Queen Mother Elizabeth, the royal matriarch who helped the House of Windsor survive the abdication crisis and cheered Britons on through the horrors of World War II, died peacefully in her sleep today, Buckingham Palace said. She was 101.
Beloved by Britons as the "Queen Mum," she died just seven weeks after the death of younger daughter, Princess Margaret, on Feb. 9. Her elder daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, was at her mother's side.
"Her beloved mother, Queen Elizabeth, died peacefully in her sleep this afternoon, at Royal Lodge, Windsor," Buckingham Palace said.
The widow of King George VI had remained active despite her advanced age and a series of health problems that might have sidelined anyone less determined. She had two hip replacements in her 90s and broke her collarbone in a fall in November 2000. On Aug. 1, 2001 — just days before her 101st birthday — she was hospitalized for treatment of anemia.
On Aug. 4, 2000, thousands of Britons turned out to help the "Queen Mum" celebrate her 100th birthday, cheering as she rode in a carriage along The Mall in London. She was feted with a 41-gun salute, marching bands playing "Happy Birthday" and a big bash at Windsor Castle.
A Crowded Century of Living
Her life spanned the entire 20th century. When she was born, Queen Victoria still occupied Britain's throne, and the Boer War was on. She lived through World War I and the crisis surrounding the abdication of her brother-in-law, Edward VIII — an event that rocked Britain and brought Elizabeth and her husband to the throne.
She helped rally the country through World War II, saw her elder daughter become queen, and saw the royal family's standing tarnished by the public feud of Charles vs. Diana and Fergie's high jinks. And through it all, the dowager queen remained a beloved figure.
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother started out life on Aug. 4, 1900, as the Hon. Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon. When her father, the Scottish Lord Glamis, became the 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, she became known as Lady Elizabeth.
Lady Elizabeth was educated privately at home, as was the practice for girls of her class. Her family was descended from the medieval Scottish King Robert the Bruce and the family seat, Glamis Castle, was once the home of Macbeth.
World War I — which broke out on her 14th birthday — changed things dramatically. Glamis Castle became a hospital and Lady Elizabeth, too young to work as a nurse, helped entertain wounded troops. One of her brothers, Fergus, was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915.
After the war, Lady Elizabeth entered society. The ranks of England's eligible young gentlemen had been decimated by the war, but she was nevertheless a popular debutante. Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was not a classic beauty, but her big blue eyes, flawless complexion and enchanting smile attracted a number of admirers, including Prince Albert, the second son of George V and the indomitable Queen Mary.
"Bertie," as the prince was known, had served bravely in the war, but he was shy and he stuttered. Plus, Elizabeth knew there were real drawbacks to joining the insular and very carefully behaved royal family.
Bertie may not have been terribly prepossessing, but he was determined. Twice he asked Lady Elizabeth to marry him and twice she refused. He proposed a third time, and she said yes.
There has been speculation that Lady Elizabeth delayed accepting Prince Albert's proposal because she was hoping to snare his older brother, the Prince of Wales, known in the family as "David." Elizabeth's later dislike of David's wife, Wallis Simpson, has been cited as evidence. But Elizabeth had other reasons to dislike Wallis, and in any event, once she made up her mind to marry Bertie, they gave every appearance of being a devoted couple.
The king created Bertie the Duke of York, and on April 26, 1923, Elizabeth became the first commoner to marry legally into the royal family in centuries. She was now known as Her Royal Highness the Duchess of York. The couple had two daughters: Elizabeth, born in April 1926 and named for her mother, and Margaret, born in August 1930.
The Abdication Crisis
The Duchess of York planned to give her daughters the same sort of childhood she had enjoyed — warm, happy, uncomplicated. She expected her daughters to grow up, marry well, and live the lives of English country gentlewomen. All that changed, however, when King George V died and David, Bertie's older brother, ascended the throne as King Edward VIII.
The problem was that the new king was in love with a very unsuitable woman — an American named Wallis Warfield Simpson who had divorced her first husband and was still married to her second. Warned by his ministers that the people would never accept her as queen, Edward nevertheless remained besotted.
Wallis and Elizabeth hated each other. The American tried to lord it over the duchess, who once walked into the room as Wallis was in the middle of a cruel imitation of her. Elizabeth believed Wallis was keeping the king from his duty, and she found Wallis presumptuous. The ultra-thin Wallis began to refer spitefully to the duchess, whose figure was becoming considerably fuller, as "Cookie." And tensions between the two women would only grow worse, as Elizabeth feared the Wallis situation would end up placing unlooked-for responsibilities on Bertie's shoulders.
