This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on July 24, 2000
Neither age nor infirmity have managed to dull her sharp wit, especially if someone tampers with the Queen Mum's drink. The Archbishop of Canterbury discovered that recently, to his momentary dismay. It happened late last month, during a lavish luncheon at London's 15th-century Guildhall, where 500 guests had gathered to commemorate the Queen Mother's upcoming 100th birthday on Aug. 4. As the assembled throng rose for a toast, the royal matriarch searched in vain for her own glass of 1988 Château Léoville-Barton, only to find it clutched securely in the archiepiscopal grasp of Dr. George Carey, head of the Church of England. "That's mine," she brusquely declared, delivering a look of stern rebuke. Suffused with a flush as purple as his robes, the archbishop stammered an apology and, amidst rippling laughter from the guests, hastily returned the inadvertently purloined wine.
For much of the past century, Elizabeth, mother of the reigning Queen who bears her name, has been performing similar feats. Blue eyes aglint with just a hint of mischief, the tiny figure in the big hat has charmed her way into British affections, and those of much of the rest of the world, with a winning smile, a well-developed sense of humour and near-perfect timing. Of all the members of Britain's ruling House of Windsor, she is by far the most popular. More than 50 years before Diana, the late Princess of Wales, was dubbed "Queen of Hearts," the woman who is now the Queen Mother wore the very same label. Fond of a tipple and a flutter - a bet - on the horses, she can strike a chord among common folk, even if her roots are anything but ordinary. To many, she actually is the Royal Family, embodying all that is best about the country's monarchy: the sense of dignity and duty, the doughty determination to persevere in the face of adversity, whether it be the trials of war or the tribulations of family scandal. "The British love her," says veteran royal watcher Harold Brooks-Baker, publishing director of Burke's Peerage, the guide to royal and noble pedigree, "because they see in her everything they like most about themselves."
The fact that much of the Queen Mother's popular image is myth, largely of her own making, does not really matter. There might not be a British monarchy today if she had not been around to nurse it through moments of great crisis, when the very existence of the ancient institution was called into question. Almost single-handedly, she turned her husband, the man who became George VI, from an awkward, stuttering, neurosis-ridden aristocrat into a king, rescuing his crown for him when his brother, Edward VIII, abdicated in 1936. Not for nothing did Adolf Hitler once describe her as "the most dangerous woman in Europe."
As a propagandist, she left even Hitler's notorious image-maker, Josef Göbbels, trailing far behind in the wake of her fluffy, feathered gowns. Before the Second World War began, she was instrumental in cementing alliances with Canada and other Commonwealth countries, not to mention the United States, that would prove critical. When the war started, she formed, along with her husband and Winston Churchill, the bulldog triumvirate that stiffened British resolve during the darkest days of the conflict. She won a lasting place in the affections of wartime Britain when Buckingham Palace was bombed by the Germans and she famously remarked: "I'm glad it happened. Now I can look the residents of the East End in the face." As she later confessed: "It was the war that made us."
The Queen Mother was there throughout the scandal-plagued years of marital disasters that descended upon the House of Windsor in recent times, ever-smiling, rock steady in her pastel frocks and flowing hats, a living symbol of an earlier era when British rule held sway over one-quarter of the globe. Of all the blessings that she bestowed upon the British throne, there is perhaps none as significant as the transformation she wrought in the Royal Family itself. When Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon married the Duke of York, as the future king was known, in 1923, Britain's royals were a stuffy lot, a stiff, imperious clan of Hanoverians, as Teutonic in style and manner as their German forebears. Her father-in-law, King George V, was cold and aloof, responsible, in large part, for fostering the ills that plagued all of his children. His wife, Queen Mary, was even more formidable. "Talking to the Queen," wrote Chips Channon, the ubiquitous courtier and gossipy diarist of the era, "was like having a conversation with St. Paul's Cathedral."
The future Queen brought a breath of fresh air to the clan, as bracing as the Scottish highlands where her roots lay. She has been around for so long that few today can recall what the British royals were like in the early years of the last century. "They never smiled and they never, ever mingled with the common herd," wrote Robert Lacey, one of the Queen Mum's many biographers, in The Queen Mother's Century, published last year. When Elizabeth married the Duke of York at Westminster Abbey, it was decided not to broadcast the ceremonies over the newly created British Broadcasting Co. The Archbishop of Canterbury feared that men in pubs might be sipping beer with their hats on while listening to the nuptials, and might even fail to stand to attention when the national anthem was played.
The Scots lass changed all of that. She literally invented the royal walkabout, long before her granddaughter-in-law, the doomed Diana, perfected the art. An adoring press soon christened her "The Smiling Duchess," and sometimes, in reference to her five-foot, two-inch stature, "The Little Duchess." She was forever diving into crowds, as she would do during her and her husband's month-long, coast-to-coast tour of Canada in 1939, the first of 15 visits she would pay to the country. Journalist Gregory Clark captured the spirit of that prewar, post-Depression royal visit by writing in The Toronto Daily Star: "In a world full of fear, anxiety and misgiving, we decked our streets for them, and a melancholy seemed to lift from us."
There is an irony in all of this, one of the many puzzling aspects about the Queen Mother's enduring appeal. She may well possess an uncanny knack for connecting with the crowd, but there is absolutely nothing ordinary about her own values, background and bloodlines. "The little girl who would one day become Queen started life in the cocoon of extraordinary privilege," noted Ingrid Seward in her 1999 biography The Last Great Edwardian Lady. "Born in the high summer of Imperial Britain, into a family both ancient and grand, hers was a society secure in its certainties, assured of its pre-eminence, set in its castes."
