For decades it has been a moment unmatched in royal romantic history. When Princess Margaret brushed an imaginary piece of fluff from the impeccable uniform of Group Captain Peter Townsend as they waited for the Queen’s Coronation service to begin, it was as good as a public declaration of her feelings for the decorated Battle of Britain hero.
But this week it was suggested that long before the Queen’s sister made that amorous gesture, she had already had her head turned by another dashing young man in military dress. He was Lieutenant Mark Bonham Carter, who had a war record every bit as impressive as the divorced Gp Capt Townsend.
At a Christmas ball at Windsor Castle in 1943, Bonham Carter, who had made a daring escape from a German PoW camp, had twice danced with the teenage Princess Margaret and later reported that she was ‘full of character and very tart in her criticisms’.
Princess Margaret with Mark Bonham Carter at the premiere of Kiss Me Kate, a new 3D film at the Empire, Leicester Square, in 1954. Speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, Helena Bonham Carter gave a tantalising hint that ‘something happened’ between the pair
The well-connected Bonham Carter — his mother Violet was the daughter of former prime minister Herbert Asquith — was a huge hit with the two Princesses, who had been moved out of London because of the Blitz. Years later, the Queen reminisced how it was rather dull at Windsor until the arrival of Mark, who told a lot of good jokes and cheered them all up. But romance with Margaret?
On the surface, the claim seems to come from an unimpeachable source: the actress Helena Bonham Carter, who is not only Mark’s niece but is also playing Princess Margaret in the next series of The Crown, which screens next month.
Speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, the actress gave a tantalising hint that ‘something happened’ when her uncle was a Grenadier Guards officer at Windsor. Referring to her role in the hit Netflix series, she quipped: ‘It’s weird, I basically went out with my uncle.’
She suggested that the two had gone out, adding: ‘They always remained good friends. I have photos of them together and they look dashing as a couple … They remained forever friends.’
One photograph, dating from 1954, shows Margaret sitting with an attentive Bonham Carter in white tie, mess jacket and medals. He was certainly talked of as a possible suitor and was a member of the smart set of glossy figures the Princess liked to surround herself with.
So could the 53-year-old actress be onto something? Her timeline would indicate otherwise.
On the surface, the claim seems to come from an unimpeachable source: the actress Helena Bonham Carter (pictured), who is not only Mark’s niece but is also playing Princess Margaret in the next series of The Crown, which screens next month
At the weekend, she suggested that her uncle’s relationship with the Princess had pre-dated the romance with Townsend. Given that began in 1947, when Princess Margaret was 17 and accompanied her parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, on a tour of southern Africa with Townsend travelling with them as Equerry, it stretches credibility.
Bonham Carter was stationed at Windsor from late 1943 and it was then that he became a frequent guest at the castle. But while Princess Elizabeth was nearly 18 then, Margaret was only 13 — still very much a child.
So what is the truth about Margaret and Bonham Carter, who survived one of the most murderous battles of World War II only to be taken prisoner?
Born in 1922, he was the grandson of H. H. Asquith, the last Prime Minister of a Liberal government. Mark’s mother, the outspoken diarist Violet, had been brought up in Downing Street.
After Winchester, he followed family tradition by going up to Balliol College, Oxford, but war interrupted his university years.
Almost two years of training and waiting culminated in a catastrophic 22-hour assault on the German-held Mareth Line in Tunisia in North Africa.
Bonham Carter, who was 21, never forgot the loss of so many friends: 14 officers of the 6th Battalion Grenadier Guards were killed and seven more wounded.
But while The Times of April 6, 1943, reported Bonham Carter as ‘missing on active service’, he actually ended up in a PoW camp in Modena, northern Italy.
Six months later, after securing civilian clothing, three British prisoners scaled a 15ft wall while the sentries were facing the other way and escaped in a manner that newspapers would later describe as the ‘most daring of the war’.
