Queen Mother dies in her sleep at 101

Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, was the most popular member of the British royal family during the past century, write Frank…

Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, was the most popular member of the British royal family during the past century, write Frank Millar and Jonathan Caine

Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, who died on Saturday aged 101, was the most enduringly popular member of the British royal family during the past century. In part the result of her longevity, this derived too from her central role in the affairs of her country in the almost 80 years following her marriage to the future King George VI in 1923.

She claimed her place in the affections of the nation for her steely support of her husband in restoring the monarchy's fortunes after the abdication of King Edward VIII for the love of divorcee Wallis Simpson in 1936. But that special relationship which survived to her peaceful death on Saturday was cemented during the second World War, when the bombing of Buckingham Palace and the royal couple's refusal to leave London enabled them to act as the symbols of national unity during Britain's gravest hour.

Thereafter the popularity of the reluctant king and queen was assured. And until her death, the Queen Mother remained Britain's favourite royal - with the exception of the period of Diana, Princess of Wales' ascendancy. Her unfailing sense of duty even in frail old age contributed to this - enabling her to rise above the failed marriages and assorted troubles which would again beset the House of Windsor.


Her favourite grandchild, the Prince of Wales, captured the popular sentiment in 1998 when he said she appeared "indestructable". Locked from public view and forced to use a wheelchair, that she was not well became tragically clear just six weeks ago when the Queen Mother was predeceased by Princess Margaret.

The Hon Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon was born on August 4th 1900, the ninth of 10 children, fourth daughter of Lord and Lady Glamis, subsequently the Earl and Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorne. Although the birth took place in London, there is no record of exactly where. Staying at Glamis Castle, her father did not see his new daughter for six weeks, by which time the non-registered and non-christened Elizabeth had been taken to another family home, St Paul's Waldenbury in Hertforshire. Lord Glamis was fined 7s/6d for failing to report the birth on time.

LADY Elizabeth's childhood, typical of that enjoyed by the daughter of Edwardian aristocrats, came abruptly to an end with the outbreak of the first World War on August 4th, 1914 - her 14th birthday. Glamis became a military hospital for the wounded, and she was noted for her ability even then to cheer the patients. However, the war was not to be without personal tragedy. In 1915 one of Elizabeth's elder brothers, Fergus, was killed at the Battle of Loos.

Five years later, in May 1920, Elizabeth had her first adult encounter with her future husband, King George V's second son, Prince Albert. He reportedly told Lady Airlie, a close confidante of his mother Queen Mary, that he fell in love that evening.

Within the year the prince, created Duke of York, had secured Queen Mary's approval and proposed marriage. Lady Elizabeth turned him down.

His position aside, the duke had few obvious attractions. He suffered from a serious speech impediment and his health was far from robust. Elizabeth's view appears to have been shared at the time by his father who, on hearing of his son's intentions, reportedly remarked "you'll be a lucky fellow if she accepts you". Showing great foresight, Elizabeth's mother, writing to Lady Airlie, sympathised with the duke's plight and observed: "He will be made or marred by his wife."

The intervention of Queen Mary and Lady Airlie had the decisive impact on events. Resisting the duke was one thing, resisting the formidable queen was a different matter. In January 1923 the duke again proposed and was this time accepted.

By the early 1930s their lives and those of their daughters, the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, seemed settled on the outer fringes of monarchy. The Abdication Crisis would change all that, seeing the new Queen Elizabeth become the first British-born consort since Tudor times, and the last Empress of India. Without doubt the deeply religious Duchess of York disapproved of Mrs Wallis Simpson. However, there appears no evidence that she plotted the downfall of the king for the advancement of her husband or herself. And certainly she never forgave Edward VIII for what she regarded as selfishness in forsaking his duty and thrusting the burden of the Crown on her unwilling husband.

"I never wanted this to happen. I'm quite unprepared for it," George VI exclaimed at the time. But with the sense of duty that would characterise her life, his wife simply greeted the abdication with calm resignation: "We must take what is coming and make the best of it."

Jonathan Caine is a former special adviser to Sir Patrick Mayhew.