Britain's Princess Margaret, sister of the queen, dies at 71

Lively personality had succumbed to illness in final years

February 10, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Britain's Princess Margaret, who died "peacefully in her sleep" yesterday at age 71, was the princess who loved and lived unhappily ever after.

She remained in the shadow of her older sister, Queen Elizabeth II, traded youthful love for duty after severing a 1950s romance with a dashing yet divorced royal aide and later endured a failed marriage.

In her youth, she was lively, gorgeous and brazenly independent.

But after years of smoking cigarettes, she grew increasingly frail, undergoing lung surgery in 1985, suffering a mild stroke in 1998 and another stroke last year.

According to Buckingham Palace, Margaret suffered another stroke Friday afternoon, "developed cardiac problems during the night" and was taken from her Kensington Palace residence to the King Edward VII Hospital at 2:30 a.m. yesterday.

She "died peacefully in her sleep" at 6:30 a.m., with her children, Lord Linley, 40, and Lady Sarah Chatto, 37, by her side.

Britons awoke to news of the royal death.

Beneath dank afternoon skies, Margaret's casket, draped with the Royal Standard, was transferred by hearse to Kensington Palace. Her funeral will take place Friday at St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle.

The queen, who only three days earlier marked her 50th year on the throne, expressed "great sadness" over her sister's death.

She was at her Windsor residence, returning there Friday from her country estate at Sandringham. The 101-year-old Queen Mother Elizabeth remained at Sandringham, where she was joined by Prince Charles.

Charles spoke of "a terribly sad day" for the royal family.

"My darling aunt had such a dreadful time the last few years with her awful illness," Charles said, "and it was hard for her to deal with, particularly as she was such a wonderfully vibrant woman with such a free spirit. She lived life and loved it to the full, and for that we will always remember her."

During comments to Britain's Press Association and the British Broadcasting Corp., Charles recalled his aunt's "incredible talents."

"She used to play the piano incredibly well," he said. "She sang like an angel, and she had this wonderful spirit. She used to win crossword puzzle competitions."

Princess Margaret Rose of York was born Aug. 21, 1930, at Glamis Castle in Scotland. Elizabeth was 4. Their parents, the Duke and Duchess of York, had a seemingly untroubled life.

But the family's blissful existence turned on the pivot of the 1936 abdication crisis, when King Edward VIII gave up the crown to marry the woman he loved, Wallis Warfield Simpson of Baltimore.

Edward's abdication catapulted his brother, Margaret's father, to the throne as King George VI and placed Elizabeth first in the line of succession.

Though she was just 6 at the time, Margaret was confronted with the uncomfortable lifetime role of remaining in a sovereign's shadow.

During World War II, the royal sisters remained in Britain despite German bombing.

Margaret's independent streak was seen during an incident when her parents wouldn't let her attend the first Royal Ascot race meeting after World War II. Margaret waited for them to leave, and then ordered up another royal car and went to the races.

In her late teens and 20s, she cut a stunning path on the London social scene. She was petite, beautiful and elegantly dressed in Christian Dior outfits that accentuated her 23-inch waist. She favored swanky nightclubs with wealthy admirers in tow.

In the summer of 1953, the country began to be gripped by speculation that Margaret wanted to marry a divorced man, Group Capt. Peter Townsend, a decorated Royal Air Force fighter pilot. Townsend was a familiar figure around the royal household.

The stakes for the royal family were immense, since the monarchy was still recovering from the 1936 "Abdication Crisis."

Margaret faced a choice between love and duty. She could marry but would lose her place in the line of royal succession. Townsend was transferred to Brussels, Belgium, and Margaret was given plenty of time to make her choice.

In October 1955, she issued a terse statement: "I have decided not to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend."

The affair was over, and Margaret moved on. She was courted by a society photographer and commoner, Antony Armstrong-Jones, and the couple were married at Westminster Abbey on May 6, 1960. He became the Earl of Snowdon, and the couple lived a seemingly enchanted and glamorous life.

But beneath the glitter, there were problems as the couple separated in 1976, and the marriage was dissolved in 1978.

In later years, Margaret was said to have found solace in religion. She also enjoyed a sense of peace on the lush Caribbean island of Mustique. But she continued to display a keen interest in the arts and charity and was a longtime president and patron of the Royal Ballet.

Her physical deterioration became noticeable in the 1990s amid mounting health problems.

"After a turbulent life, she had come into port some years ago and had achieved happiness and serenity until this cruel illness struck her down," said one of her friends, constitutional expert Lord St John of Fawsley.

"She was a generous and life-giving friend," he told Britain's Press Association. "She always enjoyed her capacity for enjoyment and joie de vivre."

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