Her Early Years (1900 - 1923) | Duchess of York (1923 - 1936) | The Abdication of Edward VIII
Queen Consort (1936 - 1952) | Her Passion for Horse Racing | The Queen Mother
The death of His Majesty King George VI at the age of 56 was unexpected and a massive shock to both the British nation and the Commonwealth. He had been in poor health for some time and had recently had an operation to remove a cancerous lung, but appeared to be recovering well. It was a blood clot reaching his heart that killed him while he slept, during the night of 5 - 6 February, 1952.
Queen Elizabeth, devastated at the loss of her husband, entered a state of deep mourning. The throne passed to her older daughter Elizabeth, who was then 25 years old. While the nation mourned the passing of a much-loved monarch, they had a beautiful young Queen's coronation to look forward to. For the new Queen's mother, the preparations for the coronation seemed unbearable. Her husband's funeral was attended by three British Queens: the new monarch Queen Elizabeth II, her mother the King's widow, and the King's mother - the (now dowager) Queen Mary. Not only was Queen Elizabeth a widow, but she was also out of a job. She took herself off to her ancestral home Glamis Castle in Scotland, and stayed there for almost a year, returning only to attend the funeral of her mother-in-law the Dowager Queen Mary in March 1953 (whose dying wish was that the coronation would not be postponed); and the coronation itself which took place in Westminster Abbey on 2 June, 1953.
Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother
After the coronation, the new Queen pleaded with her mother to stay in London, stating that her children Prince Charles and Princess Anne needed a maternal figure in their lives. She also offered her mother the use of Clarence House as a London home, which was accepted. The Queen Mother spent weekdays at Clarence House and weekends at the Royal Lodge in Windsor. She employed her own staff, some of whom served her for more than 50 years. The Queen Mother carried out hundreds of Royal engagements every year, including a total of 40 official visits abroad.
By 1970, some members of the Royal Family had adopted a less aloof air, and the Queen Mother was foremost in introducing the informal 'meet-and-greet' - the Royal Walkabout. Although the practice has become a near-tradition, there are some members of the family who objected to its introduction:
A 19-year-old suddenly being dropped in the middle of the street and being told to go and pick on someone and talk to them - fun? - no, I don't think so.
- Princess Anne admitting in a BBC interview her dislike of the introduction of Royal Walkabouts.
In later years on 4 August the Queen Mother had a 'birthday walkabout' in order to accept flowers, cards and gifts from well-wishers who gathered outside her home to sing 'Happy Birthday'. She especially treasured home-made cards presented by children.
A Bride for Charles
Rapidly approaching his thirties, Prince Charles was showing no sign of wanting to settle down and get on with the business of producing an 'heir and a spare'. It is royal tradition that the monarch and their heir should each produce (at least) two children to perpetuate the royal line. Should anything untoward befall the heir, then the 'spare' (the younger sibling) would be available to take his or her place. This hadn't occurred in recent British history until George V in 1910, (whose older brother Albert, Duke of Clarence, died in 1892 aged 26); and then his own second son George VI inherited the throne in 1936. A previous famous 'spare' was Henry VIII, whose divorce from his older brother's widow Catherine of Aragon led to the Church of England's break with Rome.
Charles adhered to the tradition of the previous Princes of Wales by having a mistress while still enjoying a bachelor lifestyle. Charles had already dated society beauties, millionaires' daughters, a Hollywood film star and a singing superstar. His grandmother must have been horrified at the thought that history might repeat itself: Charles's great uncle, King Edward VIII, famously gave up the throne in 1936 so that he might marry the woman he loved. This had set in motion a chain of events which propelled her beloved Bertie onto the throne, the stress of which (his wife believed) caused his ill-health and hastened his death.
So just how do you convince the world's most eligible bachelor to marry? The Queen Mother set about finding Charles a suitable bride herself. Her lady-in-waiting and closest friend, Ruth (Lady Fermoy), had a granddaughter who seemed a perfect match. Lady Diana Spencer was used to living a relatively anonymous life, but as soon as the media got wind of a budding romance between the shy teenager and the heir to the throne, her life changed beyond recognition. Following the announcement of their engagement, Diana left the flat she shared with old school friends and moved into Clarence House, the home of the Queen Mother. There she was 'schooled' in Royal duties. When 19-year-old Diana walked down the aisle on 29 July, 1981, to become Princess of Wales, the Queen Mother must have been as happy as her daughter the Queen, who was filmed dancing a little jig after the ceremony.
