According to the British Library in their recent exhibition Unfinished Business, the first woman to receive a Cambridge University degree was the Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1948. The degree was an honorary award presented to Queen Elizabeth, as she was then, to mark the equal academic status for men and women. Unlike the women, for example, the Edinburgh Seven, who campaigned for this right, it appears she did very little to merit the award except being the most important woman in England. Yet, looking at her history, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon played a significant role as the wife of a king, followed by the mother of a queen. When she married into the royal family, she did not anticipate becoming a queen, but the actions of others changed the direction of her future.
Born Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon on the 4th August 1900, Elizabeth was the ninth of ten children for Lord Glamis, Claude Bowes-Lyon (1855-1944) and Cecilia Cavendish-Bentinck (1862-1938). The family belonged to the British nobility and, through her mother, Elizabeth’s family tree connected with Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), a former prime minister and leading political figure.
Elizabeth spent most of her childhood at either St Paul’s Walden, a village in Hertfordshire, and Glamis Castle in Scotland. Until the age of eight, a governess took charge of her education, after which she attended a school in London. At 13, Elizabeth passed the Oxford Local Examination with distinction. The outbreak of World War One, which Britain declared on her 14th birthday, hindered further education.
Despite being nobility, Elizabeth and her family did not hide from the horrors of war. Several of her brothers enlisted to fight, resulting in the death of Fergus (1889-1915), the eldest, during the Battle of Loos. Another brother, Michael, went missing in 1917, later to be found in a prisoner of war camp. Back home, Glamis Castle became a convalescent home for the wounded, which Elizabeth helped run. The soldiers loved her care and attention with one saying she ought to be “Hung, drawn, & quartered … Hung in diamonds, drawn in a coach and four, and quartered in the best house in the land.”
As a British peer, Elizabeth’s father had close relations with the Royal Family. The Bowes-Lyon family frequented events attended by the King and his family. During some such event, the Duke of York, Prince Albert “Bertie” (1895-1952), the second son of George V (1865-1936) fell in love with the young Elizabeth and proposed marriage in 1921. Afraid such a relationship would result in “never, never again to be free to think, speak and act as I feel I really ought to”, Elizabeth declined.
Bertie declared he would marry no other woman, which intrigued his mother, Queen Mary (1867-1953), who immediately visited Glamis Castle to see “the one girl who could make Bertie happy”. Mary approved of her son’s choice but did not deign to intervene since Elizabeth had found another man. For a brief time, Elizabeth courted James Stuart (1897-1971), the future Scottish politician, until he moved away for work.
In 1922, Albert’s sister, Princess Mary (1897-1965), asked Elizabeth to be one of her bridesmaids. The wedding prompted Albert to ask Elizabeth a second time if she would marry him. Again, Elizabeth said no. Undeterred, on 23rd January 1923, Albert drove to St Paul’s Warden, where Elizabeth was staying, to propose to Elizabeth for the third time. On this occasion, she said yes. They married at Westminster Abbey on 26th April 1923, where Elizabeth started the tradition of laying a bouquet on the grave of the unknown warrior. She did this in memory of her brother Fergus, whose body went missing after the Great War.
Traditionally, princes were only allowed to marry princesses, but the royal family agreed the rule was outdated. Although Albert was not the heir to the throne, Elizabeth gained the titles “Her Royal Highness” and “Duchess of York” during the wedding ceremony. Following their honeymoon at Polesden Lacey in Surrey, Elizabeth and Albert visited Northern Ireland, before embarking on a tour of Africa in 1924. They toured the countries belonging to the British Empire but avoided Egypt following the assassination of the Governor-General.
In 1926, Elizabeth gave birth to her first child, also named Elizabeth. The family nicknamed the child Lilibet to differentiate her from her mother, who doted upon her. The following year, royal duties separated mother and child, which Elizabeth found “very miserable”. Prince Albert and Elizabeth needed to make a trip to Canberra, Australia to officially open Parliament House. The journey, which can now be completed by plane in 22 hours, took much longer by sea, stopping in Jamaica and Panama along the way. They also spent time in New Zealand before arriving at their destination for the opening ceremony on 9th May 1927.