Elizabeth's father was the 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, descended from a line of medieval Scots warlords. Her mother could count among her ancestors the 3rd Duke of Portland, prime minister to King George III. There are still Scottish aristocrats today who would argue that the Queen Mother actually married beneath herself when she wed into the House of Windsor. Glamis Castle, the Strathmores' family seat, is the oldest inhabited castle in the Highlands, home, in fable at least, to Shakespeare's Macbeth. There were also three other mansions, including a castle among the coalfields and ironworks of County Durham in northern England, the source of the Strathmores' industrial wealth.
Biographer Seward, who is also editor-in-chief of London's Majesty magazine, makes the cogent argument that the Queen Mother never left the world of rank and privilege into which she was born. In the cost-conscious world of the contemporary House of Windsor, the Queen Mother stands alone. She has a passion for horse-racing and entertainment, and freely indulges in both. And there are rarely fewer than 14 for lunch and dinner, especially when she is in residence at Clarence House, the cream stucco mansion just down the road from Buckingham Palace that is her London home.
Most of her guests leave well-lubricated. Though she is understood to have curbed her alcohol intake of late, more than one guest has privately remarked that she enjoyed "leg-buckling" cocktails of gin mixed with Dubonnet before lunch, as well as "a vodka martini or three" before dinner, until well into her 90s. In Scotland, the Queen Mother divides her time between Birkhall, a mansion in the southeast corner of the 20,000-hectare royal estate at Balmoral, and the lonely Castle of Mey, further north on Scotland's Pentland Firth. Mey, which annually costs $1 million to maintain, is used for just six weeks every year. A staff of close to 50 is required to run the three residences, as well as the Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park where she often spends weekends. "Even her dogs - never fewer than two - live well," writes Seward. "At night they sleep in her dressing room in their own metal-framed foldaway beds with slipcovers for easy washing."
Last year, as usual, the Queen Mother spent the entire $1.5 million annually allotted to her by the British taxpayers - the so-called Civil List, used to pay for staffing and other official royal expenditures. Only two other royals are on the list, Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. Neither came close to spending their annual allotments last year. (The rest of the Royal Family's expenses, with the exception of Prince Charles, are paid from the Queen's private resources; Charles draws his income - estimated at $10 million this year - from the profits of the Duchy of Cornwall Land Holdings and Investments.) To further fund her lifestyle, the Queen Mother has, according to persistent reports, run up an overdraft of $10 million with Coutts, bankers to the British establishment. It will, in all probability, never be paid. Not that the managers at Coutts are worried, given other persistent rumours that the Queen herself constantly makes up for shortfalls in "Mummy's" income.
If the Queen Mother is anything but thrifty, she is also not quite the sugar-sweet old lady often portrayed in public. "I am not really very nice," she once admitted in a rare moment of candour. She waged a lifelong vendetta with Wallis Simpson, for whom Edward VIII gave up the throne. In the Queen Mum's view, Simpson was responsible for bringing the British monarchy to the brink of extinction. A half-century later, Diana confronted the same hostility when she, too, threatened to bring harm to the House of Windsor. Not even Diana's tragic death nearly three years ago mellowed the Queen Mother. Even when public emotion turned against the Royal Family, the Queen Mother was moved to acidly remark that Diana was proving to be "as tedious in death as she had been in life."
The sentiment may have been harsh. But it is not all that difficult to grasp the Queen Mother's likely motivation. Both Simpson and Diana threatened the institution to which she has devoted her long life. The British monarchy today is, in many respects, the result of the nurturing it has received in her capable hands. The crowds expected to attend the 100th birthday pageant on July 19 at Horse Guards Parade in London, not to mention the actual birthday celebrations on Aug. 4, may not be fully aware of her role. But the diminutive figure in the large hat who will be standing in the royal box, reviewing the troops and bands assembled in her honour, knows exactly what she accomplished. She rescued the House of Windsor from an uncertain fate, then re-created it in her own image. And woe to any who would tear it down.
A Royal Snapshot
1895: Prince Albert, second son of the future King George V and Queen Mary in line to the British throne, born at Sandringham in Norfolk
1900: Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon born in London
1916-1919: Elizabeth helps administer Red Cross hospital in Glamis Castle (childhood home), Scotland, for the wounded of the First World War
1923: Elizabeth and Albert, now the Duke of York, married at Westminster Abbey
1926: Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary of York, the future Queen, born in London
1930: Princess Margaret Rose of York born at Glamis Castle
1936: Edward VIII abdicates for the "woman he loves," Wallis Simpson, and the Yorks become George VI and Queen Elizabeth
1939: Visit to Canada (the first by a reigning monarch) and the United States
1947: Princess Elizabeth and Lieut. Philip Mountbatten marry in Westminster Abbey
1952: George VI dies at Sandringham; Queen Elizabeth II's coronation takes place the following year
1960: Princess Margaret marries Antony Armstrong-Jones
1989: The Queen Mother's last visit to Canada, on the 50th anniversary of her first trip
1995: Right hip replaced; second hip replaced three years later
1999: The Queen Mother carries out 114 engagements
Maclean's July 24, 2000