Royal Corner

A Modern Queen

PART 1: She was Britain's secret weapon and a woman who redefined royalty, but as our two-part series proves, The Queen Mother was breaking boundaries long before the royals of today.

SEPTEMBER 13th, 2020

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth stand amongst the rubble of Buckingham Palace after being bombed in the Blitz - © PA


n the morning of the 13th September, 1940, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth had taken tea in their private quarters at Buckingham Palace. The couple, who always insisted on eating breakfast together, had become distracted from their food after the Queen had battled to remove an errant eyelash from the King’s eye. The time was 11am and the unmistakable ‘whirr-whirr’ of a German plane could be heard storming along the Mall. As it passed overhead the scream of a bomb pummelled into the grounds of the palace, exploding with cataclysmic force. Their Majesties sat in shock, leaving the Queen’s knees trembling, as the palace erupted in panic.

In the aftermath of the explosion, parts of Buckingham Palace were decimated. Struck with a stick of five high explosive bombs, two had hit the inner quadrangle, a third struck the Royal Chapel, and the remaining two fell on the forecourt and the roadway between the Palace gates and the Victoria Memorial.

The King and Queen walk through the rubble at Buckingham Palace - © PA

The bombing of Buckingham Palace was the closest the Luftwaffe came in claiming their ultimate trophy – the life of George VI. But if this event, and subsequent history, was to demonstrate one thing; with Queen Elizabeth – later the Queen Mother – by his side, the King, if not the Royal Family, was pretty much impenetrable.

Much has been discussed over the Queen Mother; her fortitude, strength, humour and duty are legendary, but for the young Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, life as the Queen wasn’t always destined for her, and the skills for which she was admired were instilled as early as her childhood.

The Queen Mother grew up in a household, whether in Hertfordshire or Scotland, where children ruled. Her father, the Earl of Strathmore, bestowed a vast collection of pets and beautiful gardens upon Elizabeth and her siblings. She enjoyed dancing and alongside her brother David, she loved to raid the family chest of old costumes and play “dress up”. Elizabeth would embark on endless treks across the Scottish Highlands and the ecstatic enthusiasm of her early years combined to give her a childhood of rare happiness and a natural unspoiled charm.

Perhaps what was most unique regarding Elizabeth’s upbringing was the lack of insistence on rank and hierarchy. Whilst playing with her siblings, of which there were ten, she was always encouraged to ignore the male preoccupation of dominance. She raced her brothers, battled them, and was unafraid to challenge them in squabbles. Through this, as she grew older, Elizabeth fast began to acquire a reputation as a formidable and charming young hostess.

“Others were much shyer than she was, and she always sympathised with those who weren’t as eloquent within social circles. When the Queen was young, my mother told me she always insisted in engaging in a few minutes of quiet talk which soon put those less confident at their ease,” said Margaret Rhodes, Queen Elizabeth II’s cousin, in 2016.

The Queen Mother as a child with her brother David and the children's dance master - © Odhams Press

In 1916, two tragic events struck the Strathmore family. Elizabeth’s brother Fergus had been killed in Loos, and, at the end of the year, a serious fire threatened to demolish Glamis Castle – the Bowes-Lyon’s family home. The loss of her brother struck the future Queen hard, and with her other brother Michael – of whom was her favourite – imprisoned in a German prisoner of war camp, she began to develop a mantra which would effectively underline her entire life – ‘never complain, never explain’.

For Elizabeth, this outlook wasn’t imbued in harshness. Instead, watching her devastated family engulfed in the suffocating clasps of grief, she deemed it her responsibility to pull the Bowes-Lyon’s through whatever obstacles befell them. For Elizabeth, an opportunity quickly arose to see-through this new promise.

When the dreadful stream of the wounded from World War I began to return from France, Glamis Castle was converted into a hospital. From within the ancient walls, Elizabeth witnessed anew the effects of warfare. Although all her siblings and family helped to treat, bathe and tend to the men, Elizabeth was always their preferred company.

“Her sense of humour was unrivalled, she made the boys laugh and was a comfort to those who were struggling,” said one former soldier treated at the castle in a BBC interview in 1977. “It was a rarity to see such compassion at a time when most of the public never really understood the horrors of what we had seen and experienced. Her Majesty broke the mould.”

Elizabeth would spend hours singing, making jokes and conversing with the soldiers. Although her own family were enduring their own personal hardship with the loss of Fergus, she never let her mask of positivity slip and her iconic smile never left her face.

Elizabeth (Front-left) pictured with WWI soldiers and the Countess of Strathmore at Glamis Castle - © Odhams Press

Elizabeth pictured with her father, the Earl of Strathmore - © Odhams Press

As the Great War came to an end and Glamis Castle returned to a family home once again, the family received news that Michael – who they feared had been killed in the German prisoner of war camp – was alive. With the family back together, Elizabeth re-entered the echelons of society, appearing at many formal functions – and one would start Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon on her path into the history books.

Elizabeth had already met Prince Albert once as a child, long before their paths crossed at the function in London. Yet the link between the Bowes-Lyon’s and the House of Windsor was first established by Albert’s sister Princess Mary. As an officer of the Girl Guides, the Princess had become very friendly with Elizabeth. Sharing similar interests, the young and glamourous socialite was invited to Princess Mary’s wedding, and after their first fateful re-meeting in London, Prince Albert became besotted with Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. Frequently seen dancing together, a rumour began to swirl that a potential engagement might be announced. The rumours were correct.

