Queen Elizabeth II’s younger sister, Princess Margaret, was seen as a royal wild child and the black sheep of the royal family. Though Margaret loved her sister and respected the monarchy, her behavior, good and bad, often presented a contrast to the queen’s. Margaret indulged while Elizabeth was responsible, indifferent to duty instead of selflessly devoted to it, and willing to break boundaries, not committed to maintaining them.

Princess Margaret grew up knowing her sister would become queen

Princess Margaret was six years old when her uncle, Edward VIII, abdicated the British throne in 1936 so he could marry divorcée Wallis Simpson. His decision upended her life, as her father became King George VI and her older sister, Princess Elizabeth, became his presumed successor. From that point Margaret and Elizabeth were treated differently, prompting Margaret’s alleged lament of, “Now that Papa is king, I am nothing.”

To prepare Elizabeth for her eventual duties as queen, her studies included history lessons with a vice provost from Eton. Margaret wanted to join in but was informed it was unnecessary. Instead, she was taught by a governess, with lessons that included music and dance. Margaret would later feel she could have accomplished more in life had she been educated differently.

Margaret and Elizabeth’s parents couldn’t change the fact that only one of their beloved daughters would ascend to the throne. To make up for this, they began to indulge Margaret, with her father, in particular, cosseting her. Though palace courtiers didn’t appreciate having to serve a princess unused to hearing the word “No,” Margaret and King George were always very close. He was known to say, “Lilibet [Elizabeth’s nickname] is my pride, Margaret my joy.”

A picture of a young Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth II, and her sister Princess Margaret

Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret in 1932
Photo: Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images

As a young woman, Princess Margaret captivated the public

In the years after World War II, the royal family was very popular. Princess Elizabeth’s love story and marriage to Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh (his elevation to prince would come a few years later) charmed people. However, she was always seen as a more staid and conservative figure who would one day become queen. Margaret, on the other hand, fascinated the public because she seemed unafraid of change and was willing to push boundaries.

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At a time when upper-class women were not supposed to smoke in public, Margaret was seen enjoying a post-dinner cigarette. Her fashion choices influenced millions of women. On one trip, her hotel room was broken into because fans wanted information about the nail polish she preferred.

The public’s interest was further ignited by Margaret’s love story with Peter Townsend, a handsome war hero-turned-royal equerry. Margaret’s feelings for him were evident at her sister’s coronation in 1953. Townsend was divorced, but most people wanted Margaret to be with the man she loved. Even Prime Minister Winston Churchill was initially in favor, reportedly saying, “What a delightful match. A lovely young Royal lady married to a gallant young airman, safe from the perils and horrors of war.”

But Churchill soon joined the ranks of the establishment — government, church and palace — who opposed the match; Queen Elizabeth II was head of the Church of England, which didn’t accept divorce. Margaret and Townsend were therefore separated, and in 1955 a statement announced she would follow her duty and not marry him. Though other factors may have been at play, public perception was that Margaret had been kept from the man she loved because of old, outdated rules.

Her behavior in public was unlike the queen’s

While Elizabeth had ascended to the throne when she was 25, Margaret’s adult life always made room for fun. She liked going to the theater and nightclubs and sometimes didn’t return home until the early hours of the morning. The next day would usually start with a late breakfast before any royal commitments were seen to. After marrying Antony Armstrong-Jones (later the Earl of Snowdon) in 1960, she had fun with people like Peter Sellers and the Beatles (to John Lennon, she was “Priceless Margarine”).

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Yet Margaret expected her social circle to follow protocol, such as standing when she entered a room and referring to her as “Ma’am” (close friends could use “Ma’am darling”). She also wanted those around her to refer to her sister as “Her Majesty the Queen.” Margaret may have insisted on such deference precisely because she knew she wasn’t a queen, unlike her mother and her sister.

Also unlike her sister and mother, Margaret had no compunction about showing her boredom when fulfilling royal duties. In her biography of Margaret’s husband, writer Anne de Courcy recounted the princess’ behavior at an event being held in her honor. After the host asked if she would start the dancing, Margaret’s answer was: “Yes —but not with you.”

Princess Margaret became the subject of scandal and criticism

According to Gore Vidal, Margaret once told him, “When there are two sisters and one is the queen who must be the source of honor and all that is good, the other must be the focus of the most creative malice, the evil sister.” While it’s not certain Margaret actually uttered those words, it’s true that her behavior could make Queen Elizabeth shine in comparison.

Margaret was criticized for excessive expenses: Her wedding, honeymoon, subsequent renovations of Kensington Palace and a tour of the United States all came under fire. She also didn’t win fans when she left her eight-week-old baby behind with a nanny and headed to the Caribbean, or when she stopped vacationing in Britain in favor of warmer climes.

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The heaviest criticism of Margaret came when she was photographed with a younger man — while she was still married — on the isle of Mustique. She was dubbed a “royal parasite,” with some in Parliament asking if she deserved a royal allowance. The queen herself supposedly bemoaned Margaret’s “guttersnipe life.” In 1978, Margaret broke another royal barrier when she became the first member of the royal family to divorce in Britain since Henry VIII.

Yet though the queen may not have always approved of her sister’s behavior, the two remained close until Margaret’s death in 2002 at the age of 71. Their differences never altered the fact that they were sisters — one a queen, the other a princess.