One of the men headed for the Swiss frontier but was shot before he crossed it. Meanwhile, Bonham Carter and the other escapee, Major Tom Butler, had embarked on a more challenging route.
Princess Margaret at West Malling in Kent. Inevitably there were rumours of romance with war hero Bonham Carter, even though his friends vouchsafed it was difficult to imagine anyone less temperamentally suited to be a royal consort
They walked 500 miles south, travelling by night, until they reached the British lines at Bari. When they came to a guarded bridge, they swam across the river to the Allied lines.
Their journey took a month and Bonham Carter was sent home to recuperate. He arrived at the family home in West London only an hour after his mother had learned of his escape from prison. From there he was sent to Windsor where, with several other young officers, he became a regular at Windsor Castle house parties.
In 1945 and by now promoted to captain, he was among a group of young bachelor soldiers who escorted the Princesses to the theatre to see Noel Coward’s comedy of manners, Private Lives. He sat next to Elizabeth who was in a mink coat and pearls, while Margaret sat in the row in front.
In the early post-war years, Bonham Carter was a frequent and popular visitor to Balmoral, where he was ‘particularly successful both at sliding down the bannisters to arrive at the feet of a marble statue of Prince Albert and at striking the right note to appeal to the keen but simple sense of humour of King George VI’.
He was less successful at shooting, however. After hitting one of the King’s police bodyguards, he was banned from shooting game birds and sent deer stalking alone with a ghillie.
By now Margaret had blossomed into a dazzling beauty — both sexy and self-assured.
Duff Cooper, Britain’s ambassador in Paris, after having lunch with the King and Queen and their daughters, recorded in his diary: ‘Margaret is a most attractive girl — lovely eyes, lovely mouth, very sure of herself and full of humour. She might get into trouble before she’s finished.’
Princess Margaret (left), Princess Elizabeth and Group Captain Peter Townsend gather June 13, 1951 in the Royal Box at Ascot. On Margaret’s 21st birthday, the only pictures photographers got were of her out riding with the former Palace equerry Peter Townsend
Gossip columnists linked her name with 31 eligible bachelors in all. ‘Sunny’ Blandford, heir to the 10th Duke of Marlborough, was one of three ‘most likely’ contenders and widely believed to have proposed but been gently refused. Johnny Dalkeith, already an earl and the heir to two dukedoms, was a great friend. Billy Wallace, wealthy grandson of the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, was favoured by virtue of his vast inheritance, which he was willing to invest in her future happiness.
With such a feast of names, photographers were duly disappointed — but on her 21st birthday, the only pictures they got were of her out riding with the former Palace equerry Peter Townsend. Had they but known.
Inevitably there were rumours of romance with war hero Bonham Carter, even though his friends vouchsafed it was difficult to imagine anyone less temperamentally suited to be a royal consort.
He had already stood for parliament — failing to hold the Liberal seat of Barnstaple in North Devon in the 1945 general election which saw Labour sweep Winston Churchill from office — and had returned to Oxford to complete his degree.
It is possible that in her recent interview, Ms Bonham Carter was confused about the timings and was dating the Townsend affair from much later, after the Coronation in 1953.
In the turbulent two years that followed, the Princess, unable to marry without the consent of the Sovereign or MPs, was forced to choose between Townsend and her right to succession. That the Princess chose to retain her royal status is well known, and remained a topic of heated debate in the country throughout her life.
Mark Bonham Carter, meanwhile, had fallen in love with an American divorcée, Leslie, Lady St Just. The 25-year-old mother-of-one was the daughter of Condé Nast, the U.S. magazine owner and founder of Vogue.
In 1958, as the Liberal candidate, Bonham Carter won the Torrington by-election only to lose his seat 18 months later. He went on to become first chairman of the Race Relations Board and vice chairman of the BBC, before being made a life peer in 1986.
Yet his friendship with the Queen’s sister persisted over the years. At his memorial service in 1994, only one member of the Royal Family attended: Princess Margaret.