Through his turbulent marriage, the unabashedly cheeky Antony Armstrong-Jones went from a common photographer to the Earl of Snowdon — and dragged the royal family into the 20th century.
His was something of a gender-reversed Cinderella story: a lonely boy of small nobility, isolated and marked from a childhood illness, met a lovely young princess. Charmed by his insouciance and rakishness, the two marry and forever change the way royal romance functions.
However, the romance of Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones was more the stuff of dark fairytales than happily-ever-afters. There was affection and sex and romance, but the love story between Queen Elizabeth’s younger sister and her only husband was also brimming with pain and infidelity, a chaotic home life echoing the unmoored 1960s, and the first royal English divorce in three centuries.
The English ‘Once Upon A Time’ Of Antony Armstrong-Jones
Though not to the same echelon of his future wife, Armstrong-Jones was born to some privilege in 1930 to Ronald and Anne Messel Armstrong-Jones, the former a high ranking trial attorney. His mother married an earl after her divorce from Armstrong-Jones, becoming a countess.
By most accounts, his parents were of the laissez-faire variety common to their class in pre-War Britain. Young Antony was shipped off to boarding school, then Eton, where he contracted polio at 16, leaving one leg permanently shorter. It’s said that he learned to walk with a buoyant gait to conceal the malady. While convalescing, his sister was his only visitor.
Meanwhile, Princess Margaret lived a lonely childhood as well. She grew up in the shadow of her older sister, the future Queen Elizabeth II, who became the heir apparent to the British crown in 1936 when her uncle abdicated in favor of her father.
Everything from Margaret’s education to whom she could marry would ultimately be the decision of her sister. This tension devolved into lifelong resentment between the two sisters, and Princess Margaret subsequently became the black sheep of the royal family.
It’s tempting to view these childhoods as bookends; two poor little rich children, forgotten and neglected, who itched to someday thumb their noses at the institutions that mistreated them. Instead, the couple was in many ways more like a rock meeting a hard place — and destined to repel.
Antony Armstrong-Jones: A Portrait Of A Modern Man
Armstrong-Jones was the ultimate post-war Londoner. A photographer, his portraits of everyday people were casual, cool, and iconoclastic. He embodied the very opposite of the stuffy, staid picture of court life in which Princess Margaret was stuck.
A Time Magazine write-up described the future earl’s work: “Many show a perceptive eye and wit and the patient energy needed to catch telling moments in the lives of all sorts of people.”
The intimacy of the earl’s art was well-tackled in Netflix’s The Crown; Armstrong-Jones took the official 29th birthday portrait of the princess, a scandal in the show as in real life.
Armstrong-Jones prompted Margaret with questions about her lost love, resulting in an unfettered picture of her so distinct from the staged fairytale prints of the traditional photographer Cecil Beaton. While some details were a bit altered (she was bejeweled in reality but more modest in the Netflix adaptation), the raw, vulnerable essence of the photo was the same.
In the show, Princess Margaret appears possibly nude which whether true or not remains in contention. The First Earl of Snowdon, as Armstrong-Jones was to become, elicited a human portrait of his future wife, setting her further in contrast from her regal and unreachable sister.
Speaking of intimacy, the practice was never an issue for Armstrong-Jones. Part of the artist’s identity in Swinging ’60s London was a comfort level near-obsession with sex. Summing up his sex life, a friend laid it bare: “If it moves, he’ll have it.”
The future Lord Snowdon had several notable affairs before his marriage to the princess, including with actress and dancer Jacqui Chan and Gina Ward. He also had an illegitimate child with Camilla Fry born weeks after the royal wedding.
The Crown suggests he participated in threesomes and perhaps was sexually involved with men. At least two same-sex affairs have been reported, with Tom Parr and Nicky Haslam.
But Armstrong-Jones denied this, claiming, “I didn’t fall in love with boys – but a few men have been in love with me.”
However, Princess Margaret marked her future husband as unwinnable at first, recalling later to her biographer: “I enjoyed his company very much, but I didn’t take a lot of notice of him because I thought he was queer.”
Becoming The First Earl Of Snowdon
Other than thinking him probably gay, the princess found the man she would marry to be charming and attractive when they first met at a 1958 dinner party.
For the future Lord Snowdon, he found the princess’ royal mystique irresistible.
