Princess Margaret - not her sister the Queen - blocked marriage to Peter Townsend

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When Princess Margaret announced her decision to break off her engagement to Group Captain Peter Townsend, it was widely believed that the Queen had persuaded her to put duty before love.

Her relationship with the dashing but divorced equerry was described by Time magazine as 'the most controversial Royal romance since Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson'.

Their wish to marry had sparked tumult – as recently dramatised on screen in The Crown – drawing in the Palace, the Church of England, public opinion and Sir Anthony Eden's Government, which had threatened to strip the Princess of Royal privileges if she insisted on the union.

However, a series of letters has revealed for the first time that it was not the Queen who blocked the marriage but Margaret herself, who simply got cold feet.

When Princess Margaret announced her decision to break off her engagement to Group Captain Peter Townsend, it was widely believed that the Queen had persuaded her to put duty before love. However, a series of letters has revealed for the first time that it was not the Queen who blocked the marriage but Margaret herself, who simply got cold feet. (Above, Townsend with Margaret in 1947, before romance blossomed)

The documents also show 'how hard the Queen tries for Margaret,' according to historian Kate Williams. 'It gives us a different view of the Queen as someone who did try to put her sister's happiness as a top priority.' (Above, Princess Elizabeth arrives at the Palace Theatre in London in 1946 - as Group Captain Peter Townsend, in uniform, looks on as Princess Margaret emerges from a car)

The letters, part of a dossier of recently declassified Government documents, were written to and from Prime Minister Eden, and feature in a new Channel 4 documentary. In the first, dated August 15, 1955, Margaret (above) admitted her doubts about the relationship to Eden himself

The letters, part of a dossier of recently declassified Government documents, were written to and from Prime Minister Eden, and feature in a new Channel 4 documentary.

In the first, dated August 15, 1955, Margaret admitted her doubts about the relationship to Eden himself.

'I have no doubt that during this time – especially on my birthday – the press will encourage every sort of speculation about the possibility of my marrying Group Captain Peter Townsend,' she wrote. 'But it is only by seeing him that I feel I can properly decide whether I can marry him or not.'

In a second letter, dated two months later, Eden told Commonwealth leaders that 'Her Majesty would not wish to stand in the way of her sister's happiness'.

Princess Margaret and Townsend's wish to marry had sparked tumult – as recently dramatised on screen in The Crown – drawing in the Palace, the Church of England, public opinion and Sir Anthony Eden's Government, which had threatened to strip the Princess of Royal privileges if she insisted on the union. (Pictured, Ben Miles as the captain, and Vanessa Kirby as Margaret in the hit Netflix series)

Royal author Penny Junor said: 'I think this throws a whole new light on the affair.

'We've always believed that she didn't marry Townsend because she was prevented by the Government, by the Church of England and by her sister. But this very much suggests that she didn't love him enough.'

In fact, the documents also show 'how hard the Queen tries for Margaret,' according to historian Kate Williams.

'It gives us a different view of the Queen as someone who did try to put her sister's happiness as a top priority.'

It was at the Queen's Coronation, on June 2, 1953, that Princess Margaret, then 22, inadvertently confirmed her relationship with the former Battle of Britain RAF pilot, who had been an equerry to her late father, King George VI.

At a party after the ceremony, she was seen to casually brush a bit of fluff from Townsend's jacket – an intimate gesture which raised eyebrows. 

In tackling the potential ramifications of the relationship, the Queen faced an unenviable decision: compromise her position as head of the Church of England, which did not sanctify divorce, or deny her sister's future happiness.

On October 31, 1955, after reuniting with her fiance amid a press frenzy, Margaret announced: 'I have decided not to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend. (Pictured, l to r: Princess Margaret, Princess Elizabeth and Group Captain Peter Townsend at Ascot in 1955)

'She was still very new in the job and she was being asked to make a choice between duty and family,' Junor said.

Unable to sanction the marriage, the Queen stalled.

'She could see there was a loophole,' Junor added. When Margaret reached the age of 25, she no longer needed the Queen's permission to marry. So I think she urged her sister to wait.'

Townsend, in the meantime, was posted to Brussels.

Two years later, as Margaret's 25th birthday approached, it was decision time and the couple needed permission from the Government if the marriage was to go ahead. 

According to the documents, the Prime Minister struck a deal in which Margaret could keep her title and civil list allowance but lose her position in the line of succession. 

Some have queried whether that compromise was enough for Margaret. It certainly did not persuade her that she wanted to marry him.

On October 31, 1955, after reuniting with her fiance amid a press frenzy, Margaret announced: 'I have decided not to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend.

'Mindful of the Church's teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before any others.'

Queen Elizabeth: Love, Honour And Crown will be screened on Channel 4 at 9pm next Sunday.

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