Her Majesty (HM) Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, consort of King George VI and mother of Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, the United Kingdom and 14 other Commonwealth realms (born 4 August 1900 in London, United Kingdom; died 30 March 2002 in Windsor, United Kingdom). In 1939, Queen Elizabeth became the first queen consort to visit Canada with her reigning husband. Her determination to remain in London during the Blitz made her an inspirational figure during the Second World War. Her tours of Canada spanned a 50-year period from 1939 to 1989. She was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2000.
The Honourable Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon was born 4 August 1900. Her parents were Lord and Lady Glamis: Claude Bowes-Lyon and Cecilia Cavendish-Bentinck. Elizabeth’s birthplace was probably her parents’ London home but she was registered near her family’s country estate, St. Paul’s Walden Bury in Hertfordshire, which was listed as her birthplace in subsequent census records. Elizabeth was the ninth of ten children. She had both English and Scottish royal ancestry: Cecilia was a descendant of the first Tudor King of England, Henry VII, and Claude’s ancestors included the first Stewart King of Scotland, Robert II.
Early Life and Education
When Elizabeth was four, her paternal grandfather died and her father became the 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, inheriting Glamis Castle in Scotland. The family divided their time between St. Paul’s Walden Bury, Glamis, and Florence, Italy, where Elizabeth’s maternal grandmother resided. Elizabeth’s childhood was happy and she enjoyed a close relationship with her parents and siblings. Although all six of Elizabeth’s brothers attended Eton, she was educated by governesses for most of her childhood, briefly attending two successive London day schools. She passed an Oxford Local Examination with distinction at the age of 13 but the outbreak of the First World War disrupted her secondary education.
The First World War
Both Glamis and St. Paul’s Walden Bury became convalescent homes for the wounded after the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. At 15, Elizabeth was too young to become a nurse but she assisted in the homes, running errands, organizing activities and writing letters for convalescing soldiers. Elizabeth’s four surviving elder brothers (Patrick, John, Fergus and Michael) all served in the armed forces. Elizabeth was concerned for their safety and grieved along with the rest of her family when Fergus died at the Battle of Loos in 1915. Michael was declared missing in 1917. When news reached the Bowes-Lyon family that he had been taken prisoner and was alive, Elizabeth wrote to a former governess that she was “Mad with joy!!” The family was reunited when the war ended in 1918.
A Suitable Royal Bride
The circumstances of the First World War changed attitudes toward royal marriage, making Elizabeth a suitable bride for one the King’s sons. Since the ascension of the House of Hanover to the British throne in 1714, members of Britain’s royal family traditionally married members of Europe’s royal houses exclusively, a custom enforced by the Royal Marriages Act of 1772. George V changed this convention in 1917, the same year he changed the name of the royal house from Saxe-Coburg to Windsor, encouraging his children to marry into the British aristocracy. The fall of the German, Austrian and Russian ruling houses during the First World War hastened this transition because there fewer eligible European princes and princesses.
Courtship and Engagement
In July 1920, Elizabeth was formally presented to George V and Queen Mary. That same month, the royal couple’s second son, the Duke of York (Prince Albert, the future George VI) invited Elizabeth to dance at a Royal Air Force ball. Elizabeth made a strong impression on Albert and he visited Glamis in August, enjoying the warmth and comparative informality of the Bowes-Lyon household. Albert courted Elizabeth for more than two years and proposed three times before they became engaged in January 1923. Elizabeth was reluctant to marry Albert because she feared losing her privacy by becoming a member of the royal family. Despite her misgivings, the marriage was happy and she immediately became popular with both the royal family and the public.
Elizabeth and Albert were married at Westminster Abbey in London on 26 April 1923. Upon her marriage, Elizabeth was styled Her Royal Highness (HRH) The Duchess of York. Canada’s House of Commons passed a formal motion of congratulations supported by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and Opposition Leader Arthur Meighen. There was tremendous popular interest in the royal wedding and the newly created British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) requested permission to broadcast the ceremony over the radio. Authorization was denied by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who feared that listeners in the pubs would not remove their hats for “God Save The King.” Elizabeth introduced a new royal wedding tradition that has endured to the present day when she placed her bouquet on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in memory of her brother Fergus.
