Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon

Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon as Queen Elizabeth.1948 photograph by Cecil Beaton.
Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon as Queen Elizabeth.
1948 photograph by Cecil Beaton.

The Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (Elizabeth Angela Marguerite) (August 4, 1900March 30, 2002), later Queen Elizabeth ("Elizabeth"), was the Queen Consort of George VI of the United Kingdom from 1936 until his death in 1952. After her husband's death, she was known as Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, in relation to her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II. Before ascending the throne, from 1923 to 1936, she was known as the Duchess of York.

Elizabeth was the last Queen of Ireland and Empress of India. As Queen Consort, Elizabeth was famous for her role in providing moral support to the British public during World War II, so much so that Adolf Hitler described her as "the most dangerous woman in Europe." In her later years, she was a consistently popular member of the British Royal Family, when other members of the family were suffering from low levels of public approval.

Early life

Detail of "The Duchess of York" by Philip de Laszlo, 1925
Detail of "The Duchess of York" by Philip de Laszlo, 1925

Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was the fourth daughter and the ninth of ten children of Claude George Bowes-Lyon, Lord Glamis, (later 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne), and his wife, Nina Cecilia Cavendish-Bentinck. She reportedly was born in her parents' London home, though the location of her birth remains uncertain. Her birth was registered at Hitchin, Hertfordshire, near the Strathmores' country house St. Paul's Walden Bury. This unconventional registration has led to numerous rumours over the years regarding Elizabeth's actual parentage, with some critics surmising that she actually was the daughter of Lord Strathmore by a Welsh maid, hence the unusual six-week delay in the registration of her birth. Others have pointed out that Elizabeth, born seven years after the next-youngest Bowes-Lyon child, resembled neither her parents nor her siblings in any discernible fashion. An urban myth in the 1960s even claimed that she had been adopted by the Earl and Countess and was in fact one of twins born to a working class woman in Waterford in Ireland. The rumour even claimed that she was in fact a couple of years older than had been announced. The rumour was universally dismissed. A distant family link between the Bowes-Lyon family and the Waterford area is believed to be the cause of the rumours.

She spent much of her childhood at St. Paul's Walden Bury and at Glamis Castle, the Earl's ancestral home in Glamis, Angus, Scotland.

The First World War broke out when she was fourteen. Her elder brother, Fergus, an officer in the Black Watch Regiment, was killed in action at Loos, France in 1915. Another brother, Michael, was reported missing in action in May 1917. However, he had actually been captured after being wounded and remained in a Prisoner of War camp for the rest of the War. Glamis was turned into a convalescence home for wounded soldiers, which Elizabeth helped to run. One of the soldiers she treated wrote on a card that she was to be "Hung, drawn and quartered: hung in diamonds, drawn by the best carriages, and quartered in the finest palaces in the land."

Prince Albert

When Prince Albert, the second son of George V, proposed to Elizabeth in 1921, she turned him down: "Afraid never, never again to be free to think, speak and act as I feel I really ought to." When he declared he would marry no other, his mother, the formidable Queen Mary, visited Glamis to see for herself the girl who had stolen her son's heart. She then arranged for Albert's rival, the Earl of Moray, to be conveniently dispatched to a post overseas, clearing the prince's way.

They married on 26 April 1923, at Westminster Abbey. Elizabeth laid her bouquet at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior on her way into the Abbey, a gesture which every royal bride since has copied, though she chose to do this on the way back from the altar rather than to it. She became styled HRH The Duchess of York. They honeymooned at Polesden Lacey, a manor house in Surrey, and then went to Scotland.

In 1926 the couple celebrated the birth of their first child, Elizabeth, who would later become Queen Elizabeth II. Another daughter, Margaret Rose, was born four years later.

Queen Consort to George VI (1936-1952)

Styles of
Queen Elizabeth as consort
Reference style Her Majesty
Spoken style Your Majesty
Alternative style Ma'am

Accession and abdication of Edward VIII; Accession of George VI

On 20 January 1936, King George V died, and the succession passed to Albert's brother, Prince Edward the Prince of Wales, who became King Edward VIII. George and Mary had been forthcoming as to their reservations about their eldest child. Indeed, George had expressed the wish that nothing come between Albert and Princess Elizabeth and the throne.

