With her twinkly-eyed charm, she Was the most beloved royal, but the Queen Mother was also a steely defender of tradition
She survived not merely a century but an empire. What’s more, she did it with an impish grace and a royal style—an incomparable joie de vivre in the leaden times as well as the golden—that is unlikely to be seen again. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who died last weekend at Royal Lodge, Windsor, at the age of 101, held many titles in her day. The highest may be: the century’s most beloved royal. For many admirers she was the royal family—certainly the first royal in ages to have had a truly common touch—and the glue that kept it together in the teeth of abdication, world war and tabloid shenanigans.
Not to take anything away from the huge outpouring of grief that surrounded the tragic death of Diana, the almost fairy-tale Princess of Wales, in 1997. But so much of that emotion was driven by the modern cult of celebrity. The Queen Mum was anything but modern and no celebrity. She was simply a charmer. And Britons reacted with an outpouring of sorrow to news of her passing, which came in the wake of a cough and chest infection she contracted over Christmas—and less than two months after the death of her younger daughter Margaret.
A tiny (five-foot-two), doe-eyed Scot, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was the belle of the ball in her early years who captured the heart of a shy, stuttering Prince Albert (and, some say, even his sophisticated older brother Edward, the direct heir to the throne). Later, she became the young queen who won over mistrusting subjects by toughing it out in London during the worst of the Second World War. And whose flirty twinkle, even in her declining years, masked the inner rock of responsibility against which myriad straying young royals were measured and found wanting.
The second youngest of 10 children born to the 14th Earl of Strathmore and his wife, Elizabeth could number kings and prelates among her Scottish forebears. Some even claimed she married beneath her by joining the Teutonic Windsors. Certainly it was a marriage based on duty and friendship more than love, at least in the early stages. But though she came from ancient lineage and “started life in the cocoon of extraordinary privilege,” according to biographer Ingrid Seward, Elizabeth’s life was still nothing short of extraordinary. As the first commoner to be crowned queen consort, she changed the royal family in ways that are both subtle and profound.
Fifty years of royal visits to Canada
After the Queen Mother made her last visit to Canada in 1989, stopping in Ottawa, Toronto and London, Ont., her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, put her foot down: “I really must stop Mummy doing this,” she said. “Not that she’ll listen to me!” For once, to her surprise, the Queen Mother did. It was the last of her lengthy overseas tours.
A list of the Queen Mum’s trips to Canada, and the places she visited:
1939: A 29-day cross-Canada tour with her husband, King George VI.
1954: A five-day visit to Ottawa.
1958: Stopovers in Montreal and Vancouver en route to New Zealand and Australia.
1962: A nine-day visit to Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Upper Canada Village in eastern Ontario to participate in centenary ceremonies of the Black Watch of Canada. She is colonel-in-chief.
1964: Stopovers in Montreal, Vancouver and Victoria en route to Fiji.
1965: Four days in Toronto to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Toronto Scottish Regiment, for which she is also colonel-in-chief.
1966: Stopovers in Vancouver and Victoria en route to Australia and New Zealand, and again in Vancouver on the way back.
1967:12 days in the four Atlantic provinces to take in Centennial celebrations.
1974: Six days in Toronto and Montreal to visit the Toronto Scottish Regiment and present the Queen’s Colours to the Black Watch.
1979: A six-day visit starting in Halifax to open the International Gathering of the Clans, and then on to Toronto for the 120th running of the Queen’s Plate.
1981: Five days starting with an official welcome in Ottawa, then on to Toronto for the Queen’s Plate and Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., for the town’s bicentennial.
1985: An eight-day visit to Ottawa, then Regina, a stop-off at CFB Cold Lake, Alta., because of bad weather, and Edmonton.
1987: A five-day trip to Ottawa and Montreal for the 125th anniversary of the Black Watch.
1989: A six-day visit starting in Ottawa, then on to Toronto for the Queen’s Plate and London, Ont., for the opening of a new wing at the Parkwood Hospital and the unveiling of a statue of Dr. Frederick Banting.
