The Legacy of the Queen Mother

Article excerpt

THIS month will see most of the official celebrations for the Queen's Golden Jubilee. Although the actual anniversary of her accession in 1952 fell in February, it was decided to have the ceremonies and festivities in June, when the weather might be more favourable. (See Contemporary Review, February, 2002; for details of the various events see www.goldenjubilee.gov.uk) In the succeeding months the Queen has suffered two severe personal losses, the death of her sister Princess Margaret and the death of the Queen Mother at the end of March.

Every so often in the life of a nation there occurs a sudden pouring forth of emotion that changes fashionable thought. Future historians who seek to understand such swirls of passions by rational means are always baffled for these upsurges defy rationality. One of the most celebrated occurred in 1914 when joyous crowds gathered in all the major capitals in Europe to greet the outbreak of the First World War with a burst of mindless delight. In recent times we have seen tidal waves of feeling at the death of Princess Diana in 1997 or only a few months ago after the terrorist attacks in America. A similar tide swept through Britain when the Queen Mother died and this cascading wave once again swept away the sandcastle of republicanism.

The Queen Mother was the longest lived member of the British Royal Family in history. In August, 2000 she celebrated her hundredth birthday which became an event of national importance. She would have been 102 if she had lived till this August. (The oldest member of the Royal Family now is her widowed sister-in-law, the centenarian Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, whose husband was a younger brother of King George VI.) In the course of her long life, the Queen Mother broke many records including that of being a Queen longer than anyone; she became Queen Consort in 1936 thus bearing a royal title for almost 66 years. (Queen Victoria was Queen for almost 64 years but of course she was a queen regnant.)

Indeed it was in the last months of Victoria's lengthy and glorious reign that Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the future Queen Mother, was born on 4 August, 1900. If one takes the older -- and more accurate view -- that the nineteenth century ended on New Year's Day, 1901, then the Queen Mother lived in three different centuries, the nineteenth, the twentieth and into the twenty-first. Having been born in the 'old Queen's' reign, she passed her first decade in the elegant age of Edward VII; then she lived through the tumultuous reign of her father-in-law George V, followed by the brief melodrama of her frivolous brother-in-law, Edward VIII, and then came some fifteen years of her husband George VI's sombre reign followed by a half century of her daughter's reign.

One reason people were so stirred by her passing was because she had experienced so many of the tumults of the twentieth century. Old enough to have known the sweet savour of aristocratic life in the Edwardian era as the daughter of a Scottish Earl, she seemed to retain its grace and elegance throughout life. She was coming back from her fourteenth birthday celebrations on the night, referred to above, that singing crowds outside Buckingham Palace cheered the outbreak of the First World War. In that disastrous war one of her elder brothers would be killed, another captured while she herself nursed wounded soldiers at her family's castle. She married the King's second son in the 1920s and helped with his work to alleviate class tensions during the Depression.

Called to the throne unexpectedly and unprepared after Edward VIII's abdication, the new royal couple formed a near perfect partnership. Many have sought to portray George VI as a weakling who was moulded by his formidable wife. This is a complete distortion. It is true that she helped him to overcome a difficult speech impediment but he had always been a man of strong determination to do his duty. …