The small gesture that exposed Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend's affair.


Following the death of George VI in 1952, there was a restructure in the royal households.

It was one that proved significant for Princess Margaret, as her mother, Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon, was appointed a new comptroller. His name was Peter Townsend.

Soon to be divorced from his first wife, and 16 years Margaret’s senior, he was an unsuitable partner in the eyes of the church, the government, and the Queen.

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They fell in love anyway, but their request to marry was not approved.

Thereafter, they stayed together in a secret affair.

Then, in 1953, a reporter spotted something.

According to former royal Press Secretary Dickie Arbiter, who spoke in the new Channel 5 documentary Scandals at the Palace, the small slip catapulted the relationship into the public eye.

“An eagle-eyed reporter saw Margaret brush a bit of fluff off Group Captain Peter Townsend’s RAF tunic,” he said.

“And Royals don’t brush fluff off the hired help’s tunic.”

He explained that while the gesture appeared innocent enough, the reporter knew there was something to see.

“So [the reporter] thought ‘Aha – there’s something here’,” he said.

“It was out in the open, they couldn’t disguise it.”

Royal historian Richard Fitzwilliams explained that the gesture was unwise of the couple.

“That gesture of the bit of fluff went right around the world and was in fact major story which led unquestionably to a crisis,” he said in the documentary.

“This was a public display of affection which was very unwise.”

Despite their love affair, the pair never married.

In 1955, the Princess released a statement that read: “Mindful of the Church’s teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have decided to put these considerations before any others.”

The couple went their separate ways, and Townsend was posted to Brussels.

Three years later, the Queen’s sister met the man she would later marry, Antony Armstrong-Jones, at a dinner party.

She accepted a proposal from Armstrong-Jones after learning that Peter Townsend had himself proposed to a woman half his age, with a striking resemblance to Margaret.

The pair married in 1960.