Princess Margaret spent the majority of her adult life being described as the rebel Royal and a woman who was the complete opposite of her sister, Elizabeth. Margaret liked to smoke, drink, and party. Elizabeth preferred a quieter and more orderly life at home with her family. Obviously this sisterly dynamic was going to be a huge part of The Crown. How could it not? The show cleverly uses its imagery to show us the contrast between them without having to say anything, as in scenes such as Margaret drinking and singing while we see Queen Elizabeth retire to bed early or do a jigsaw puzzle. But are they really as different as we’re led to believe? I think if we scratch beneath the surface, we’ll find two women who aren’t so different after all.
Once upon a time, there were two young Princesses. One of them was being prepared for a lifetime as the monarch—a life where she would be granted power, fame, and meaning. This meaning would not just give her a purpose in life but would also provide her with duty and status in the world. The other would never be prepared for a life spent trying to find a purpose and meaning in her sibling’s shadow.
I’d love every minute. To be on every coin, on every banknote, to be the most famous woman in the world. I’d be so very good at it. Wearing a big crown, giving everyone orders. Tell them, “Margaret Rose can do it. Margaret Rose wants to do it. Margaret Rose was born to do it.”
– Princess Margaret, “Margaretology” (S3E2)
It was evident from a young age how different Elizabeth and Margaret were in terms of how they wanted the world to see them. Elizabeth was shy, full of self-doubt, and unsure about whether she could do what was going to be required of her one day. Margaret, on the other hand, wanted it. She wanted the crown and she wanted to be the center of attention. Even at that young age, the girls were already being treated differently and already knew they were destined for very different lives. Margaret seemed to relish being born into this life of luxury and privilege. Elizabeth didn’t.
Even their education was different, despite them both being homeschooled together. After a basic education was completed, Elizabeth went on to study constitutional history and was taught by people from Oxford or Eton. Margaret was taught piano.
This must have had a profound effect on both of them: two little girls who had an exceptionally close relationship suddenly being taught completely different things. It was probably during this time that they both realized just how different their lives were going to be. Was it fair for Margaret to only receive a very basic education because she wasn’t next in line for the throne? Maybe if Margaret would have had a proper education, she would have found something she wanted to do in her life and focused on it. Instead, she had to feel like she couldn’t do anything, and that she just had to always be second best. She was jealous of the life she was never going to have.
Margaret had a closer relationship with their father, George, and would often remind Elizabeth that she was his favorite. He himself knew what it was like to come second to a sibling destined for the throne and no doubt wanted to make her feel special. This meant he knew what kind of future lay ahead for her.
George knew that the crown was something that could come between a family and damage it. For this reason, he made Elizabeth and Margaret make a promise to each other. They were never allowed to put anyone or anything before one another. They were sisters and must never let one another down.
But how long can a promise like that be kept?
I know I appear strong, but I’m not…Don’t tell me you understand that. You don’t know for a minute what it is to be…unhinged. To be flailing about.
– Princess Margaret, “Gloriana” (S1E10)
As the girls grew up, jealousy began to fester on both sides, and then men came into the equation. Elizabeth was allowed to be with a man of her choosing. Margaret was still a young girl when Elizabeth married Philip, and both of them were still princesses. It was only after her sister became Queen that the real problems surrounding Margaret’s love life emerged.
Margaret had fallen in love with an older, divorced man: Peter Townsend. Naturally, the two wanted to cement that love by getting married, except the Royal Marriages Act was something nobody had thought about. We all know the story of Margaret and Peter by now: how she was denied her chance to marry the man that she loved and, as a result, denied her chance at true happiness. Elizabeth is worried that a new relationship (especially one involving a divorced man) will avert attention from the monarchy. She believes that the crown should remain front and center in the media. It’s what she’s been taught.
But is this also a case of Elizabeth now being the one jealous of her sister’s life? At this point in their lives, Elizabeth is settling into her role as Queen. She performs her duties, going on Royal visits and doing what she was born to do. Being the Queen also comes with constant criticism, and every move she makes has to be perfect. Her public image must remain strong, and she has to work hard to achieve this every day. Margaret, on the other hand, can apparently do no wrong.