After the ceremony, the royal couple spent time in New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. During this time, they met many officials and members of the general public, many of whom they greeted with handshakes. On one day, Prince Albert met with over 2,000 Australian troops. After completing the successful trip, Elizabeth was glad to return home, albeit via Mauritius, Malta and Gibraltar. She loved to spend time with her daughter and on 21st August 1930, welcomed her second, Margaret Rose (1930-2002).
On 20th January 1936, George V passed away, making Albert’s eldest brother King Edward VIII (1894-1972). Since Edward had no wife or children, Albert became the next in line for the throne. Secretly, his father had prayed “that my eldest son will never marry and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne.” It is not sure why the previous king said this, but he soon got his wish.
Within months of his father’s death, Edward announced his plans to marry the American socialite Wallis Simpson (1869-1986). As King, Edward had the right to choose who to marry, but Simpson had only recently divorced her first husband. The King of the United Kingdom was also the head of the Church of England, which banned divorcees from remarrying. Edward had a choice: abandon his marriage plans or abdicate in favour of Albert. He chose the latter.
Since birth, Edward had received an education suitable for the heir to the throne, but Albert had received no such training. With great reluctance, he took his place as King on 11th December 1936, using the regnal name of George VI. The coronation took place the following year on 12th May 1937, where George and Elizabeth were crowned King and Queen of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions. They also took on the titles of Emperor and Empress of India.
Albert and Elizabeth never planned to be the rulers of the United Kingdom. They did not have long to get used to the idea before embracing the role. As Queen consort, people expected Elizabeth to attend state visits and royal tours with her husband, including a trip to France in 1938 and Canada in 1939. During the latter visit, they also met with President Roosevelt (1882-1945) of the USA whose wife described Elizabeth as “perfect as a Queen, gracious, informed, saying the right thing & kind but a little self-consciously regal”.
The outbreak of the Second World War brought an end to their travels, but the royals did not shy away from public life. Elizabeth sponsored fifty authors to produce The Queen’s Book of the Red Cross, which helped raise money for the Red Cross. Authors included T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), A. A. Milne (1882-1956), Daphne du Maurier (1907-89), and Georgette Heyer (1902-74).
Parliament advised Elizabeth to move away from London and send her children to Canada, but she refused. “The children won’t go without me. I won’t leave the King. And the King will never leave.” Instead, she visited the hospitals, bombsites and factories involved with the war. Initially, the crowds acted hostile towards the Queen because her expensive clothing alienated her from the suffering people. After Buckingham Palace suffered bomb damage during the Blitz, Elizabeth expressed that she felt “glad we’ve been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.”
Whilst Princess Elizabeth and Margaret did not evacuate to Canada, they moved to Windsor Castle on the west side of London. Although they avoided the direct hits Buckingham Palace received in the capital, the castle’s windows shattered during bomb raids. King George and Elizabeth joined their children every evening, but they spent their days working from Buckingham Palace. Allegedly, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) considered Elizabeth “the most dangerous woman in Europe” due to her popularity and war work.
After the war, royal life resumed for George and Elizabeth, beginning with a tour of South Africa in 1947. In 1948, the same year Elizabeth received an honorary Cambridge University degree, the couple planned to return to Australia and New Zealand, but the King became unwell. An operation helped improve the circulation in George’s right leg, but he remained unable to conduct the majority of his engagements. Elizabeth and her daughters attended many events on her husband’s behalf, but everyone hoped he would soon return to full health.
In 1951, George received a diagnosis of lung cancer. This put pressure on his wife and children who the public expected to fill his role whilst he underwent treatment. While he recuperated from a lung operation, his eldest daughter and her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh (b.1921), went on the royal tour of Australia and New Zealand in his place. The Prince and Princess set off in 1952, taking a detour through Africa. While they were in Kenya, Princess Elizabeth learned that her father had passed away in his sleep on 6th February 1952, making her Queen.
As a widow, Elizabeth gained the title Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, which many shortened to the “Queen Mother”. Devastated about the loss of her husband, Elizabeth retired to Scotland where she hid from the public. There she planned to stay, but the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (1874-1965), convinced her to return to London and resume her public duties. To combat her grief, Elizabeth threw herself into the role of Queen Mother. She focused on helping with the preparations for her daughter’s coronation on 2nd June 1953. Later that year, Elizabeth visited the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland with her youngest daughter, where she lay the foundation stone of the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (now the University of Zimbabwe). After this, she returned home to act as a Counsellor of State while the Queen toured the Commonwealth. Elizabeth also spent time looking after her grandchildren, Charles (b.1948) and Anne (b.1950).
