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Elizabeth & Margaret
The Intimate World of the Windsor Sisters
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They were the closest of sisters and the best of friends. But when, in a quixotic twist of fate, their uncle Edward Vlll decided to abdicate the throne, the dynamic between Elizabeth and Margaret was dramatically altered. Forever more Margaret would have to curtsey to the sister she called 'Lillibet.' And bow to her wishes.
Elizabeth would always look upon her younger sister's antics with a kind of stoical amusement, but Margaret's struggle to find a place and position inside the royal system—and her fraught relationship with its expectations—was often a source of tension. Famously, the Queen had to inform Margaret that the Church and government would not countenance her marrying a divorcee, Group Captain Peter Townsend, forcing Margaret to choose between keeping her title and royal allowances or her divorcee lover.
From the idyll of their cloistered early life, through their hidden war-time lives, into the divergent paths they took following their father's death and Elizabeth's ascension to the throne, this book explores their relationship over the years. Andrew Morton's latest biography offers unique insight into these two drastically different sisters—one resigned to duty and responsibility, the other resistant to it—and the lasting impact they have had on the Crown, the royal family, and the ways it adapted to the changing mores of the 20th century.
Sister, Friend, Judge
Things were different now. No more “Lilibet” this and “Lilibet” that, the easy informality of two sisters united against the world. Now there was a distance between them, calibrated and barely acknowledged, but a distance nonetheless. The gap shrank when they were together, alone. But with servants and others around, there was a formality. When others referred casually to “your sister,” Princess Margaret would snap haughtily, “You mean the queen.” They had once shared a bedroom; now they were separated by a platoon of pen-pushing gatekeepers who, since Princess Elizabeth’s recent elevation to sovereign, measured out every minute of her busy schedule. There was no longer any question of barging in unannounced—a habit their uncle, Louis Mountbatten—war hero, adviser, schemer, and general meddler—found difficult to break.
Margaret had chosen her moment well. On that wintry December day in 1952, the new queen was reviewing coronation details before heading to Sandringham for the family’s annual Christmas gathering. Margaret was ushered in past the Canalettos and the Gainsborough portrait Diana and Actaeon by a red-jacketed flunky and suitably announced before entering the opulent Belgian Suite at Buckingham Palace. She called her sister “ma’am” before she dropped a diffident curtsy and kissed Lilibet on both cheeks. Then, at her sister’s urging, she took a seat on the gold silk chaise in the sitting room. They were unmistakably sisters, both in modest day dresses decorated with a string of pearls and a well-chosen brooch. During their childhood they had been dressed identically by their charges. From time to time the pattern continued.
Margaret had a confession to make. She told her sister that she had fallen in love with Group Captain Peter Townsend, their father’s former equerry who now enjoyed the ancient title of comptroller of the queen mother’s household, which meant he was second in command of day-to-day administrative issues regarding the recently widowed monarch. Tall, slim, with piercing flinty gray-blue eyes and an unwavering gaze, he was every inch the matinee idol—and a bona fide war hero to boot. He was one of “the Few,” a Battle of Britain pilot who saved the nation from Nazi conquest, his blue RAF uniform decorated with the medals that attested to his gallantry.
Since the premature death of their father, King George VI, in February that year, Margaret had increasingly relied on Townsend as she tried to cope with the darkness that overwhelmed her. Whisky, pills, tranquilizers, and cigarettes did little to help with the pain. It seemed that only Peter—soothing, calm, gentle—could lighten her moods.
They had shared a mutual attraction long before the king died. His death merely drew them closer together. In those early carefree days, Margaret had made Peter laugh, and he made her feel safe and secure. They confided and consoled, and eventually their friendship became more—much more.
It wasn’t the fact that Peter was sixteen years her senior and had two boys of school age that had prompted Margaret to see her sister. No, the reason why she was sitting there, hands clasped, demure, with none of her normal theatricality, was to explain the implications of his impending divorce from his wife, Rosemary.
Since he had sued for divorce the previous November, they had quietly, privately and very tentatively discussed their own union at some distant date in the future. Even though he was, at least for public digestion, the innocent party, there was no escaping the fact that Peter Townsend was now about to be a divorcé. The D word hung like a primed grenade between them as both realized its dread import. Ironic that the matter was first raised between the sisters in the Belgian Suite where their uncle David, Edward VIII, lived during his brief reign before he abdicated the throne for the love of a twice-divorced American, Wallis Warfield Simpson.
