What the fraught "Elizabeth & Margaret" relationship can tell us about Prince William and Harry

Biographer Andrew Morton weighs in on the "built-in redundancy in the Royal family" and what "The Crown" gets wrong

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 30, 2021 12:10PM (EDT)

Princess Elizabeth, her sister Princess Margaret, Prince Harry and Prince William. (Photo illustration by Salon/Lisa Sheridan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images and Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)
Princess Elizabeth, her sister Princess Margaret, Prince Harry and Prince William. (Photo illustration by Salon/Lisa Sheridan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images and Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)

"Whatever they do, they're always going to be second billing," says author Andrew Morton. It's a tale as old as time — family dynamics and siblings jockeying for favor and position. Just with tiaras.

The British royals have been a recurring subject for nearly four decades of author Andrew Morton's career, most notably with the 1992 bestseller "Diana: Her True Story." Now, he returns to the Windsors with the intimate, often surprising "Elizabeth & Margaret" (March 30, Grand Central Publishing). It's a story of an ancient institution reckoning itself with the modern era, but it's also an examination of the intimate relationship between two sisters, one of whom happens to have her face on her country's money.

Salon spoke recently to Morton about the Windsors, what "The Crown" didn't show and why he thinks the monarchy has never been more secure.

You have been covering this family for decades now. I want to know what the mystique is for you. What keeps you returning to the Firm?

It's a very interesting question, actually. I did stop doing it for a while. I was doing more celebrity biographies for quite a long time, and then I realized that there's no point being 24 hours ahead of TMZ. I found the Royal family fascinating. What I've been doing in my most recent biographies is to look at them more from a historical angle as well. 

Why do I write about the Royal family so extensively? Well, they have such an impact on the culture and on the structure of British society. The events in a nation are often marked by the way-points of the monarchy. For, example, when the Queen was crowned in 1953, the people talked about a new Elizabethan age. Then in the 1980s, we talked about the Diana period as having changed society. And then, of course, you've got the funeral with Diana, and the death of Diana in 1997, which really exposed the underpinnings of our society.

People were sobbing, wailing, and mourning Diana more than they would their own families. It shows you the cultural and sociological changes in society. It's a great benchmark for how we, as a society, have changed and are changing.

I'll tell you why I'm fascinated with them, Andrew. Because it's a story of family. It's still a story of siblings, and parents, and love affairs, and missed connections, played out within the context of history.

Yes. I certainly agree with that. It is history with a human face.

We see our own families in other relationships. The relationship between Elizabeth and Margaret, or the relationship between Harry and William. You see it time and time again in the Royal family. They exemplify what's going on in your own family and in society. The playwright Alan Bennett says that all families are unique and that's what makes them families. There is that element as well.

It would be wrong to think that we live like the Queen, or families are the same. There's always that mirror, but it's not really like the family that you have. Probably the Murdochs or the Trumps are probably nearer, because they're more of a dynasty.

I do think that we all can understand that feeling of, "I don't want to go into the family business," or, "I don't want to define myself by my parents," or, "My sister gets more attention than I do." Going back to this primal relationship, what surprised you in your research? 

I have to say what really surprised me was the intimacy that they had with regards to the Townsend affair. If you recall, Peter Townsend and Princess Margaret wanted to marry. She was asked to wait until she was 25. The common pathology articulated in "The Crown" was that Margaret was jumped upon by her sister, the Prime Minister and the church, to stop her from marrying the man that she loved. It was this kind of forlorn love affair.

What surprised me was that the Queen and the Prime Minister Anthony Eden, had bent over backwards to facilitate the marriage. What Margaret didn't do was tell her lover that actually, "The penalties for us marrying are pretty minor. I've got to give up my position in succession to the throne. As for the rest of it, you might get a title, and you might get some money from the civil list."

I found that a very interesting aspect of the Queen's relationship with Margaret. She was prepared to have the monarchy attacked, stained, to be criticized as it were, for the sake of her sister's happiness. I think that's one of the misunderstandings as well, about the relationship between these two.

Margaret was essentially very loyal to her sister. But also throughout her life, the Queen was very careful to try and ensure that her sister, who she'd seen so unhappy at times, had a happier life.

In the way that that story was depicted in "The Crown," you get to have two villains. Elizabeth is the villain who thwarts her sister; Margaret is the villain who selfishly can't walk away from all of the glamour and all of the prestige. In reality, it's actually a very simple, almost boring story, which is about two people whose love cools.

After two years of not seeing him, you can appreciate why their love cooled. They had built up new friendships, and new interests, and gone their separate ways. That's where, as well, looking at the family as a family, or looking at individuals as individuals you think, "How would it be if I was in the situation, where I couldn't see the woman I loved for two years, apart from a brief 40-minute meeting at someone's house? Would I still feel the same kind of passion, as I did two years before?" As you quite rightly say, she and Townsend basically fell out of love.

Showing the care that these two sisters gave to each other throughout this very delicate negotiation illustrates one of the central themes of this book, and of your work in general. It's very easy to create binary narratives. We see it now with Kate and Meghan. It's easy to say, "Who's the good guy? Who's the bad guy? Who gets to be the villain this week? Who gets to be the hero this week?"

I start off, the first of the chapter or so, talking about this kind of dynamic. The fact that Margaret herself, recognizes that she's supposed to be the evil, the dark sister compared to the Queen. What struck me is they were both different, but also, very alike, and they were united by that. How many siblings have spent so much time in each other's pockets for such a long period of time?

It's a relationship where, of necessity, your lives are entwined. Your choices are dependent upon, literally, the decisions of your siblings. It's the family business. 

