After winning two Emmys for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II, she was made Hollywood royalty. But Claire Foy’s latest role as the flamboyantly promiscuous Margaret, Duchess of Argyll could not be more of a departure.

Claire seeks to offer fresh perspectives on real women’s lives through her work. She portrayed Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall as a vulnerable and vulnerable woman. So who better than Claire to tackle the complicated story of this socialite, whose private life has been covered in the media? 

She was branded a nymphomaniac by her husband the 11th Duke of Argyll (played by Paul Bettany) in their toxic 1963 divorce hearing, a sensational mix of theft, forgery, bribery, addiction and explicit photos that the public lapped up – which became the longest and most costly of the 20th century.

Central to the case was a set of blurry Polaroid snaps taken via the bathroom mirror of the duchess’s Mayfair apartment of her wearing nothing but her signature triple string of pearls. In some, she was entertaining an unidentified lover whose head had been cropped out of the picture and who came to be known as the ‘Headless Man’.

Claire Foy stars as the Duchess of Argyll (pictured), who was branded a nymphomaniac by her husband the 11th Duke of Argyll, in three-part series A Very British Scandal

Claire Foy portrays the Duchess (pictured), who is a nymphomaniac after being labelled by her husband, 11th Duke.

The pictures had been discovered by her husband, who allegedly hired a locksmith to gain access to his wife’s private papers and claimed she had taken on an amazing 88 lovers, including cabinet ministers, Hollywood stars and royals, during their marriage. 

And yet the technicalities of the prehistoric legal system at that time (and the fact that many of her ‘lovers’ were gay) prevented the duchess from giving her side of the story without risking imprisonment.

A Very British Scandal has been created from three episodes of the case. This series is the same as A Very English Scandal. The series focuses on attitudes toward women in the period, with Margaret being vilified for refusing silence despite being betrayed and shamed publicly by society.

‘The duchess was the height of fashion, of beauty and of interest,’ explains Claire. ‘Everyone was fascinated by her. She was a bit of an icon, but she hasn’t been remembered in that way because they did a very good job of diminishing and silencing her. My intention was to be honest about who she was as a person.’

Born in 1912, the only child of a self-made Scottish millionaire, she was described by her biographer Lyndsy Spence as ‘a daddy’s girl with an absent father, living with a jealous mother who sought to remind Margaret of her every shortcoming’. As such, Margaret developed a stammer for which she was treated unsuccessfully by Lionel Logue, King George VI’s speech therapist.

When she was 15 years old, David Niven (the future star of the movie) got her pregnant on holiday in the Isle of Wight. Her father then sent her secretly to London for an abortion. 

The Duchess wed Ian Douglas Campbell, the 11th Duke of Argyll, after meeting him on a train at Paris’s Gare du Nord station in 1949. Pictured: The real duke and duchess in 1952

The Duchess wed Ian Douglas Campbell, the 11th Duke of Argyll, after meeting him on a train at Paris’s Gare du Nord station in 1949. Pictured: The real duke and duchess in 1952

Young, beautiful, she became a household name. Princes and millionaires wooed her, inviting Cary Grant, Noel Coward, and J Paul Getty to their Mayfair homes. After four unsuccessful engagements, she married Charles Sweeny (an Irish-American stockbroker).

The couple’s 1933 wedding was glamorous. Traffic was stopped for 3 hours at the Brompton Oratory, west London. Another 2,000 people flocked to the Brompton Oratory to view the 28ft train that Norman Hartnell used to make her wedding dress. 

Despite having a daughter, Frances, and a son, Brian, together, the couple’s relationship broke down after 14 years, with Margaret claiming all Charlie wanted in a spouse was a ‘pretty brainless doll’ and they divorced in 1947.

Their relationship ended in a horrible and messy way 

In 1951 she wed Ian Douglas Campbell, the 11th Duke of Argyll, after meeting him on a train at Paris’s Gare du Nord station in 1949. He’d pursued her relentlessly, knowing she was rich while his own estate was worth nothing. 

