A Very British Scandal: The true story behind Claire Foy's latest role

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Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

Claire Foy is transforming into a forgotten British icon in new BBC drama, A Very British Scandal.

The centre of the country's first major slut-shaming case, socialite Margaret, Duchess of Argyll was vilified by society and the press in a bitter divorce case against her second husband in 1963.

Even by modern standards, the campaign against her seems like something out of a film, with sex, drugs, scamming and espionage all playing their part in efforts to dismantle the Duchess’s reputation.

Here's the true story of the woman behind the series – and what exactly happened between her and the Duke of Argyll.

Photo credit: Ian Tyas - Getty Images
Photo credit: Ian Tyas - Getty Images

Who was Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll?

Born in 1912, Ethel Margaret Wigham was born into high society as the daughter of Scottish millionaire and businessman George Hay Wigham and his wife Mary.

Best known by her second name, Margaret grew up in New York, where she had a private education.

She later became famed for her signature look, particularly always wearing three strings of pearls around her neck. As for her reputation in society, she was known as a blunt-talker to the point of rudeness, and for having an unashamed love of romance and sex as well as a sense of entitlement to the finer and "proper" things in life.

From a young age she learned to weaponise her famed good looks, which were highly praised and discussed, as well as her intimate relationships. She became one of the most sought-after women in the country when she moved to the UK, often photographed and praised at social occasions as she commanded the room and the attention of men around her.

At 18, she made her debut into society and shortly after had several failed engagements, including to Charles Guy Fulke Greville, 7th Earl of Warwick, but the relationships were always short-lived.

Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

In 1933, Margaret married her first husband, Charles Sweeny, a fellow socialite and stockbroker who came from a rich background.

Their marriage lasted until 1947, but they remained friends for the rest of their lives. In fact they were even buried together following their deaths in 1993.

During their 16-year marriage, the couple struggled to conceive a child. According to her biographer, Margaret had eight miscarriages and gave birth to a stillborn daughter before finally having their son Brian, and daughter, Frances.

During World War II, Charles was unfaithful to Margaret – a fact she opted to overlook for the sake of the marriage and reputation at the time.

Following their divorce, Margaret had a couple of serious relationships, but met and married Ian Douglas Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll, in 1951.

Photo credit: Keystone - Getty Images
Photo credit: Keystone - Getty Images

The Argylls' disastrous marriage

It didn't take long for the Duke and Duchess to fall out with each other, both turning to poisonous tactics in a game of one-upmanship within their relationship.

The Duke hid numerous debts from his wife, which she eventually paid off herself. She also helped renovate Inveraray Castle in Scotland – the ancestral home of the Argyll family – back to its former glory.

As their volatile behaviour towards each other continued, things got worse as each tried to manipulate and control the other.

This reportedly included Margaret faking a letter written by the Duke's second wife, claiming his sons with her were from an affair, and the Duke wire-tapping the Duchess's car to gain information on her.

In A Very British Scandal, the Duke, played by Paul Bettany, was seen mocking Margaret's nervous stammer and declared that she would be essentially left homeless when he died as the house would be passed down to his son.

By 1958, the pair were leading separate lives in London and Scotland. The Duke accused Margaret of multiple affairs.

Michael Thornton, who was 17 at the time, wrote in the Daily Mail in 2012 that he lost his virginity to Margaret in the bathtub of Inveraray Castle.

Within months of the incident, divorce proceedings were under way.

Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

What happened during the Argylls’ divorce case?

The Argylls' marriage was broken beyond repair when, while Margaret was on a trip to New York, the Duke paid a locksmith to break into a cupboard in their London home, discovering a collection of polaroid photographs that revealed she had been unfaithful.

The photographs have never been officially released to the public, but included pictures of her in the nude, wearing her signature pearl necklace.

But the most infamous of all of the photos showed her performing oral sex on a "headless man", as his face had been cropped out of the picture.

The man's true identity has never been revealed or confirmed, with the Duchess going to her grave refusing to divulge who it was.

Several names were speculated on, including then Minister of Defence Edwin Duncan Sandys, son-in-law of Winston Churchill, but he vehemently denied the claims.

Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

In court, the Duke claimed the Duchess had as many as 88 extramarital lovers. It was later revealed that this was untrue as many of the named gentlemen were actually gay, and she had remained quiet to protect them from the police, as at the time it was illegal for men to have sexual relationships with other men.

As a member of the House of Lords, The Duke held a powerful influence over the court case and with the judge.

The divorce case gripped the nation as the papers got a hold of what was happening within the court – with the private photographs admissible as court reportage. It could be considered the first-ever instance of what we now know as "revenge porn".

In modern terms, this was also an early (but hardly the first) case of slut-shaming. The judge, when delivering his final verdict, spoke for four hours about the Duchess's character, branding her "wholly immoral" for her relationships with other men.

The divorce itself was one of the longest and costliest in British history at the time, with the Duchess refusing to back down against her estranged husband for his invasive behaviour towards her.

Photo credit: Baron - Getty Images
Photo credit: Baron - Getty Images

What happened to Margaret, Duchess of Argyll?

In the aftermath of the divorce, Margaret was renamed the "dirty duchess" in the press and society.

With her reputation in tatters, Margaret continued to live a privileged lifestyle for the rest of her days, and later released books including a memoir and a guide to entertaining.

However, she lived beyond her means and soon her fortune began to dwindle, to the point that she opened up her family home in London for tours, before eventually moving out.

She eventually wound up almost penniless, and was evicted from the hotel she was living in in 1990.

Moving into a nursing home, Margaret died in 1993 following a fall, at the age of 80. She is buried alongside her first husband, Charles Sweeny, at a Surrey cemetery.

A Very British Scandal starts December 26th and airs across three nights at 9pm on BBC One, and will be available as a box set on BBC iPlayer.

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