Under the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, Princess Margaret, who was third in line to the throne behind Prince Charles and Princess Anne, had to obtain the queen’s permission before she married any man, let alone a divorcé. Both knew that the teachings of their church were hostile to divorce. As defender of the faith, the queen had standards that she could not deviate from. Indeed, if Queen Mary, who was now ailing, had been let in on the secret, they both knew what her verdict would be. They could hear her now.
But times were a-changing. Would Lilibet grant her younger sister, who was currently third in line to the throne, permission to marry a divorcé? She held Margaret’s happiness—her life—in the palm of her soft pink hand. Her big sister had spent her life judging her. Now that she was the queen, she ruled her life. It was a momentous decision that would define and shape the lives and reputations of both women forever.
Margaret watched her sister intently, surprised that she was not more surprised following her brief recitation of events. Clearly while she thought she and Peter had been discreet, they had not been discreet enough, and tongues had wagged. If her sister had a picture of what had been going on, others would also be sketching in added details.
While the queen did not betray her emotions, this was unwelcome news coming so close to the coronation in June. Nothing could be allowed to deflect from that moment, seen by many as both the high point and defining moment of a sovereign’s reign. She knew and liked Peter Townsend and had appreciated his calm manner with her often querulous father, King George VI, who, at moments of sentiment, had described the war hero as the son he had never had.
She was torn. During her own long night of the soul, when her father had asked her to accompany him to South Africa and leave her sweetheart, Prince Philip, behind, it was “Margo” who had been the most loyal of loyal little sisters, always taking her side and praising Philip in front of their parents. And Townsend was no Wallis Simpson, loathed by the royal family; he was a popular figure inside the palace, admired and respected for his wartime record, unruffled demeanor, and organizational abilities.
There was much to ponder. She was no longer just Margo’s big sister. She was the queen, with constitutional obligations and duties. Margaret was not formally requesting permission to marry. Yet. She hoped that Peter might be included in more family get-togethers to pave the way for others to view them as a suitable match. They were prepared to take things gradually. Margaret hinted to her sister that she would settle for these small allowances, rather than a full-fledged backing for marriage.
Elizabeth looked out of the window into the palace garden beyond. Margaret smiled inwardly, knowing that it was her sister’s tendency to look out of the window before she made a decision. As the Sevres clock ticked sonorously on the mantelpiece, the queen told her sister that she had an idea.
Rising of the Sun and the Moon
Perhaps the only thing David and Bertie shared completely was a keen interest in fashion. One was a flashy dresser who gravitated toward Fair Isle sweaters, two-tone shoes, and turned-up trousers. The other dressed more conservatively and focused on the tailoring of a dress or a suit, spending hours with ateliers and cutters, sketching out designs, trying out new ideas for court dress, state occasions, and even pantomime costumes.1
Aside from that commonality, they were worlds apart in demeanor and temperament; one bred for the sunlight, the other for the shadows. One was more youthful and jaunty, with smooth, rarely shaved skin and a slight build but an energetic gait and spirit. The other was frail, nervy, and prone to irrational bursts of temper and suffered from a slew of debilitating ailments, ranging from stomach problems, to a serious stammer, nonstop blinking, and twitches that caused his mouth to droop. One partied till dawn, seduced single—and married—women, and loathed his father. The other bowed down to his father’s bidding, settling into a sensible marriage and “a more rooted royal style.” Their father always lamented that one child “was heading down the wrong tracks” while the other perpetuated the proper image of the monarchy, “a model of dreamlike domesticity.”2 Even Wallis Warfield Simpson, the American paramour of the Prince of Wales, noticed the polar temperaments of the two brothers: her lover “all enthusiasm and volubility… the Duke of York quiet, shy.”3
The choices made by these two brothers, David, the eldest son and heir to the Windsor dynasty, and Bertie, his younger sibling by only eighteen months, would intimately shape the future of the House of Windsor and in the process profoundly alter the destiny of Bertie’s daughters, Elizabeth—Lilibet, as she was known in the family—and Margaret. Their grandfather, King George V, experienced an eerie foreboding about the future of his family even as he celebrated his Silver Jubilee in 1935. With his eldest son and heir, the Prince of Wales, now forty and no nearer marrying and securing the dynasty, the king stated sorrowfully, “After I am dead, the boy [the future Edward VIII] will ruin himself within 12 months. I pray to God my eldest son will never marry and have children, and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne.”4
The king’s prayer would be answered. It was Edward VIII’s abdication to marry a twice-divorced American, Wallis Warfield Simpson, that would transform the lives of his brother and his brother’s daughters, changing the family dynamic forever. Their uncle’s decision placed them firmly in the lifelong embrace of the monarchy, further shaping who they were and what they became.
