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Secret message in a private number plate...

An extraordinary secret about Princess Margaret's affair with Peter Townsend emerged last night.

It was claimed that the Princess flaunted her love for him on the private number plate of her royal car.

For more than a decade, the Princess was chauffeur-driven in a Rolls-Royce Phantom with the cherished registration number plate PM6450.

It was assumed the letters PM stood for Princess Margaret.

But last night it was claimed they did, in fact, represent Peter and Margaret and the following numbers were a date - April 6, 1950. According to the Sun, this was the date on which the two became lovers. Margaret was then only 19. If it is true, the date is significant.

It is several years before Group Captain Townsend obtained a divorce from his then wife Rosemary. His wife, who married twice more, is the last surviving figure in this story. She lives quietly in London and will not discuss the past.

Yet she has always been portrayed as the guilty party in the Townsends' marriage breakup, to spare Royal Family embarrassment. The Group Captain was granted a divorce in 1953 claiming his wife's adultery. The couple's sons, Giles and Hugo, still feel that their mother has been harshly judged.

Margaret apparently got the car and its special private number plate in 1953. It remained hers until 1967, seven years into her marriage with Lord Snowdon.

The claim represents an intriguing development on Margaret's affair with Townsend. It would mean she entered into an adulterous relationship while her beloved father, King George VI, was still alive.

No one doubts that she was passionately in love with Townsend but it was widely assumed their relationship was not physical until after the King's death.

The source of the story is photographer Ray Bellisario, a legendary figure in 1950s and 1960s Fleet Street and the prototype of the modern paparazzi.

It is reported that he was let in on the secret by a close friend of the Princess who is quoted as saying it could never be made public until after the deaths of both Townsend and the Princess. Townsend died in 1995.

Royal officials last night admitted that they were baffled by the claim.