Caribbean Beat Magazine

An island for a princess | On this day

Sixty years ago, the newlywed Princess Margaret, sister to the queen of England, arrived in Mustique on her honeymoon. It was the start of a relationship between the tiny Grenadine island and international celebrity, writes James Ferguson — and a twist in the complicated and often unhappy life of the princess

  • Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

What with the recent shenanigans surrounding the British royal family, it seems a good time to look back at another member of the monarchy who wanted to escape. In this case, the destination was not Canada, but the Caribbean — more specifically, the tiny Grenadine island of Mustique. And the getaway in question was not an “outsider” in the form of an American actress, but none other than the younger sister of Queen Elizabeth II. Even so, the two episodes have much in common — the pressures of being a royal, the strain of intense media scrutiny, and perhaps a need to reclaim a sense of independence.

Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, was born on 21 August, 1930, the younger daughter of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. What was a sheltered early childhood changed dramatically when her father became king in 1936, in the wake of her uncle Edward VIII’s abdication due to his relationship with the divorced American Wallis Simpson. From that moment on, Margaret was of public interest, second in line after her sister to the throne, and after a pampered adolescence and private education she blossomed into a glamorous, fashionable, and playful young woman — a contrast to the more dutiful Elizabeth. The two sisters’ very different personalities were to define Margaret in the popular imagination as controversial, slightly wild, and alluring.

Perhaps she always chafed against the gilded cage of protocol and privilege into which she was born. And that feeling of imprisonment must have intensified when, in 1955, three years after her father’s death and Elizabeth’s coronation, she was forced to admit that she could not marry her great love, the dashing royal equerry Peter Townsend. He, like Wallis Simpson, was a divorcé, and the Church of England, then still powerful in such matters, decreed that even a civil marriage was out of the question. 

Initially heartbroken, the princess became engaged to Antony Armstrong-Jones, a society photographer, in October 1959, reportedly the day after she heard that Townsend was about to marry a young Belgian heiress. Their wedding on 6 May, 1960, the first royal nuptials to be televised, marked the earliest stage in the monarchy’s move towards show-biz status, with celebrities from the worlds of fashion and entertainment mingling with Europe’s royal dynasties. Armstrong-Jones, significantly, was the first commoner to marry into the royal family since the sixteenth century.

So it was that later that summer, sixty years ago, the twenty-nine-year-old newlywed found herself on the tiny Caribbean island of Mustique. The six-week honeymoon on board the Royal Yacht Britannia also visited Trinidad and Antigua, but it was in Mustique that Margaret looked forward to seeing familiar faces: an old friend, Colin Tennant, and his wife Lady Anne Glenconner, her former lady-in-waiting. Tennant, legend has it, admitted that he had forgotten to buy a wedding gift but decided to present
Margaret with a ten-acre plot on the island. She graciously accepted — and then nothing happened for eight years.

How Tennant, later Baron Glenconner, was able to hand out parts of a Caribbean island is explained by Mustique’s strange history. Although part of the Grenadine chain of islands and administratively attached to St Vincent, the 1,400-acre territory (named after its notorious mosquito population) had been in private hands since the eighteenth century. Undeveloped and impoverished, its tiny sugar industry had collapsed and a couple of cotton plantations were semi-abandoned, leaving several hundred islanders to eke out a living on smallholdings. It was, said a 1958 report, “a desolate island covered in jungle, scrub, and cactus.” That year, the eccentric Tennant bought Mustique for £45,000, apparently without even seeing it. 

Eccentric he may have been, but Tennant had a plan, and Princess Margaret was at its heart. In 1968, as relations between her and Armstrong-Jones (created Lord Snowdon in 1961) deteriorated, she suddenly contacted Tennant and said she wanted a house built on her plot. She came to supervise the construction and revelled in the primitive conditions she encountered. “She arrived with no fuss a few months later, happily using the bucket of water in the trees to shower, just like we did,” recalled Lady
Glenconner. Importantly, Snowdon hated what he called “Mustake,” and never returned after his only visit in 1960. Importantly, too, the royal connection encouraged Tennant to form the Mustique Company in 1968 — starting the clever marketing campaign that transformed the backwater into today’s billionaire’s paradise. 

The princess’s house, named Les Jolies Eaux, was ready by 1972, and from then she was a regular resident on the island. Lady Glenconner thought it was basic, but it must have seemed like a different world to the locals who waited on the wealthy incomers. Vitally, it offered Margaret a life of her own: “It was the only house she ever owned and it made her very happy, because apart from being beautiful it provided her with an independent base from her husband.” Yet, if she could feel liberated among the growing clique of jet-set celeb neighbours, she could never escape the attentions of the media and the notorious British tabloid paparazzi. 

After years of drifting apart and rumours of infidelity, in 1973 Princess Margaret was introduced to Roddy Llewellyn, an aristocratic gardener seventeen years her junior, by Lord Glenconner. Three years later, the affair was out in the open when The News of the World published photos of the couple cavorting on a Mustique beach. The gutter press clichés proliferated: he was a “toy boy,” she a “cradle snatcher,” and, worse, “a parasite.” The media onslaught was probably instrumental in hastening her inevitable divorce — the third in this tale — from Lord Snowdon in 1978.

The Mustique idyll was over, and the last two decades of Princess Margaret’s life were blighted by ill health, exacerbated by heavy smoking and alcohol. She is remembered as a paradoxical mix of cutting snobbery and unexpected kindness. An accident in Mustique in early 1999, when a broken bathroom boiler produced scalding water, left her partially incapacitated, and she suffered several strokes before her death on
9 February, 2002.

Mustique, with its seclusion and A-list of bohemian property owners, offered the princess the discretion, privacy, and autonomy she probably craved. The carefree days of the 1960s are now long gone, and money has replaced breeding and eccentricity as the key to joining the club (a villa in Mustique now costs upwards of US$10 million). Her escape from the stifling constraints of the British monarchy was much of its time, but the intrusive prurience that surrounds the activities of the royal family remains — and, if anything, is even more insistent due to social media. With all its flavour of glamour and exoticism, Princess Margaret’s experience proved that even the most privileged can find it hard to outrun the media — a cautionary tale still relevant today.