Royal Corner

A Modern Queen

PART 2: After the King's Death, The Queen Mother quickly redefined herself as a modern Queen whose commitment to the betterment and stability of the Monarchy is still felt today.

SEPTEMBER 20th, 2020

Official portrait of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother - © Getty Images


he King is Dead’ – the sombre headline emblazoned across every newspaper throughout the country. It was the 6th February 1952, and whilst staying at Sandringham House in Norfolk, King George VI died peacefully in his sleep. The King had suffered from debilitating health which had been elevated with the impact of World War II. His death brought the end of his reign, and as tradition always instilled, began a new one, that of his daughter, Elizabeth.

With the death of the King, for Queen Elizabeth, her role instantly changed. No longer Queen Consort, she quickly had to redefine a new position within the monarchy for herself. She decided upon the title of the Queen Mother. It enabled her to maintain a level of seniority and, most importantly, influence and support her eldest daughter, the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II.

The Queen Mother with Prince Charles and Princess Margaret at the Queen's Coronation in 1952 - © PA

That influence and support was both personal and professional. As a doting and loving mother, she fiercely wished to protect her children and saw her position as a parent evolve with the absence of the king. Yet also, for the Queen Mother, the monarchy was a sacred institution, one which should remain mostly unchanged. Whilst the King had been alive, any or all decisions which referenced the Royal Family were run past her and she would have final say. But a new Queen was on the throne; young, independent and with a husband whose own opinions were voiced louder than her own, the Queen Mother still hoped to have some element of guidance on the institution she loved so dearly.

Thankfully, the public were as captivated by her in her new role as when she had been Queen Consort. For many, she remained a consistent reminder of the past; a time gone by which was quickly fading under the evolution of a new world.

Throughout the 60s and 70s, Elizabeth’s work ethic never faded, and whilst numerous tours across the Commonwealth kept her busy, her health suddenly and unexpectedly stopped her in her tracks. In December 1966, Elizabeth received the distressing diagnosis of colon cancer. Undergoing an operation to remove a tumour, the Queen outright refused to have her illness released to the public.

“I’m a workhorse as well as a show pony. If a horse looks lame, they shoot it – it’ll be a long time before I let anyone attempt to pull the trigger on me,” she wrote in a letter to a friend in 1966. So resolute in her silence, the news of her cancer diagnosis only became public knowledge after her death. Similarly, in 1984, her cancer returned after a lump was discovered and removed from her breast. Her expected silence remained unwavering throughout.

The Queen Mother pictured with Princess Diana at Trooping the Colour - © Getty Images

The 80s were a hectic time for the Royal Family. With the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, for the monarchy, the future was cemented. A new era of the Royals had begun, and for the Queen mother, her grandson’s marriage all but ensured the institution’s survival. Yet away from the jubilation of the wedding and renewed adulation for the monarchy, Elizabeth once again found herself in hospital. This time, cancer was not the diagnosis but a fish bone. Having become stuck inside her throat, she needed an operation to remove the blockage. Being a keen angler, Elizabeth, with her famous wit, joked afterwards, “The salmon have got their own back.”

The Queen Mother pours a pint at The Queen’s Head - © AP

>The Queen Mother pours a pint at The Queen’s Head - © AP

Irrespective of the Queen Mother’s blockages, both literally and figuratively, her humour was an antidote to any distress. Similarly, to when she had been younger, the public adored her good-natured humour and her ability to adapt to whatever was thrown her way. Take her visit to The Queen’s Head in London’s East End in 1987. Arriving perfectly on time, the 86-year-old was offered champagne by the Landlady. To their surprise, and to that of the press, she refused and instead asked whether she could pour herself a pint of bitter. The image of the Queen Mother, sipping on a pint glass of ale, white handbag draped over her arm, went around the world. It showed that even in her advancing years, the cheeky, charismatic and fun-loving consort of the past had never truly left. “I love the dear old East End, much more fun than the West,” she joked as she left the engagement.

Throughout her life, the Queen Mother witnessed many glorious years, yet there were some marred in scandal and controversy. The “War of the Wales’” has since become a defining moment of the modern era of the Royal Family. As Charles and Diana battled their grievances in public and their marriage unravelled for all the world to see, Elizabeth looked at the whole sorry affair with great disdain.

Her relationship with her grandson was unmovable. She adored Charles, and he worshipped her, but for the Princess of Wales, Elizabeth never fully warmed to the young, glamourous royal. The Queen Mother always felt she was much too public, and for a woman whose mantra was always “never complain, never explain – and never be heard speaking in public”, Diana was her complete antithesis.

Although in public, Elizabeth never gave any indication of perceived disagreements with Diana; she smiled, made polite conversation with the Princess and was more than happy to share an occasional joke, her disdain was growing behind-the-scenes.

“They were completely different women,” said Major Colin Burgess, the Queen Mother’s former equerry, in 2017. “Diana was much more willing to feed the public interest into her life; the Queen Mum saw it as vulgarity.”

The Queen Mother standing outside of Clarence House on her birthday with Prince Charles, Prince William and Prince Harry - © Getty Images

Elizabeth was also unhappy with the public theatrics of both Charles and Diana. Their famed interviews – Charles’ with Jonathan Dimbleby, and Diana’s with Martin Bashir – caused deep seated anger from the former consort, who felt neither parent was thinking about the impact their behaviour was having on their two sons, William and Harry. “Over the last few months, I have seemingly mistaken who are the adults, and who are the children,” she commented on the never-ending “War of the Wales’”.

