Ghosts of Margaret’s scandalous romance still haunt Victoria’s cherished retreat: BETH HALE peers behind the curtains to examine the history of Adelaide Cottage, the royal residence that could spark a rivalry
As royal residences go, Adelaide Cottage has neither the proportions nor grandeur of its larger, more illustrious neighbour.
But what it lacks in stature, this picture-postcard cottage standing in the shadows of Windsor Castle more than makes up for in its intriguing role in one of the best-known love affairs of the 20th century.
For back in the years following the Second World War, Adelaide Cottage was the grace-and-favour home of Group Captain Peter Townsend.
He, of course, was the dashing RAF pilot and later equerry to King George VI who would precipitate a scandal, becoming the divorced lover of Princess Margaret.
Princess Margaret, pictured centre, had a scandalous affair with Group Captain Peter Townsend, pictured left, wearing sunglasses at the Farborough Air Show
Adelaide Cottage is only a short walk from Windsor Castle and is on the 655 acre estate
Back when it was built in 1831 by King William IV for his wife Queen Adelaide, the cottage was a day retreat for the royal couple.
Although it seemingly fell out of favour with the queen after the death of her husband in 1837, it remained a popular destination for breakfast or tea with his successor, the young Queen Victoria.
So popular, in fact, that a new private carriageway was created for her. Not only that, her beloved King Charles spaniel, Dash, was buried in the grounds.
But the most intriguing interlude in the cottage’s history came with the appointment of Peter Townsend to the King’s staff.
The Battle of Britain pilot was married to Rosemary and had a toddler son, Giles, and another, Hugo, on the way, when he was made the King’s equerry in February 1944 and granted the use of a grace-and-favour property, tucked behind a ten-foot privet hedge, within walking distance of the ‘office’.
Adelaide Cottage became the first proper marital home for Townsend and his wife after three years of wartime marriage – though back then it was far from a glamorous proposition.
Power was delivered along cables running from Windsor Castle, but the current was so poor it could only support a vacuum cleaner and a small electric heater at any one time.
King George VI, pictured left with the then Princess Elizabeth, appointed war hero Townsend as his equerry and allowed him to stay in the cottage
The inside of the cottage was apparently a gloomy affair, decorated with Victorian wallpaper and heavy furniture, which might explain why one 1950s commentator described it as ‘poky and unattractive’. Not that it deterred a certain young princess – and her family – from visiting.
When Townsend’s second son was born, King George VI was named the boy’s godfather and the christening tea, with two princesses in attendance, was held at Adelaide.
As a 1950s report from this newspaper would later remark: ‘It was the first of many Sunday visits. Princess Elizabeth liked to chat with Rosemary, while Princess Margaret played with the children on the lawn and Peter Townsend, off duty, sat back in a deckchair.
‘Sometimes the King and Queen arrived to collect their daughters, more often Peter ran them home himself. Princess Margaret never came to Adelaide Cottage unless she was accompanied by Princess Elizabeth or the Queen.
A schoolgirl when Townsend first moved in to the cottage, Margaret was largely unnoticed by Townsend at first. Although he made quite an impression on her. Years later the princess, who was 13 at the time of his appointment, would admit: ‘When he first appeared, I had a terrific crush on him.’
How intriguing then to think of the visits the young princess, together with her older sister, made to Adelaide Cottage in those post-war years and how that crush developed into the passionate affair that rocked the monarchy. Quite when the spark was lit is unknown.
It wasn’t until after the Townsends divorced in 1952 – and a famous moment during the Queen’s Coronation the following year when Margaret was seen tenderly removing a piece of fluff from Townsend’s lapel – that the affair would become public knowledge.
But it is now widely believed it began years earlier, during that time when the two sisters were occasional visitors to Adelaide Cottage – a time when, significantly, Townsend was never far from the Royal Family in his work for the King.
It was a three-month State tour of South Africa, from February 1947 – on which the two princesses accompanied the King and Queen – that pitched Townsend, 32, and Margaret, then nearly 17, into near-constant company. Part of the equerry’s role was to chaperone the teenager – the two were in each other’s company every day, riding out and taking in the sights.
She would later tell a confidante: ‘We rode together every morning in that wonderful country, in marvellous weather. That’s when I really fell in love with him.’
In 2017 Daily Mail columnist Craig Brown revealed how a reader of his book about Margaret — Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses Of Princess Margaret – had unearthed fresh information which some might view as startling.
What it suggested was that the affair began years earlier than is popularly accepted. Indeed, it seems that when the Princess launched the ship the Edinburgh Castle on October 16, 1947, she was already in a relationship with Townsend, who was then 32 and the father of two young sons.
While there is no proof they were intimate at that stage, the reader had uncovered notes among official paper showing that on the visit to the shipyard, on which Townsend accompanied her, a request was made for them to have adjoining bedrooms at Hillsborough Castle, the then governor’s official residence in Belfast.
Was this request spurred on by an intimacy already established at Adelaide Cottage?
Further evidence of the closeness of the pair when Townsend lived in the Windsor house came in Sarah Bradford’s 2002 biography of the Queen. She recounted how courtiers noticed Townsend spending more time with Margaret as his marriage faltered.
One courtier recalled being at the cottage for the birthday party of one of the Townsend children. ‘The telephone rang and it was someone saying “would Peter go riding with Princess Margaret?” He was not on duty. And he went.’
Townsend and his family quit Adelaide Cottage in 1952, when he divorced Rosemary.
The affair, however, would be doomed by the Royal Marriages Act which stated no member of the Royal Family was permitted to marry a divorcee while the ex-partner was still living. On October 31, 1955, the Princess announced she and Townsend would not marry.
Since then the cottage has been home to a host of well-connected dignitaries and courtiers, including most recently Simon Rhodes, son of the Queen’s cousin and best friend Margaret Rhodes, who died in 2016.
But for the most part, Adelaide Cottage had sunk back into its backdrop under the shadow of Windsor Castle’s grey walls.
Will it now be thrust into the spotlight again?
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