The True Story Behind A Very British Scandal

TThis miniseries is made up of 3 parts. The British Scandal—out April 22 on Amazon Prime Video—dramatizes one of the longest, most expensive, and scandalous divorce cases of the 20th century. In 1963, a judge dissolved the marriage of the aristocratic Duke and Duchess of Argyll, condemning the latter as a promiscuous woman with a “debased sexual appetite.”

Claire Foy, of Netflix’s The CrownThe BBC’s drama stars, as Margaret Whigham, the Duchess of Cambridge. She is a glamour socialite who was exposed to her extra-marital affairs by Paul Bettany (Paul Bettany), who published compromising photos of his wife in order to get the divorce. The true story behind the drama series was just as salacious—intimate details of the couple’s romantic history were pored over by the press and public during the case. Viewed under today’s standards, the Argyll divorce reflects issues of institutional misogyny, sexual shaming, and aristocratic extravagance which gripped 1960s Britain.

Here’s the true story behind the scandal.

Who was the Duke and Duchess Argyll’s mother?

Margaret Whigham was born in 1912 and was the heiress to a millionaire and Scottish businessman before she became famous as Duchess. Margaret Whigham, renowned for her beauty and charisma, was a debutante who moved in the most prestigious social circles. She got engaged to four times before turning 19. According to reports, she had an illegal abortion at the age of 15.

She married Charles Sweeney, an American businessman and socialite, in 1933 when she was 20 years old. Such was the public excitement around the wedding—dubbed “the media event of the decade” by the Guardian—that crowds of 20,000 onlookers gathered to catch a glimpse of Maragret’s wedding dress. The couple was blessed with two children, a stillbirth, and eight miscarriages. They divorced in 1947 after their marriage fell apart.

Margaret was married to Ian Campbell, Duke of Argyll in 1947. Campbell, who was born 1903, suffered severe trauma after being imprisoned in Germany. He also had a gambling and alcohol addiction. He was allegedly physically and emotionally abusive according to previous wives. He was the head of his clan and took over Inveraray Castle, Scotland, in 1949.

Divorce: Why did the marriage end in divorce?

The Duke and Margaret married in 1951—Margaret became an aristocrat and the Duke gained much-needed financial relief from his many gambling debts through her inheritance and money from her previous marriage. Both were lovers at first and had a difficult marriage. The Duke reportedly wiretapped Margaret’s car, while she claimed his children from his second wife were illegitimate.

After the couple was separated for five years, they had both sued and counter-sued each other. After Margaret refused to pay the bills, the Duke began divorcing him. After he filed for divorce, Campbell stole some of Margaret’s private Polaroid photographs that went on to become infamous and haunt her for the rest of her life.

Was there any drama during divorce proceedings?

He claimed Margaret had been sex with 88 men and applied for divorce. The Duke presented the compromising Polaroids of Margaret wearing only her pearls while performing a sex act upon a man in the photo. The identity of the lover was never revealed—though rumors ranged from Hollywood actors to politicians—and he became known as the “headless man”.

The press seized on the opportunity to splash Margaret’s sex life over the front pages. She became known as the “dirty duchess”.

People speculated that the “headless man” was wartime leader Sir Winston Churchill’s son-in-law, Duncan Sandys, as it was reported that only the Minister of Defense had access to a Polaroid camera. Sandys was influenced by the scandal and considered resignation, but he refuted the claims.

In a three hour judgment, the judge granted the divorce, condemning Margaret as “a highly sexed woman” who was not “satisfied with normal relations and had started to indulge in disgusting sexual activities to gratify a debased sexual appetite”. The Duchess may have been triggered by nymphomania after a nearly fatal fall from a lift shaft at 40 feet in 1943.

A look at 20th-century misogyny through the Argyll case

Details of the Duke’s infidelities weren’t mentioned during the proceedings. Campbell was also not questioned over the theft and display of Margaret’s private photos—which would now be considered revenge porn. Although attitudes changed as Britain moved in the 1960s and contraceptives became easier to access, the harsh treatment of women for sexual desires was still harsh. As an older woman—Margaret was 50 at the time of the court proceedings—in the public eye, the “dirty Duchess” faced public condemnation.

The 1960s was a time of high-profile sex scandals—including the Profumo affair—which left the reputations of several women in tatters. Viewed through a modern lens, the “highly sexed” Duchess might be seen instead as sexually liberated, and the disdain for her actions would amount to “slut shaming.”

Is there any news about the Duchess Argyll’s disappearance?

Margaret did not recover from the divorce proceedings, despite being stubborn in the face of social gossip and cruel gossip. She was ordered by a judge to pay the bulk of her ex-husband’s legal fees of £50,000—over $1.4 million today.

In the following decades, her fortune plummeted. She opened her London home for paid tours in an attempt to capitalise on her fame. According to London MetroIn 1990 she was forced from her hotel room because she couldn’t pay the bills.

In 1993, she died at 80 years old in a nursing facility. She had no money left.

In contrast, the Duke married only four months after his final divorce agreement with Margaret. She wrote her 1975 memoir Don’t Forget About ItIn her defense, she said that the Duke had been secretly dating his wife-to be while he was still married. He was 69 years old when he died.

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