The Crown: The True Story Behind Princess Margaret’s Scandalous Portrait

vanessa kirby matthew goode the crown

by Katie Rosseinsky |
Updated on

Princess Margaret had a rough time of it in The Crown’s first season: her beloved father dies, her sister becomes the head of the family, country and Commonwealth – then the same sister prevents her from marrying the man she loves (doing so in the interest of said family, country and Commonwealth, supposedly). While writer Peter Morgan may have taken some liberties with historical fact in the interest of good television, the fact that (most of) this actually happened behind palace doors in real life made Vanessa Kirby’s portrayal of Elizabeth’s younger, wilder sister even more heart-breaking.

As the show’s action movies into the more liberated 1960s for a second season, Margaret’s doomed love affair with Captain Peter Townsend is well and truly shelved: in its place is a far more exciting – but equally complicated – romance with society photographer Antony ‘Tony’ Armstrong-Jones, as played by Downton Abbey’s Matthew Goode.

Often over-looked by the show in favour of the ‘A’ plotlines provided by Claire Foy’s Elizabeth and Matt Smith’s Prince Philip – just as she must so often have been side-lined in real life – it’s only after three episodes of well-elocuted marital strife that Margaret is allowed to take centre stage for season two’s fourth hour-long instalment. After a failed engagement to a truly awful old Etonian named Billy Wallace, she asks her lady-in-waiting Elizabeth Cavendish to introduce her to a new crowd, with a few caveats: she wants nothing to do with any man that ‘breeds horses, owns land, or knows my mother.’ Quite radical for a royal, really. Her path then crosses with Anthony Armstrong-Jones, a photographer who balances conventional gigs at society weddings with more experimental (read: slightly risqué) portraiture.

Soon, she’s visiting Tony’s studio for a portrait sitting. The resulting black-and-white image is immediately arresting – not just because her lowered neckline gives (as brother-in-law Philip puts it with characteristic tact) the appearance of her being ‘naked,’ but because it shows a more authentic Margaret, freed from the trappings of royalty. It couldn’t be further from the romantic but staid and oddly chaste Cecil Beaton shoot shown earlier in the episode.

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Anthony Armstrong Jones' portrait of Princess Margaret, 1959 ©Getty

The portrait we see on screen is more fact than fiction, taking inspiration from not one but two original images taken by Armstrong-Jones during his relationship with the Princess. Tony did shoot Margaret’s 1959 birthday portrait, and though his picture is perhaps a little more traditional in style than The Crown’s, she is shown – the horror! – with bare shoulders, lending that appearance of nakedness. By this point, too, he was hardly an unknown quantity in royal circles, either: in 1957, he’d been hired to shoot the Queen, Philip and their two young children (plus the ubiquitous corgis) in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. Even after his divorce from Margaret in 1978, Armstrong-Jones continued in his privileged position as royal photographer of choice, going on to create memorable images for multiple generations of the family he’d married into.

The Crown’s on-screen version does in fact bear a more striking resemblance to another iconic image of the Princess. Shot in 1967 (seven years after the couple were married), it again shows her staring over a bare shoulder, yet the exposure is such that her face is framed in darkness. Given that the pair had, at this point, already tied the knot, the capacity for scandal was lessened somewhat – though it was (and perhaps still is) hardly a conventional portrait for such a prominent royal. We’d expect nothing less from Margaret...

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The Crown real life versus TV USE - Grazia

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Queen Elizabeth II...

Season two sees Elizabeth more established in her role as Queen, but having to contend with a tumultuous political climate and tensions in her marriage.

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CREDIT: Netflix

Played by Claire Foy

The Crown marks the second time that Claire Foy has played a Queen: she previously starred as Anne Boleyn in the BBC's adaptation of Wolf Hall.

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CREDIT: Shutterstock

Queen Elizabeth II...

After the tumult of seasons one and two, the third installment of The Crown should cover a happier period for Her Majesty, as she approaches her Silver Jubilee. She will, however, have her elder children's relationship dramas to contend with.

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CREDIT: Netflix

Played by Olivia Colman (season three)

Olivia Colman steals the show in everything she stars in, from Peep Show to Broadchurch to Fleabag, and this, her biggest role yet, will undoubtedly bring her some well-deserved international acclaim. It takes a national treasure to play a national treasure, surely?

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Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh...

Prince Philip actually only became a Prince of the United Kingdom in 1957, when it was announced that he'd be known as His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

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CREDIT: Netflix

Played by Matt Smith

Matt Smith's Philip becomes more of a central focus for The Crown's second season, which explores the Duke's place in the royal family while hinting at his rumoured infidelity.

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CREDIT: STF/AFP/Getty Images

Princess Margaret...

Widely perceived as the Queen's 'wilder' sister, Margaret associated with a more bohemian circle in the 60s and 70s.

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CREDIT: Netflix

Played by Vanessa Kirby

Prior to playing Princess Margaret, Vanessa balanced stage work with credits in film and TV productions like Great Expectations, About Time and Me Before You. She's also recently starred opposite Tom Cruise in the latest installment of the Mission Impossible franchise_._

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CREDIT: Shutterstock

Princess Margaret...

