Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, the enduringly popular grande dame of the British royal family and the country's most beloved symbol of courage and self-sacrifice during World War II, died in her sleep this afternoon at the Royal Lodge at Windsor Palace, a spokesman for her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, announced. She was 101.
In a life longer than the 20th century, the queen mother presided over a period of turbulence and change in Britain, helping to sustain the monarchy through the most serious crises to befall it in modern times.
In 1936, when her painfully diffident husband was crowned King George VI after the abdication of his older brother, she became the strength behind the throne, helping transform him from a stammering, insecure second son into a loved and respected monarch.
As queen during World War II, her decision to remain in London through the worst days of the blitz proved a rallying point for Britons desperate for the sort of leadership that only a monarch could provide. And when Buckingham Palace was bombed, she forever endeared herself to the nation by declaring herself in solidarity with the working-class people of London's bomb-ravaged East End.
''I am almost glad we have been bombed,'' she said, in what became one of the war's most memorable remarks. ''Now I feel I can look the East End in the face.''Continue reading the main story
Many years later, through the traumas of the divorce and then the death of Diana, the Princess of Wales, her granddaughter-in-law, the queen mother proved to be the royal family's most resiliently popular member, providing the country with a rock-steady reason for remaining a monarchy. News of her death today dealt a blow to Britons accustomed to her enduring presence. [Page 16.]
When King George died in 1952, she was thrust at the age of 51 into what would be the longest role of her life: that of the queen mother, necessarily taking a back seat to her daughter, Queen Elizabeth. But in the eyes of a country that never lost its abiding affection for its good-natured ''Queen Mum,'' it was a role she fulfilled with grace, carrying out a grueling schedule of public engagements well into her 90's and never losing her common touch, which included a healthy appetite for a glass or two of gin and a love of horse racing and trout fishing.
''She is the nation's favorite great-grandmother, seemingly known intimately to all of us for years,'' The Times of London declared in 1985, on the occasion of the queen mother's 85th birthday (she celebrated it by flying on the Concorde). ''She has helped make the royal family more secure in the nation's affections than it has been at any other time in history.''
Ben Pimlott, the historian and royal biographer, wrote in 1997 that the queen mother was ''the last survivor of the tiny club of center-stage actors of the Second World War.'' He continued: ''She has also shown a chameleon-like ability to adapt to shifting conditions, something her deeply conservative nature makes the more remarkable. Unlike most public figures, she does not date. She has never made an intellectual remark in her life. Her knack has been to look for the best in people and offer a kind of looking glass to the virtues they would like to have.''
Father Was an Eccentric
Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon was born in London on Aug. 4, 1900, in the waning days of the reign of Queen Victoria, a golden time for the British monarchy and its empire. She was the fourth daughter and ninth child of Lord Glamis, a Scottish nobleman whose family occupied Glamis Castle in Scotland, said to be the place where Macbeth murdered Duncan in Shakespeare's play. When his father died four years later, Lord Glamis inherited a considerable fortune and an even more impressive title, becoming the 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, Viscount Lyon and Baron Glamis.
Lord Strathmore was a bona fide aristocratic eccentric. He had a deep mistrust of eggs (''Poison, my dear, poison,'' he would intone ominously at the breakfast table) and a habit of dragging dead branches from his woods in the middle of the night. Dressed in an old raincoat tied with string, he would then split them into logs for the fire.
Raised partly at Glamis and partly in the fashionable Knightsbridge section of London, the young Lady Elizabeth was by all accounts sunny almost to a fault. Her favorite hobby, she once wrote in an autograph album, was ''making friends.''
Indifferently educated by governesses, Elizabeth spent much of her youth doing what young aristocratic women generally did at the time: learning arts like household management and enjoying herself. The real world intruded during World War I, though, when her brothers went off to fight and Glamis was turned for four years into a convalescent home for soldiers. Wanting to protect her mother from bad news, Elizabeth made sure to waylay the mailman every morning so that she could read the mail first. In fact, there was bad news: one of Elizabeth's brothers was killed, sending Lady Strathmore into a depression from which she never really recovered.
When the war was over, Elizabeth's social life, essentially an extended search for a husband in the guise of a series of amusing diversions, began in earnest. Her biographers tend to agree that she was a great success as a debutante, flirting wildly and constantly fending off a large coterie of broken-hearted suitors, one of whom reportedly -- and unromantically -- serenaded her by cracking his hunting whip under her bedroom window at night.