Elizabeth found she had just as many duties as Queen Mother than she did as Queen Consort, but she managed to find time to enjoy herself too. Elizabeth had an interest in horse racing and owned several racehorses. Between them, the horses won over 500 steeplechases. One of her most famous horses, Devon Loch, just lost out on first place at the 1956 Grand National with the jockey Dick Francis (1920-2010) when it collapsed before finishing the race. When Francis experienced another fall the next year, Elizabeth suggested that he retire.
After George VI passed away, Elizabeth and her daughter Margaret moved to Clarence House on The Mall in London. The house was designed by neoclassical architect John Nash (1752-1835) for William IV (1765-1837) and has remained a British royal residence ever since. Elizabeth frequently liked to go to Scotland in the summer, so purchased and oversaw the restoration of the Castle of Mey in Caithness. Officers used the castle as a rest home during the Second World War, but by the 1950s it had fallen into disrepair. Elizabeth paid for the restoration and decorated the rooms with paintings. As a keen art collector, Elizabeth purchased works by Claude Monet (1840-1926), Fabergé (1846-1920), and other artists from a similar era.
Royal tours continued to fill Elizabeth’s diary, but during the 1960s, many of these were postponed. In 1964, an emergency operation to remove her appendix delayed her trip to New Zealand, Australia and Fiji for two years. In 1966, she underwent more surgery after receiving a diagnosis of colon cancer. The operation was a success and Elizabeth continued her royal duties. In 1975, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1919-80) invited her to Iran, where she enjoyed speaking to everyone regardless of their social status, which bemused the Iranians. Between 1976 and 1984, Elizabeth made annual trips to France until another operation, this time for breast cancer, forced her to rest.
The public did not learn of the Queen Mother’s cancer scares until after her death, but they were aware of several fishbone incidents. In 1982, Elizabeth needed an emergency operation to remove a fishbone from her throat. She made a joke about it at the time, saying “the salmon have got their own back,” for she was a keen angler. The incident occurred again in 1986, although she avoided an operation, and once more in 1993.
On 4th August 1990, Elizabeth celebrated her 90th birthday. Much loved by the United Kingdom, they held a parade in her honour. Several organisations came together to put on the display, 300 of which she supported as a patron. Although she wished to remain active in the royal family, her ageing body made it hard to do as much as she did when younger. In 1995, Elizabeth needed a cataract operation and a hip replacement. Only her right hip was replaced on this occasion, but in 1998 she broke her left one during a fall.
In 2000, Elizabeth became one of the 0.02% to reach the age of 100. The country honoured her with another parade, far greater than the one for her 90th birthday. Rose petals dropped from the sky, 100 doves flew overhead, and the Red Arrows saluted her with red, white and blue smoke. Over 8000 people took part during the day, including Elizabeth’s favourite actor, Norman Wisdom (1915-2010).
“It’s been a wonderful evening, God bless you all and thank you.” Elizabeth showed her appreciation to the crowds at the end of the day with a short speech, but that was not the end of the centenary celebrations.
The Royal Bank of Scotland released commemorative £20 notes featuring Elizabeth’s image in honour of her 100th birthday. She was also guest of honour at a lunch held by the Guildhall, London. Jokes about Elizabeth enjoying her drink stem from this event. When George Carey (b.1935), the Archbishop of Canterbury picked up her wine glass instead of his own, Elizabeth shouted: “That’s mine!” Unfortunately, her centenary year ended with a broken collar bone after a fall in November.
Shortly before her 101st birthday, Elizabeth needed a blood transfusion for anaemia but insisted on greeting the crowds of well-wishers in person. She continued to partake in public engagements, including Remembrance Day and a reception at the Guildhall. Once again, she spent the winter recuperating from a fall, in which she broke her pelvis.
On 9th February 2002, Elizabeth’s youngest daughter Margaret suffered a fatal stroke. A few days later, the Queen Mother accidentally cut her arm while staying at Sandringham in Norfolk, which needed medical attention. Professionals advised her to stay home and rest, but she insisted on attending her daughter’s funeral. Elizabeth made the journey to London by helicopter and then in a car with blacked-out windows so that no one could see her in her frail state.