As with David and Bertie, in the popular imagination, every generation of the House of Windsor is stalked by a shadow. The good versus the naughty royal. The rebellious extrovert versus the sensible introvert. William the straight shooter, and Harry the wild child. Diana the demure, and Fergie the roustabout. The sun and the moon. These stereotypes often mask as much as they reveal. And yet, each set of royal siblings—like all siblings—feeds off this asymmetry, occupying the psychic space left by the other.
As Princess Margaret told her writer friend Gore Vidal, “When there are two sisters and one is the queen who must be the source of honor and all that is good, the other must be the focus of the most creative malice, the evil sister.”5 Certainly her behavior on occasion made her sister shine, Margaret easily slipping into the black sheep stereotype. That reputation barely disturbed the ash on her ever-present cigarette holder. As she once remarked, “Disobedience is my joy.”6
Margaret was sufficiently self-aware to be able to draw the subtle distinction between the media’s portrayal of her as someone jealous of the queen’s position versus the more layered conflict of a young woman overshadowed by her older sister: “I have never suffered from ‘second daughter-itis.’ But I did mind forever being cast as the ‘younger sister.’”7 As a friend perceptively noted, “She sees herself as the king’s daughter rather than the queen’s sister.”8 That is to say, part of the main royal family, not a subsidiary branch, which was the case after Elizabeth became queen. Margaret never indicated that she wanted to switch places with her sister, telling anyone who would listen that her role in life was to support her sister with the immense burden of her position. As she once remarked, “Isn’t it lucky that Lilibet is the eldest?”9 While Margaret chafed at the restraints of royal life, Elizabeth dutifully embraced them.
The two sisters were contradictory and conflicted, butting heads over matters both small and monumental, but they also loved one another. This push-and-pull between affection and distance, deep love and primal jealousy, went to the heart of the private world that Elizabeth and Margaret shared.
Both sisters entered the world on the twenty-first day of the month, but that was the only similarity about their births.
Elizabeth was born on April 21, 1926, in Mayfair, London, to then Prince Albert, duke of York and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. That year was proving a challenging one for Britain, teetering on the edge of industrial chaos and a historic general strike. By the time of her birth, strong public interest had already built up because her imminent arrival offered a diversion from the national crisis. A crowd milled outside 17 Bruton Street when Elizabeth finally arrived via cesarean section at 2:40 in the morning. In accordance with ancient tradition, home secretary Sir William Joynson-Hicks was present to witness the birth in order to prevent child swapping.10 Soon enough, the bonny blue-eyed baby became a potent symbol of family, continuity, and patriotism.
Just about a month later, on May 19, she was christened Elizabeth Alexandra Mary in a ceremony at the private chapel at Buckingham Palace, officiated by Dr. Cosmo Gordon Lang, the archbishop of York. Such was the interest in the baby princess that excited onlookers broke through the police cordon outside the palace in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the famous infant. Her distinguished name implied her future destiny as queen—even though, under the 1701 Act of Settlement, she appeared unlikely to ascend the throne once Uncle David produced an heir. Still, everyone spoke as if she represented the country’s great promise, with one newspaper observing, “The possibility that in the little stranger to Bruton Street there may be a future Queen of Great Britain (perhaps even a second Queen Elizabeth) is sufficiently intriguing.”11
The new baby catapulted her parents from a relatively quiet royal life to the front pages of newspapers and magazines. Weeks after her birth, the pavement outside the Yorks’ London residence was still thronged with so many fans that she occasionally had to be smuggled out of the back door in her pram for her daily airing. In time her mother became concerned about this surge of attention. She later wrote to her mother-in-law, Queen Mary: “It almost frightens me that the people should love her so much. I suppose that it is a good thing, and I hope that she will be worthy of it, poor little darling.”12
This extraordinary amount of attention was not limited to the man and woman in the street. From the start, her irascible grandfather King George V doted on her. Stories soon circulated about how the angelic little girl had won the affections of the unbending sovereign. Though he was notorious for intimidating his own children and senior staff, Elizabeth was the exception. The archbishop of Canterbury recounted that on one occasion, the monarch, who was playing a horse, allowed his granddaughter to pull him around by his gray beard as he shuffled on his knees along the floor. “He was fond of his two grandsons, Princess Mary’s sons,” recalled the countess of Airlie, “but Lilibet always came first in his affections. He used to play with her—a thing I never saw him do with his own children—and loved to have her with him.”13 He monitored her every small advance, sending a wireless message to his son and daughter-in-law, who were on board the Renown sailing to Australia, to inform them that his granddaughter had cut her first tooth. The king was enraptured by her. One Christmas at Sandringham, three-year-old Elizabeth was listening to the carol “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night” when she noticed the lyric “to you and all mankind.” She innocently announced: “I know that old man kind. That’s you grandpapa. You’re old and you are very, very kind.”14
