Elizabeth, the Queen Mother

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Elizabeth, the Queen Mother

Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon (born 1900) became queen through her marriage to George VI, king of Great Britain and Ireland from 1936 to 1952. Upon her husband's death, Elizabeth became the Queen Mother and will most likely be remembered as the most beloved royal figure in British history.

The Queen Mother was born on August 4, 1900, at St. Paul's Waldenbury, Hertfordshire. She was the youngest daughter and second youngest child in a family of ten children born to the 14th Earl of Strathmore and his wife, a cousin of the duke of Portland. Raised largely at St. Paul's Waldenbury in England and the Strathmores' other home, the large and romantically gloomy Glamis Castle in Scotland, she grew up in a warm and happy family environment surrounded by siblings, relatives, and family friends. She was privately educated, first by her mother, who taught her to read, and then by a series of governesses. Her childhood was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I, in which one of her brothers was killed. Glamis Castle was turned into a hospital for wounded soldiers, and Lady Elizabeth helped tend the patients who were sent there.

After the war, the young woman became a much sought-after debutante, and the most persistent of her suitors was none other than the brother of her friend Princess Mary—the second son of King George V, the young Albert, duke of York. Although she twice declined his proposals, on April 26, 1923 they were married at Westminster Abbey. Afterward, she impulsively laid her bridal bouquet on the church's tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a gesture that inaugurated the British public's long love affair with their new royal.

Palace Life

The duke of York's upbringing and background were remarkably different from his wife's. His parents tended to act coldly towards their children and were strict disciplinarians. Prince Albert was a sickly child who suffered from recurrent stomach ailments and bowed legs which made it necessary for him to wear leg braces for several years. Worst of all, he stammered, which made conversation difficult, school painful, and public speaking a nightmare. Five years older than Lady Elizabeth, at the time of their marriage in 1923 he was a shy and lonely man. In his wife, however, he found constant support and encouragement. By providing him with a warm and comfortable domestic life, first at White Lodge in Windsor Park and then at 145 Piccadilly in London, she made him more confident and sociable and provided him with the greatest happiness he had known. He was aware of what he owed her and was utterly devoted to her. In a letter written 24 years after his marriage he described her as "the most marvelous person in the world in my eyes."

As duchess of York, Elizabeth became a part of the royal family. She was received readily by her parents-in-law, for whom she had great fondness if not the great awe which they inspired in their own children, and she was quickly accorded a share of royal duties. With her husband she made several goodwill trips abroad to such far corners of the Empire as East Africa and New Zealand. The years 1930 to 1936 were always viewed by the duchess as a "golden age." Living in their comfortable and attractive home at 145 Piccadilly, the Yorks raised their daughters (Elizabeth, born in 1926—called Lillibet—and Margaret Rose, born in 1930) and pursued their own interests in addition to performing their public duties.

Unexpected Duty

This pleasant interlude came to an end with the political crisis of 1936 when the Duke's older brother, Edward VIII, abdicated the throne. The Duke of York thus became King George VI in December 1936. He was strengthened by the knowledge that he could rely on the support and comfort of his wife. She provided these qualities liberally, and the king manifested his gratitude by awarding her with the Order of the Garter. Despite her sympathetic nature, she never forgave Edward VIII or the woman he gave up the throne for, Wallis Simpson, for what she considered dereliction of duty, and she remained convinced that the burdens of the kingship shortened her husband's life.

The new king and queen sought to alleviate the damage caused by the Abdication Crisis by restoring faith in the monarchy. They did this by emphasizing their domesticity and devotion to home, becoming on the newsreels the very model of a contented English family unit, and by involving themselves and their children increasingly in public royal functions. As queen, Elizabeth's activities were many and varied. She made numerous state visits with her husband, including the first royal visit to Canada and the United States by a reigning monarch and his consort in 1939. The king and queen were given a great welcome when they returned to Britain, which demonstrated how firmly they had become established as effective and popular monarchs.

Upon the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, the queen's life and work took on added dimensions. She was very active, making patriotic and inspiring broadcasts, writing thousands of letters of thanks to Britons who had housed evacuees, making bandages and comforters for soldiers, and traveling, with or without her husband, to visit hospitals and areas devastated by bombs in order to encourage and give comfort to the people. When Buckingham Palace was bombed she said, "I'm glad we've been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End [the poorest section of London and that which suffered most from the German bombing] in the face." Like her husband, she was determined to offer real resistance if the Germans invaded and practiced regularly firing a revolver. When asked why she and her daughters had not gone abroad for safety, she answered, "My daughters could not go without me, I could not go with the King, and the King will never go." Recognizing the powerful symbolism of this resolute wife and mother, German dictator Adolf Hitler described her as the most dangerous woman in Europe.

