The way her Majesty remained close to her sister Margaret, despite upset, should be a blueprint for Prince William, says Harry Mount.
As Prince Harry hunkered down with the Queen for the Sandringham summit yesterday, he must have thought: "How on earth does Granny do it…?"
Not just how, for the past 68 years, has she played such a blinder on the throne. But also how on earth did she manage to get along so well with her effortlessly popular and headstrong younger sister, despite their being so different in temperament?
Ever since childhood, Princess Elizabeth was – like Prince William – the calm, dutiful, sensible one. And, just like Prince Harry, Margaret Rose was wild, chaotic and drawn to the limelight.
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And yet, even though the older sister had the power to command her younger sister to do or not to do something, they remained extremely close to each other until Princess Margaret's death in 2002.
Yesterday, Prince William and Prince Harry released a joint statement attacking an "offensive and potentially harmful […] false story" published at the weekend about their relationship, which had suggested the Sussexes were being driven away from the royal family by "bullying" behaviour. It was cheering to see a united front from the brothers after the bombshell announcement that the Duke and Duchess want to step down as "senior" members of the royal family.
All the same, it looks likely that there has existed a rift ever since 2018, when Prince William reportedly took his younger brother aside and suggested that perhaps he shouldn't rush into marriage with Meghan Markle.
Here, there are strong parallels with the Queen's handling of Princess Margaret's 1950s affair with Group Captain Peter Townsend.
Townsend, George VI's divorced and much older equerry, had asked Margaret to marry him, and she was all set to accept. But the marriage was made impossible by Elizabeth II's position as the Church of England's Supreme Governor. The Royal Family had also been traumatised by the abdication crisis of 1936, when Edward VIII gave up the throne to marry an American divorcée, Wallis Simpson.
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In the end, Margaret chose duty over love. Viewers of the latest series of Netflix's The Crown will be aware of the Queen's torment at putting her sister in such an unenviable position – and her struggle to accommodate the backlash. An early episode of the new series opens with a fictional flashback to a young Margaret conniving to get her older sister to let her become queen instead.
Princess Margaret retained her royal position and palace home, and would go on to marry the more suitable Anthony Armstrong-Jones in 1960 – a marriage that ended in divorce. However, in turning down Townsend, Margaret did as the Queen had commanded.
But it left her in limbo. In the 1950s, a woman of Princess Margaret's class and generation wasn't expected to work. The only expectation was that she should marry, have children – and remain married.
By contracting an ultimately unhappy marriage with Armstrong-Jones, Margaret became, by accident, the rebel princess, rising at midday to face a day dictated only by pleasure: drinks before lunch, lunch, an evening engagement and dinner, with the odd royal duty thrown in. In another fictional scene in The Crown, she is shown duetting drunkenly at the White House with US president Lyndon B Johnson, for whom she also performs ribald limericks.
Her rebellion hit its greatest heights in the late 1970s, when she took up with her society gardener toyboy, Roddy Llewellyn, on the Caribbean island of Mustique. All of which would have been avoided had Princess Margaret been permitted by her sister to marry the man she had loved.
Perhaps Prince William, too, has unwittingly created a royal rebel in his younger brother. By expressing doubts about Meghan, he helped dig the crack in Prince Harry's relationship with the Royal Family that has now split wide open.
The Queen and Margaret, though, remained close long after the Townsend affair. Their relationship had been rooted in a secure upbringing with their parents, George VI and Queen Elizabeth – "Our family, us four, the 'Royal Family'," as George VI referred to them in a touching letter he wrote to Princess Elizabeth in 1947, just after she married Prince Philip. And so, despite their different characteristics, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose created a close bond that never broke.
Princes William and Harry's childhood was much more fractured – by their parents' unhappy marriage and the agonising hammer blow of Princess Diana's death in 1997.
It helped, too, that, when Elizabeth was born (in 1926) and Margaret (in 1930), the chances of either becoming Queen were remote. Their grandfather, George V, was on the throne. And their uncle, the Prince of Wales, was in line to inherit the crown, which would go to his children – who, in the end, never materialised.
Only with the abdication in 1936 did it become clear that the 10-year-old Princess Elizabeth would ever become Queen. By then, the family dynamic had already been moulded, untarnished by the power struggles that come with inheriting a throne.
The character of the two little princesses is captured brilliantly by Craig Brown in Ma'am, Darling, his bestselling biography of Princess Margaret. He describes a cheeky young Margaret Rose meeting JM Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, over tea at Glamis Castle. Brown writes: "Barrie had asked Margaret if a last biscuit was his or hers. 'It is yours and mine,' replied Margaret."
The princesses' nanny, Marion 'Crawfie' Crawford, gave telling portraits of her charges, too: "Margaret was a great joy and a diversion, but Lilibet [the Queen's childhood nickname] had a natural grace of her own … Lilibet was the one with the temper, but it was under control. Margaret was often naughty, but she had a gay, bouncing way with her which was hard to deal with. She would often defy me with a sidelong look, make a scene and kiss and be friends and all forgiven and forgotten."
Between the two sisters, though, Crawfie saw a warm, affectionate relationship, with Lilibet always keeping a near-maternal eye on her sister: "Lilibet was very motherly with her younger sister. I used to think at one time she gave in to her rather more than was good for Margaret. Sometimes she would say to me, in her funny, responsible manner, 'I really don't know what we are going to do with Margaret, Crawfie.'"
That thumbnail sketch applied to the sisters' relationship for the rest of Margaret's life – or Margot, as she was nicknamed by the Royal Family.
In 1952, the Queen embarked on her unprecedented, triumphant reign and became a byword for steady-as-she-goes, supernaturally calm, uncomplaining helmsmanship.
Meanwhile, her younger sister embarked on a rackety life, whisky glass in one hand, cigarette-holder in the other, pinballing around the world in search of entertainment from louche aristocrats and film stars.
Princess Margaret burnt the candle at both ends from her teenage years. When the princess is 17, Crawfie says to Queen Elizabeth, "I can do nothing with her. She is tired out and absolutely exhausted with all these late nights."
And so it continued for the next half-century, but always with her older sister tolerating her self-indulgence and remaining close to her.
Even before the Coronation, Margaret's empty future was mapped out. As Brown writes: "She had to live alone with her mother in Clarence House, eclipsed – and to some extent marginalised – by her sister, the new Queen, and with no clear role of her own."
By the time she was 50, Princess Margaret's prickly self-indulgence had become hard-boiled, pickled in whisky. In his recently published diaries, Kenneth Rose, the eminent Sunday Telegraph journalist, recalled her visit to Windsor in 1980, which she "rather spoilt [...] by her habit of monopolising people". He quoted fellow guest, scientist Solly Zuckerman's instant verdict: "She has a bit of a brain, but is destroyed by drink, frustration and an awareness of her unpopularity."
As her life declined, Princess Margaret remained close to her older sister – but she felt keenly her move further and further down the line of succession. On December 1, 2000, Rose writes: "Princess Anne made a Knight of the Thistle. A deserved honour, but it leaves Princess Margaret all the more isolated."
Still, through all Princess Margaret's increasing isolation, it was her older sister who always extended a helping hand. Here's hoping Prince William did the same for his younger brother at Sandringham yesterday.