It’s the 120th anniversary of the Queen Mother’s birth this month. We think of her as royal from that first day, really, and simply assume her world was always a regal one. And of course, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was born into a titled family; her father being the 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kingshorne. But she was actually his tenth child, and thus a long way from being top of her particular pile. So from such beginnings on August 4th, 1900, it’s quite some story that takes her to eventually being queen consort, the last Empress of India, and finally the matriarch of the existing royal family.
A foot on a royal rung
Elizabeth and her siblings naturally developed friendships with the royal family’s children during their early years; she was even a bridesmaid at Princess Mary’s wedding. And it was as a result of such time spent in royal company that a young Elizabeth found herself somewhat infatuated with a certain Prince Albert’s equerry, Captain James Stuart; the second in line to the throne not even getting a look in. But over two years of patient wooing – and a reassignment to Oklahoma for Stuart – her favours and fortune then shifted. And in 1923, she and Albert, aka Bertie, were married in Westminster Abbey.
Establishing the family
Bertie was the second son of King George V, and as such not a direct target for attention; though definitely still a catch, being higher up the pecking order than a daughter in tenth place, of course. Their first daughter, Elizabeth, was born in 1926, and her sister, Margaret, was then born in 1930. At this point in her life, one can imagine that being the clearly family oriented woman that Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was, she must have felt many aspirations to have been achieved. She now held the title Her Royal Highness, she had two beautiful daughters, and she had a husband who had rank… even if his actual accomplishments were to little acclaim.
However, of great significance was that even if Albert’s efforts during the First World War and in the forces was not the stuff of heroes, it has to be said that his sense of duty was foremost at all times. His was not actually an easy life. He had a stammer, troubling health, and possibly what many would now call low self-esteem, and yet he stalwartly did what he could towards the war effort and was posted in France towards the end of the conflict.
Duty and family entwine
When George V died in 1936, the crown naturally passed to Bertie’s elder brother, Edward. But if Elizabeth had settled into a status quo that suited her well, things were soon to change. For Edward’s reign was short lived. Within less than a year, he’d abdicated in favour of marrying his love, Catholic divorcee Wallis Simpson, and suddenly Bertie was in the limelight. From the quiet protection of background royal duties and shoulder-rubbing, on December 11th, 1936, Elizabeth became headline news as queen consort.
Boosting a nation’s morale
And then with little time to settle into their new role, world war threatened. When it finally broke in 1939, how the new royal family was to conduct itself became a topic of hot discussion. Leadership and morale were at stake. Should they flee to safety and leave the country, as many upper crust folk were doing? Or should they stand their ground? It was Elizabeth’s decisive response that set the scene for her ongoing inspiring fortitude and dedication to Great Britain. “The children won’t go without me,” she said. “I won’t leave the King. And the King will never leave.” When bombs rained down in 1940 and hit Buckingham Palace, the queen consort was in residence.
The pressure of the crown and the conflict took its toll, however. After the war years, the king’s health deteriorated further. And though Elizabeth and he were able to enjoy foreign travel together for a while, their last joint appearance was in 1951. And a year later, Albert died.
Leading by example
Having already proven her worth to the nation, the preferred title of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, swiftly embedded itself in the British psyche. Rising to the call, she was determined to continue to fulfil her royal duties, make public appearances, and represent her country frequently overseas. And she did so with gusto, becoming patron of over 350 organisations and actively supporting them too. Elizabeth showed, time and time again, that hers was not just a printed name on a letterhead. Put simply, she led by example and commanded loyalty as a result.
With all that said, though, it is true that her matriarchal years were not without their challenges. Her relationship with her grandson, Charles, initially led to a strong connection with his first wife, Diana. But when their marriage crumbled, and very publically too, it appears that Elizabeth’s loyalty to her own blood and her sense of family meant those ranks closed with her approval. And theirs was not the only royal marriage to fail during her years, of course. Several other family members also suffered failures in that regard.
When she died in 2002, aged 101, it’s estimated that a million people lined the route of her funeral cortege, which took her to her final resting place in Windsor Castle, next to her husband and second daughter, Margaret.
A legacy of dedication
It’s said that it was she who reinvented the concept of an active royal family and brought them closer to their people. Her famed ‘walkabouts’, genial smile, and determined silence on private matters, stamped a mark in peoples’ hearts. Though she had never expected to be queen, she served her nation through her dedication to her duties; first through her determined support for her shy husband when king, and then second through her unwavering support of her daughter when queen. But perhaps what makes her legacy so enduring, is how she promoted and strengthened the role of ‘family’ in all our minds.