And she was right. On Dec. 11, 1936, King Edward VIII gave up the throne to marry "the woman I love." Bertie, the next in line, became king, taking the name George VI. And Elizabeth became queen consort.
George VI and Elizabeth were crowned on May 12, 1937. Neither of them had wanted the job, but they were determined to do their best. Elizabeth worked to work to bolster her husband's confidence (she helped him conquer his stutter, for instance) and they set about the task of restoring the country's faith in the monarchy.
It quickly became clear that Elizabeth made the sort of queen Wallis never could have been. The charming Elizabeth, with her ever-present smile and gracious manners, made a great success in state visits with her husband: to France in July 1938, and to Canada and the United States in May and June 1939.
Britain went to war later in 1939. As children began being evacuated from London, it was suggested that Elizabeth and her daughters would be safer in Canada. The queen famously refused, saying, "The children won't leave without me, I won't leave without the king, and the king will never leave."
Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, with their governess, were dispatched to the relative safety of Windsor Castle. Queen Elizabeth and her husband remained at Buckingham Palace. When the place was bombed during the Blitz, the queen said stoutly that she was glad to be enduring some of what so many Londoners were suffering during the Luftwaffe's barrage. "I feel I can look the East End in the face," she said.
She made it a point to visit bombed-out areas of the city, chatting and condoling with displaced residents. She always made it a point to dress in her favorite pastels, like blue, dusty pink and lilac, so that she could be easily spotted by the people. Her "uniform" also included big hats with a turned-up brim designed to reveal the face.
On Victory Europe Day in 1945, the king and queen, their daughters and Prime Minister Winston Churchill stood on the balcony at Buckingham Palace, waving to the hundreds of thousands of cheering people celebrating the end of the war.
The stress of the war and his smoking habit had left the king's health seriously impaired. Nevertheless, the royal family made a tour of South Africa in 1947. During their visit, the queen mistakenly thought a man frantically chasing the royal car was an assassin aiming for the king. She beat him mercilessly on the head with her umbrella before police grabbed the man, who, it turned out, had been trying to present Princess Elizabeth with a 10-shilling note as a birthday gift.
The year 1947 also spelled the end of the British Empire. When India became independent on Aug. 15, George VI and Elizabeth lost their titles as emperor and empress of India.
The king and queen became grandparents in 1948, when the elder daughter, Elizabeth, who had married Philip Mountbatten, the former Prince Philip of Greece, gave birth to Prince Charles. Charles adored his grandmother, who became his confidante and staunch supporter.
On Feb. 6, 1952, the king died. Princess Elizabeth was now Queen Elizabeth II. Her mother had, in one blow, lost her husband and her own No. 1 position.
Now known as the Queen Mother, the dowager moved from Buckingham Palace to Clarence House. She remained somewhat on the sidelines as her younger daughter, Princess Margaret, became embroiled in a doomed romance with the late king's aide, Group Capt. Peter Townsend. Townsend was a commoner, and, far worse, he was divorced. Margaret begged her sister for permission to marry him; finally, faced with the choice of giving up all her royal privileges or marrying the man she loved, Margaret gave him up.
The Queen Mother, meanwhile, continued her public engagements and enjoyed her role as grandmother. She became a great-grandmother in 1977, when Princess Anne gave birth to Peter Phillips.
As she grew older, the Queen Mother remained very active. She made more than 40 official visits abroad after the death of her husband, and was patron or president of some 350 organizations. She was commandant in chief of each of the army and air force women's services and for women in the Royal Navy.
In her 90th year, the Queen Mother carried out 118 public engagements around the country. In 1995, she officially opened the Victory in Europe 50th anniversary commemorations in London, appearing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with her daughters, as they had in 1945.
The Queen Mother spent most of her time at Clarence House in London but had other homes as well — the Castle of Mey in northeast Scotland; Birkhall, situated near the royal retreat of Balmoral in Scotland; and Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park. She was an avid follower of horse racing and was known to spend over her budget and to enjoy a glass of gin.
During the 1980s, the royal family was caught up in a number of scandals, mostly involving the marriages of Prince Charles and Princess Diana and Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. Queen Elizabeth II admitted that 1992 had been an "annus horribilis," but her mother smiled serenely through it. Polls consistently named her as one of the most popular royals; following the death of Diana in a 1997 car crash, her status as most beloved was unchallenged.
On her 100th birthday, thousands lined The Mall in London to catch as glimpse of the Queen Mother rode by in a carriage.
"I think that the queen mother is an incredible lady. She's coped with an awful lot in her life and never made a bad name for herself," said a fan along the parade route. "She represents what the royal family should be, which is dignified and caring."