Even though she felt like she didn’t have a role or purpose in life now that her sister was Queen, Margaret was adored by the public. I think there was something of a fascination for her different lifestyle. People hadn’t really seen a member of the Royal family out partying and drinking. She was different and unique. The media (and the public) were all for her relationship with Peter, but it was never going to be.
Imagine watching your sister be allowed to marry the man she loves while being cruelly denied the same thing. When there are already cracks in a relationship with your sibling, this is the type of thing that might shatter it forever. Elizabeth obviously sympathizes with her sister, but I genuinely don’t think she saw just how much damage it did to her or her mental health. We began to see just how fragile Margaret really was and how desperate she was to be loved. But sadly she never got the true love that she desired so much.
I think I can understand better than most. The frustrations and resentments that can build up from a life as a number two. The support act. Even of someone you adore…I’ve spent my whole life as Vice Queen.
– Princess Margaret, “Margaretology” (S3E2)
When Margaret finally does get married, it’s a marriage that’s doomed from the start. Did she really love Antony Armstrong-Jones, or was she just desperate to feel loved? Come to think of it, did he even love her? It felt more like a marriage of means with them both using the other for what they wanted most. She wanted desperately to have a normal family life and he wanted the status, something which might finally give him the respect of his mother.
Ironically, Antony feels like he’s living in Margaret’s shadow. She may have been number two alongside her sister, but in her marriage, she’s definitely the star. He strays to other women, which results in her straying, too. It’s a toxic combination that will ultimately have huge consequences.
As her marriage begins to crumble, so does her relationship with the rest of her family. Elizabeth has overcome her own marriage problems, with her and Philip making compromises to make it work. This is what probably leads her to try and reassure Margaret that she and Antony can get through their problems. She knows that divorce is still going to cause a scandal, and she wants to protect her sister from that shame. By doing that, Elizabeth is also protecting herself and the monarchy. She doesn’t always have her sister’s best interests at heart; both of them can be selfish.
Their mother also chooses to take Antony’s side in the fallout, and Philip mocks Margaret. None of them can see how on the edge Margaret has become. A lifetime of being a number two has finally taken its toll on her. She wants more of a life than the one she’s been given. If she can’t have more, then she doesn’t want life at all.
Of all the people everywhere, you are the closest and most important to me. And if by doing this…you wanted to let me imagine for one minute what life would be like without you…you succeeded. It would be unbearable.
– Queen Elizabeth, “Cri de Couer” (S3E10)
When Margaret attempts suicide, it’s truly heartbreaking as we see just how broken she has become. Whether it was a cri de coeur or a coup de grace is irrelevant. She’s hit rock bottom and needs the love of her family. Her marriage is over, her new lover has gone, and once again she feels like she’s failed at life. What’s more heartbreaking is the conversation that takes place afterward, when Elizabeth visits her.
Without actually saying the precise words, Elizabeth tells Margaret how much she loves her and values having her in her life. It’s beautiful, as we’ve never seen them be loving toward one another in their adult life. There’s no denying they love each other more than anything—they’re sisters after all—but we never get to see it. This is where the differences between them fall away and we see how similar they really are. It’s all because of the word love.
They love each other immensely but could never have a normal sisterly relationship due to the world they were born into. Elizabeth’s duty and Margaret’s rebellion put a line right down the middle of that bond they once had. While Elizabeth was allowed to love who she wanted, she regretfully had to deny her sister that same privilege. In turn, Margaret spent a large majority of her adult life searching for the love she didn’t feel she was getting from anywhere else. Would her life have been different had she been allowed to marry Peter? I believe so. It would have spared her that deep unhappiness with Tony. She might have finally found that purpose in life that she sought so much.
It took a tragedy for the sisters to admit (in a way) how much they loved one another. Had they been born into a different world, they could have had that love. Margaret might say that she loves the attention, the fame, and the high life, but I bet she’d have been so much happier in a family without rules and separation. They wanted a life without complications, the divide, and the crown: a life where they could be together with their families in peace and with love.
Some little girls spend all of their time fantasizing about being a princess. They crave that magical life that’s told to them in fairy stories—the life that’s full of castles, crowns, Prince Charming, and happy-ever-afters. But in real life, Princesses dream about having a life where they can make their own decisions, be out of the public eye, and love who they want to. They dream of a life that’s just like ours.