Merry and maternal, she extended herself so easily and so warmly to her people that the circumspect London Times in 1980 judged her to be probably the most popular royal personage of all time. Britons were inclined to believe that her resplendent smile would never fade. Despite failing health, she managed to greet thousands of well-wishers outside her home on her 101st birthday celebration last August with a raised glass of champagne. Only seven weeks ago, although grief stricken and looking frail, she insisted on attending the funeral of her 71-year-old daughter, Princess Margaret. Last Saturday afternoon, her job well done, the Queen Mother died in her sleep at Royal Lodge, Windsor, outside London.
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The ninth of 10 children, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon passed her childhood in her Scottish ancestral home of Glamis Castle. There she developed a lifelong passion for horses and dogs and a gift for dealing with people. Sometimes she would guide tourists around her stately home, and when the castle was turned into a military hospital during World War I, she helped entertain the troops.
Queen, however, was not a role she coveted. A persistent rumor has it that the small, sapphire-eyed Lady Elizabeth rejected Prince Albert's first proposal in 1921. Two years later, however, she decided to accept, and the two were wed amid a trumpeting of pageantry in Westminster Abbey. Elizabeth and Albert were in their 13th year of a quiet marriage and the parents of two girls when Albert's older brother Edward VIII gave up his crown to marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorce. Albert thereupon became King George VI and Elizabeth his Queen Consort.
Accession to the throne made Elizabeth no less approachable. As mother to the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, she schooled them in such ladylike arts as dancing and drawing. As wife to the shy and stammering King, she encouraged him through his speeches and put him at ease with her outgoing charm. Dressed often in flamboyant wide-brimmed hats, she never stood on ceremony.
That quality blossomed during World War II, when the Queen revealed a doughty spirit. She visited hospitals and slums and delivered broadcasts in fluent French to the women of occupied France. The end of the war did not bring an end to Elizabeth's challenges. Her husband fell ill in 1947 and five years later died of lung cancer. As the King's widow, she helped her daughter shoulder the burdens attendant upon a queen. The "smiling Duchess" glided with resilient good humor through roughly 10 engagements each month until she was midway into her 80s.
As Queen Mother, Elizabeth was an implacable defender of the Royal Family against modernity and change. Still smarting from the scandal of Edward and Mrs. Simpson, she demanded of its members the highest standards of morality and behavior. So the sexual, social and financial shenanigans of the past two decades strained her relationship with the younger royals. When the extramarital affairs of the Prince and Princess of Wales became common gossip, both got a dressing down. Yet, of them all, grandson Charles was her favorite and she his. Even within the family, a biographer once noted, Charles is seen as the son she never had, she the mother he feels he never had.
Elizabeth never ceased to think of herself as a country lass from Scotland. Every August she repaired to her home at the Castle of Mey on the coast of northern Scotland. There she loved to listen to her collection of bagpipe records, to don waders and go fishing for salmon with Prince Charles or simply to tramp through the rain, chatting with the locals.
Even the populist Sunday Mirror gushed, "She has almost become a symbol of all that Britain wants to stand for...something safe, sane, stable and as everlasting as the Tower of London." And as reassuringly familiar. Generations from now, her performance in that most deceptively difficult of jobs will be the standard by which the world's remaining monarchs are judged. The Queen Mother blended a sense of majesty and a sense of fun so comfortably that national feeling and natural feeling chimed. In the end, she made royalty seem human and humanity downright regal.