Obituary – Queen Elizabeth
the Queen Mother
The passing of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother this week at the age of 101 is an event like none before in our lives. Born in the last weeks of Queen Victoria’s reign, and just months into the 20th century, at the height of the British Empire, before aeroplanes had got off the ground, and when the gaslit streets around Buckingham Palace clattered with horses hooves rather than the rumble of traffic, the Queen Mother had, it seems, always been with us. Tragically for her, she outlived not only her beloved husband, but also her daughter, Princess Margaret, who died just a few weeks ago.
She was many things to the British people – a favourite grandmother; a Scot most at home fishing in the grounds of her beloved Castle Mey; a keen, canny and successful racehorse owner. But to the people of the East End of London she will always be someone more special still: a queen who, at the height of the Blitz, refused to abandon London for the safety of a bolthole in the country or the United States; and a woman who, with her king, was able “to look the East End in the face”.
But nothing could have seemed less likely to the young Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon than that she would become Queen of England. Her birth as a commoner, her father’s advice, her own sense of self-preservation, and of course her husband’s status as the second son of King George V, all mitigated against her ever ascending the throne. That she did so with such grace and success at a difficult and pivotal time for the British monarchy is a testament to her self-sacrifice, determination and sense of duty.
An Edwardian childhood
Ironically, even though we know so much of Elizabeth’s later life, her birth is shrouded in mystery. Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon was certainly born on 4 August 1900, but where we don’t know. She was the ninth of ten children born to Claude Bowes-Lyon and Cecilia Cavendish-Bentinck, a vicar’s daughter and a descendant of the Dukes of Portland. Perhaps her father can be forgiven for becoming a little forgetful at the birth of child number nine, but he didn’t register her birth for a full nine weeks. When he did, he gave the place of birth as the Hertfordshire family home of St Paul’s Walden Bury, though other accounts suggest she was actually born in London.
Though born in England and without a title, Elizabeth was actually descended from the Scottish royal family. And she once more ‘became’ a Scot at the age of four, when her parents became Lord and Lady Strathmore and inherited Glamis Castle. That began a lifelong love affair with Scotland. The castle had been a royal house since 1372 (Shakespeare had it as Macbeth’s home of course), and Elizabeth and younger brother David would have a wild time pouring ‘boiling oil’ (buckets of water in truth) from the turrets onto her mother’s guests. The castle’s ground staff also had to contend with being captured by the pair, tied up and held to ransom. On another occasion, having gone missing at St Paul’s, the pair were found hidden away sharing a cigarette. Her sense of humour and mischievous streak was still in evidence a century later when she would tease Palace staff, public and members of the Press alike.
Her childhood may have been idyllic, but her education was certainly wanting. Most of it was conducted at home by her mother and various governesses – with predictably patchy results. She was, however, fluent in French by the age of 10, and must have picked up some skills in arithmetic as she later showed a computer-like accuracy in working out the odds and returns on horses she was backing. Two terms of more traditional schooling, at the Misses Birtwistle’s Academy, were brought to an end by her protective mother.
World War I
And back at Glamis her education was abruptly ended altogether. When she was 14 years old, World War I broke out, and the castle was brought into use as a military hospital. Elizabeth learned to be a nurse, helped the injured men write letters to their wives and sweethearts, and would run errands, buying chocolate and cigarettes for the soldiers.
And if the separation from David (sent away to Eton) had been painful, the War was to shatter the childhood idyll forever. Her older brother Fergus perished at the Battle of Loos in 1915. Another brother, Michael, was held prisoner of war for two years more.
Between the wars
The end of the war coincided with Elizabeth becoming an adult and making the traditional entrée into Royal circles. It was a life the Bowes-Lyons were used to (members of the Royal Family would frequently visit Glamis) but both Elizabeth and her father had reservations about princes and kings. He had determined that none of his children should ever “have any post about the Court”. And Lord Strathmore had also warned Elizabeth early on to avoid “entanglements” with the Royal family. But it was inevitable that the beautiful young debutante should attract attention from the eligible young men of the Court. Prince Paul of Serbia wrote desperately to her that “My Queen of Yugoslavia is still missing and so I cannot plan my future. When will it happen?” It never did of course. But while it was one thing to turn down the throne of Serbia, Elizabeth was also to say no to the son of the King of England … twice.