The relationship with Diana soured even further after the Princess’ divorce from Charles, “Once Diana split from Charles, she was very much persona non grata,” explained Major Burgess. “I never again heard her name mentioned by, or in front of, the Queen Mum, not even when I saw her a couple of months after Diana’s death.”

For Elizabeth, loyalty to the monarchy was the greatest value a member of the Royal Family could hold. Lose it, abuse it, or worse, use it for personal gain, and you were out – a non-entity, who in her eyes, ceased to exist.

Whilst her value for tradition and maintaining elements of the protocol of monarchy could be blamed on age, she had always tried to dismiss some of the more unruly and problematic rules. She had always strived to break down the boundaries between the monarchy and the public, believing that the two entities belonged together and not apart. She wasn’t as hands-on as Diana, or even today’s younger royals, but the way in which they interact with the public is the Queen Mother’s doing.

As Elizabeth entered her twilight years, her popularity never dimmed, and her star power was unquestionable. Even after the scarring of numerous royal divorces and the tragic death of Princess Diana, the public held continued fascination in the monarchy, and by extension, the Queen Mother.

The official Royal Mail Stamp portrait to commemorate the Queen Mother's 100th Birthday - © Getty Images

On 4th August 2000, Elizabeth turned 100-years-old. The day was celebrated throughout the Commonwealth and included a parade, a special commemorative £20 note issued by the Royal Bank of Scotland, and she attended a glamourous lunch at Guildhall in London. The event made national news after George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, accidently attempted to drink her glass of wine. “That’s mine!” she exclaimed to widespread amusement.

Although she had lived for a century, her health had begun to deteriorate. Her frailty was much more noticeable, and yet she never let it show in her public engagements. Refusing to use a wheelchair, she instead walked aided by two canes. Months after her birthday celebrations she broke her collarbone in a nasty fall, this was after numerous operations to replace her hip and remove a cataract from her left eye, yet still she continued.

Her final engagements came after her 101st birthday a year later. Planting a cross at the Field of Remembrance, she joined a reception for the reformation of the 600 Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force, and attended the re-commissioning of HMS Ark Royal. Sadly, a month later in December 2001, Elizabeth fractured her pelvis. Causing constant pain, surgery was deemed too risky at her advanced age, and yet, to the marvel of the public, she insisted on standing for the National Anthem during the memorial service in honour of her husband, George VI, on 6th February the following year. “I swore I’d stand by him his whole life, why should I stop now?” she said after the event.

The memorial was deeply moving for Elizabeth, a wife who never fully overcame the grief of her beloved “Bertie”. Yet three days later, more heartache would befall the former consort – the death of her daughter, Princess Margaret. After suffering another fall, resulting in her cutting her arm, many members of the Royal Family – including the Queen – wondered whether she was well enough to appear. Elizabeth paid no attention and was resolute in her determination to attend her daughter’s funeral. Using the royal helicopter, the Queen Mother insisted that no pictures were to be taken of her arrival or her attendance. Rumoured to be hardly eating, she was now bound to a wheelchair and she felt the public should not be allowed to see her so frail.

The frailty which had begun to consume Elizabeth’s life finally took hold on 30th March, 2002 where at 15:15, she died in her sleep at the Royal Lodge, Windsor. Her daughter Queen Elizabeth II was at her bedside.

An official portrait of The Queen Mother - © PA

In the days after her funeral, and thus the ensuing years, the Queen Mother has come to define the glorious years of the British Monarchy. At 101 years and 238 days old, she was the longest-lived senior member of the Royal Family in British history, and throughout her illustrious life, she maintained an element of mystique and magic that continues to encapsulate the monarchy today. Her commitment to public service was unquestionable – and she maintained all 300 of her patronages up until her death. She was a traditional Queen with a modern heart and understood, more than most, the importance of balancing the two.

Today we see members of the Royal Family tackling issues which are seen as progressive and are sometimes celebrated as “never been done before.” Yet, look into Elizabeth’s life, and you’ll find she was breaking down barriers long before. Her hatred for racism stemmed from the “abhorred racial discrimination” of apartheid, and her fearless will to combat the subject in private resulted in her curt comment to Woodrow Wyatt, who claimed that non-white countries have nothing in common with “us Brits”, saying, “I am very keen on the Commonwealth. They’re all like us, and we like them.”

She was unmovable, unshakable and unwilling to trail from the formula and path she knew already worked. Her steel-like persona had brought peace to many troubled waters and although she could be cutthroat when needed, every decision, every tactile performance and instinctive action was to the betterment of the Monarchy. Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, defined a generation of royalty which has remained untarnished, although sometimes controversial, and she languished in the accomplishments of the institution. Elizabeth understood the importance of appearance, and actively upheld the mantra “never complain, never explain”.

In the end, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was a young girl who broke the mould, long before anyone recognised there was one to break. She paved her own path and lifted a nation throughout, and long after, a devastating war. Her charm, humour and fearsome resolve was a testament to a generation which valued commitment over consternation. She was the trailblazer which ignited an immovable monarchy and valued institution – she was a modern Queen, and one the country and Royal Family will forever be indebted to.

To read Part 1 of the our special series on The Queen Mother: A Modern Queen, see here!

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