She is fondly recalled for her love of pastel colours, horseracing and ‘drinky-poos’, a term for the lethal concoction of gin and Dubonet she preferred.
And just over 21 years since her death at the age of 101, the late Queen Mother remains a lasting influence on her grandchild, King Charles III.
It is worth remembering, then, that for all the gracious smiles in public, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon displayed an iron will behind closed doors and such steely war-time resolve that Adolf Hitler described her as ‘the most dangerous woman in Europe’.
Here, in the first extract from Gareth Russell’s candid biography of The Queen Mother, we reveal how, for all the formal niceties of a life surrounded by liveried servants, she was at times unnervingly free-spirited – with a delightfully waspish tongue…
The Queen mother visits Hallsville school in Canning Town in 1990 – 50 years after her famous visits to the bomb-ravaged East End of London in the Blitz
Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon was born on August 4, 1900. Her childhood was one of wealth, comfort and love, as the youngest daughter in a large family of the Scottish aristocracy. Pictured: The young Elizabeth age two
Even as a child the Queen Mother was known to be unnervingly free-spirited – with a delightfully waspish tongue
When Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon was born on August 4 1900, Queen Victoria was on the throne. Elizabeth’s childhood would be one of wealth, comfort and love, as the youngest daughter in a large family of the Scottish aristocracy.
The young Elizabeth was not noted for her punctuality. She was habitually late, a trait she shared with her father Claude, who was so lackadaisical about time-keeping that he did not complete the paperwork for Elizabeth’s birth until six weeks after the event.
This unfortunate delay led to a theory, in the 2010s, that Elizabeth must have been a changeling – perhaps her father’s child with somebody else? Maybe the illegitimate daughter of a French cook or a Welsh servant?
Some proponents have even raised Elizabeth’s physical appearance later in her life to support their argument, since, as she gained weight, ‘she did look like the daughter of a cook. You can hardly say she looked aristocratic.’
Elizabeth’s brothers teased her about how much she enjoyed mealtimes, plus the snacks made liberally available in between. In early 1913, one of the brothers found her diary. Jokingly pretending to be Elizabeth, they forged a series of entries such as:
Sat Jan 4th
I am putting on weight. My waist measurement today is 43 inches. Appetite good.
Appetite still good, after healthy breakfast went to church. Came back very hungry for lunch. Roast beef, chicken, Yorkshire pudding, Plum pudding, cheese, cake & oranges. Oh, my poor tummy. Just going to have tea. Am very hungry.
It apparently had no effect on Elizabeth, who refused to feel ashamed.
In 1920, Elizabeth became a debutante. On June 2, she attended a magnificent ball in Grosvenor Square. One of her dance partners was Captain James Stuart, the Earl of Moray’s handsome younger son and a recipient of the Military Cross for gallantry for his service during the Great War.
Elizabeth was very attracted to 23-year-old Captain Stuart. Her maid Mabel believed ‘he was an absolute heart-throb, and they fell for each other in a big way’.
Stuart was serving as an equerry to Prince Albert, known to his family as Bertie, who would later become George VI.
When Stuart and Elizabeth had finished dancing, Bertie leaned over to his equerry and said, ‘Who was that lovely girl you were talking to? Introduce me to her.’
Within a few weeks, Bertie’s feelings for Elizabeth became romantic. But although she liked him, she was not interested in that way.
In 1920, Elizabeth became a debutante. On June 2, she attended a ball in Grosvenor Square, where she met her future husband Prince Albert, known to his family as Bertie
Prince Albert, Duke of York, and Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, pictured together around the time of their engagement. Albert, later George VI, proposed three times before Elizabeth accepted
Their wedding, as pictured in The Illustrated London news on April 28 1923. When their engagement was announced, Eliabeth had told her brother David: ‘I could hear a door clanging behind me – never to open again’
She confided to a friend that if she married a prince, for the rest of her life ‘privacy would have to take second place to her husband’s work for the nation.’ When he proposed in the spring of 1921, she said no.
At that point, his mother, Queen Mary, stepped in. Concluding that Elizabeth was ‘the one girl who could make Bertie happy’, she moved to weed out the competition.
Captain James Stuart unexpectedly received an extremely lucrative job offer in the oil industry.
According to her diary, on her way back from the dentist on 15 January 1923, Elizabeth called on her sister-in-law, Fenella, ‘told her the news, & had a cocktail’.
She had accepted Bertie’s proposal, his third, the day before.
As the engagement announcement appeared in newspapers across the world, Elizabeth told her brother David, ‘I could hear a door clanging behind me – never to open again.’
Elizabeth leaving her home on the day of her wedding to then Prince George
The future King George VI and future Queen Elizabeth at the christening of their first daughter Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen Elizabeth II, on May 29 1926
Elizabeth’s and Wallis Simpson’s dislike of each other – even hatred at times – has become legendary, a Bette Davis and Joan Crawford of the British monarchy
Elizabeth enjoyed cocktails, but eventually decided that she disliked their name.