As if granting his parents' wish, Edward forced a constitutional crisis by insisting on marrying the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Although, legally, Edward could have married Mrs Simpson and remained king, his ministers advised him that the people would never accept her as queen and indeed that they would be obliged to resign if he insisted. So, Edward abdicated the throne in favour of Albert, who had no desire to become king, and had even less training for the role (despite his parents' aforementioned hopes for him). Nevertheless, Albert became king and took the name George VI. He and Elizabeth were crowned King George VI and Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Emperor and Empress of India (until 1947) on 12 May 1937. Her crown contained the Koh-i-Noor diamond. Her crown was heavily based on that of Queen Mary, whose crown was taken to Garrard's with "the purpose of preparing designs for a new Crown for the Queen". The arches on the crown are detachable, a feature which was used in 1953 when Queen Elizabeth did not wear the arches at her daughter's coronation.

It is said Albert wept on hearing the news of the abdication, and that Elizabeth never forgave Edward and Mrs. Simpson for their actions. When the ex-king and his wife were created Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Elizabeth supported George VI's decision to withhold from Simpson the style of Royal Highness.

1939 Royal Tour of Canada

In June 1939, Elizabeth and her husband became the first reigning King and Queen to visit Canada and the United States. The Canadian portion of the tour was extremely extensive, from coast to coast and back, and the royal couple's reception by the Canadian public (and by most of the American public during a brief foray into the United States, excepting certain Irish-American congressman who threatened to boycott their visit) was extremely enthusiastic, dissipating in large measure any residual feeling that George and Elizabeth were in any way a lesser substitute for the charismatic Edward. In later years Elizabeth was quoted as saying, "Canada was the making of us," and she returned frequently both on official tours and privately.

In Canada she was extensively quoted throughout her life as to her reported immediate response on landing in 1939: a World War I veteran asked, during one of the earliest of the royal couple's repeated encounters with the crowds, "Are you Scotch or English?" "I'm Canadian!"

World War II

During World War II, the King and Queen became symbols of the nation's resistance. Elizabeth publicly refused to leave London even during the Blitz, when she was advised by the Cabinet to do so. "The Princesses could not possibly go without me; I couldn't leave without the King, and the King will never leave," she said. She often made visits to parts of London that were targeted by the German Luftwaffe, in particular the East End, near London's docks. Buckingham Palace itself took several hits during the height of the bombing, prompting Elizabeth to say, "Now I feel I can look the East End in the face".

For security and family reasons, the king and queen though spending the working day at Buckingham Palace stayed at night not at the Palace (which in any case had lost much of its staff to the army) but at Windsor Castle (about 20 miles (35 kilometres) west of central London) with Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose.

Because of her effect on British morale, Adolf Hitler is said to have called her "the most dangerous woman in Europe" and to have said that "If [Winston] Churchill is the man in Europe I must fear most, then surely she is the woman I have most to fear of in Europe." Prior to the war, however, both she and her husband, like most of parliament and the British public, had been strong supporters of appeasement and Neville Chamberlain rather than the bellicose Churchill, believing after the experience of the First World War that war had to be avoided at all costs. After the resignation of Chamberlain, the King was constitutionally required to commission Winston Churchill to form a government and in due course, albeit with considerable reluctance initially, the Royal Couple came to respect and admire Churchill.

Queen Mother (1952–2002)

The Queen Mother reads a telegram from her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, on her 100th birthday
The Queen Mother reads a telegram from her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, on her 100th birthday

New role in widowhood

Shortly after King George VI died of lung cancer, on 6 February 1952, Elizabeth began to be styled "Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother". This style was adopted because the normal style for the widow of a king, "Queen Elizabeth", would have been too similar to the style of her elder daughter, now Queen Elizabeth II. The alternative style "The Queen Dowager" could not be used because a senior widowed queen, Queen Mary, the widow of King George V, was still alive. Popularly, she was simply "the Queen Mother" or "the Queen Mum".