Elizabeth’s health deteriorated rapidly after Margaret’s death, so she retreated to the Royal Lodge, Windsor Great Park. She passed away in her sleep on 30th March 2002 with her surviving daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, by her side. The funeral took place on 9th April, and one million people filled the 23-mile route from Westminster to Windsor to watch the procession of the coffin, adorned with camellias from Elizabeth’s garden. As she had requested, the funeral wreath was laid on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, echoing the tradition she began on her wedding day. After the funeral, Elizabeth joined her husband and Margaret in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.
Mourning for the Queen Mother took place all over the world. She had made a big impression in all the countries she visited, particularly Canada and Australia, where memorial services were conducted. Elizabeth’s life may have vastly differed from the other women mentioned in the Unfinished Business exhibition, but her life was by no means easy. She never wanted to be part of the royal family, and she never expected to become Queen consort. Yet, these things happened, and she became the nation’s most popular member of the royal family. People loved Elizabeth for her charm and ability to stabilise the popularity of the monarchy, which had been shaky for centuries.
Elizabeth was like “a wave breaking on a rock, because although she is sweet and pretty and charming, she also has a basic streak of toughness and tenacity. … when a wave breaks on a rock, it showers and sparkles with a brilliant play of foam and droplets in the sun, yet beneath is really hard, tough rock, fused, in her case, from strong principles, physical courage and a sense of duty.”Sir Hugh Casson
When Elizabeth married Albert, she expected she would “never, never again be free to think, speak and act as I feel I really ought to.” In this, she was correct, but her biographers note she often expressed her views in private. Elizabeth “abhorred racial discrimination” and employed homosexuals to spite conservative ministers in the 1970s who advised her against it.
Despite her sweet nature, Elizabeth gained a reputation for her love of alcohol. Journalists estimated she drank 70 units per week and Elizabeth became the butt of jokes, although in a kind way. In satirical television shows, actresses often portrayed the Queen Mother as a perpetually tipsy character. Many well-known stars have played the part of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon on screen, most notably Helena Bonham-Carter (b.1966) in The King’s Speech (2010).
In 2009, a bronze statue of Elizabeth by Scottish sculptor Philip Jackson (b.1944) joined her husband’s memorial on The Mall. There is also a bas-relief of the couple in Toronto, Canada, at the entrance to the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) highway.
Many may envy the life of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who lived in relative comfort for over 100 years. Wealth and happiness often appear to go hand in hand, but a royal life is not always what it seems from the outside. Elizabeth had health problems that resulted in several operations, which is no different from many people in the United Kingdom. Whilst she had money, servants and luxuries, Elizabeth lived her life under public scrutiny. By marrying a prince, she needed to be mindful of the things she said. When Albert unexpectedly became King, Elizabeth’s duties doubled in number. Elizabeth had to think about how she looked at all times, adopting suitable facial expressions and demeanours every moment of the day.
Living for 100 years meant Elizabeth endured an untold amount of grief. She outlived both her husband and her youngest daughter. She experienced the loss of her nine siblings, some in war and some in old age, plus her parents, aunts and uncles, cousins and her husband’s family. At her death, only her sister-in-law, Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester (1901-2004) remained, who passed away age 102 a couple of years later.
As Queen Consort and Queen Mother, Elizabeth assisted and supported many organisations. As a patron, she provided funds to help them grow into or remain the successful companies they are today. Organisations include the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, the Marie Curie Memorial Foundation, the Scottish National Institution for the War Blinded and the Society of Antiquaries of London.
Thus it hath pleased Almighty God to take out of this transitory life unto His Divine Mercy the late Most High, Most Mighty and Most Excellent Princess Elizabeth, Queen Dowager and Queen Mother, Lady of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Lady of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Lady of the Imperial Order of the Crown of India, Grand Master and Dame Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order upon whom had been conferred the Royal Victorian Chain, Dame Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, Dame Grand Cross of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, Relict of His Majesty King George the Sixth and Mother of Her Most Excellent Majesty Elizabeth The Second by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, Sovereign of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, whom may God preserve and bless with long life, health and honour and all worldly happiness.The Styles and Titles of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth as read at her funeral on Tuesday 9th April 2002, Westminster Abbey
Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
The Edinburgh Seven
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