Duchess of York
The newly married royal couple lived at Frogmore, near Windsor Castle, until renovations on their new home at White Lodge, Richmond, were complete. Albert and Elizabeth also acquired a London house at 145 Piccadilly Street. Elizabeth supported her husband in an extensive program of public engagements. Her ability to put at ease people from all walks of life contributed to her success with the public. Albert and Elizabeth visited Northern Ireland in 1924, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda in 1924–25, and Australia and New Zealand in 1927. These tours were difficult for Albert, who had developed a stammer in childhood. Elizabeth supported her husband’s work with Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, which gave him the confidence to make speeches in public.
On 21 April 1926, Elizabeth gave birth to the royal couple’s first child, Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, the future Queen Elizabeth II, at the Bowes-Lyon family’s London home at 17 Bruton Street. A second child, Princess Margaret Rose, was born at Glamis on 21 August 1930. Although Albert and Elizabeth were sometimes separated from their children because of their overseas tours, they were loving parents who enjoyed a close relationship with their daughters. The public admired their family life and compared it favourably with the extended bachelorhood of Albert’s elder brother, the future Edward VIII.
Elizabeth’s father-in-law, George V, died on 20 January 1936 and his eldest son succeeded him as Edward VIII. The new King reigned for less than a year, abdicating on 11 December 1936 to marry a twice-divorced American, Wallis Simpson. Albert succeeded his brother, assuming the regnal name George VI to symbolize continuity with his father’s reign after the disruption caused by the abdication crisis. Elizabeth became queen consort and the family moved into Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. As his father’s second son, George VI never expected to be King and Elizabeth supported him in his demanding new role. She was crowned as consort at her husband’s coronation in Westminster Abbey on 12 May 1937. George VI appointed his wife honorary Colonel-in-Chief of the Toronto Scottish Regiment that same year.
Tour of Canada 1939
At the coronation, Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King presented the royal couple with an official invitation to visit Canada. In May and June of 1939, George VI and Elizabeth became the first reigning King and Queen to tour Canada. Their coast-to-coast journey by train was the most successful Canadian royal tour in history and saw the first royal walkabout. The first royal walkabout took place in Ottawa when the King and Queen spontaneously joined a group of First World War veterans after the unveiling of the National War Memorial. The walkabout has remained a key feature of royal tours to the present day.
Elizabeth was crucial to the success of the Canadian tour. Governor General Lord Tweedsmuir (John Buchan) stated that she had “perfect genius for the right kind of publicity.” Elizabeth’s letters to her daughters in England reveal how Canadians from all backgrounds demonstrated their enthusiasm. Elizabeth wrote on 23 May, “The French people in Quebec and Ottawa were wonderfully loyal; & [in] Montreal there must have been 2000000 people, all very enthusiastic.” At the time, French Canadians viewed the Crown as a protector of their rights and George VI and Elizabeth both made speeches in French during the tour. Elizabeth also encountered Scottish Canadians at every stage of the itinerary who viewed her as one of them. Looking back on the tour, Elizabeth concluded, “Canada made us,” a sentiment echoed by her great-grandson, Prince William, in Calgary in 2011.
During the tour, George VI and Elizabeth also visited American President Franklin Roosevelt at his Hyde Park on Hudson residence in upstate New York.
The royal tour was instrumental in cementing a continued Anglo-Canadian alliance immediately prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. The 1931 Statute of Westminster had created legislative equality between the United Kingdom and the self-governing Dominions of the former British Empire, giving Canada control over policy decisions. Elizabeth’s role in the successful 1939 tour therefore helped strengthen the bond between the two countries before the war.
The Second World War
During the Second World War, George VI and Elizabeth reached the height of their popularity because they remained in London during the 1940–41 Blitz. When Elizabeth received advice that her daughters should be evacuated to Canada, she declared, “The children could not go without me, I could not possibly leave the King, and the King would never go.” In September 1940, Buckingham Palace was bombed while the royal couple were in residence and they narrowly avoided injury. Elizabeth famously stated, “I’m glad we’ve been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.”
Elizabeth spent the war visiting munitions factories, schools and regiments in addition to bombed areas of London. The royal family observed wartime restrictions including food rationing and heat and water usage limits. Although Elizabeth remained in the United Kingdom throughout the war, she encouraged the Allied war effort around the world. Elizabeth also promoted recognition of women’s contributions to the war effort, stating in a 1943 radio broadcast to the “Women of the Empire,” “…You will see that your work, whatever it may be is just as valuable, just as much ‘war-work’ as that which is done by the bravest soldier, sailor or airman who actually meets the enemy in battle.”
When the Allies achieved victory in Europe on 8 May 1945, hundreds of thousands of people gathered outside Buckingham Palace cheering “We Want the King” and “We Want the Queen” until the royal family appeared on the balcony. Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared, “We could not have had a better King and Queen in Britain’s most perilous hour.”
