The True Story of Princess Margaret’s 1985 Lung Surgery

Mortality looms large in season 4 of The Crown, with Lord Mountbatten assassinated in the first hour of the season, Prince Charles narrowly avoiding death in an avalanche that claims the life of his close friend Hugh Lindsay, and Princess Margaret’s health declining to the point where she needs lung surgery. In the show, Margaret’s surgery coincides with her forced demotion from royal duties, which only worsens her depression and feeling of hopelessness. And although the surgery is a success, the Queen is visibly concerned about Margaret’s declining health. Here’s a primer on the true story of her surgery and illness.

Why did Princess Margaret have surgery?

On Saturday, January 5, 1985, the 54-year-old Princess was admitted to the Brompton Hospital in London, and had a small part of her left lung surgically removed. Per the AP, officials at the time had “refused to give details of the operation…or say what prompted it,” but information later emerged that it was a biopsy to test for cancer.

In an official statement released after the surgery, doctors said: “Princess Margaret underwent an operation at the Brompton Hospital yesterday for the removal of a small area of her left lung which proved to be innocent. Her condition is satisfactory and it’s expected that she will leave hospital within the week.”

Despite this ambiguous language, the London Standard newspaper reported that “innocent” meant “non-malignant.” Meanwhile, Buckingham Palace said that “the queen is very pleased at the satisfactory outcome.”

Princess Margaret was a notorious chain smoker, and reportedly smoked up to 60 cigarettes a day.


Did Princess Margaret have cancer?

Princess Margaret was never diagnosed with any form of cancer, and the wording of the official statement released after her surgery suggests the operation may have been done, in part, to rule out lung cancer. She had a family history of the disease; Elizabeth and Margaret’s father, King George VI, died of lung cancer at the age of 56. The year before his death, the king had surgery to remove a part of his lung.

When did Princess Margaret die?

On February 9, 2002, Princess Margaret died in her sleep at King Edward VII’s Hospital at the age of 71. Per a statement issued by the Queen’s press secretary, the cause was cardiac complications related to a stroke she had suffered the previous afternoon. She was survived by her two children, Lord Linley and Lady Sarah Chatto, who were both at her side when she died.

Two thousand two proved to be a tragic year for the royal family. Less than two months after her daughter’s death, the Queen Mother passed on March 30.

According to the New York Times, Margaret left “closely scripted instructions” for her funeral, and requested to be cremated rather than buried—the newspaper noted that she was “a rebellious royal who broke with tradition to the last.” Her funeral ceremony took place 50 years to the day after the funeral of her father, in the same location: St. George’s Chapel in Windsor.

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