Elizabeth and Bertie
Although history is hazy on facts, several biographers say there was one suitor whom Elizabeth was genuinely in love with: Maj. James Stuart, the equerry to Prince Albert Frederick Arthur George, the Duke of York and King George V's second son. But if there was a romance there, it never went anywhere. Albert began courting Elizabeth himself, and Major Stuart ended up being summarily shipped off to work on an oil rig in Oklahoma. The day before Elizabeth's wedding, he announced his own engagement to one of her friends.
The romance between Elizabeth and Bertie, as the prince was known, apparently did not begin promisingly. Bullied by his parents and overshadowed by his handsome and charming older brother, David, the Prince of Wales, Bertie suffered from delicate health, crippling shyness, an array of nervous tics, a terrible stutter, an unpredictable temper, a tendency to melancholy and what today would be described as a serious case of low self-esteem. When he asked his parents' permission to pursue Elizabeth, his father murmured, ''You'll be a lucky fellow if she accepts you.''
Elizabeth did resist Bertie's attentions for several years, finally accepting his proposal in 1923 and thus agreeing to become the first commoner (anyone below the rank of peer or peeress) to marry so close to the throne since the 17th century. It was when her engagement was announced that Lady Elizabeth had her first and only on-the-record conversation with a reporter. The interview was harmless enough -- ''I play golf, badly, and I am fond of lawn tennis,'' she confided -- but she was roundly rebuked by the king, and never gave another interview.
The wedding was a national extravaganza, but afterward Elizabeth, now the Duchess of York, settled in relatively modest circumstances, at least by royal standards. Though the house she shared with Bertie at 145 Piccadilly, London, had 25 bedrooms and 21 servants, it was hardly a palace, and it opened onto a communal garden at the back. They had two children, Elizabeth, known as Lilibet, and Margaret Rose, and the Duchess settled into a pleasant life of regal domesticity, saying her main duty was ''bringing up her children.''
Another duty was bucking up the flagging spirits of her husband, who hated the spotlight but who was required to make many public appearances, particularly as his father's health waned and his older brother proved more interested in a racy social life than in boring regal duties. But while in many ways the personalities of the Yorks could not have been more different -- she was ebullient where he was glum, relaxed where he was awkward, garrulous where he was laconic -- they were surprisingly well suited.
Among other things, Elizabeth forced Bertie to seek treatment for what was delicately referred to as his ''affliction,'' and the two visited a Harley Street doctor nearly every day for some two and a half months, as Bertie learned to keep his stutter in check. The marriage proved to be just what the future king needed, Bertie's official biographer, Sir John Wheeler-Bennett, would later write. ''It brought him much for which he had long craved in deprivation -- love, understanding, sympathy, support,'' he said. ''All these things were now his in generous abundance, and his whole conspectus of life changed accordingly.''
Edward and Mrs. Simpson
The coziness of their early years was abruptly shattered in 1936, when King Edward VIII, as Bertie's older brother styled himself on ascending the throne, announced that he had fallen inconveniently in love with the very married Wallis Simpson, an American whose earlier divorce from her first husband had already ruled her out as a possible royal bride.
Not even the exhortations of his most trusted advisers, or the frightened tears of his younger brother, would make Edward give up Mrs. Simpson, and on Dec. 10, 1936, he abdicated and left for France. Mrs. Simpson got a divorce in 1937, and the two eventually married, adopted a flotilla of small dogs, and spent the rest of their lives in glamorous if bitter exile as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
The terrified Bertie was left behind to comfort a shocked nation and to try to rise to the occasion. ''Dickie, this is absolutely terrible,'' he told his friend and cousin Lord Mountbatten. ''I'm quite unprepared for it. David has been trained for this all his life. I've never even seen a state paper.'' It was clear, even then, how much he depended on Elizabeth. ''With my wife and helpmeet by my side, I take up the heavy burden which lies before me,'' he said on his first day as king.
Elizabeth may have seemed complaisant and sweet, but she had a ''steel hand within a velvet glove,'' in the words of Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary, and she never forgave David or Wallis Simpson for throwing her husband to the wolves. ''She can forgive any act but treachery, and then she is implacable as any Scot,'' wrote Dorothy Laird, one of Elizabeth's biographers. ''The wound goes very deep.'' Most of her anger, it seems, was directed against the duchess.
