on August 4, 1900, Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon began life as a
commoner. She was the ninth of ten children born to Claude Bowes-Lyon and
Cecilia Cavendish-Bentinck, a vicar’s daughter and a descendant of the
Duke of Portland. Four years after her birth, her parents became Lord and Lady
From an early age, Elizabeth and her
younger brother David – referred to affectionately by their mother as the “two
Benjamins” – exhibited a great sense of fun and mischief, a quality that she
is still known to possess in abundance. On one occasion, after a frantic search
around the grounds of St Paul’s, the pair were discovered in the “flea house”
sharing a cigarette. Elizabeth and David would also amuse themselves there
by pouring “boiling oil” (in fact, nothing more harmful than water) on their
mother’s guests from the castle turrets, and take some of the staff hostage,
tying them up until a “ransom” was paid for their release!
Until the age of 10, Elizabeth was
educated at home by her mother and governess. At 12 Elizabeth entered the
Misses Birtwistle’s Academy, where she was taught a broad and traditional
curriculum. She was popular with her classmates and teachers, but after only two
terms, her mother withdrew her from the academy and returned her to the watchful
eye of another governess.
Elizabeth’s formal education came to
an abrupt end with the declaration of World War I, when she was just 14. Soon
after her birthday, she returned to Glamis, which was now being used as a
military hospital for wounded soldiers. With her mother and her elder sister
Rosie, Elizabeth cared for soldiers, writing letters for them to their loved
ones and running errands to buy their tobacco. She also enjoyed many a
high-spirited game of cards with them. It was this experience which enabled the
future Queen of England to relate to peope of all backgrounds and social classes
– a quality which continues to make her one of the most popular Royals.
But the family was not without its own
pain. In 1915, Elizabeth’s elder brother Fergus was killed at the Battle of
Loos. Another brother, Michael, was held prisoner for two years. With the end of
the war, Elizabeth found a new freedom. In 1919 she was introduced into Royal
circles and was relentlessly pursued by numerous suitors. Among them was Prince
Paul of Serbia, who, upon her subsequent engagement, wrote: “My Queen of
Yugoslavia is still missing and so I cannot plan my future. When will it happen?”
James Stuart, a noted philanderer and descendant of the illegitimate
half-brother of Mary Queen of Scots, was also among Elizabeth’s keenest
suitors. She is said to have been deeply in love with him, but she retained a
healthy sense of caution. Perhaps it was his reputation, or the need for them
both to marry into money that prevented her from accepting a proposal.
Ironically, it was through James Stuart
that Elizabeth came to marry Prince Albert – HRH the Duke of York, the second
son of King George V and Queen Mary. Even as a child Elizabeth had been friendly
with the children of the King and Queen; members of the Royal Family would
sometimes come and stay at Glamis. But although Elizabeth and Prince Albert, or
“Bertie”, as he was known, had met when she was just five, it was through
Stuart many years later that they were re-introduced. Stuart was employed as the
Prince’s equerry and could not very well dissuade his master when in 1920 he
expressed an interest in the charming Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. In any case, it was
decided that with a potential Royal match on the cards, Elizabeth could not
jeopardise her future by being associated with Stuart. And so it was that Lady
Strathmore and Lady Moray, Stuart’s mother, conspired subtly to dispatch him
to the oilfields of Oklahoma for the duration of Elizabeth’s courtship.
the attentions of her Royal inamorato, Elizabeth maintained a shrewd distance.
She was reluctant to enter into Royal life and to take on all the accompanying
trappings, and was cautious of such a match after her father’s determination
that none of his children should ever “have any post about the Court”. From
an early age, Lord Strathmore had warned Elizabeth that she should avoid Royal
entanglements at all costs. On such advice, and no doubt for her own personal
reasons, Elizabeth twice rejected Bertie’s proposals, much to the shock of his
mother, Queen Mary. Finally, on January 13, 1923, as they walked in the woods at
St Paul’s Walden Bury, Elizabeth accepted his proposal of marriage.