Baby Elizabeth always listened attentively when Grandpa England stressed the virtues of decency, duty, and hard work, values that were further reinforced by an inflexible household regime and a dedicated team of staff in the nursery, including her nurse, Clara Knight, known as Alah; Margaret “Bobo” MacDonald, a copper-haired Scotswoman; and later Bobo’s sister, Ruby. At the firm request of her grandmother, Queen Mary, Elizabeth was trained to be a model royal from the beginning. “Teach that child not to fidget!” became her grandmother’s recurring demand. Alah painstakingly coached the three-year-old Elizabeth on the necessity of standing absolutely still, like a marble statue. The pockets in all her dresses were sewn shut to make sure she wouldn’t shove her hands in them and slouch or be tempted to fiddle with them. She learned to answer a salute, wave her white-gloved hand from a balcony or open car, pose graciously for photographers, and control her bladder for hours. Later she was taught the proper form of address for the archbishop of Canterbury and the prime minister. If she performed to Alah’s exacting standards, she was rewarded with a biscuit.15 Misbehavior would earn a slap across the back of her legs. Even by the standards of the day, her childhood was stifled and emotionally threadbare, the adults in her life encouraging a docile conformity.
As a toddler, Elizabeth learned that she needed to act with grace, bow and curtsy to adults, and never lose her composure or act too familiarly toward anyone. Everything in her rigidly controlled life was run like clockwork, from breakfast at 7:30 a.m. to bedtime at 7:15 p.m. sharp.16 In short, she began life as a sheltered, privileged child, drilled in the need for self-discipline and respect for the demands of her position.
While there were obvious limitations in her regimented and rather repressed childhood, there were perks too, though some were more obvious to adult sensibilities. Elizabeth would travel in limousines between the various royal castles, palaces, and houses while carefully attended by a small army of butlers, footmen, maids, and chauffeurs. At Christmas and on her birthday she was inundated with gifts, many sent by adoring members of the public who themselves were of modest means. At age four, she acquired her first Shetland pony, Peggy, from her grandfather and began riding lessons soon after. Whenever she appeared in public, throngs of people would stop, smile, cheer, and even wave flags. It was thus a childhood that alternated quickly between great attention and great isolation, and Elizabeth was raised as a small adult rather than as a child. Then, when she was just four years old, her position of ascendancy in the nursery came under challenge.
While Elizabeth was born in the center of fashionable Mayfair in a comfortable town house at 17 Bruton Street, her sister arrived on August 21, 1930, during a violent thunderstorm in the family’s “haunted” ancestral home, Glamis Castle, a storied Scottish pile that came complete with dark, winding corridors, steep stone steps, drafty bedrooms, and its own “monster,” said to be a disfigured creature hidden away in a secret room. Elizabeth had been a “wanted” first child, but the duke and duchess had hoped for a boy as their second.17 They hadn’t even considered female names. Though the parents liked the sound of Ann Margaret, at the behest of Queen Mary, they settled on naming the child Margaret Rose, as Margaret was the name of a Scottish queen.
On the morning after Margaret’s birth, Alah told Elizabeth a big surprise awaited her in her mother’s room. After touching her newborn sister’s hand, Elizabeth grew so excited that she grabbed the doctor, David Myles, and led him to the room, proclaiming: “Come and see my baby, my very own baby!”18 She was so excited that she was found later in front of her toy cupboard. Beside her were a blue velvet frog, a woolly rabbit, a pair of prized dancing dolls, and several picture books, the excited child announcing that she was getting things ready for the baby to play with.
Such devotion was not merely a reaction to the immediate excitement of Margaret’s birth. At her christening on October 30, she wore the same lace dress that her sister had four years earlier. Gazing at her sister with adoration, Elizabeth whispered, “I shall call her Bud. You see she isn’t really a rose yet.”19 Those words carried more significance than intended: Margaret Rose would always remain the bud, representing unfulfilled potential, someone restrained by convention and longing to burst forth. Even though Margaret, Elizabeth, and their mother would come to be called “The Three White Roses of York,”20 the truth was that only Elizabeth had been born a royal “rose” in that she was ultimately destined to be the queen.