Bertie himself was so unnerved that he never mentioned Wallis's name, referring to her in his diary as ''Mrs. S.,'' but the queen certainly had a hand in ensuring that she and her brother-in-law had as rough a time as possible. On the eve of their wedding and in a move that foreshadowed the battle over a post-divorce title for Diana, the Princess of Wales, more than 50 years later, the couple were informed that while the duke would continue to be styled ''royal highness,'' the duchess would not. The wedding was a tiny, fraught affair, with only 12 guests, none from David's family.
Acutely sensitive to what they saw as the duke's efforts to set up an unofficial rival court, the king and queen continually thwarted David's efforts to return home with Wallis. It was not until 30 years later, with Bertie long dead, that Elizabeth was to come face to face again with her hated sister-in-law, whom she always called in private ''the woman who killed my husband.'' (Wallis was not particularly fond of her, either, referring to her as ''Cookie'' in a disparaging reference to her plumpness.)
The crisis having been weathered, the new king and queen set out to remove some of the stuffiness from royal life, dispensing, for instance, with the custom of requiring the king's daughters to curtsy to him. But they would soon find other matters preoccupying them, as the country became consumed with the specter of impending war. The king tried valiantly, if ineffectually, to do his part for diplomacy, preparing a personal letter to Hitler in 1938 that appealed to him ''as one ex-serviceman to another'' and begged him to spare the world from another war. (In the end, the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, sternly if gently forbade the King to send the letter.)
The King and the President
Early in 1939, Elizabeth and Bertie traveled to Hyde Park, N.Y., to visit Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the president and first lady of the United States. The trip, in which they had their first taste of hot dogs, cemented a friendship that was to prove helpful in obtaining American support for the war effort later. In her memoirs, Mrs. Roosevelt described the easy banter between the king and the president.
''My mother does not approve of cocktails and thinks you should have a cup of tea,'' Roosevelt said. ''Neither does my mother,'' the king replied. Then they both had cocktails.
War broke out in August, when Hitler invaded Poland, and Elizabeth was formally advised by the British cabinet to take her daughters to Canada until the danger was past. She refused to go, stoutly declaring that ''the princesses would never leave without me, and I wouldn't leave without the king, and the king will never leave.'' Instead, she remained in London, enthusiastically taking target practice at the palace with a revolver that was a gift from the new prime minister, Winston Churchill.
The royal family's role in wartime was a largely ceremonial one -- visiting Red Cross centers, civil defense installations, air-raid shelters, hospitals and munition factories; comforting the wounded, and boosting the morale of soldier and civilian alike --but the importance of such ceremony at such a time cannot be overstated.
''Your majesty, don't you know what you mean to all of us in this country?'' the minister of food at the time, Lord Woolton, once said to Elizabeth. ''It isn't only your high position that matters; it is the fact that the vast majority of people think of you as a person who would speak the kindly word, and, if it fell within your power, would take the cup of hot soup to the needy person.''
Though the king made secret visits to the troops and Elizabeth made a point of visiting places that had been bombed, invariably wearing a smart dress and pearls, they were relatively unaffected personally until Sept. 13, 1940. That day, as the royal couple sat in one of their living rooms at Buckingham Palace, the palace was struck by half a dozen German bombs, which damaged its courtyard and destroyed its chapel. Although they were able to take refuge in an unusually upscale bomb shelter, prepared by the queen with handsome furniture and a supply of fashion magazines, it was then that the queen made her enduring remark about being able ''to look the East End in the eye.''
In a biography of Elizabeth, the royal writer Anthony Holden called it ''a phrase which will reverberate through the history of the British monarchy's relations with its people.'' He continued, ''Never before, or indeed since, had such a strength of fellow-feeling been so genuine and so widely shared.''
A Spartan Windsor Castle
The queen also made it clear that she was determined to adhere to strict rules of wartime economy. Although the royal family's life was naturally easier than that of most of her countrymen, it was still rigorously ascetic. Windsor Castle, where Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were to spend the next five years, had no heat except for the occasional space heater, and just one bare bulb for each room.
When Mrs. Roosevelt visited Buckingham Palace in 1942, she found a bathtub painted with a black line above which water was not supposed to rise; food that was close to inedible (and severely rationed) and rooms that were so cold that the women wore fur coats and blankets indoors.