Three months later, on April 26, the
couple were married at Westminster Abbey. Unlike future Royal weddings, there
was no broadcast to the nation, as Church authorities feared that “disrespectful
people might hear it whilst sitting in public houses with their hats on”.
For 14 years, the couple lived happily
yet quietly together. As the Duke and Duchess of York, they were rarely called
upon to perform public duties. Elizabeth proved a great support to Bertie, who
was a very shy and awkward man, and with a speech therapist helped him to
overcome his stutter. In 1926, she gave birth to their first daughter, Princess
Elizabeth, the present Queen of England. Four years later, the couple celebrated
the birth of their second daughter, Princess Margaret.
But this picture of domestic happiness
was not to last. In 1937, Bertie’s brother, King Edward VIII, abdicated in
order to be with Wallis Simpson. Bertie, although reluctant to undertake the
responsibility of public office, felt he had little choice but to succeed Edward
as his natural heir. He was crowned George VI in Westminster Abbey on May 12,
1937, and the family moved into Buckingham Palace.
The Queen Mother never forgave her
brother-in-law nor Mrs Simpson, and was instrumental in securing their “exile”
from Britain. She had never wanted to become Queen, and George VI was never
wholly suited to public office. With her by his side, he seemed to manage quite
well; but on the odd occasions when she was absent, he again retreated into the
shy and awkward personality he had been as a young man.
The new pressures thrust upon the
couple were only exacerbated by the outbreak of World War II. Despite strong
advice that the Queen and the two princesses should leave London for Canada, the
Queen refused to go. “The Princesses cannot go without me. I cannot go without
the King. And the King will never leave,” she said as she resolved to remain
at Buckingham Palace. Instead she learned to shoot a revolver, practising her
aim in the Palace gardens.
After air raids, the King and Queen –
she dressed in the finest satin and furs – would visit the scene of
devastation and offer consolation to those who had lost their homes. It was only
after Buckingham Palace was bombed, however, that the Queen felt she could
really relate to the people of London. “I’m glad we’ve been bombed. It
makes me feel I can look the East End in the face,” she famously said.
As normality slowly returned after the
war, the Royal household was again struck by disaster. In 1952, at just
fifty-two, the Queen Mother was widowed. Bertie, her dearest companion, died
suddenly of a stroke. This was a time of great difficulty. Not only had the
Queen lost her husband, but her position too. Her daughter, Princess Elizabeth,
took her rightful place on the throne.
Although supportive of her daughter,
the Queen Mother withdrew from the public eye. She wore black for an entire year
after her husband’s death. It took the cajoling words of Prime Minister
Winston Churchill to convince her that she could not exist in a permanent state
of mourning like that of Queen Victoria before her. She re-entered public life,
yet maintained a distance from the matters of the Court.
was no official role for the Queen Mother, but she nonetheless played a
significant part in representing her family and her country. As her
grandchildren grew older, she was instrumental in helping “arrange” their
marriages. Both Diana, to whom she later referred as “that silly creature”,
and Sarah Ferguson left for their weddings from Clarence House, the Queen Mother’s
She proved herself a lifelong
confidante to Prince Charles, whom she adored. Without her it is widely thought
that Charles would have been unable to cope with the many stresses with which he
has been confronted over the past decade. It is even rumored that she provided a
clandestine telephone line for him from Balmoral on which he could call his
mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles.
But it was her enduring sense of fun
and her boundless energy for which the Queen Mother was perhaps best loved and
admired. She was a keen and successful horse breeder and only gave up fishing, a
favorite pastime, at 80. Her somewhat extravagant Edwardian lifestyle – she
had five homes, a fleet of cars and an unspecified number of staff – was
always an accepted and essential accessory for playing host to the nation. Her
sense of contentment and a refusal to indulge in regrets, carried her through
the good and the bad. It is this combination, together with her steely reserve
in times of hardship, that was responsible for producing one of our greatest and
much loved icons.
"Queen of Queens"
- May She Rest in Peace.