For decades she seemed the fairy godmother of an entire adoring nation. Elizabeth, Queen Consort to King George VI and mother of Queen Elizabeth II, was, historians will doubtless record, the woman who helped restore the majesty of the throne after the abdication of George's brother Edward VIII in 1936. But the Queen Mother's former subjects will be more likely to remember her as the sprightly Queen Mum who seemed almost a part of everyone's family.
Merry and maternal, always ready with a bandage or a bag of sweets, 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 her resplendent smile would never fade.
She was sporting that smile as well as walking sticks and a bandaged right leg last November, at one of her final public appearances. The 101-year-old arrived by helicopter to relaunch the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and, spurning a ride in her blue-and-gold-striped motorized buggy, told 2,000 sailors and dignitaries: "I'm so happy to be once again onboard Ark Royal. You see, I launched her and her predecessor [in 1950]. So it's wonderful to feel that now she's going to be at sea and guarding our shores just as in the days of yore ... Captain, splice the main brace" ? a reference to the old naval custom of an extra tot of rum, a round for a job well done. On the day before Easter, her job well done, the Queen Mother died peacefully in her sleep at Royal Lodge, her residence at Windsor, with her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, at her bedside.
She had been weak and frail since Christmas, when she contracted a chest infection at Sandringham, the royal retreat in Norfolk. She was dependent on a wheelchair and still had a worrying cough in early February, when her second daughter, Margaret, died in London at age 71 after a series of strokes. Nevertheless, the Queen Mother insisted on attending the Princess's funeral at Windsor. The Archbishop of Canterbury recalled that at the St. George's Chapel service, she stood in tribute as Margaret's coffin passed.
St. George's will also be the final resting place for the Queen Mother. First will come several days of private mourning, which will be followed by a period of public mourning, during which her body will lie in state at Westminster Hall in the Houses of Parliament complex. After services at Westminster Abbey ? the first state funeral since that of Winston Churchill in 1965 ? and a private service at the royal chapel in Windsor, she will be laid to rest beneath a simple slab of black marble beside her husband, King George VI.
The two royal deaths, of Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother, will doubtless cast a pall on the Golden Jubilee, the 50th anniversary of Elizabeth II's reign. Still, early indications from the palace suggest that the celebrations will continue more or less as planned. The Queen Mother would have wanted it that way. More than that, she undoubtedly would have wanted to be a part of them.
Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was not born to the royal life. The ninth of 10 children, she passed her childhood in her Scottish ancestral home of Glamis Castle, the gloomy fortress where Shakespeare's Macbeth is said to have murdered Duncan. 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.
Life as a royal, however, was not a role she coveted. "You'll be a lucky fellow if she accepts you," King George V is said to have warned his second son, Prince Albert, Duke of York, when he embarked upon courting the small, sapphire-eyed Lady Elizabeth. Sure enough, a persistent rumor has it that she rejected the prince'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 14th year of a quiet marriage and were the parents of two girls when Albert's older brother Edward VIII gave up his crown to marry Wallis Simpson, an American who divorced her second husband to wed the former King. (To the end of her days, the otherwise indulgent Elizabeth regarded the abdication as an unpardonable dereliction of duty.) 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, Britain's first commoner Queen in almost four centuries never stood on ceremony. "She came into royalty from the outside," remembered an old friend, "and she brought a naturalness and spontaneity that are trained out of royalty."
Those qualities blossomed during World War II, when the Queen revealed a doughty spirit. Eager to set an example for her subjects, she visited hospitals and slums and delivered broadcasts in fluent French to the women of occupied France. The Queen recognized that war would prove to be a great democratic leveler. "I'm glad we have been bombed," she said in 1940, after Buckingham Palace weathered the first in a series of air attacks. "It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face." Hitler was to have said, "She is the most dangerous woman in Europe."
