Medals awarded to Princess Margaret's lover sell for £260,000

Wartime gallantry medals awarded to Princess Margaret’s lover and RAF ‘ace’ Peter Townsend who shot down 11 enemy aircraft sell for £260,000 at auction

  • Group Captain Townsend took part in more than 300 sorties during WW2
  • Was awarded Distinguished Service Order and Distinguished Flying Cross
  • He went on to be appointed equerry to King George VI in 1944
  • From his royal appointments he struck up a relationship with Princess Margaret  

War medals awarded to Princess Margaret’s lover Captain Peter Townsend today sold for £260,000.

The Battle of Britain fighter pilot shot down 11 enemy aircraft in more than 300 operational sorties during the Second World War, and became the first RAF ace to bring down an enemy aircraft on English soil.

In 1940, the ‘ace’ bailed out of his Hurricane twice – once when he was forced to ditch the stricken aircraft in the English Channel, and then after he was hit in the foot by cannon fire.

Group Captain Townsend was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the Distinguished Flying Cross with Bar for his wartime service. 

He went on to be appointed equerry to King George VI in 1944 and comptroller to the Queen Mother’s household in 1953.

From his Royal appointments he met and struck up a relationship with Princess Margaret. But their romance was doomed, as the Queen’s sister could not marry him because he was a divorced man – an episode in royal history that featured in the Netflix series The Crown.

Group Captain Townsend sold his medals to benefit a children’s charity after discovering them in the back of a drawer. 

They were since bought by a private collector who has now sold them via auctioneers Dix Noonan Webb. 

War medals awarded to Princess Margaret’s lover Captain Peter Townsend today sold for £260,000 

Group Captain Townsend was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the Distinguished Flying Cross with Bar for his wartime service, during which he shot down 11 enemy aircraft in more than 300 operational sorties

Princess Margaret and Group Captain Peter Townsend, equerry to King George VI, leaving Windsor Castle, April 1952

Group Captain Townsend was born in Rangoon, Burma, in 1914 and was raised in Devon. He joined the RAF in 1933 and was commissioned as a pilot officer two years later. Pictured: The pilot’s log book, which was also sold

They had a pre-sale estimate of between £160,000 to £200,000 but fetched £60,000 more than the upper estimate. 

Group Captain Townsend’s RAF logbooks were also sold with his medals. 

Christopher Mellor-Hill, an associate drector at Dix Noonan Webb, said: ‘Peter Townsend had not one but two illustrious careers. During the Battle of Britain, Townsend epitomised the very spirit of Churchill’s famous ‘Few’ and rapidly became a household name.

‘Then his Royal connections brought him to prominence in the 1950s, and now as a result of the hugely successful Netflix series The Crown, he is known to a new generation today.’

Group Captain Townsend was born in Rangoon, Burma, in 1914 and was brought home to be raised in Devon. 

He joined the RAF in 1933 and was commissioned as a pilot officer two years later.

He commanded No 85 Squadron from May 1940 until June 1941. He was given command of No 605 Squadron, a night fighter unit, and was appointed commanding officer at RAF West Malling in Kent.

In later years he wrote the classic Battle of Britain memoir Duel of Eagles whilst his well-regarded 1978 autobiography Time and Chance tells the story of his eventful personal life.

He commanded No 85 Squadron from May 1940 until June 1941. He was given command of No 605 Squadron, a night fighter unit, and was appointed commanding officer at RAF West Malling in Kent. Pictured: The pilot’s log book

Group Captain Townsend died in France in 1995 aged 80. His medals and logbook (above) were sold by a private collector on Wednesday

He died in France in 1995 aged 80. 

Margaret’s relationship with the dashing but divorced equerry was described by Time magazine as ‘the most controversial Royal romance since Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson’. 

Their wish to marry had sparked tumult drawing in the Palace, the Church of England, public opinion and Sir Anthony Eden’s Government, which had threatened to strip the Princess of Royal privileges if she insisted on the union.

However, a series of letters has revealed for the first time that it was not the Queen who blocked the marriage but Margaret herself, who simply got cold feet.

The letters, part of a dossier of recently declassified Government documents, were written to and from Prime Minister Eden, and feature in a recent Channel 4 documentary.

In the first, dated August 15, 1955, Margaret admitted her doubts about the relationship to Eden himself.

‘I have no doubt that during this time – especially on my birthday – the press will encourage every sort of speculation about the possibility of my marrying Group Captain Peter Townsend,’ she wrote. ‘But it is only by seeing him that I feel I can properly decide whether I can marry him or not.’

When Princess Margaret announced her decision to break off her engagement to Group Captain Peter Townsend, it was widely believed that the Queen had persuaded her to put duty before love. However, a series of letters has revealed for the first time that it was not the Queen who blocked the marriage but Margaret herself, who simply got cold feet. (Above, Townsend with Margaret in 1947, before romance blossomed)

The letters, part of a dossier of recently declassified Government documents, were written to and from Prime Minister Eden, and feature in a new Channel 4 documentary. In the first, dated August 15, 1955, Margaret (above) admitted her doubts about the relationship to Eden himself

In a second letter, dated two months later, Eden told Commonwealth leaders that ‘Her Majesty would not wish to stand in the way of her sister’s happiness’.

Royal author Penny Junor said: ‘I think this throws a whole new light on the affair. We’ve always believed that she didn’t marry Townsend because she was prevented by the Government, by the Church of England and by her sister. But this very much suggests that she didn’t love him enough.’

In fact, the documents also show ‘how hard the Queen tries for Margaret,’ according to historian Kate Williams. ‘It gives us a different view of the Queen as someone who did try to put her sister’s happiness as a top priority,’ she said.

It was at the Queen’s Coronation, on June 2, 1953, that Margaret, then 22, inadvertently confirmed her relationship with the former Battle of Britain RAF pilot, who had been an equerry to her late father.

At a party after the ceremony, she was seen to casually brush a bit of fluff from Townsend’s jacket – an intimate gesture which raised eyebrows. 

In tackling the potential ramifications of the relationship, the Queen faced an unenviable decision: compromise her position as head of the Church of England, which did not sanctify divorce, or deny her sister’s future happiness.

On October 31, 1955, after reuniting with her fiance amid a press frenzy, Margaret announced: ‘I have decided not to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend. (Pictured, l to r: Princess Margaret, Princess Elizabeth and Group Captain Peter Townsend at Ascot in 1955)

‘She was still very new in the job and she was being asked to make a choice between duty and family,’ Junor said.

Unable to sanction the marriage, the Queen stalled. ‘She could see there was a loophole,’ she added.  ‘When Margaret reached the age of 25, she no longer needed the Queen’s permission to marry. So I think she urged her sister to wait.’

Townsend, in the meantime, was posted to Brussels. Two years later, as Margaret’s 25th birthday approached, it was decision time and the couple needed permission from the Government if the marriage was to go ahead. 

According to the documents, the Prime Minister struck a deal in which Margaret could keep her title and civil list allowance but lose her position in the line of succession. 

Some have queried whether that compromise was enough for Margaret. It certainly did not persuade her that she wanted to marry him.

On October 31, 1955, after reuniting with her fiance amid a press frenzy, Margaret announced: ‘I have decided not to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend.

‘Mindful of the Church’s teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before any others.’

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