And the interesting thing is how they both flower, when they are apart from one another. They're given some space to grow. You can also see that with William and Harry. Even though they've fallen out, they've given themselves space to grow separately, and that will make for, as it were, a healthier plant.

I love when the sisters are out in the crowd, unrecognized, at the end of the war. What an unprecedented moment of freedom that must have been for people who have spent their entire lives under the microscope.

The other point of that is just how difficult it was for them just to actually engineer that on that historic day for them. Certainly, Princess Elizabeth was just trying convince their father to let them out, even under escort, to just see the other side of the world, the other side of the coin. It's one of the recurring themes of the Queen, always looking out at what other people are thinking. Each side was curious about the other. It's almost like a zoo.

Yet when you think of the scrutiny that they were under as young women, it is absolutely nothing to what we saw a generation later. In what ways do you think the relationship of Margaret and Elizabeth carving their own paths impacted the way that their children and their grandchildren are conducting themselves in the world now?

It's very, very different, first off. Elizabeth and Margaret were brought up and educated in a palace, away from the rest of the world. That's very important, in that they had the sense of the outside world that was very, very controlled. For the new generation of Royals, obviously apart from Diana, all of them were commoners. They'd all been educated in the real world; they've had a taste of the real world. 

In a way, Elizabeth and Margaret are the last of that generation, that were educated apart from the rest of society. It gave them both a strength and also a profound naivety.

None of us can really fathom the degree of sheltering. What do you think when you look at the younger generation, and you look at that relationship between William and Harry? 

With William and Harry, we have similar characteristics to Elizabeth and Margaret. Margaret was seen as the glamorous one, the fun one, the rebellious one. Who could we be also talking about? We're talking about Harry and William. But also William, as he said himself, "can't put his arm around Harry any longer." That's his phrase.

The Queen, or as Princess Elizabeth, was always putting her arm around Margaret, because she was the naughty one, the one who got into mischief. In later life, she was putting her arm around her, because her marriage failed, and she went off the rails, to a degree. It's exactly the same as well, that Margaret and Harry were both part of the main Royal family.

Then Elizabeth married, William married, and then they [the siblings] become secondary. Whatever they do, they're always going to be second billing. Whatever they do, it doesn't matter. He [Harry] could be a brilliant concert pianist. He will never be No. 1 in the Royal family. Margaret nailed it. She said, "I don't mind being called the King's daughter, but I don't want to be called the Queen's sister."

I had never thought about that dynamic. It's primal. It's the first book of the Bible. The competition between brothers and sisters.

You have to ask yourself, "How far has Harry decided to leave the Royal family, and his wife to leave the Royal family, because they felt they should get top billing?" They weren't getting it, because of the way that the Palace is structured, and will always be structured, by the way. It will happen to George, and Charlotte, and Louie. There is built-in redundancy in the Royal family. The No. 2 very quickly becomes No. 6 as a new family goes forth.

The closest equivalent we have anywhere else in the world is in the world of business, and the son who is going to take over.

The fascinations with Murdoch, the succession and so on. But they are unstructured fascinations. They're about personality and ability. Whereas, this is just by birth.

Margaret is the one who is less known, less remembered. What influence do you think her legacy is, in terms of how we look at the Royals, and in terms of how the Royals look at the world? What do you think she did for the family?

Before Margaret came along, there had been no divorces for 400 years. So they had to make them confront divorce, and in doing so, they had to confront the changing mores of the times. In a way, part of the definition of the Queen's reign has been about marriage, about love, about loyalty, and about divorce. It is one of the defining characteristics of this reign. And Margaret was the one who was a trailblazer, to that degree.

It's very clear that here in the U.S., we are as obsessed with this family as well. But my taxes don't go to pay for their lifestyle.

That's exactly what I was going to say. They say it's a bit like an aged aunt who comes to stay. It's all right for a couple of weeks, but if you're paying for them for year after year, then you start to take a different tack. That's been one of the criticisms of the Royal family, over the years, about their cost. You don't get that in America. People are just intrigued to know, "What is Prince So-and-So doing?"

Do you think that this family has an expiration date, in terms of the entity, as it looks now?

The entity, as it is now, looks very secure, to be perfectly honest with you. I would say that it's never been more secure, because it is trimmed down. Andrew is no longer part of it, for all the reasons we know about. Harry and Meghan are no longer part of it. So you're down to the trunk, to the main family. Going forward, people will just look to the immediate family, rather than seeing, on the Queen's birthday or the King's birthday, a whole load of people on the balcony at Buckingham Palace. 

When you think of England, you think of this family. There is that sense of deep, deep, deep history that, "This is a family that Shakespeare was writing plays about." There's just nothing else like that culturally. And we do continue to see ourselves reflected in their petty dramas.

Rebecca West said that the Royal family is ourselves behaving well, but actually I would disagree. I would turn Rebecca West on her head, and say it's ourselves behaving badly. Because who would have thought that the future King and Queen would go on primetime TV and confess their various adulteries? 

There was no need for Prince Charles or Princess Diana to go on TV and confess adultery. That was a proactive thing. There's a difference between having an affair and not saying anything about it, which is the normal way. Then, having an affair and telling the world about it, which is the Windsor way. Hence, my phrase about Rebecca West. That is them behaving carelessly, actually as well.

I've always said that the Royal family are a bit like the "births, marriages and deaths" column of a local newspaper. We're fascinated when they get married, fascinated by them when they're born, but in the middle bit, they've got to make it interesting.

Elizabeth & Margaret; Andrew Morton

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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