Not even Churchill escaped. Accustomed to eating meager sandwiches served by the queen during his weekly luncheon meetings with the king, he found on one occasion that the food was even more horrific than usual. ''I don't know what is in these sandwiches,'' the king told the prime minister. ''Sawdust, I suppose.''
The king's always fragile health was not improved by the stresses of the war or by his lifelong smoking habit, and after victory was declared in 1945, he began the long, slow decline that would result in his death, from lung cancer, in 1952. With the death of her husband, Elizabeth had to face the fact that she was no longer on center stage, would have to leave Buckingham Palace, and would, if protocol was strictly followed, have to curtsy to her own daughter, Queen Elizabeth. Riven with grief, she wrote to President Eisenhower that ''one cannot imagine life without him, but one must carry on as he would have wished.''
In the past, widowed mothers of monarchs were known as queen dowagers, but Elizabeth rejected that title in favor of the more impressive one she held to her death: Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. As queen mother, she lost neither her formidability nor her ability to influence. The new queen was just 25 when she ascended the throne, and relied heavily on the advice of her mother. The operators at Clarence House, which became the queen mother's official residence, soon became used to putting through her daughter's daily telephone call: ''Your majesty?'' they would say, ''I have her majesty on the line, your majesty.''
Another Divorce Crisis
Soon afterward, another crisis befell the monarchy when Princess Margaret, the queen mother's younger daughter, fell in love with a divorced man, Peter Townsend, a hero of the Battle of Britain. It is unclear what role her mother played in the queen's decision to inform Margaret that she would have to give up her royal status and leave the country if she married Mr. Townsend, but the lessons of Edward's abdication were surely not lost to her now. The princess gave up her beau, married the photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones five years later, and ended up divorcing him 15 years after that. Margaret died on Feb. 9, predeceasing her mother by less than two months.
Bolstered by a large staff, a number of houses at her disposal, and an allowance of more than $1 million a year from Parliament, the queen mother kept up a busy schedule that began to ease up only when she was in her 80's. She served as either president or patron of 312 British organizations, ranging, as one biographer put it, ''from the Royal Agricultural Society to the Dachshund Club.'' As a link to the past, a symbol of continuity, and, to many, a potent reminder of Britain's finest hour, the she remained a familiar figure even in her late 90's, in her cheerful, brightly colored dresses, large flowery hats and ready smile.
Her health problems over the years always became a cause for concern in a country that simply did not want her to die. She had two hip-replacement operations in her late 90's, which invariably ended with her hobbling slowly out of the hospital while crowds of well-wishers cheered. What the public did not learn, until it was finally reported by the news media much later, was that she underwent a colostomy in 1966 and had to wear a bag to collect her wastes for the rest of her life.
In recent years, there were niggling criticisms of the queen mother: that she was a bon vivant who spent far beyond her means; that she kept too many houses and employed too many servants and generally thought too much of her own comfort. But such sniping was relatively muted.
She remained popular because, in a very different and much more real way than Diana had been, she was a monarch who never lost the common touch. Nor did she lose her rather sly, flirtatious smile, her beguiling manner (''I work awfully hard, but Mummy has all the charm,'' her daughter Elizabeth once said) or her easy way with the public.
Reveling in meeting and chatting to new people (''If we do not pass on, I shall soon pass out,'' her husband once said as Elizabeth persisted in chatting at a public appearance), she was also eternally tactful and diplomatic. At a luncheon on a trip to South Africa, she once listened patiently as an irate Afrikaaner mayor complained about the indignities his countrymen had suffered at the hands of the English. ''Oh, I do understand so well,'' Elizabeth responded. ''That's just how we feel about them in Scotland.''
And once, after touring a garden in London, she stayed on for tea. ''I hear you like gin?'' her hostess blurted out, instantly afraid of appearing tactless. But the queen mother thought it delightful.
''I hadn't realized I enjoyed that reputation,'' she replied. ''But as I do, perhaps you could make it a large one.''
An obituary of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother yesterday misstated the name of the royal estate where she died. It is Windsor Castle, not Windsor Palace.
An obituary of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother on Sunday misstated the date of Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939, which prompted the cabinet to suggest that she take her daughters to Canada. It was Sept. 1, not in August.