Peter Townsend: who was Princess Margaret’s ex partner in The Crown, did they reunite, what happened to him?

Captain Townsend acted as equerry to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II

The first series of The Crown saw a glimpse of the Queen’s younger sister, Princess Margaret.

At the time, she was played by Vanessa Kirby and was caught between choosing her royal duty, or the man she wanted to marry -royal equerry Peter Townsend.

Now, with the recent release of season five, we see an imagined reunion between the princess and her former beau - but is this storyline true to form? And what happened to the couple? Who exactly is Peter Townsend and what was his relationship with Princess Margaret? Here is everything you need to know.

Who was Peter Townsend? 

Townsend was born in 1914 in Rangon Burma - which at that time was under British India (now known as Yangon, Myanmar). His father was Lieutenant Colonel Edward Copleston Townsend, of the Indian Army, and the Townsend family of Devon had a tradition of sending their sons to the Church or the armed forces.

Townsend joined the Royal Air Force in 1930, training at RAF Cranwell. He was commissioned as a pilot officer in 1935 and still serving in the RAF four years later Townsend fought in World War Two. His wartime record was nine aircraft claimed destroyed, and two shared, two probables and four damaged. This is referred to in the first series of the Crown, when the Netflix programme shows Townsend teaching Prince Philip how to fly.

In 1944, Townsend was appointed as temporary equerry to King George VI, as Townsend had been his flight instructor in the 1930s. An equerry is an officer of the British royal household, who attends or assists members of the royal family. It is seen as a great honour to be granted to role.

The position was made permanent in the same year, and he served that title for the first year of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign until 1953, when he became extra equerry - an office he held until his death. In August 1950, Townsend was made deputy Master of the Household and was moved to comptroller to the Queen Mother in 1952. He was promoted to group captain on 1 January 1953, and retired from the Royal Household the same year.

Ben Miles as Peter Townsend, Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret. Photo: Alex Bailey/Netflix

Peter Townsend and Princess Margaret 

Townsend and the Princess met in 1944, when she was 14 and he was 29 and married. Three months after meeting, he was her chaperone for a tour in Southern Africa. According to Vanity Fair, this is when she told friends about him: “We rode together every morning in that wonderful country, in marvelous weather. That’s when I really fell in love with him.”

Townsend and his wife, Rosemary Pratt, Marchioness Camden, were divorced in 1952 after 11 years of marriage.

After the King’s death in 1952, the Princess and Townsend continued their affair in secret, only for it to be revealed at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, on June 2, 1953, when the Princess picked a piece of fluff from the lapel of Townsend’s tunic in plain view of all the television cameras in Westminster Abbey.

Some sources claim the couple got engaged just before Christmas in 1952, whereas others cite April 1953. The Princess accepted his proposal but under the Royal Marriages Act 1772, she needed permission from the Queen to get married before the age of 25.

Princess Margaret (L), Princess Elizabeth and Group Captain Peter Townsend gather June 13, 1951 in the Royal Box at Ascot

As Townsend was married, and divorcees weren’t allowed to remarry in the Church of England, it was decided that he was to leave the country for a year, after which, the couple was asked to wait another year. They saw each other again for the first time on 12 October 1955.

Three weeks later, a statement was drafted in Princess Margaret’s name: “I would like it to be known that I have decided not to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend. I have been aware that, subject to renouncing my rights of succession, it might have been possible for me to contract a civil marriage. But mindful of the Church’s teachings that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before others.

“I have reached this decision entirely alone, and in doing so I have been strengthened by the unfailing support and devotion of Group Captain Townsend. I am deeply grateful for the concern of all those who have constantly prayed for my happiness.”

In his memoir, Townsend wrote: “She could have married me only if she had been prepared to give up everything — her position, her prestige, her privy purse. I simply hadn’t the weight, I knew it, to counterbalance all she would have lost.”

Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend in The Crown

Did Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend reunite? 

In 1959, at the age of 45, Townsend married 20-year-old Marie-Luce Jamagne, a Belgian national he had met the previous year. Together they had two daughters and one son.

Princess Margaret married photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones, who she met in 1958. They married in 1960 and had two children together. In 1976, the couple separated and their divorce was made final in 1978. In 1992, the Princess and Townsend did reunite, for lunch at her apartment in Kensington Palace. Then, aged 77, he looked to the Princess “exactly the same, except he had grey hair”.

Lady Penn, Margaret’s close friend said at the time “It was sweet to see them together”. However, the scene shown by Netflix’s The Crown, where they spend an idyllic evening together- did not occur - although it is true the armed force reception did happen and both Townsend and Margaret were on the guest list.

Three years later Townsend died from stomach cancer, aged 80 while Margaret died in 2022, aged 71. In the Netflix series, Townsend is played by Ben Miles (season one) and Timothy Dalton (season five).