Reluctant Royal

Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon was born on 4 August 1900 and was the youngest daughter of Claude Bowes-Lyon, 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, and Cecilia Cavendish-Bentinck.

Elizabeth’s actual birthplace is uncertain, although her birth was registered at Hitchin, Hertfordshire, near the family’s country house, St. Paul’s Walden Bury, however she is also reputed to have been born at Belgrave Mansions in Westminster.

Elizabeth spent most of her childhood between St. Paul’s Walden Bury and Glamis Castle in Scotland where she was privately educated. When the First World War broke out, Glamis was converted into a hospital for wounded soldiers which Elizabeth helped to run, gathering a great deal of respect from the soldiers who convalesced there. Four of Elizabeth’s brothers were serving in the army, however the eldest, Fergus, was killed in action at the Battle of Loos in 1915. Another brother, Michael, was interred in a prisoner of war camp until after the war.

In 1921, Elizabeth received a marriage proposal from Albert, Duke of York, the second son of George V, but she did not relish the prospect of being part of the royal family and turned him down. Albert’s declaration he would marry no other prompted his mother to visit Glamis to meet Elizabeth for herself, and while she was convinced Elizabeth was the perfect girl for her son, she refused to interfere.

In February 1922, Elizabeth was a bridesmaid at the wedding of Albert’s sister, Mary, so he proposed again but was again unsuccessful. Albert would have to wait until January 1923 before Elizabeth would finally agree to marry him. The marriage took place on 26 April 1923 at Westminster Abbey and the bride started a new royal wedding tradition when she left her bouquet on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, in memory of her brother, Fergus.

Elizabeth gave birth to their first child, Elizabeth, in April 1926, and another daughter, Margaret, was born in August 1930. In 1927, Albert and Elizabeth travelled to Australia to open Parliament House in Canberra which meant leaving baby Elizabeth behind in London, and it caused the duchess a great deal of upset. However, the tour was a resounding success and Elizabeth was very popular with her natural warmth and charm.

Queen Consort

On 20 January 1936, George V died and Albert’s older brother ascended the throne as Edward VIII, although George had made it clear more than once that he would have preferred his second son to succeed him. Before long, Edward brought about a constitutional crisis by insisting on marrying the American divorcée, Wallis Simpson, who had been his mistress for many years. The Church of England did not allow divorced people to marry at that time and Edward was warned the British public would not accept Wallis as their queen. Refusing to give up Wallis, Edward chose to abdicate in favour of his brother who ascended the throne as George VI on 11 December 1936.

George was reluctant to become king but his brother had left him little choice, so he and Elizabeth were crowned on 12 May 1937, the very day that had been set aside for Edward’s coronation. Edward was granted the title of Duke of Windsor but Wallis was barred from being styled HRH and they were exiled to France. The duke was also not entitled to a pension from the government but George VI paid him one from his own personal finances, although the duke did not fully disclose his own considerable wealth to his brother during negotiations. George threatened to cut him off if he ever came to Britain uninvited.

In 1938, as war was looming over Europe, Elizabeth and George paid a visit to France to strengthen ties and the visit was hailed as a great success. The visit had been initially delayed due to the death of Elizabeth’s mother, Lady Strathmore, but the issue of suitable mourning clothes was delicately handled by British designer,  Norman Hartnell, who created an all white wardrobe for Elizabeth. The following year, the King and Queen visited Canada and the United States, meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, who were very impressed with Elizabeth’s regal bearing. The trip was also an attempt to bolster relations between Britain and the United States in the advent of war.

When the war did break out, Elizabeth was urged to leave London with the children for safety reasons, but she refused to leave her husband and the children wouldn’t leave without them. Elizabeth made a point of visiting areas of London that been badly bombed by the Germans, especially the East End, however her visits were often greeted with hostility because she chose to wear expensive clothing. Elizabeth later explained she had chosen to do so because the public would’ve come to see her in their best clothes and it was only appropriate she return the courtesy.

Although, George was carrying out daily state affairs from Buckingham Palace, the family were actually spending nights at Windsor Castle which had been reinforced to withstand bombing. Buckingham Palace was bombed several times by the Nazis but Elizabeth only saw it as form of kinship with those who were suffering the same in the East End. Although the royal couple had been proponents for an amicable resolution before war broke out, Hitler still regarded Elizabeth as the most dangerous woman in Europe because of her popularity and saw her as a threat to German interests.

The stress of his royal duties was taking an increasingly heavy toll on George’s health and when the war ended, a planned trip to Australia and New Zealand for 1948 had to be postponed. As George recuperated from frequent bouts of illness, Elizabeth and her daughters took over his duties but he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1951 and had to have surgery from which he seemed to be recovering. In 1952, the royal tour of Australia and New Zealand was altered so Princess Elizabeth and her husband, Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, could go instead, however the king died while Elizabeth was in Kenya and the couple had to return to London.

Queen Mother

George VI died peacefully in his sleep on 6 February 1952 and Elizabeth was styled thereafter as The Queen Mother. Elizabeth was devastated by her husband’s death, and she fully intended to retire to Scotland but  Winston Churchill persuaded her to return to resume her public duties. When Queen Elizabeth finally went on the Australian tour in 1954, the Queen Mother acted as head of state in her daughter’s absence and cared for her grandchildren, Charles and Anne. The Queen Mother also began refurbishing the remote Castle of Mey on the Caithness coast of Scotland which she would eventually use as her private retreat.

The Queen Mother kept up her busy schedule of royal duties throughout the remaining years of her life, and was often just as busy as her daughter with overseas tours to many different countries throughout the world. Although the Queen Mother had her share of health problems over the years, her 100th birthday was widely celebrated on 4 August 2000, including a special commemorative £20 note issued by the Royal Bank of Scotland. Over the next few months, the Queen Mother’s health fell into decline and she made her last public appearance in November 2001 when she attended the re-commissioning of HMS Ark Royal.

In December 2001, the Queen Mother took a bad fall, fracturing her pelvis, but she still insisted on standing for the National Anthem during a memorial service for her husband on 6 February 2002. Three days later, the Queen Mother was shocked by the death of her youngest daughter, Princess Margaret, who had suffered a stroke, and she insisted on attending the funeral despite her own frailty.

On 30 March 2002, the Queen Mother passed away peacefully in her sleep at the Royal Lodge, Windsor Great Park, with Elizabeth by her side. At the time of her death, the Queen Mother was the longest-lived royal in the history of the British monarchy but this record was broken by Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, who died on 29 October 2004, aged 102 years.

The Queen Mother’s body was taken to Westminster Abbey to lie-in-state so members of the public could pay their respects, however so many people wanted to attend, the period had to be extended. Members of the armed forces stood guard at the four corners of the catafalque, and at one point were replaced by her four grandsons Prince Charles, Prince Andrew, Prince Edward and Viscount Linley as a mark of respect known as the Vigil of the Princes which had only been done once before for George V.

The Queen Mother was finally laid to rest on 9 April 2002 at St. Georges Chapel in Windsor and, upon her request, the wreath atop her coffin was laid on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster.