The Crown season two introduces Antony Armstrong-Jones, played in all his delightful, wry sexual fluidity by a very appealing Matthew Goode. Some elements of his character seem pretty outlandish, especially from within the relatively staid, buttoned-up world of Elizabeth II. But a surprising amount of the Tony we see on the show has basis in fact. The Crown scrambles the timeline a bit, and some of the details have been shifted around. There’s no question, though, that the real Antony Armstrong-Jones, who was given the title Lord Snowdon after his marriage to Princess Margaret, was a bolt out of the blue for the conventional royal family. How much was fabricated? How much was real?
His romantic life
Probably the most notorious thing about The Crown’s Tony — the thing Elizabeth’s private secretaries focus on with the most disapproving, furrowed brows — is his sexual openness. As they explain to the queen, with mortified hesitations: “the narrow path … the straight, Christian path… is not to his taste.” On the show, we see him break it off with his long-time partner Jacqui Chan, and also with his married lovers, Mr. and Mrs. Fry.
Thanks in no small part to splashy British tabloid culture, Snowdon’s real-life relationships are remarkably public knowledge — the Daily Mail has headlines that describe his “torrid” love life, and The Sun calls him “the romping royal rebel.” Even a more reputable paper like the Telegraph ran a review of his biography with the headline “Lord Snowdon: small in stature, big in bed.”
He had a long-standing, well-documented relationship with the actress Jacqui Chan, who we see briefly in The Crown’s seventh episode, “Matrimonium.” The evidence for his throuple relationship with both Jeremy and Camilla Fry is thinner, but Jeremy Fry was unable to be Armstrong-Jones’s best man at his wedding after being convicted of a “minor homosexual offense,” and although Armstrong-Jones denied it for years, he was also the father of Camilla Fry’s daughter.
Even before he became Lord Snowdon, Armstrong-Jones was making a name for himself as a photographer, and some of his photos of the royal family actually predate his relationship with Margaret. There are several portraits of the royal family from the mid-’50s, including one for Prince Charles’s eighth birthday and a family photo of Philip, Elizabeth, Charles, Anne, and the Corgis from 1957.
Snowdon was an accomplished, talented photographer entirely on his own, and practiced a lot of documentary photojournalism as well as working as a celebrity portraitist. But his most famous photography work comes out of his connection to the royal family. Even after his separation from Margaret in the late ’70s, Snowdon continued to take portraits of the royal family, and he documented them through the tumultuous years of Diana and Charles’s marriage, and their children, up until not long before his death early in 2017. There’s a famous Snowdon portrait of Elizabeth II from 2010, and it’s one of the few where she seems to smile really happily at the camera.
In The Crown, Armstrong-Jones woos Margaret by taking her portrait, an image that ends up being published as her official birthday portrait for the year, and which seems to depict her as completely naked. The timeline on that story is has been slightly adjusted for The Crown’s purposes — Snowdon’s most intimate photos of Margaret date from the years soon after their marriage, and were not the official palace birthday photos in the Cecil Beaton tradition.
The photo is almost real, though. The Crown re-creates the image to depict Vanessa Kirby, and it omits the massive earring Snowdon had Margaret wear for the real version, but the composition and the intimacy are nearly the same.
That nude bust-height portrait isn’t even the most scandalous photo Snowdon took of his wife. The most remarkable image is probably this one, of Margaret sitting in a bathtub and still wearing a towering tiara. You can even see Snowdon’s reflected in the corner of the image, sitting on the toilet to take the photo.
His marriage to Margaret
If anything, The Crown seems anxious to couch Snowdon’s relationship with Margaret in a mitigating, forgiving context. He has concerns about their marriage; he’s open with his other lovers about how uncertain he is. His mother is really, really mean to him, and most of what he does in his relationship with Margaret is an effort to make his mother proud of him, for once.
Whatever the situation may have been with the real Tony’s mother, there’s evidence that he was much crueler to Margaret than is portrayed in the series, and he did it in person, in public. One of his most infamous, horrible comments about her makes it into The Crown’s seventh episode — he tells the Frys that she looks like “a Jewish manicurist.” One popular version of that story is that it happened in public, he said it behind her back, and that the full quote was, “you look like a Jewish manicurist and I hate you.” Another version has it that he would leave notes of things he hated about her around the house, and “you look like a Jewish manicurist” was one of them. In either case, The Crown’s version, where it’s part of pillow talk to his other lovers, feels distinctly less confrontational and mean than it seems to have been in reality. That’s hardly the only story of Snowdon attacking Margaret, either — Gore Vidal recalls him flicking lighted cigarettes onto her dress at her 39th birthday party.
Presumably the next season of The Crown will detail the full unraveling of Margaret and Tony, before they inevitably, finally, get a divorce several years later. But even after that point, the most fascinating thing about Snowdon may be how long he endures as a fixture in the royal family, and how long he’s allowed to have intimate photographic access to them, decades after his relationship with Margaret implodes. His swinging, unconventional start provides a lot of fuel for the series, flying around on his motorbike and fathering a love child at the beginning of his life with Margaret. It may be even more fascinating to watch him watch the family in the years to come.