She took pity on him and convinced her father to give him £100,000 to restore his family seat in Scotland, Inveraray Castle. After signing a Deed of Gift, the duke offered various items to secure his money and promised to marry her after his divorce.

The couple had a luxurious lifestyle after they tied the knot. This included luxury skiing, sailing and holidays in St Tropez. Socialites and fashion designers gathered around the duchess.

It took four years for a verdict to be reached after the Duke filed for divorce. Pictured: Claire with Paul Bettany as the duke

After the Duke had filed for divorce, it took 4 years to reach a decision. Pictured: Claire with Paul Bettany as the duke

However, the Duke soon revealed his true colours with accusations of addiction to drugs and gambling as well as an abrasive temper. ‘I believe she was flawed and trusted the wrong people,’ says Claire. 

‘She was gullible, vulnerable, not streetwise, and very privileged and spoiled. Also, she had an underlying problem with lying.

‘She and her husband were as damaged as each other. Watching any relationship break down is deeply sad, but also really fascinating from the outside because you want to know, “Where did it go wrong?” The end of their relationship was played out in the public domain. It was messy, underhand and cruel.’

Who was this headless man, you ask? 

The ‘Headless Man’ in the salacious pictures of the duchess disclosed in the divorce case has never been definitively identified. Society ached to know his identity, and the duke was even required to pose naked to prove the torso wasn’t his.

Margaret (pictured) carried the secret of the 'headless man' identity to her grave

Margaret (pictured) carried the identity of the headless man to her grave

The suspects included Hollywood actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr and German diplomat Sigismund von Braun, but chief among them was Duncan Sandys, the Minister of Defence and Winston Churchill’s son-in-law. 

A Channel 4 documentary in 2000 claimed that the ‘Headless Man’ was in fact two different men – Sandys and Fairbanks Jr – but it seems this may be one secret Margaret carried with her to her grave.

Both the couple agreed to live separate lives and have open marriage. However, angry at the fact that the duchess wasn’t funding his lavish lifestyle, the prince hired private detectives in order to track his wife. They stole his letters and diary and found the photos. It took four years after he filed for divorce for a verdict to be reached, which granted it to the duke on the grounds of Margaret’s adultery. 

She was ordered to pay most of the £50,000 legal bill. Not much was done about him or his six-week-old remarriage with Mathilda Mortimer (a wealthy American).

Claire acknowledges though that Margaret wasn’t the most pleasant person. ‘Despite the fact that she’s deeply unlikeable, in the way she’s treated you can clearly see the right and wrong. Although she had the opportunity to fight back, she lost.

‘She was belittled, shamed and put down. I think that’s why she’s sympathetic, I hope, to a modern audience because now we can look back and say, “It was pretty bad how we treated that woman.” But we still do it.’

Claire, who enjoys a low-key lifestyle with her six-year-old daughter Ivy Rose by her ex-husband Stephen Campbell Moore, feels the duchess, who died in 1993, would be ‘scathing and deeply disappointed’ in the choice of herself to play the role as she’s comparatively ‘so low class’.

But her portrayal of Margaret is mesmerising yet poignant as she offsets her character’s flamboyance with vulnerability, shown through the stammer. ‘It’s a misconception that stammerers are shy. In fact they’re extroverts but can’t articulate themselves. 

“So what I brought Margaret was this barrier between who she could be and who she had to be. That block, I believe she carried with her all her life. She was probably quite ordinary really, and I think she had a fear of being dull and uninteresting.’

Margaret fell out of love with Frances following the case. Frances had never wanted Margaret to support the divorce. Margaret’s lavish lifestyle and poor investments led to her financial woes. After losing her home, she was eventually reconciled to Frances and moved into a London nursing home where she died without a will in 1993.

So did losing the court case break the duchess’s spirit? ‘By the end, no, I don’t think she was broken. Her confidence might have been affected by this injustice, and she wouldn’t be able to see it. That’s what breaks my heart, the idea of a person whose confidence was taken from them, and to be so alone.’  

Boxing Day, 9pm: BBC1 will broadcast a Very British Scandal