To keep herself occupied, the widowed queen oversaw the restoration of the remote Castle of Mey on the Caithness coast of Scotland, which later became her favourite home. She also developed an interest in horse racing that continued for the rest of her life. However, Winston Churchill became concerned for her mental state, after learning that she had held a seance to try to contact her dead husband, and urged her to end her retirement. So she resumed her public duties, and eventually became as busy as Queen Mother as she had been as Queen.

Before the marriage of Diana Spencer to Prince Charles, and after Diana's death, the Queen Mother was by far the most popular member of the British Royal Family, with a charm and theatrical flair that marked her apart. Her signature dress of large upturned hat with netting and dresses with draped panels of fabric created an eccentric royal wardrobe.

Behind the soft charm, however, lay a canny intelligence and iron will, as demonstrated by the shrewd support she gave George VI, her thwarting of the ambitions of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and also by her sheer endurance. Like many of her generation, the Queen Mother held a "never complain, never explain" attitude to life, which saw her through many private sorrows and difficulties.

The Queen Mother had a love of the arts which included purchasing works by Claude Monet, Augustus John and Peter Carl Fabergé, among others. These were transferred to the Royal Collection after her death.

In her later years, she became known for her longevity. Her birthdays became times of celebration and, as a popular figure, she helped to stabilise the popularity of the monarchy as a whole.


The Queen Mother's hundredth birthday was celebrated in a number of ways, including a parade that celebrated the highlights of her life. Though 100 years old she insisted on standing for over an hour while the parade passed by, brushing away aides who sought to get her to sit on a chair kept in readiness. The last function the Queen Mother attended was the funeral of her second daughter Princess Margaret.

The Queen Mother survived her younger daughter, and two nephews — Gerald Lascelles and Prince William of Gloucester. Also she was one of two surviving daughters-in-law of King George V and Queen Mary; the other being Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester. The sisters-in-law were Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, who died in 1968, and the Duchess of Windsor, who died in 1986.


The Queen Mother died at the Royal Lodge, Windsor, with her surviving daughter Queen Elizabeth II at her bedside, on 30 March 2002. She was 101 years old, and at the time held the record for the longest-lived royal in British history. (That record would later be broken on 24 July 2003, by her last surviving sister-in-law Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, who later died aged 102 on 29 October 2004.)

She grew camellias in every one of her gardens, and as her body was taken from the Royal Lodge, Windsor to lie in state at Westminster Hall, camellias from her own gardens were placed on top of the flag draped coffin.

More than 200,000 people filed by her coffin as it lay in state in Westminster Hall of the Palace of Westminster for three days.

On the day of the Queen Mother's funeral, 9 April, more than a million people filled the area outside Westminster Abbey and along the 23-mile route from central London to her final resting place beside her husband and younger daughter in St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle. At her request, after her funeral the wreath that had lain atop her coffin was placed on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, a gesture that eloquently echoed her wedding-day tribute.

Reported Quips and Humour

Though after being severely chastised by George V for giving an interview to the press early in her marriage she declined to do so again, the media regularly quoted some of her 'one-liners' revealing a dry and often sardonic wit:

  • Coming across a group of teenagers throwing stones at cars, she wound down the window of her passing Daimler and asked them to stop, with the riposte: "Whatever would American tourists think?"
  • On another occasion, she was rumoured to have urged her daughter the Queen not to have a second glass of wine at lunch, with the admonition, "Is that wise, darling? Remember you have to reign all afternoon." [1]
  • Accompanied by the writer and wit Sir Noël Coward, who was gay, to a gala function, she mounted a staircase lined with Guardsmen. Noticing Coward's eyes flicker momentarily across the soldiers, she murmured to him without missing a beat: "I wouldn't if I were you, Noël; they count them before they put them out." [1]
  • She employed a personal staff with many gay persons and once said, after her gin and tonic was continuously delayed by backstairs bickering, "When one of you young queens has finished, can you bring this old Queen a drink?"
  • According to an article in The Observer (10 November 2002), after being advised by a Conservative Minister in the 1970s not to employ homosexuals, the Queen Mother observed that without them, "we'd have to go self-service." [1]
  • In her nineties, she asked a group of pensioners "is it just me or are pensioners getting younger these days?"