The arrival of this second daughter focused the world’s attention even more closely on Elizabeth as the likely heir to the throne. A waxwork figure of her on her pony was installed at Madame Tussaud’s. Chocolates, dinnerware, tea towels, and hospitals were named after her. Her face was emblazoned on a six-cent stamp in Newfoundland. A popular tune, titled “Nursery Suite” and composed by Edward Elgar, honored her as well as her sister and mother. The Australian government named a piece of Antarctica “Princess Elizabeth Land.” Her doting father began comparing the young girl to the illustrious Queen Victoria. “From the first moment of talking,” he told the writer Osbert Sitwell, “she showed so much character that it was impossible not to wonder that history would not repeat itself.”21 For the baby Margaret, still too young to pronounce Elizabeth’s name correctly, her older sister was simply “Lilibet.”
Within just a few years, in 1933, Lilibet confidently informed her younger sister: “I’m three and you’re four.” Confused, Margaret responded: “No, you’re not. I’m three, you’re seven.” The toddler had no idea that Elizabeth was referring to their positions in the line of succession. At seven, Elizabeth already had the throne on her mind, unlike her uncle and even her own father. She solemnly told her Scottish governess, Marion “Crawfie” Crawford, “If I am ever Queen, I shall make a law that there must be no riding on Sundays. Horses should have a rest, too.”22
While Elizabeth was busy contemplating future edicts, rumors circulated that Margaret was deaf and dumb because the public was not allowed to see her. This annoyed King George so much that, when the royal family were standing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace after a royal wedding, he bent down and whisked her off her feet and stood her on the balustrade. Years later Margaret told her confidant Christopher Warwick that she had no head for heights and found the whole experience “terrifying.” His action, however, had the effect of dramatically dispelling the rumors.
Inside the family, it was apparent that Margaret was a beauty with an intriguing and willful personality. Her mother proudly gushed to Cosmo Lang: “She has got large blue eyes and a will of iron, which is all the equipment that a lady needs! And as long as she can disguise her will, and use her eyes, then all will be well.”23
From the beginning it was clear that Margaret was daddy’s little girl, despite not being as well behaved as her older sister. She would often sneak downstairs after lunch in the nursery, push “her small fat face” round the dining room door, and climb onto her father’s knee to steal a sip of soda or spoonful of sugar.24 Crawfie, their governess, recalled: “She was a plaything. Warm and demonstrative, made to be cuddled and played with.”25 She also displayed an early ability to play off one parent against the other. When she was four, she went up to her mother, looked at her affectionately, gave her a kiss and told her, “Mummy darling, I really do believe that I love Papa much more than I do you.”26
Elizabeth wasted no time in keeping a watchful eye on her exuberant baby sister, viewing it as her solemn duty to protect Margaret from the outside world. On one occasion, when a buck-toothed chaplain came to visit and asked Elizabeth if he could see Margaret, her older sister replied, “No, I think your teeth would frighten her.”27
During their early childhood, the two sisters led an insulated and carefree life at 145 Piccadilly, a stone-fronted, five-storied house that came to be known as “the palace with a number and without a name.”28 Their father wanted the children raised in a peaceful, loving environment—unlike the regime that had been imposed by his own martinet of a father. As a child, Bertie had been forced to wear painful leg braces to correct his knock knees and had been beaten into writing with his right rather than left hand, even though he was a natural leftie. By age eight, perhaps because of such unthinking abuse, he had acquired a debilitating stammer. Now that he had finally found warmth and comfort with Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the daughter of the earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, Bertie was determined to create an intimate home life for his daughters and raise them without pretention. The public noted how the Yorks projected the image of a perfect family: “a neat, hard-working, quiet husband, an adoring mother with a lovely smile, and the well-behaved little girls, just two of them in ankle socks… like the characters in an Ovaltine advertisement.”29
Bertie’s wife, Elizabeth, proved the perfect partner in this enterprise, widely admired for her charm and femininity. After seeing her in the royal box at the theater, the novelist Virginia Woolf described her as, “a simple, chattering, sweet-hearted, round-faced young woman in pink. Her wrists twinkling with diamonds and her dress held on the shoulder with diamonds.”30
- On Sale
- Mar 30, 2021
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Grand Central Publishing