The Queen Mother famously never gave interviews, so her fans and the general public had no real idea what her true personality was like. When she was lampooned by Spitting Image (along with the rest of the Royal Family) it was as a boozy old bat. Republicans were delighted, but many royalists were outraged, and there were lots of complaints about the broadcasts.
We can only gain information about the kind of person she was by hearing what people who knew her had to say about her. Everyone who met her said she was charming, witty, warm and friendly. Her unofficial title of the nation's favourite grandmother was well-earned. The younger Royals adored their grandmother; there appeared to be no generation gap - she found them all refreshing and interesting and they enjoyed her sense of fun and ageless wisdom.
A South African person once approached her and stated:
I don't think much of royalty. I think South Africa ought to be a republic.Without batting an eyelid, she swiftly replied:
I understand. That's how we feel in Scotland too, but the English won't allow it.
The Queen Mother loved children, corgis, salmon fishing, Scotland, bagpipe music, gardening and gin (mixed with Dubonnet and ice). Not only did she adore horse-racing (her engagements were usually arranged around the racing calendar), she was also a successful owner and her horses won over 400 races. The Queen, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret all spoke fluent French, and used to conduct a 'private' conversation in French while in the presence of other people, usually unflattering about the company. This created a lot of mirth between the trio. The Queen Mother was well-regarded in France because during World War II she had broadcast to the allies in occupied France in fluent French.
She also spent a great deal of money, persuading Coutts (the Royal Family's bank) to allow her a £4million overdraft with hardly any problems at all.
The Queen Mother took as much interest in her great-grandchildren as she had in her grandchildren, providing them with a living historic link, offering them personal support and keeping them cheerful. In 2001, Prince William was particularly nervous about commencing his studies at St Andrew's University in Scotland, so his great-grandmother invited him to lunch with her at Birkhall, her home on the Balmoral estate.
As she said goodbye, she said: Any good parties, invite me down. I said yes, but there was no way. I knew full well that if I invited her down she would dance me under the table.
- Prince William
After one fabulous Christmas lunch, the Queen Mother had enjoyed it so much that when she stood up to leave the table, she thanked her daughter for the meal by mimicking Ali G and using his catchword Respec'. Everyone in attendance fell about laughing, including Princes William and Harry, who had taught her the impression.
The Castle of Mey in Caithness, near John O'Groats, was one of the Queen Mother's favourite retreats. She purchased it after the King's death in 1952 and spent many months and a huge amount of money on its restoration. Over the next four decades she was a regular visitor, attending church services at nearby Canisbay. In 1996, the castle, along with its 2,000 acres and a herd of award-winning Aberdeen Angus cattle, was made a deed to a charitable trust. The castle and grounds are now open for public tours.
The Queen Mother was Colonel-in-Chief of the Black Watch for 65 years and was also Colonel of the London Scottish Regiment, the Black Watch of Canada and the Toronto Scottish Regiment; as well as President of The Royal British Legion.
This was not a lady who was ever going to retire into the background and spend her last days tending camellias. She spent her 85th birthday in the cockpit of the Concorde, giggling like a schoolgirl as the famous plane broke the sound barrier. During her 90th year she undertook 118 official engagements in Great Britain, and that's not even counting the unofficial ones1.
100 Years Young
The UK pulled out all the stops to celebrate the Queen Mother's 100th birthday on 4 August, 2000. She was one of the more popular members of the Royal Family, and her birthday walkabouts had long become a tradition. The 100th birthday was extra-special, and lots of events were planned in celebration of this milestone. An hour-long pageant, featuring 7,000 troops from various military regiments, racehorses, the Wombles, marching bands, jitterbugging flappers, punk rockers, Eastenders, floats and a few camels, was watched and enjoyed by a crowd of 20,000 people. The Queen Mother, wearing a powder-pink dress and matching wide-brimmed hat, arrived in a horsedrawn carriage accompanied by Prince Charles. The day was topped off with a military aeroplane bypass; and finally, the Red Arrows performed an aerial salute, replacing their usual red, white and blue-coloured smoke trails2 with the colours of the rainbow.