Source: Canadian Heritage Ministry
She was born on Aug. 4, 1900, “in the high summer of Imperial Britain,” according to Seward, but it must have felt more like high noon. Her marriage to Prince Albert, Duke of York—Bertie to his family—was something of a rehabilitation project. He had been invalided home from the First World War, sickly and high-strung. He had a terrible stutter. In fact, he confessed, he was totally unprepared to take the throne as George VI when his brother Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 for the “woman I love,” the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. George’s 15 years on the throne, with Queen Elizabeth constantly at his side, would be a wild ride through a depression, a world war and the dismantling of the once mighty Empire.
Through it all, Queen Elizabeth was a constant source of strength, and the prototype of the modern royal. She may not have invented the walkabout but she perfected its art. On the couple's 1939 visit to Canada and the United States—one of the most elaborate royal tours in history, designed to forge the bonds of potential allies as war loomed—the Queen waded into adoring crowds: 335,000 alone congregated in a Toronto park, 250,000 lined the railway tracks in Winnipeg. At one point, the Queen settled an argument between two veterans about her nationality—English or Scottish?—by saying: “Since we’ve reached Quebec, I’ve been a Canadian.” Her smiling ways seemed to beguile entire nations. “I find it hard to know when not to smile,” she told one inquirer. A U.S. paper called her “The Queen of Hearts” 50 years before Diana would acquire the same mantle.
Looking back, many now say the British monarchy might not have survived without the Queen Mum. It was tremendously unpopular after the abdication and at the beginning of the Second World War, when George VI and Elizabeth were seen as appeasers, more content with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain than his bulldog successor, Winston Churchill. But they certainly came around to Churchill. Their determination to stay in London during the Blitz—with their two children, princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, at nearby Windsor Castle—endeared them to their embattled subjects. And when the Luftwaffe bombed Buckingham Palace, destroying an entire wing, Elizabeth’s response—“I’m glad we’ve been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face”—was the spark of a love affair between the Windsors and the populace. “It was the war that made us,” she said.
A clothes horse from the very first, she walked through bombed-out London in her couturier-designed hats and dresses, determined to show its hard-hit inhabitants that the British spirit could not be broken. She carried her gas mask in a velvet bag with the colour changed regularly to match her gown. That was her character. If there is one indulgence her family and subjects have granted her, it is her extravagance. All her life she gave in to her passion for horse racing and entertaining, not to mention martinis. Alone among the royals, she regularly whistled through her $1.5-million annual allotment from the treasury, and then some. She had in recent years a staff of 50 and was an inveterate traveller, with 15 visits to Canada under her belt.
But probably her most expensive passion was the elegant refurbishing and maintenance of the Castle of Mey on a lonely Scottish firth where, following the death of her husband in 1952, she would repair for a few weeks each year. According to Seward, her biographer, the Castle of Mey was where the Queen Mother went to watch the passing of the seasons—and to indulge her sorrows. If so, it was a true retreat, for her public character was certainly one of cheery fortitude. Friends have said she had an almost unnatural ability to weather storms and ignore her troubles amid gaiety and planned events.
That starry pluck is mostly what Britons saw in the Queen Mum. But they did occasionally see her steel, especially when it came to the monarchy, and tradition. Wallis Simpson brought that out. (Elizabeth would never forgive her for demeaning the throne and thrusting her Bertie into a job he wasn’t ready for.) Diana, too. The late princess once said of the Queen Mother: “She is not as she appears to be at all. She is tough and interfering and she has few feelings.” The Queen Mother’s incautious response to a friend the week after Diana was killed: “Who would believe she could be even more tedious in death than she was in life?” That could not be said of Elizabeth. Never daunted, she suffered unflinchingly through two hip replacements and, last summer, a bout of anemia that required a transfusion and brought her family to her side. She had always devoted her formidable energies to her husband and her country. And if she kept a little back to enjoy herself at the same time, who would quibble? **
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.