Queen Elizabeth II’s younger sister Princess Margaret supplied the gossip columns of Great Britain and beyond with a nearly endless stream of material. From her sharp fashion and towering hairdos to a rumored romance with Picasso, it seemed Margaret had been fated for a life in the tabloids.
As it turns out, Margaret’s pop culture legacy indeed began, quite literally, at birth. Not only did the princess prompt regular bits of tabloid gossip, she also helped to inspire the modern-day horoscope.
Predicting the Princess
John Gordan never intended to revamp astrology for the 20th century. As editor of the Sunday Express, all he wanted in August 1930 was to find a new angle from which to cover another royal birth. What was there to say about King George V’s fourth grandchild, who was unlikely to do anything newsworthy for at least a decade or two? Gordon hit upon a clever workaround: He’d cover the princess’s future instead of her present.
To get the scoop on Margaret’s prospects, he called a famous astrologer and asked him to make a prediction about what her life might hold—an unusual, but not necessarily unheard of, idea. The astrologer was busy, but his assistant, R.H. Naylor, offered to step in. Gordon gave him the gig.
Naylor’s write-up, “What the Stars Foretell for the New Princess,” said little more than that Margaret would lead an “eventful life.” That, as Craig Brown points out in his book, Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret, was “a prediction that was possibly on the safe side, since few lives are without any event whatsoever.” Still, it was a hit, inspiring reader requests for additional predictions.
Astrology for the Masses
To capitalize on the article’s success, Gordon commissioned Naylor to write regular predictions on world events. Before long, he was credited with predicting an airship crash, and his contract was quickly upgraded to a weekly column dubbed “Your Stars,” through which Gordon aimed to bring the thrill of birthdate-based forecasts to everyday Express readers.
The first iteration of “Your Stars” took a traditional approach, offering insights only to those whose birthdays fell within the week. Making astrological predictions at the time was an individualized enterprise, with painstaking references to celestial objects’ locations at the moment of someone’s birth. But both men knew they could sell more papers if readers had reason to engage more than once a year.
To deliver premonitions in bulk, they drew from an ancient innovation: zodiac signs. By grouping all those born, for example, between mid-July and mid-August together as Leos, Naylor could apply a single forecast to the lot of them. Now, just 12 predictions each week were enough to cover the entirety of the Express readership.
Thus, the modern horoscope was born—and thrives to this day. The “mystical services” market is a $2.2 billion industry, and five of the 10 most popular English papers—including the Express—still run regular horoscope columns.
An Enduring Legacy
Looking back, Naylor was wise to have been so vague about baby Margaret. His more specific predictions weren’t always winners—certainly not his 1941 advice to Britons born in January and November that, when it came to avoiding German air raids, they were “‘safest’ in the open.”
But he got lucky with his 1930 claim that “events of tremendous importance to the Royal Family and the nation” would happen near Margaret’s seventh year. That prediction seemed eerily prescient in 1936, when Margaret’s uncle, King Edward VIII, abdicated to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson. Suddenly, Margaret’s father was king, her sister Elizabeth was next in line, and Margaret’s own status rose to a level that all but guaranteed her a permanent place in the tabloid glare. An “eventful life,” after all.