Following the Second World War, the modern Commonwealth replaced the former British Empire. George VI and Elizabeth planned an extensive program of overseas tours. In 1947, they visited South Africa with their daughters and were well-received despite republican sentiment among the Afrikaner population. That same year, Elizabeth’s involvement in the Canadian forces increased when she became Honorary Colonel-in-Chief of the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment).George VI and Elizabeth were unable to undertake a planned return visit to Canada in 1951 and a tour of East Africa, Australia and New Zealand in 1952 because of the King’s declining health. Instead, Princess Elizabeth and her husband Prince Philip represented the King and Queen for overseas engagements in the early 1950s.
Ascension of Queen Elizabeth II
George VI died in his sleep from deep-vein thrombosis on 6 February 1952 after years of ill health from lung cancer and arteriosclerosis. Elizabeth’s elder daughter succeeded to the throne as Queen Elizabeth II while visiting Kenya and returned immediately to the United Kingdom. Around 300,000 people lined the streets of London to witness the funeral. At 51, Elizabeth was a widow and she would outlive her husband by 50 years. In a message thanking people from around the world for their condolences, Elizabeth stated, “My only wish is now that I may be allowed to continue the work we sought to do together.” In contrast to previous widowed queens consort, who reduced their schedule of public engagements, Elizabeth resumed a full program after a period of mourning. Elizabeth disliked the traditional title of “Dowager Queen” and instead became known as “Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother.” Elizabeth moved into Clarence House with Margaret when the new Queen and her husband and children moved into Buckingham Palace.
Subsequent Visits to Canada
As Queen Mother, Elizabeth visited Canada 14 times and advised other members of the royal family regarding their Canadian tours. When Margaret visited in 1958, Elizabeth wrote, “I have a feeling that Canada gives one a boost – even with very hard work – do you agree? They are so nice, & so loving and the Mounties are so beautiful & so romantic. It all helps.” Elizabeth’s first solo visit to Canada took place in 1954 when she opened the Bytown Bridges over the mouth of the Rideau River in Ottawa. During the late 1950s, there was speculation that Elizabeth might be appointed Governor General, although this was refuted by Buckingham Palace in 1957. For her 1962 tour, Elizabeth crossed the Atlantic in a Trans-Canada commercial plane during a regularly scheduled flight.
Elizabeth was one of the members of the royal family who visited Canada for the nation’s centennial in 1967, touring the Atlantic provinces and receiving an honorary degree from Dalhousie University. In 1977, she became Colonel-in-Chief of the Canadian Forces Medical Services. In 1989, she visited Canada for the last time, marking the 50th anniversary of the 1939 tour in Toronto, Ottawa and London, Ontario, just weeks before her 89th birthday. She remained closely engaged with her Canadian patronages and military regiments for the rest of her life, serving as Patron of Women’s College Hospital in Toronto and the Ontario Jockey Club. In 2000, Elizabeth was appointed to the Order of Canada at the age of 100.
Grandmother and Great-Grandmother
According to Prince Charles, “She was quite simply the most magical grandmother you could possibly have.” Elizabeth enjoyed a close relationship with her six grandchildren and the nine great-grandchildren born during her lifetime. During the extensive Commonwealth tours undertaken by her elder daughter in the 1950s, Elizabeth cared for her two eldest grandchildren, Charles and Anne. Elizabeth developed an especially warm relationship with Charles and was one of his most trusted advisors as an adult.
As she grew older, Elizabeth developed a warm relationship with her growing number of great-grandchildren. William recalled after her death, “She loved to hear about all my friends and all they got up to, and relate it to her own youth. And she loved to hear about how much trouble I got into at school.” When William began university at St. Andrews, Scotland, in 2001, his 101-year-old great-grandmother saw him off, declaring “Any good parties, invite me down!” William later recalled, “I knew full well that if I invited her down, she would dance me under the table.”
Elizabeth died in her sleep at Royal Lodge, Windsor on 30 March 2002 at the age of 101. At the time, she was the longest-lived member of the royal family. Over 200,000 people paid their respects in person as she lay in state at Westminster Hall, London. On the day of the funeral, 9 April, Governor General Adrienne Clarkson issued a proclamation calling on Canadians to honour her memory that day. Elizabeth was laid to rest in St. George’s chapel, Windsor, alongside her husband, George VI, and younger daughter, Margaret.