Finest Hour 114, Spring 2002
In an age when retired leaders strive vulgarly to create “legacies” it is sobering to reflect that the most genuinely loved woman in England secured her place with a casual remark over six decades ago. Asked if she would remove her two young daughters from London during the Blitz, Queen Elizabeth replied: “The girls will not leave unless I do. I will not leave unless the King does. And the King will not leave under any circumstances whatsoever.”
Her closeness to the people was unprecedented in a monarchy renowned as aloof and hidebound. The Royal Family in the late 1930s was divided between those who supported Hitler and those who supported Chamberlain; the King and Queen threw a gala reception for the latter when he returned from Munich waving his bit of paper. All that was washed away by her courage during the Blitz. Historian David Cannadine, no great admirer of tradition, said: “She brought a particular kind of charm and public appeal the like of which no authentic member of the royal family ever quite seems to have had.”
The Queen Mother’s charm lay in small acts which became legendary. The beat near Clarence House, her official residence, was patrolled by a policeman to whom she took a liking; often she would pass him a bag of his favorite sweets, from Harrod’s, when her car drove by. Nor did this highly traditional royal personage exhibit the accepted intolerances of her generation. Unable one night to get a free line out of Clarence House, she cut off a conversation between two famously homosexual courtiers: “If you two young queens don’t mind, there’s an old Queen here who needs to use the telephone.”
As 1940 proved, there was tough fibre beneath her feathery, pastel image. Born a commoner on 4 August 1900, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon had never expected to be Queen; she was forced into it when “Bertie,” her shy and stuttering husband, became King upon the abdication of his brother in December, 1936. She told her household, “We must take what is coming and make the best of it,” but she never forgave divorcee Wallis Simpson for precipitating the crisis.
Undoubtedly this affected her view in 1955 that her second daughter, Princess Margaret, should not marry a divorcee she deeply loved, Group Captain Peter Townsend. The memory of what another divorcee had recently done to the monarchy and her family was too close. More divorce was to come, thankfully much later: Princess Anne and Mark Phillips after nineteen years of marriage; Prince Charles and Princess Diana after eleven; Prince Andrew and Duchess Sarah after six. She sailed through it all, including Diana’s shocking death in 1997, and her daughter Margaret’s death barely a month before she herself departed.
Like Churchill’s, her finest hour was in 1940, when she, the King, and the Prime Minister rallied one nation to keep liberty alive. Ensconced at Buckingham Palace as the bombs rained, she remarked that this allowed her to look East Londoners in the eye. Her defiance caused Hitler to brand her “the most dangerous woman in Europe,” which politically correct obituaries muddled into “most dangerous person.” We all know whom Hitler regarded as the most dangerous person in Europe.
Those two dangerous people shared several traits. Both had a fondness for spirits, though Churchill’s tipple was Johnny Walker Red, hers Beefeater’s. Both took more out of alcohol than alcohol took out of them; no one ever saw either of them the worse for drink. Horse-racing was another shared interest, though her favorite hobby was salmon-fishing, while WSC preferred the brush.
For sixteen years the devoted consort of George VI, the Queen Mother outlived him by half a century. She was the rock of support behind her daughter, passing to Elizabeth II her resonant devotion to duty, honour and country. “Duty was important to the Queen Mother,” wrote one observer, “and despite illness and various operations she was still one of the hardest working royals, carrying out 130 engagements in her 80th year.”
In a “low dishonest decade” when the Queen and Prince of Wales were regularly excoriated for their wealth, it is remarkable that such envy never attached to the Queen Mother, who once bounced a £4 million cheque and was well known for extravagance. It made no difference. The crowds would always gather outside Clarence House on her birthday, waiting for her smiling appearance, dressed as usual in her pastels and pearls.
Her devotion is a model not yet obsolete, as proven by the worldwide sadness at her passing, at Windsor on March 30th, where she will now lie, beside Bertie at last. Even when her health had finally failed, what Wendell Willkie said in 1941 was still valid in her case: “The Britons are almost miraculously fortunate in their present leaders.” —Editor