The Queen Mother greatly enjoyed a helicopter trip to Dover and a reception lunch in the town. A service of thanksgiving for her life took place at St Paul's Cathedral, and Princess Anne unveiled a bust of her grandmother, where it remains on permanent display. Her personal gift from the Queen was her own birthday honours list. Usually the Queen only awards honours on New Year's Day and on her official birthday in June.
When the Queen Mother emerged to cheering crowds (some of whom had camped out the night before) on her birthday, a postman delivered her a special congratulations card from her daughter the Queen, something every British centenarian is entitled to. The Queen Mother handed the envelope to a nearby guard, who opened it with his ceremonial sword, much to the delight of the watching crowd. The card was signed 'Lilibet', which was Queen Elizabeth's childhood nickname.
The Queen never genuflects to anyone, but whenever she appeared with her mother on her special days, the Queen kept a low profile to allow the Queen Mother to be the centre of attention.
Golden Jubilee Year
As 2002 dawned, preparations had long been in place for Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee. However, the Queen was to be dealt a massive personal double-blow before the celebrations could begin.
Princess Margaret had been in poor health for some time and she died following a stroke on 9 February, 2002. The last time the Queen Mother was seen in public was when she attended the private family funeral of her 71-year-old daughter Margaret Rose. Ironically the funeral was held on the 50th anniversary of her father King George VI's funeral.
The End of an Era
Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother died in her sleep at the Royal Lodge, Windsor, on 30 March, 2002, at the age of 101. She was then the longest-lived3 member of the Royal Family in British history. Her death was marked by a period of ten days of national mourning. The funeral and mourning period followed royal protocol and agreement between Buckingham Palace and the Government. Books of condolence were opened at Glamis Castle and the Castle of Mey; and special military salutes were fired from Edinburgh Castle and Stirling Castle. Other sites across Britain and Gibraltar also took part in the salute, which was timed at noon on Monday, 1 April.
The Queen Mother was only the second British Royal consort to lie in state. Upwards of 200,000 people queued to pay their last respects as her coffin lay in state in Westminster Hall for three days. On the last night before the funeral, four male members of the Royal Family stood guard over the catafalque, as a mark of respect to their grandmother. They were: Prince Charles, Prince Andrew, Prince Edward and Princess Margaret's son David Armstrong-Jones (Viscount Linley). On 9 April, the funeral was held in Westminster Abbey. After the service, her coffin wreath was placed upon the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in accordance with her wishes. More than a million people lined the 23-mile route from Westminster Abbey to St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle, where her arrival was signalled by the tolling of the Sebastopol Bell4. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother was buried alongside her husband and the ashes of their daughter Princess Margaret were interred at the same time.
The decision to create a national memorial for the Queen Mother was announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer during his 2005 Budget speech. Designers, artists and architects from throughout the UK, the Commonwealth and the rest of the world were invited to submit their ideas for the memorial. Out of over 70 initial applicants, five teams of architects and sculptors have been shortlisted, and they have been asked to submit detailed plans. The winning design will be selected by a special panel headed by Prince Charles.
The project is being funded by the profits from the sale of £5 coins commemorating the Queen's 80th birthday in 2006. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and representatives of the Royal Family will work together to ensure that once the project gets underway, it is monitored at every stage and does not exceed its budget, something the Queen Mother was unable to achieve in her lifetime.
The Queen Mother Tribute Garden
In July 2006, senior members of the Royal Family officially opened a garden in the Queen Mother's memory at Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Gardens. The half-million pound project, designed by architect Lachlan Stewart, features a stone pavilion housing a bronze portrait of the Queen Mother, a Celtic labyrinth, and four 'secret' gardens with flowers and plants from all over the world.
Ever since I can remember, my grandmother has been the most wonderful example of fun, laughter, warmth, infinite security and, above all, exquisite taste. For me, she has always been one of those extraordinarily rare people whose touch can turn everything to gold.
- Prince Charles