Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret were born four years apart to the then Duke and Duchess of York. They had an idyllic early childhood growing up in a large house in London. They were schooled at home by a governess, lessons taking place between 9.30 and 11.00 with outdoor games, dancing and singing taking up the rest of the day. Elizabeth and Margaret were treated the same, almost like twins, wearing matching clothes.
They were a very close-knit family, the Duke of York referring to them as “we four” and were raised as ‘extra royals’. However, the unexpected abdication of King Edward VIII, the Duke’s older brother, in 1938 changed all of their lives. The Duke of York became King George VI and Elizabeth became next in line to the throne. Margaret was now ‘spare to the heir’. Elizabeth had extra subjects added to her curriculum including being instructed in constitutional history by the provost of Eton College.
As they grew up, the differences in personality between the two sisters became more apparent. Elizabeth was dutiful, stoic and introverted with a strong sense of responsibility. Margaret was emotional, quixotic and extroverted. Elizabeth was a good mimic and dancer and very funny when she wanted to be. Margaret had these qualities too but, being more fond of the limelight, she would often overshadow Elizabeth. Margaret became the royal rebel and Elizabeth would look upon her younger sister’s antics with resigned amusement.
The relationship between the two sisters became more complex after the Queen’s coronation, as can be seen in this Princess Margaret biography. While Margaret was very loyal and supportive, she struggled to find a place and position inside the royal system. Being more outgoing, she would have thrived in Elizabeth’s position and suffered jealousy from time to time, feeling frustrated at not being given more responsible and meaningful roles. Elizabeth was steadfastly dutiful and this was put to the test when Margaret became involved with Group Captain Peter Townsend, Equerry to the King and 15 years her senior.
He was divorced and, at that time, the Church didn’t allow members of the Royal Family to marry divorcees. The Queen, although wanting her sister to be happy, suggested that they wait a year to see if the relationship would stand the test of time. After the year was up, although they still wanted to marry, Princess Margaret decided not to go ahead with the marriage as she would lose her rights to succession and also the Privy Purse. From then on, Princess Margaret became more and more part of the jet-set life.
She was the president and patron of many charities but was more known for her partying, mixing with film stars and holidaying on the island of Mustique in the Caribbean. By contrast, Elizabeth was happiest with her family, horses and dogs and spending time on the Balmoral Estate in Scotland. The Queen’s overriding attribute was, and is, her sense of duty.
Despite their differing personalities and expectations, the sisters remained close throughout their lives. The Queen’s untypically visible emotion during Margaret’s funeral in 2002 was a poignant demonstration of the affection for her often troubled, yet much loved sister.