With the Queen of England for a sibling, Princess Margaret once said she was always, inevitably, going to be seen as the “evil sister”. That for as long as Elizabeth II stood for honour and goodness, she’d stand for the opposite.
Despite its love for the Queen, the world is still hooked on that “evil” sister. The sharp-tongued, ever-cigarette-smoking “Rebel Royal” – expertly played by Vanessa Kirby in the first two seasons of The Crown and soon Helena Bonham Carter in season three – came to stand for changing attitudes towards marriage, sexuality and social expectations. As we saw in the Netflix series, Margaret is the anti-hero to Elizabeth’s hero. Denied the opportunity to marry the man that she loved, her life never really felt like it was wholly hers.
And this is why we’re still rooting for her 17 years after her death.
It isn’t a myth that Margaret was the “rebel” of the royal family, a reputation which kicked off when, at the age of 23, she insisted on being able to marry a divorced member of the Royal Household some 15 years her elder, Group Captain Peter Townsend.
Not only was marrying a divorcee Not A Thing for royals – the Royal Marriages Act 1772 required the monarch’s permission to do it – but Princess Margaret had witnessed the consequences of daring to do so first-hand. Her uncle, King Edward VIII, had only just given up the throne to marry divorced socialite, Wallis Simpson, ostracising him from the family and unexpectedly shoving Margaret’s father, George VI, into the position instead. So it wasn’t shocking that newspapers reported that Princess Margaret’s marriage would “fly in the face of royal and Christian tradition” and both church and parliament refused to approve it.
It did fly in the face of royal tradition. Modern society, however? Not so much.
Post-war Britain was beginning to get bored of self-discipline and social rules. While the system didn’t back Princess Margaret’s marriage, the public actually did; TV interviews and newspaper polls at the time revealed that British people felt she shouldn’t be held back from marrying the man she loved. Many began to ask questions about marriage’s role in modern society. Which meant that, instead of being seen as a sabotage of tradition, Margaret and Peter’s story became one of young love up against old systems. It was the church, not the couple, who came under fire for its inflexibility around divorce. Margaret had changed the conversation.
But Margaret didn’t tie the knot with Peter Townsend. When she eventually did get hitched, she disregarded pressures upon her to marry into aristocracy, and instead managed to find someone as controversial as Townsend: photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones. Not only was it like marrying a tradesman at the time – a big fat no-no, in case you’re wondering – but he was also a notorious womaniser and party animal.
Armstrong-Jones brought Margaret into the kind of bohemian, sexually-open social circle we still associate with the Sixties today. But, more importantly for the public, the Princess had married a man of the people. She had married for love.
It wasn’t her final controversial relationship move. Years later, Margaret and Armstrong-Jones divorced, making Princess Margaret the first senior member of the Royal Family to do so since 1901.
Today, marrying a divorced person or divorcing in the first place isn’t all that controversial: indeed, both Camilla the Duchess of Cornwall and Meghan Markle were divorced before marrying into the royal family. When Princess Margaret was alive, though, such a thing was considered utterly taboo: today’s royals have the Princess to thank for fighting the status quo at the time. Ordinary divorcees, too; in 2002 – the same year the Princess died – Queen Elizabeth allowed divorcees to be remarried in church and ended 20 years of debate.
Like anyone overshadowed by a sibling, the Princess made her own set of rules rather than follow meekly in Elizabeth’s wake. While the rest of us might move to Berlin or get a tragus piercing, though, Margaret made it her business to stand for everything her sister couldn’t. Which meant that, while Elizabeth II wore modest, crinoline gowns for state visits in the Sixties, Margaret wore short dresses with cinched-in waists to clink martinis with the likes of The Beatles, Twiggy and Elton John.
By hanging out with artists, musicians and other unconventional types, Margaret broke down class barriers. Her love of partying and rumoured flings (including an alleged one with Mick Jagger), meanwhile, was a defiant “f**k you” to all those clutching their pearls over sexuality.
Margaret sought the spotlight wherever possible. She was a regular cover girl on magazines , and hers was the first royal wedding to be broadcast on television, attracting 20 million viewers (two million more than Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s). She didn’t act as you’d expect a royal woman to act. At a dance held in her honour, when the host asked her “Ma’am, will you start the dancing?”, she famously replied, “Yes—but not with you.” She liked men, lie-ins, four-course vodka-fuelled lunches and exclusive Caribbean holidays. She almost definitely would have used all the right filters on Instagram. Because, if Prince Harry was the “naughty prince” in the 21st century, the Princess was something much more in the Fifties, Sixties and beyond.
Essentially we love her for pushing social boundaries but mostly, we all just desperately want to be her mate. Because she was cool; Sandy in Grease, follow-her-around-the-school-playground cool. She’s said to have glued matchboxes to glass tumblers so she could light cigarettes and drink at the same time, for god’s sake.
Which is why we want Helena Bonham Carter to nail the role in Season three. We want to see more of the feather-ruffler, rule-breaker and risk-taker we’re still obsessed with. We want to see our Margaret, the Princess who lived her best life.
Because, in doing so, she ensured we would be able to do the same, too.
Season three of The Crown streams on Netflix from 17 November.
Photography: Hulton Archive/Getty Images/Netflix