Feeling ‘cocktail’ was too harsh a word, she suggested: ‘Can’t we call them ‘drinky-poos’ instead?’
Her favourite drinky-poo was gin and Dubonnet – one-part gin to two-parts Dubonnet, a fortified wine initially developed to treat malaria in early 19th-century France.
It is said that after one gin and Dubonnet, you’ll need a taxi, after two you’ll need an ambulance, and after three you’ll need a priest.
Elizabeth and Wallis Simpson’s dislike of each other – even hatred at times – has become legendary, a Bette Davis and Joan Crawford of the British monarchy.
Both were presented by their respective critics as the Machiavellian brains behind the Abdication crisis, the name given to Edward VIII’s announcement in December 1936 that he was relinquishing the throne so that he could legally marry Wallis, ‘the woman I love’.
The evidence supports neither scenario. Both women were quite seriously unwell as the crisis came to a boil.
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth with their daughters Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose following his the Coronation
Elizabeth was bedridden with a bout of influenza that developed into pneumonia when she became Queen. She listened to her brother-in-law’s radio address relinquishing the throne
Elizabeth was bedridden with a bout of influenza that developed into pneumonia, while Wallis could not get out of bed for much of the latter half of November, when a friend confided to his diary that she was ‘so ill (it is a form of nervous exhaustion)’.
Lying in her sickbed, Elizabeth became queen as she listened to her brother-in-law’s radio address relinquishing the throne. Before he boarded a warship for temporary exile in France and Austria, Elizabeth sent a letter to the ex-king to tell him that she prayed: ‘God bless you from my heart. We are all overcome with misery, and can only pray that you will find happiness in your new life.’
Elizabeth was so unwell that she did not get out of bed until 12 days after becoming queen.
One of Elizabeth’s longest-lasting friendships was with the playwright Noel Coward.
In the 1930s, there were credible rumours that Coward was in love with Elizabeth’s brother-in-law, the Duke of Kent, and that playwright and prince had been an item before Kent’s marriage to Princess Marina.
Elizabeth subsequently dispelled any doubt that she knew Coward was gay when, one evening, they passed the tall soldiers of the Household Cavalry in their gleaming breastplates, lined up on either side of the staircase.
Catching Coward staring, Elizabeth whispered with a smile: ‘I wouldn’t if I were you, Noel. They count them before they put them out.’
Elizabeth found her visits to the bombed-out East End in 1940, at the height of the Blitz, profoundly moving.
Every year on her birthday until the end of her life, a residents’ group representing East End survivors of the Blitz sent a birthday cake to the Queen Mother’s residence.
Aged 87, she visited the Queen’s Head pub on Flamborough Street, where she asked the landlord, Vic Jones, if he would teach her how to pour her own pint.
‘My family had been in the trade since 1881 – they ran the Bull’s Head in Duckett Street. But the Blitz hit us badly,’ said Jones.
Elizabeth found her visits to the bombed-out East End profoundly moving. Here she inspects the damage to a cinema destroyed by Nazi bombing
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth meet American troops in England, 1943
King and Queen speak to a patient wounded in an air raid in London
‘We lost 22 members of the family – grandfather, uncles, cousins. So it did feel relevant when the Palace approached me about her visit.
‘The Palace bloke said: ‘Don’t worry. She will make you feel at ease.’ I didn’t believe him. But he was right. She was terrific. You have to remember she was an old lady. I shook her hand and she felt like a sparrow and I was so scared I might crush her. I asked her what she wanted to drink and she asked for a pint of Special. She poured it herself and she knocked back at least three-quarters of it. I have to say I was impressed.’
The Queen’s popularity during the Second World War, and her refusal to evacuate during the Nazi bombardment, proved such a significant boost to British morale that Adolf Hitler paid Elizabeth the compliment of her life by dubbing her ‘the most dangerous woman in Europe’.
In preparation for the expected Nazi invasion, Queen Elizabeth took shooting lessons with pistols and rifles in the gardens of Buckingham Palace, sometimes using as her targets the scurrying rats that had been set loose on London’s streets as buildings collapsed in the air raids.
Elizabeth was intent on putting up a good fight and she said that she planned to take as many Nazis as possible out with her before she was killed or captured.
The government wanted the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret sent abroad as soon as possible to remove two possible targets for the Nazis. The Queen refused, famously saying, ‘The children will not go without me. I won’t leave the King. And the King will never leave.’
Queen Elizabeth pictured with her daughters Princess Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. During the war the government wanted the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret sent abroad as soon as possible to remove two possible targets for the Nazis, but the Queen refused to let them go
The Queen Mother and Queen Elizabeth attending Royal Ascot in 1982. Following the death of her husband she had no inclination to marry again
The Queen Mother and then the Prince of Wales on a walkabout outside Clarence House on her 95th birthday in 1995
Adapted from Do Let’s Have Another Drink: The Singular Wit and Double Measures of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother by Gareth Russell , published by Harper Collins
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