Who was Margaret, Duchess of Argyll? The true original revenge porn story

A Very British Scandal: Claire Foy stars in BBC trailer

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The passion and vitriol between the Duke and Duchess of Argyll – played by Paul Bettany and Claire Foy – forms the emotional backdrop to the BBC’s latest offering in A Very British Scandal. But who really was Margaret and what really happened between the couple? Note: The following story contains plot-line spoilers.

Born Ethel Margaret Whigham on December 1, 1912, the future Duchess of Argyll was born in Scotland to a millionaire father.

Shortly after birth, the family moved to New York, where the young Margaret spent her first 14 years of life before moving back to the UK.

Even in her early years, Margaret was known for her beauty and romantic affiliations.

In 1928, an 18-year-old David Niven – the famous British actor and novelist – allegedly impregnated the 15-year-old Margaret, offsetting a series of traumatic events for the teenage girl.

Her family cook recalled that “all hell broke loose” with Margaret’s father devastated.

He rushed his daughter to London for an abortion at a nursing home.

By 1930, Margaret was engaged to the 7th Earl of Warwick, which was called off, and an affair with the married Prince George of Kent is said to have played its part.

In 1933, Margaret converted to Roman Catholicism and married American businessman Charles Francis Sweeny.

So popular was the young bride that traffic in London’s Knightsbridge was blocked for three hours as onlookers tried to get a glimpse of her dress.

Margaret then suffered eight miscarriages and one stillborn daughter at eight months gestation, before having two healthy children, a girl and a boy.

Another alarming twist came when Margaret nearly lost her life after falling down a lift shaft while visiting her chiropodist on Bond Street.

She later recalled: “I fell forty feet to the bottom of the lift shaft.

“The only thing that saved me was the lift cable, which broke my fall. I must have clutched at it, for it was later found that all my fingernails were torn off.

“I apparently fell onto my knees and cracked the back of my head against the wall”

She received 30 stitches on her head, a detail which is referenced in A Very British Scandal.

The Sweenys divorced in 1947, and in 1951, Margaret became the third wife of Ian Douglas Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll.

Writing of this time of life in her memoir, Margaret said: “I had wealth, I had good looks. As a young woman I had been constantly photographed, written about, flattered, admired…

“I had become a duchess and mistress of a historic castle…Life was apparently roses all the way.”

But the union was deeply flawed. According to Lyndsy Spence, a biographer of the Duchess, the Duke of Argyll forged a deed of sale before their marriage in exchange for her money used to restore his family home at Inveraray and wiretapped her car.

The Duchess herself forged letters theorising sons from her husband’s second marriage were not legitimate and attempted to acquire a baby she could claim to be her husband’s heir.

And within just a few years, the marriage had crumbled, leading to one of the most salacious divorce cases in history.

The Duke suspected his wife of infidelity and, after breaking into her personal files, published evidence used in their 1963 divorce case which included a set of Polaroid photographs of the Duchess naked, save for her signature three-strand pearl necklace, in the company of another man.

There were also photographs of the Duchess engaged in a sex act with a naked man whose face was not shown.

The “headless man” was speculated to be the Minister of Defence Duncan Sandys (later Lord Duncan-Sandys, son-in-law of Winston Churchill) or American actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

A list of some 88 men with whom the Duke believed his wife had consorted was produced, including two government ministers and three members of the British royal family.

The ensuing scandal saw attempts at proving the identity of the “headless man”, but Margaret never revealed who it was.

She did, however, say: “The only Polaroid camera in the country at that time had been lent to the Ministry of Defence.”

In a move that would have sent alarm bells ringing today, the judge commented Margaret had indulged in “disgusting sexual activities” during her marriage.

Granting the divorce, Lord Wheatley, the presiding judge, said the evidence established that the Duchess of Argyll “was a completely promiscuous woman whose sexual appetite could only be satisfied with a number of men”.

He continued: “Her attitude to the sanctity of marriage was what moderns would call ‘enlightened’ but which in plain language was wholly immoral.”

She was said to have slept with a number of homosexual men, though at the time homosexuality was illegal, with some now speculating she was an early gay rights ally.

In 1990, she had been living in a hotel but was evicted as she couldn’t pay the bills after a life of indulgence and ill-advised investments.

Her children moved her to a nursing home, where she suffered a bad fall.

After a life of wealth, Margaret died totally penniless in 1993, aged 80.

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