of the Queen seemed to have everything: wealth, beauty, wit, freedom from too onerous a royal workload, the zest to pursue a glamorous, sometimes controversial lifestyle in the most rarefied echelons of society. Yet the lasting memory of Princess Margaret will probably be that of a sad figure who was unlucky in love and who never really found a fulfilling role in life or a lasting marital relationship.

Margaret Rose died on Saturday at the age of 71 after suffering a stroke — suspected to be her fourth in four years — that led to cardiac complications. In the early hours of the morning she was whisked from her home in London's Kensington Palace to King Edward VII Hospital. A few hours later, at 6:30 a.m., she died "peacefully in her sleep," according to a Buckingham Palace statement. Her two much-loved children, Viscount Linley and Lady Sarah Chatto, were at her bedside. As the Union flag flew at half — mast over Buckingham Palace for the first time since Princess Diana's death in 1997, the royal family was making arrangements for the funeral — a private service on Friday at St. George's Chapel in Windsor, where her father, King George VI, is also buried.

The Princess' death came as something of a shock — in fact, it was her 101-year-old mother, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, whose ill health had been the focus of public concern for months. Yet Margaret too had been unwell. When last seen in public, just before Christmas, she was confined to a wheelchair, her face disfiguringly puffy — apparently from medication — and shrouded by enormous dark glasses. With both her left side and her eyesight seriously affected by strokes, Margaret was a frail, spectral figure — in poignant contrast to the vibrant young woman who once rewrote the book on proper royal behavior.

Perhaps the greatest public sympathy Margaret ever evoked was in response to her legendary lost romance, from which, it is said, she never really recovered. In 1953 she fell in love with Group Captain Peter Townsend, a much — decorated pilot in the Battle of Britain. He was 16 years her senior and — worse yet in the staid 1950s — divorced, and thus unacceptable to the political Establishment and the Church of England. Sad at her sister's unhappiness, Queen Elizabeth asked Margaret to wait a couple of years. She did, and could have married Townsend at the age of 25 without the Queen's permission, but she would have had to give up her royal privileges and position in doing so. Whether the thought of becoming plain Mrs. Townsend was too much, or whether she could not face the disapproval of Church and family, Margaret gave up the idea.

Five years later, in 1960, the 29-year-old princess married another commoner, society photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones. He was made the Earl of Snowdon, the couple had two children and they enjoyed an active lifestyle that was unconventional for a royal at the time. There were parties with pop stars, writers and actors like Peter Sellers, a favorite of Margaret's. But eventually the constraints and duties of royalty began to irk Snowdon. After about seven years, the marriage began to disintegrate and blazing rows were common. In 1974 Margaret suffered a nervous breakdown. Four years later the couple divorced, an event somewhat shocking to a nation as yet unused to much light being shed on private rifts and crises inside the royal family.
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