Her first true love had been one James Stuart, but she turned down his proposal of marriage. Maybe it was the fact that this descendant of the illegitimate half-brother of Mary Queen of Scots had a terrible reputation as a philanderer and heartbreaker. Perhaps it was the fact that Stuart’s family was as hard-up as hers, but she kept her distance. Despite her initial reluctance her life was about to change forever.
The persistent prince
George V and Queen Mary’s second son, the Duke of York, had known Elizabeth since they were both children – a legacy of his family’s visits to the Strathmores at Glamis. Now, in 1920, he began to see her as his future Duchess. But while his older brother, the Prince of Wales, was cutting a reputation as a playboy prince, the Duke of York was a shy, introverted man with a pronounced stammer – how could he win the heart of Elizabeth where bolder men had failed? One barrier was swiftly removed. James Stuart was still interested in Elizabeth, and was now working as the Duke’s equerry. Ladies Strathmore and Moray (Stuart’s mother) conspired to send the rakish peer to work in the Oklahoma oilfields. But even with the coast clear, things didn’t go according to plan. ‘Bertie’, as Prince Albert, Duke of York, was called, proposed marriage. Elizabeth, mindful of her father’s earlier advice, said no. He proposed again. Again she said no. Queen Mary was scandalised that any woman, especially one born a commoner, should have the nerve to turn down her son. But Bertie was made of sterner stuff than his nervous and diffident manner would suggest. Walking in the woods at St Paul’s, on 13 January 1923, he proposed for a third time. Finally Elizabeth said yes.
A royal wedding
On 26 April that year, the couple wed in State at Westminster Abbey. There was no television of course, and at the last moment the Church banned the BBC from broadcasting the service on the radio. They feared that “disrespectful people might hear it whilst sitting in public houses with their hats on.” Certainly, a lot of East Enders might have liked to have heard that service in the pub.
East End visitors
A lifelong link with Tower Hamlets was to begin in the 1920s with the couple’s visit for the opening and dedication of Bethnal Green’s York Hall, but to many it seemed that the happy pair would slip into comfortable, happy obscurity. Their first child, Princess Elizabeth, was born in 1926 and Princess Margaret followed in 1930. And as the Duke and Duchess of York, Elizabeth and Bertie rarely performed the public duties so much a part of the Royal Family’s lives today.
One of their few public engagements brought them back to the East End, this time to Poplar. In 1935, the Duchess of York opened Frances Gray House, the very first block of flats on what was to become the Ocean Estate. Eileen Rainbird, of Tomlins Grove, Bow, remembered the visit years later to East End Life. “I lived in Ocean Street at the time and a group of Brownies from Dame Colet House formed a guard of honour along with our Brown Owl Miss Parnell.” But if such visits were rare, that was certainly how the Royal pair wanted it; and they might have become just another footnote, as forgotten minor Royals.
But another great love affair conspired against a quiet life for the Yorks. In 1936, George V had died and the Prince of Wales had succeeded the throne as Edward VIII. He had already begun his affair with Wallis Simpson. Twice divorced and American, she was considered a wholly unsuitable mate for the Prince of Wales, let alone as material for a future Queen. Edward put love before duty and abdicated the throne. The horrified Bertie was next in succession. It was a job he had never wanted, but putting duty first he felt he had to accept the Crown. The Yorks returned to Westminster Abbey on 12 May 1937, where Bertie was crowned George VI. The seething Elizabeth never forgave the Windsors for heaping pressure upon her nervous husband – she blamed them in part for the King’s premature death in 1952. And despite the Windsors wish to live in England and attend the new King’s coronation, she was insistent that they be exiled from Britain.
War breaks out
The King, despite vocal coaching from Elizabeth to conquer his stammer, was still a nervous public performer, often stuttering painfully through his public appearances, and history was once again to thrust him cruelly to the fore. In 1939 war broke out and, alongside prime minister Winston Churchill, the King and Queen were the figures that many Britons looked to for moral support and a display of fibre. The nervous King certainly lacked nothing in courage, but he wasn’t a crowd-rousing extrovert like Churchill or the Duke of Windsor. And the Queen’s visits to the scenes of devastating air raids in London were sometimes ill-received if well-meant. Dressed in her finery, there were early reports of the couple being whistled and booed by people who had been bombed out and left with nothing.
