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Home » Medals of Princess Margaret’s RAF ‘ace’ beloved Peter Townsend are set for £200,000 sale at auction

Medals of Princess Margaret’s RAF ‘ace’ beloved Peter Townsend are set for £200,000 sale at auction

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

Peter Townsend – 1955 – National Archives of Norway CC BY-ND 2.0

War medals awarded to Princess Margaret’s lover Captain Peter Townsend have gone on sale for £200,000.

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

Relations with Princess Margaret

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.

The Crown – Courtesy of Netflix

Gp Capt Townsend sold his medals to benefit a children’s charity in 1998 after discovering them in the back of a drawer. They now belong to a private collector who has put them up for auction with Dix Noonan Webb. 

How much will the medals sell for?

They have a pre-sale estimate of between £160,000 to £200,000. His RAF logbooks are also being sold with his medals.

Christopher Mellor-Hill, an associate drector at Dix Noonan Webb, said: ‘We are very pleased to be offering these extremely important medals on behalf of a collector.

‘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.’

Who is Peter Townsend?

Gp Capt 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 died in France in 1995 aged 80. His medals are being sold in London on July 21.

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 new Channel 4 documentary.

Peter Townsend in Norway 1955 – National Archives of NorwayCC BY-ND 2.0

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.’

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.

Why Peter Townsend and Princess Margaret did not marry

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.

‘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.’ Read more: daily mail

Tell us what you think!

Should Margaret have followed her heart and married Peter Townsend? How would this have changed the Monarchy? Tell us in the comments below!