The Crown's resident historical expert Robert Lacey has already confirmed that season three will explore the tensions in Princess Margaret's marriage; it's thought that the new episodes will also feature her 'loving friendship' with garden designer Roddy Llewellyn.

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CREDIT: Netflix

Played by Helena Bonham Carter (season three)

We can't wait to see what Helena Bonham Carter, a period drama veteran of the big and small screen, brings to the role of Princess Margaret. 'The only thing I can guarantee is that I'm shorter than Vanessa [Kirby],' she's joked.

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Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother...

Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, was widely considered among the most popular members of the royal family, and was active in public life even as she turned 100.

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CREDIT: Netflix

Played by Victoria Hamilton

Fan of Doctor Foster? Victoria Hamilton's turn as Gemma's neighbour Anna was certainly a contrast to her royal role as the Queen Mum.

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King George VI...

Known as Bertie to his family, George VI never expected to become King. Upon the abdication of his older brother, however, the throne was his.

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CREDIT: Netflix

Played by Jared Harris

The son of actor Richard (aka Dumbledore from The Philosopher's Stone), Jared Harris' screen credits include Mad Men, Sherlock Holmes and Lincoln.

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Antony Armstrong-Jones...

Antony Armstrong-Jones had a notoriously tempestuous relationship with Princess Margaret, but even after their 1978 divorce, he continued as the royal family's photographer of choice.

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CREDIT: Netflix

Played by Matthew Goode

Matthew Goode is something of a period drama mainstay, having previously appeared in the likes of Downton Abbey, Brideshead Revisited and The Imitation Game.

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CREDIT: Shutterstock

Antony Armstrong-Jones, Lord Snowdon

The new Lord Snowdon's biggest royal responsibility came in 1969, when he was asked to design the set for his nephew Charles' investiture as Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle. A famed fashion and portrait photographer, he tried to give the ceremony a more contemporary feel: the visiting dignitaries sat on minimalist red chairs, which were then made available to buy.

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CREDIT: Netflix

Played by Ben Daniels (season three)

Ben Daniels' CV is nothing if not diverse. He's appeared on Broadway, had a recurring role in Netflix's House of Cards, and even starred in the US TV version of Jesus Christ Superstar (you know, the one with John Legend?) as judge Pontius Pilate. Musical episode of The Crown, please?

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Jackie Kennedy...

The Crown marks the second screen incarnation of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy of 2017: Natalie Portman earned an Oscar nod for unconventional biopic Jackie earlier this year.

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CREDIT: Netflix

Played by Jodi Balfour

South African actress Jodi Balfour most recently starred as DI Elaine Shephard in the BBC's police procedural Rellik; prior to that, her biggest role was in Canadian TV drama Bomb Girls .

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John F. Kennedy...

John F. Kennedy made just one state visit to Buckingham Palace during his presidency, which took place in the summer of 1961. The real life events form the subject of 'Dear Mrs President' in The Crown's second season.

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CREDIT: Netflix

Played by Michael C. Hall

American actor Michael C. Hall is best known for his roles as the serial killer of the title in Dexter and as a mortician in Six Feet Under.

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The Duke of Windsor, formerly Edward VIII...

Britain was gripped by scandal - not to mention a constitutional crisis - when King Edward VIII proposed to Wallis Simpson, an American divorcée who was still technically married to her second husband.

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CREDIT: Netflix

Played by Alex Jennings

Alex Jennings is another Crown star to have previously played a different member of the royal family on screen: he starred as Prince Charles opposite Helen Mirren in The Queen.

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Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor...

Upon her third marriage, American socialite Wallis Simpson became the Duchess of Windsor, though she was never truly accepted by the royal family.

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CREDIT: Netflix

Played by Lia Williams

Alongside her TV roles, actress Lia Williams has starred in a number of plays, directed short films and runs a production company with her husband.

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Group Captain Peter Townsend...

A royal equerry from 1944 to 1953, Peter Townsend's romance with Princess Margaret caused a scandal due to his being recently divorced from his wife.

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CREDIT: Netflix

Played by Ben Miles

Ben Miles has previously appeared in shows like Cold Feet, Coupling and the BBC's Shakespeare adaptation, The Hollow Crown.

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Prince Charles and Princess Anne...

Before Charles and Anne headed off to boarding school, they were educated by a governess at Buckingham Palace.

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CREDIT: Netflix

Played by Billy Jenkins and Lyla Barrett-Rye

Billy has previous appeared in Channel 4's Humans, while Lyla played a younger version of Romola Garai's title character in a recent adaptation of Emma.

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Lord Mountbatten...

Philip's Uncle was born Prince Louis of Battenberg, a title which was dropped in anticipation of anti-German sentiment ahead of WWI. A descendent of Queen Victoria, he was also Elizabeth's second cousin once removed.

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CREDIT: Netflix

Played by Greg Wise

You'll probably know Greg Wise for his role as the dashing but caddish Willoughby in the 1995 screen version of Sense and Sensibility (in which he starred opposite future wife Emma Thompson).

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