Satchelpedia: Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (the beloved "Queen Mum")

Satchelpedia: Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon

Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, August 4, 1900 – March 30, 2002. 
"Wouldn’t it be terrible if you’d spent all your life doing everything you were supposed to do, didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t eat things, took lots of exercise, and suddenly, one day, you were run over by a big red bus and, as the wheels were crunching into you, you’d say, “Oh my God, I could have got so drunk last night”. That’s the way you should live your life, as if tomorrow you’ll be run over by a big red bus." - Queen Elizabeth, 'the Queen Mother', Quoted by Michael Parker in Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: The Official Biography

It's hard not to be taken by the portrait of Queen Elizabeth – Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon – presented to us in the Oscar winning film The King's Speech.

The spirited wife of King Albert George VI (aka "Bertie") played by Helena Bonham Carter (and who else but a free spirit like Bonham Carter?), Queen Elizabeth came to the throne reluctantly, as did her husband whose elder brother, Edward, controversially abdicated in order to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Elizabeth was once described by Adolf Hitler as "the most dangerous woman in Europe" because of her ability to lift public morale with her smiling countenance.

"Lady Elizabeth was beautiful, sparkling and quick-witted, and she had a warmth and approachability that would compensate in their public life together for his diffidence," writes historian Geoffrey Hindley in The Royal Families of Europe. "When, as the Duke and Duchess of York, they returned after a triumphant Commonwealth tour in 1927, it was obvious that the British royal family had acquired a dedicated new team."

Her grandfather was the Reverend Charles Cavendish-Bentinck, grandson of British Prime Minister William Cavendish-Bentinck, the third Duke of Portland. Her mother was practical, deeply religious and self-deprecating. When asked by a member of the press for a photograph, Cecilia exclaimed, "I shouldn't waste a photograph on me." Elizabeth was four when her father was granted the title of Earl of Strathmore, an association which have her the title "Lady". The family homestead was in Scotland.

A sense of patriotic comradeship and duty was built up in Elizabeth early on. On her 14th birthday, World War I was declared, and the family home was turned into a hospital. "Duty is the rent you pay for your life" was her mother's motto, and her daughter followed suit. The experience exposed her to people from all walks of life, and, no doubt, to some colourful language. No coincidence, then, that she chose never to wear black but an array of colours and affected a demeanour that was at once resilient and compassionate.

Not without a sense of irony and mischief, she was the Julia Child of the monarchy, and could just as easily hold court amongst the aristocrats as amongst the people on the streets. "During her long and extraordinary life, her grace, her sense of duty and her remarkable zest for life made her loved and admired by people of all ages and backgrounds, revered within our borders and beyond," said former British Prime Minister Tony Blair upon her death.

The ninth of ten children, Elizabeth was educated at home by her mother, Cecilia Nina Cavendish-Bentinck, and governesses until the age of eight. A precocious student who excelled in literature and scripture and achieved a distinction in her Oxford Local Examination aged 13, Elizabeth attended a private school in London for eight months before her mother withdrew her. She then fell under the tutelage of a German teacher, whose services were put to an end when the war broke out. Her formal education thus ceased: she was 18 when the war ended.   

No shrinking violet, she knew her own mind. Having refused Prince Albert's hand twice, on the basis that she was "afraid never, never again to be free to think, speak and act as I feel I really ought to", it was said that their eventual marriage in 1923 was "the best thing that ever happened to him". It was also a departure from tradition. Though her heritage linked her to Scottish nobility, it was the done thing for English kings to marry princesses from other monarchies. Their marriage was the start of a democratisation of the palace.

Together they were determined to fight fascism despite having originally favoured appeasement with Germany. When other wealthy British families were seeking refuge in America in 1939-40, George and Elizabeth, governed by a conscientious sense of duty, stayed put during the Blitz. "The children cannot go without me and I will not leave the King, and the King of course will not go," she said defiantly. It was a German pilot who unloaded a cluster of bombs on Buckingham Palace who further endeared the royal couple to the people. "It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face," said Elizabeth.

Her politics are hard to pin though she did once confide, "I like the dear old Labour Party", and also expressed that she abhorred racial discrimination and perceived that those in the greater Commonwealth were "all like us". She was said to be "so charming and so disarming [that] even to the most rabid element, she brought bring peace to troubled waters".

It was Elizabeth who engaged the services of Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue to attend to her husband's stuttering in 1926, which became the subject of The King's Speech. On the day of his coronation, the King is said to have exclaimed, "I could eat no breakfast and had a sinking feeling inside." Elizabeth and Albert had two daughters, Princess Elizabeth (aka "Lillibet"), now Queen Elizabeth II, and Princess Margaret, who passed away mere weeks before her mother in 2002.

While she was widowed in 1952, making way for her daughter to succeed the throne, she lived till the ripe old age of 101, known affectionately as "The Queen Mum" and carrying on her civic duties. Presumably, on her 100th birthday, she received a letter from her daughter, the Queen. We will reflect on the 10th anniversary of the Queen Mother's death come March 30.

The Royal Families of Europe by Geoffrey Hindley
'Queen Mother Dies' - BBC
'Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother' - Wikipedia
'The Indomitable Queen Mum' -

Girl With a Satchel