Proposing in the woods at St Paul’s Waldenbury, the romantic setting which had come to define Elizabeth’s fond childhood; on January 16, 1922, the Court Circular announced the engagement. However, whilst the couple were now engaged, the Prince had already asked twice before for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage. Both times she refused to accept, unsure on whether she could make the sacrifices expected to become a member of the Royal Family.

Yet, by the third time, a change had occurred in the, now, future Duchess. Elizabeth felt more secure and had a greater understanding of what was to be expected of her in her role. “I’m more than happy to be the support act, not the main attraction,” she said when discussing her life as a member of the Royal Family. “Bertie won’t be King; I won’t be Queen and the world seems somewhat brighter for it.”

The wedding of the Duke and Duchess of York at Wesminster Abbey - © Odhams Press

Three months after their engagement, Prince Albert, the Duke of York, married Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in a stunning wedding at Westminster Abbey. The newly crowned Duchess wore an ivory chiffon moiré with pearl embroideries on cloth of silver which fell between the shoulders to gleam through the veil. After the final State duty of sitting for the wedding portrait and greeting the enthusiastic crowds outside of Buckingham Palace, married life for the new royal couple erupted onto the public stage unlike any before. Engagements across the entire country were almost daily. The couple were lauded for their youth, beauty and glamour – but the Duchess of York captured the most attention from the public.

Fun loving, outgoing and sometimes rebellious, the public adored Elizabeth’s zest for life. Courtiers were less than optimistic with the Duchess’ approach to royal engagements; she spoke to the public too much, she shook too many hands, she acted in ways which was “unbecoming” of a “civilised woman”, let alone a Duchess. To them she was the most “unroyal” royal they’d ever seen. And yet she refused to change – something which George V thoroughly found refreshing.

The King loved his daughter-in-law, and whilst he had always been deemed a monstrous father to his own children – especially his sons – with Elizabeth, he worshipped the ground she walked on. To him, she defined what a royal Duchess should be, and in many ways, broke the stuffy, old protocols which were increasingly ostracising the monarchy from the public.

As time would pass by, and with the arrival of two new Princesses – Elizabeth and Margaret – the York’s lives were settled within the side-lines of the Royal Family. Unbridled with the responsibility of kingship and queenship, the family were free to live a relatively normal life. Though, as history teaches us, this freedom would quickly evaporate with the abdication of Edward VIII.

The Duke and Duchess of York pictured with the two daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, leaving St Paul's Cathedral after Jubilee Day of King George v and Queen Mary - © Odham Press

The news of his brother’s abdication sent the Duke of York into turmoil. A quiet and timid man, he felt he wasn’t equipped to be King. For Elizabeth, her husband’s pain expunged anger towards her brother-in-law and the women he had effectively given up the British throne for, Wallis Simpson. In a letter to Queen Mary, Elizabeth wrote: ‘I will never understand the decision and find the selfishness of his actions repulsive. David has given not one thought for Bertie or either of his nieces. It is unforgivable, though I will do my best to renew public confidence within the monarchy, and I will give what life and love I have to ensure your beloved son succeeds in his endeavour as King and Emperor.’

As the abdication crisis began to fade and the coronation of King George VI came and went, Elizabeth pulled upon her winning concoction of duty and personability to heal any wounds the crisis had inflicted. Her first action was to remove any semblance to the past, specifically the newly named Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Lobbying to have the couple effectively banished from the country, Elizabeth’s once loving relationship with her brother-in-law never repaired.

Also, knowing how anxious her husband was within public settings, specifically due to his speech impediment, she strived to be a guiding force for the King. Gently and unseen, she would encourage him to wave to the crowds and involve him in small talk with members of the public. Her support was unrivalled, though some within the walls of Buckingham Palace felt Elizabeth was becoming too controlling of the King, an accusation she fiercely rebutted.

“He’s the King, I’m his Consort. What else am I supposed to do if not support him. If it was left to them, they’d eat him up like the wolves they are. What they don’t like is I’m the biggest wolf of them all,” she wrote to a friend, “and I’ll eat anyone who tries to harm the King.”

The Coronation portrait of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother - © NPG

A wolf she may have been, but famously described as a steely marshmallow – soft on the outside, steel on the inside – when World War II broke out, the Queen was determined to keep morale high, and her wolf-like attitude would become one of Britain’s greatest secret weapons.

After the explosion at Buckingham Palace, the Queen, alongside the King, was determined to ‘keep calm and carry on’. They met with locals in the East End who had suffered the most; losing homes, friends, family and livelihoods in the Blitz. For Elizabeth, the experience of being bombed was seen through the lens of her ‘never complain, never explain’ mantra. “I am glad we have been bombed. Now we can look the East End in the eye,” she said, in what has become one of her most famous comments.

If anything, World War II defined the Queen Mother, but the lessons and experiences of her childhood and adolescent resulted in a fearsome Queen who even Hitler described as “the most dangerous woman in Europe”. Similarly, Winston Churchill claimed that “royals are either built for regal personification or righteous obligation; Her Majesty is neither, she is built for combat, war and crusades – she is the perfect Queen for this time. History will prove it so.”

Next week, in part 2, we look at how the Queen Mother helped define the modern monarchy and how her steely demeanour ensured that scandal and tragedy wouldn't sink the Institution she loved so dearly.

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