But if the couple had difficulty relating to their people they lacked nothing in guts. The Government and Royal household were insistent that the Queen and princesses should escape to the safety of Canada. Elizabeth refused to leave, saying “The princesses cannot go without me; I cannot go without the King. And the King will never leave.” So the family stayed at Buckingham Palace, where Elizabeth would employ her revolver for target practice in the gardens. But the couple truly became Londoners when Buckingham Palace itself was hit by a Luftwaffe bomb. The King had entreated his subjects in Britain and the Commonwealth to “stand calm, firm and united in this time of trial”. The Royal couple took their own advice, staying in a London where thousands were to be killed by enemy bombs. The Queen went even further than her King, saying she was “glad we’ve been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face”. It was no surprise that the King and Queen were warmly received on their subsequent visits east of Aldgate.
Peace and tragedy
Having endured a World War for the second time in their lives, the Royal pair must have been hoping for a long and happy peace, but it was not to be. In 1952 the King, a heavy smoker and in increasingly frail health, suffered a fatal stroke. Princess Elizabeth and her husband Prince Philip returned hurriedly from an African safari. For the new Queen’s mother it was a blow too far. She retreated into mourning, wearing black and withdrawing from public engagements for an entire year. It was uncannily similar to the reaction of her husband’s great-grandmother a century earlier, on the death of Prince Albert. But unlike Victoria, Elizabeth managed to pull herself out of the depression that had enveloped her. Winston Churchill, a trusted lieutenant from the war years, gently persuaded her that she could not live out her remaining years in mourning. The trademark pastel shades replaced widow’s weeds and the Queen Mother took up her public engagements once more.
Elizabeth had never wanted the spotlight that came with being Queen, but now she found it switched abruptly onto the new monarch, her own daughter. Over the following decades she carved out a new role for herself. Much of that centred on becoming a marriage broker for her adored grandchildren. That was to have mixed results of course, but she remained a much-loved confidante to her favourite grandchild, Prince Charles.
But it was probably for her lifestyle and sense of fun that the Queen Mother will be best remembered. Into the 1980s, and her own eighties, she could be seen up to her waders, fly-fishing in the rivers of her Scottish estate. Horse-racing became another passion from the 1950s onwards. A friend suggested she take up the sport as an amusing distraction, but she poured time, energy and money into the racing game. She became a successful breeder, producing more than 400 winners over the years. Her dream, of course, was to win the Grand National, and she was only robbed of the ultimate prize in steeplechasing by one of the most extraordinary finishes in the long history of the race. In 1956, Dick Francis was lengths clear on the Queen Mother’s horse, Devon Loch. With victory certain, the horse collapsed just 50 yards short of the post. It was a climax even Francis – who later went on to become a hugely successful writer of racing novels – wouldn’t have dared to make up.
Even toward the end of her life, when hip operations and illnesses forced her to give up many of her outdoor pursuits, she still insisted on fulfilling public engagements – without a stick if she could manage it. And though fishing might have become impossible, she still insisted on visiting Scotland – travelling from her London residence, Clarence House, to the Castle of Mey in the north-east several times a year. There was grit and determination there certainly, there was also that wicked sense of humour she had displayed when pouring oil on the guests at Glamis as a young girl. Once, fed up with waiting for her gin and tonic at the Palace, the keen tippler rang in exasperation down to the kitchens to chivvy up her servants. Referring to the large numbers of gay staff in her entourage she quipped “When you old queens are done gossiping, this old queen would like a drink!”
And years before, visiting a Bethnal Green estate to judge the gardens and window box displays, she noticed a nervous young resident desperately trying to get a photo of the famous visitor. The Queen Mother looked at the lad and asked gently “Haven’t you taken it yet?” “No,” he replied “the sun is in the wrong place.” “Well,” she said “we cannot move the sun, so where would you like me to stand?”