But 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 at 56. As the King's young widow, she found solace in her beloved Scotland, where she purchased the Castle of Mey, which became a favorite retreat. The new role she chose for herself was to help her daughter, then just 25, shoulder the burdens attendant upon a queen.
The two Elizabeths were said to be very fond of, and extremely deferential to, each other. "When I went to preach at Sandringham," recalled a bishop, "I was standing beside the Queen Mother before she went up to bed on the Sunday night, and she said: "It's been so lovely having you, do come again.' Then she turned to the Queen and immediately apologized: "Oh how rude of me, darling! It isn't for me to invite anyone to Sandringham.'" The Queen was said to be equally solicitous of her mother, though she rarely seemed to need the attention. The "smiling Duchess" glided with resilient good humor through roughly 10 engagements each month until she was midway into her 80s. She was patron or president of more than 300 organizations. And in recent years, she kept up an amazing public and private schedule for a person her age: she attended a performance of the Royal Ballet on her 101st birthday, reveling as the orchestra played and audience sang "Happy Birthday." In the last weeks of her life, she even hosted a small party on the occasion of the Cheltenham races at her Windsor residence.
As Queen Mother, Elizabeth was an implacable defender of the Royal Family against modernity and change. For instance, she objected to the notion that the royals should pay taxes. And still smarting from the scandal of Edward and Mrs. Simpson, she in turn demanded of family members the highest standards of morality and behavior. So the sexual, social and financial shenanigans of the past two decades, floodlit by a prurient and deference-be-damned press, 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. "[The Queen Mother] came to feel that Diana was a very silly girl and had a poor sense of duty, or devoir, as she often calls it," a lady-in-waiting once said. "Diana sensed that the Queen Mother saw her as a second Mrs. Simpson, who was threatening to undermine the whole show," said another aide. Still, she must have been shocked and saddened by Diana's tragic death in 1997. Throughout it 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.
The official announcement of his grandmother's death was delayed briefly in order to inform Charles, who was on a Swiss skiing holiday with his sons William and Harry. He quickly released a statement saying that he was "completely devastated," and he made plans to return home for private services on Easter Sunday.
Royal watchers will speculate whether the Queen Mother's passing will further encourage Charles in his increasingly public relationship with his long-time companion, Camilla Parker-Bowles. The Queen Mother's problem was never with Camilla, whom she considered to be a "charming, sensible woman," according to one friend. Rather, she appreciated the problems such a union would pose for the institution of the monarchy and refused to consider the possibility of marriage on that basis. Just last week, Charles and Camilla were together for the first time at Buckingham Palace in the presence of the Queen, at a concert by famed cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Now, with the death of the Queen Mother, Charles and Camilla may feel more free to wed.
Elizabeth, the Queen Mum, never ceased to think of herself as a country lass from Scotland. She spent each August at the Castle of Mey, listening to her bagpipe records and fishing for salmon with Prince Charles. Sometimes she would simply tramp through the rain, chatting with the locals. Once, it is said, she noticed a farmhand struggling to herd his lambs into a pen. Instantly she clambered over a stone wall to help out. It seemed, she later said, the neighborly thing to do.
The images that lodged in the British heart were of the Queen Mum singing gaily as a chauffeur whizzed her through Rhodesia in 1960, pottering around her beloved garden in baggy trousers, following the fortunes of her racehorses on a telephone results service used by bookies.
That lively spirit and unaffected dignity disarmed even her enemies. A trouble-making South African once approached her with this challenge: "I don't think much of royalty. I think South Africa ought to be a republic." Without skipping a beat, Elizabeth replied, "That's how we feel in Scotland too, but the English won't allow it." Such remarks were rarely for public consumption and often self-deprecating: "You think I'm a nice person," she told her friend Woodrow Wyatt in the 1980s. "I'm really not a nice person."
Prime Minister Tony Blair was among the many who came forward last Saturday to disagree vehemently. In his tribute he described her as a symbol of Britain's "decency and courage." Much earlier the populist Sunday Mirror had similarly 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.