Becomes Queen Mum

The postwar years, though busy, were marked by the declining health of George VI. In the summer of 1947 the king and queen and their two daughters made a trip to South Africa. Shortly after their return they announced the engagement of their daughter Elizabeth to Philip Mountbatten; the marriage took place in November 1947. Also in 1947, it was discovered that the king suffered from blood clots in his legs. This necessarily curtailed his activities, but the queen carried on gamely. The king had an operation in March 1949 which improved his condition somewhat, but he was still not fully recovered. A year later doctors found that his chronic cough was caused by lung cancer. To relieve him of some of the pressure of his duties, the queen alone received the king of Norway on his official visit in June 1951 and, with Princess Margaret, made a royal visit to Northern Ireland. Although lung surgery in 1951 helped the king to a degree, he died suddenly on February 6, 1952, at the age of 56 (and was succeeded by his elder daughter, Elizabeth).

The queen, now the Queen Mother, had been fully aware of the extent of her husband's illness. Nonetheless, his death overwhelmed her, and she spent three months in seclusion. Slowly she rejoined the world and in the more than four decades of her widowhood led a useful and ceaselessly active life. She pursued her own interests, buying and restoring the Castle of Mey in remotest northern Scotland, farming, gardening, fishing, raising Corgis, and horse-racing. She also spent time with her grandchildren, and imbued in them both a sense of royal responsibility and fondness for outdoor pursuits.

Changing Times

The Queen Mother's life of service was recognized and won for her the respect, love, and devotion of her family, as reflected in her continued—and even enhanced— popularity. Her enduring contribution to her country may well be that she was able to project, as Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said at her 80th birthday commemorative service on July 15, 1980, "the human face of royalty."

Yet in the decade between her eightieth and ninetieth birthdays, it may be said that the public was offered an all too-human visage of the British royals. This new era began in a grand way with the 1981 royal wedding of Prince Charles, heir to the throne, to Lady Diana Spencer. (Prince Charles showed his admiration for his grandmother by asking her to serve as his fiancee's guide in learning how to behave like a member of the royal family.) Their marriage produced two sons and ended in divorce. Charles's brother Prince Andrew married Lady Sarah Ferguson in 1986, but this marriage, too, was rocked by scandal and divorce during the 1990s. As the decade wore on, eager reporters chronicled every move of the younger royals in public, and even semi-private moments to a degree which had not been inflicted on the Queen Mother's generation. There emerged a new era in the relationship between the royals and the public, egged on by the press. Though still revered by their subjects, public-opinion polls evidenced that a growing number of Britons considered the Windsors frivolous in both spirit and expenses—expenditures that were covered by the public treasury.

Beloved Dowager

The Queen Mother, however, usually remains above such criticism. The occasion of her ninetieth birthday in August of 1990 launched an entire summer of celebratory festivities. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher remarked that her affection for the nation is mirrored in the affections of the nation for her, reported the New Statesman & Society (August 3, 1990). Even the significance of the Queen Mother's eventual demise is somewhat of an issue. There is debate within the halls of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) concerning just how long the official television curfew should last—some feel her portrait should be kept on the air, in lieu of all regular programming and accompanied by somber music, for an entire week. A grave moment it might indeed be, for the Queen Mother's appeal, wrote Rosalind Brunt in the New Statesman & Society article, "is also about a sprightly zest for life, a famous aura of gin-and-tonics, horse-racing and camp humour. 'Such fun!' is her favorite comment and 'Every day's an adventure' her motto … But hers is also an image of 'everyone's favourite Mum,' the projected ideal of someone who is unfailingly kind, never lets you down and lives forever."

Further Reading

Much useful material about the Queen Mother can be found in biographies of her husband, George VI. Of particular value is John W. Wheeler-Bennett's King George VI: His Life and Reign (1958), the official biography of George VI. Though ponderous and weighty, the book is well-documented and deals at length with the Queen Mother's relationship with her husband. More analytical and more accessible to the common reader is Dennis Judd's interesting King George VI 1895-1952 (1983).

Of more limited value are most biographies of the Queen Mother herself. Lady Cynthia Asquith's The Duchess of York (1927-1928) is a highly anecdotal account of the Queen Mother's early years. Equally anecdotal but more awkwardly written, as well as uncritically admiring, is The Queen Mother: The Story of Elizabeth, the Commoner Who Became Queen by Helen Cathcart, published in 1965. Other saccharine tributes include the surprisingly thorough but now out-of-date Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (1966) by Dorothy Laird and Geoffrey Wakeford's Thirty Years a Queen: A Study of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (1968). Elizabeth Longford's The Queen Mother (1981) is highly recommended both for its lively style and incisive grasp of material. A later biography of the "Queen Mum" is Penelope Mortimer, Queen Elizabeth: A Portrait of a Queen Mother (1986). Further information can be found in Ann Morrow, The Queen Mother (1984) and Robert Lacey, Queen Mother (1987). Articles about the Queen Mother in People magazine (Fall 1990 Special Supplement) and New Statesman & Society (August 3, 1990) were written on occasion of her ninetieth birthday. □

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Elizabeth, the Queen Mother