“He was used to pretty girls, from unsophisticated debutantes to models and actresses of varying degrees of experience, and he was aware of the effect his well-honed sexual expertise had on women. But Margaret was something different. She was gilded with the mysterious, mythic aura of royalty,” wrote Anne de Courcy in Snowdon: The Biography.
The mutual fascination for the other’s perceived exoticism lit the match but it wouldn’t sustain the marriage and the relationship would ultimately devolve into mutual infidelity and petty jabs.
Lord Snowdon allegedly once remarked that his wife resembled a “Jewish manicurist” and Gore Vidal recalled Armstrong-Jones flicking lit cigarettes onto his wife’s dress at her 39th birthday celebration.
Before the wedding even, the celebrated photographer expressed doubt that he’d be able to hold onto wedded bliss with the royal. His friend, John Moynihan, recalled the future earl weeping on the breasts of their mutual girlfriend, “dreading getting engaged to royalty.”
However, Armstrong-Jones went through with it and he and Princess Margaret were married in a fairytale ceremony at Westminster Abbey, complete with a glass coach and the archbishop of Canterbury, in front of 2,000 physical guests and 300 million televised ones across the globe.
He was the first commoner since the Tudor era to marry a king’s daughter, becoming the First Earl of Snowdon and Viscount Linley of Nymans in the County of Sussex.
The Tenderness And Tumult Between Princess Margaret And Lord Snowdon
If Armstrong-Jones was the epitome of the ’60s Londoner, the Earl and the Princess together were the picture of a modern Swinging ’60s couple.
Apparently head over heels for each other, it was reported they couldn’t keep their hands off one another over a blur of official visits and Caribbean vacations.
The couple socialized with luminaries and artists, dining, chatting, and even watching racy “blue movies” with their glitterati pals. They reportedly chummed around with infamous sexologist Dr. Kinsey.
The aristocratic couple also played a private game as mean-spirited and intimate as they were, dubbed “the bread game.” Whenever a fellow dinner guest uttered a cliche, the princess or the earl would rip a piece of bread and place it on the table as physical proof of their mutual impertinence. Whoever had the most pieces before him or her won.
The happily ever after wore thin, though. The excitement of Princess Margaret’s royalty faded for Armstrong-Jones and his razor-sharp wit went from swipes at the world around them to jabs at her. His eye wandered notably towards TV producer Lucy Lindsay-Hogg and Lady Jacqueline Rufus-Isaacs.
But Princess Margaret’s attention turned as well, notably to Robin Douglas-Home.
The death knell to their love came on a small private island called Mustique, Princess Margaret’s Caribbean oasis. In 1976, she brought her intimate friend and alleged boy toy, Roddy Llewellyn. The paparazzi captured the princess and her young friend splashing in the Caribbean waters and when he heard, Armstrong-Jones moved out of their shared house.
When the princess — still on the island — was told by her secretary on a coded call that Armstrong-Jones had moved out, she replied: “Thank you, Nigel. I think that’s the best news you’ve ever given me.”
It would be the first royal British divorce since Henry VIII, though certainly not the last.
The Earl’s Ever After
The Earl of Snowdon continued to have a tumultuous romantic and sexual life after his divorce to the princess in 1978. He married Lucy Lindsay-Hogg in 1978 and divorced her in 2000 when it was revealed that he’d fathered a child with magazine editor Melanie Cable-Alexander.
Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones’s romance was a major first for the British royal family and would prove a useful lesson for the next generation, as the 1980s and 1990s saw the very public marital discord and dissolution of both Prince Charles and Prince Andrew’s relationships.
Their happily-never-after wasn’t totally bleak, however. Armstrong-Jones and the princess remained friends until her death in 2002 and he even continued to take royal portraits of the family. The First Earl of Snowdon died in 2017, at age 86.
Aside from the sex scandals and children, both in and out of wedlock, Antony Armstrong-Jones provided a blueprint for future royals on how to be more approachable, more modern, flout convention, and to marry and divorce more like people and less like symbols of a bygone era. He was that contradictory thing: a modern royal.
After this look at Lord Snowdon, Antony Armstrong-Jones, check out more unusual insights into the British royal family like Queen Charlotte, who was possibly Britain’s first black queen. Then take a peek at the royal family acting much more normal than we usually see them.