Despite being regarded as one of the most popular members of the Royal Family in recent times, the Queen Mother was subject to various degrees of criticism during her life:

  • During the 1939 Royal Tour of North America Eleanor Roosevelt's verdict was that Elizabeth was "a little self-consciously regal."
  • A controversial book by Kitty Kelley, The Royals, alleged that during World War II Elizabeth did not abide by the rationing regulations that the rest of the population was subject to. The book also alleges that Elizabeth used racist slurs to refer to black people. However Kelley's book is unpublished in the United Kingdom, its publishers being unwilling to submit it to the scrutiny of the law of libel, and many of its assertions are unsourced
  • Elizabeth's extravagant lifestyle was latterly somewhat quizzically commented upon, particularly when it was revealed she had a multi-million pound overdraft with Coutts Bank. She was known to like horse racing, and to be a keen gambler, reputedly installing a direct line to her bookmakers in her residence. Her habits were often parodied by the satirical 1980s television programme Spitting Image - which portrayed her with a Birmingham accent and an ever-present copy of the Racing Post, though the gentle and even affectionate satire on Elizabeth cannot be described as serious criticism.
  • Probably her only serious solecism was during the 1947 Royal Tour of South Africa when she rose from the royal carriage to beat an admirer about the head with her umbrella, having mistaken enthusiasm for hostility


Some items of correspondence relating to Elizabeth's role in the abdication crisis, and World War II have not yet been released, raising speculation that they contain controversial details of her views on the Duchess of Windsor and the UK's future in World War II. Recent releases from the UK's national archive believed to be withheld included correspondence between Elizabeth, and the pro-appeasement Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax. It is believed they address Elizabeth's desire for the preservation of the Monarchy in the event of a Nazi occupation of the United Kingdom. The papers are now in the Royal Archives, where they are expected to be released in 2037, one century after Elizabeth's coronation.


Arms of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother
Arms of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother

The Queen Mother's coat of arms were the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom impaled with the arms of those of her father, Earl of Strathmore. Outside Scotland: 1st and 4th quarters, argent, a lion rampant Azure, armed and langued gules, within a double tressure flory-counter-flory of the second (Lyon) 2nd and 3rd, ermine three bows, stringed paleways proper (Bowes). Supporters: Dexter, a lion Or armed and langued Gules royally crowned proper; Sinister, a lion per fesse or and gules. The shield is surrounded by the Garter. In Scotland, the 1st and 4th quarters of the Royal Arms were transposed with the rampant lion of Scotland and the 2nd quarter featured the three lions passant guardant of England (the Garter was also replaced with the Thistle collar).

The Queen Mother was also entitled to grant a Royal Warrant to suppliers of services, who would display her arms on their signage and packaging. The Queen Mother's arms are still shown today, and will be until 2007, when they automatically expire.

Titles and Honours

Shorthand titles


Preceded by:
Sir Robert Menzies
Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports
Succeeded by:
The Lord Boyce
Preceded by:
Mary of Teck
Queen Consort of the United Kingdom
Succeeded by:
Philip, Duke of Edinburgh
Preceded by:
Mary of Teck
Empress of India
Succeeded by:
Title dissolved upon Independence of India


  1. ^ a b c Blaikie, Thomas (2002). You look awfully like the Queen: Wit and Wisdom from the House of Windsor. London: Harper Collins. ISBN 0007148747.
  • Sarah Bradford, The Reluctant King: The life and reign of George VI 1895-1952 (St Martins, 1989)
  • Philip Ziegler, King Edward VIII: The official biography (Collins, 1990)
  • Philip Ziegler, Mountbatten: the official biography (Collins, 1985)
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The home front in World War II (Simon & Schuster, 1994)


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