Reluctant queen who was Britain's favourite granny

 

QUEEN ELIZABETH, THE QUEEN MOTHER: It was in her later years that an abundance of superlatives were attached to Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, who died on March 30th aged 101. She was the longest-living member of the British royal family and the nation's favourite grandmother. Above all, it was her zest for life not evident in people many decades younger which impressed observers.

From the time of her marriage on April 23rd, 1923, until 1936 she had been the wife of King George V's second son, the Duke of York, and had led a relatively quiet and private existence with her family. However, following the death of the king in January 1936, the British throne was inherited by Edward VIII, who had fallen in love with the American divorcee Wallis Simpson.

King Edward's inability to disentangle his personal and public lives eventually led him to abdicate at the end of the year, thereby obliging the Duke of York to become King George VI and his wife the Queen Consort.

The ninth of 10 children, Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon was born on the August 4th, 1900, beginning life as what was then known as "a commoner". However, four years later, her father, Claude Bowes-Lyon, became 14th Earl of Strathmore and she was accordingly elevated to the title of Lady Elizabeth.

The family divided its time between London, where she had been born, and Glamis Castle near Dundee, home to the Strathmores for hundreds of years. Her mother was the daughter of a clergyman and it was from her that the queen mother inherited her strong Christian faith.

While her brothers were sent away to school, Lady Elizabeth received little formal education from a variety of governesses and this largely ended on the occasion of her 14th birthday, when war was declared with Germany. Thereafter, she spent most of her time caring for wounded soldiers at Glamis, turned into a military hospital for the duration of hostilities.

Following the conclusion of the war, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon formally came out as a débutante in 1919 when she was described as "the best little dancer in London". She appears to have had many admirers however, her keenest suitor was Prince Albert, the Duke of York, whom she had known since early childhood.

The Strathmores and the royal family were on familiar terms; in 1922, Lady Elizabeth was bridesmaid at the marriage of Princess Mary to Lord Lascelles, later Earl of Harewood. Nonetheless, she was reluctant to marry the Duke of York, worrying that she would have to surrender her informal existence for the more circumscribed life of the royal court. Her father also expressed serious doubts about the stability of the heir, the Prince of Wales. But in January 1923, she accepted the duke's third proposal, leading the Conservative MP and socialite Henry Channon to note in his diary: "There is not a man in England today that doesn't envy him."

The couple were married the following April in Westminster Abbey before 3,000 guests and then settled down to live at the Royal Lodge on the Windsor Castle estate. They had two children, Elizabeth - now Queen Elizabeth II - born in 1926 and Margaret four years later.

Despite her initial reservations, there is no doubt that the Duchess of York, as she had become, enjoyed an extremely happy marriage. Her husband was an intensely shy and reserved man, these character traits exacerbated by a strong stammer which had first manifested itself in childhood. His wife employed a speech therapist and arranged for the disability to be, if not totally cured, then at least greatly diminished, and she also did much to encourage the duke in his public duties.

While the couple did undertake a number of royal tours during their first years of marriage, those duties remained relatively light until the crisis of 1936. The Duke of York did not wish to become king and called the occasion of his brother's abdication "that dreadful day", telling his cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten: "This is absolutely terrible. I never wanted this to happen. I'm quite unprepared for it." These feelings were shared by his wife.

She made no secret of her resentment towards her brother-in-law who, shortly before his marriage to Mrs Simpson, was given the title of the Duke of Windsor. Queen Elizabeth was even more hostile towards the duchess, holding her primarily responsible for what she called "this intolerable honour".

Having accepted the responsibility, both George VI - as the Duke of York was crowned - and his wife determined to make the best of their new roles. During the second World War, they opted to remain in London despite being advised to settle elsewhere. "The children will not leave unless I do," the queen remarked. "I shall not leave unless their father does; and the king will not leave the country in any circumstances."

Buckingham Palace was bombed by the Germans on nine occasions, and this experience famously prompted Queen Elizabeth to comment: "I'm glad we've been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face."

She and the king made a point of visiting areas which had suffered air-raid attacks, with the queen lavishly dressed in furs and high-heels; when it was suggested that more sombre clothes might be appropriate, she replied: "They would wear their best dresses if they were coming to see me."

In the post-war years, the couple resumed their former roles, making an official tour of South Africa in 1947 when the queen attacked a Zulu with her parasol thinking he was about to assassinate a member of her family; in fact, he merely wished to present Princess Elizabeth with a 10-shilling note for her 21st birthday.

Soon afterwards, the king, who was a heavy smoker, became gravely ill with lung cancer, eventually dying on February 5th, 1952. Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother as she would now be known, had become a widow at the age of 51.

Initially, she seemed to be inconsolable and for the first year after her husband's death only wore black. Gradually, however, her spirits began to revive and other interests emerged. In 1953, she bought and set about restoring the Castle of Mey in north-east Scotland. Her other homes included the Royal Lodge in Windsor, a house on the Balmoral estate and Clarence House in London. Like many other members of the royal family, she was enormously interested in horses and owned several successful racehorses. Until the end of her life, she lived in a style which had otherwise disappeared in Britain, with some 40 members of staff including liveried footmen and a fleet of cars at her disposal. In the spring of 1999, it was revealed that she had an overdraft estimated to be in the region of £4 million at her bank.

Neither this information, nor the news that she held some rather reactionary political views, did much to dent her almost universal popularity at a time when, due to a series of scandals, the British royal family was generally falling from public favour. During an era of rapid change, she appeared to offer an image of consistency. A diminutive figure - she stood just five feet two inches tall and was described by Clementine Churchill as being "like a plump turtle dove" - her appearance changed little over the decades; she wore the same brightly coloured dresses and coats and seemed always to be smiling. Her charm and vivacity gave her great appeal, but this concealed an extremely shrewd personality.

One observer remarked on the "granite toughness behind the queen mother's marshmallow exterior". During a visit to Paris in 1939, for example, the French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier thought her "an excessively ambitious young woman". Much of that ambition was directed towards the various members of her family. Although she would later call her "that silly creature", it seems that the queen mother was responsible for arranging the marriage of Lady Diana Spencer to the Prince of Wales. However, there can be no doubt that without her cheerful public persona, the popularity of the British royal family will be much diminished.

Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Windsor, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother ( Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon); born August 4 1900; died, March 30th 2002