One of author Robert Lacey’s fondest memories is of the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, when he was 9. “We sat there all day in front of the television set,” he recalls, “eating watercress-and-crab sandwiches and drinking cups of tea.” In 1977, Lacey, a Cambridge graduate, published Majesty, a bestselling look at Britain’s current royal family. To mark the end of the 20th century, he turned to Britain’s beloved Queen Mother, who has lived every year of it. Granted access to Glamis, her family’s hereditary castle in Scotland, Lacey found “in an upper room in the tower an old trestle table with wonderful sepia photographs strewn all over it,” he says. Some are published for the first time in Lacey’s The Queen Mother’s Century, from which those on the following pages are also taken. “The Queen Mother sums up all that’s best of the British century,” says Lacey, 55. “Duty, tradition, service to the community, but also style and fun, and a certain theatricality. She’s a great British national treasure.”
Accompanied by her grandson Prince Charles (right) and great-grandsons Princes Harry (left) and William, the Queen Mother celebrated her 99th birthday Aug. 4 at Clarence House.
Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who had no shortage of suitors, accepted the Duke of York’s proposal after turning him down twice. On April 26, 1923, she left her parents’ home in London to be wed at Westminster Abbey.
The ninth of the Earl and Countess of Strathmore’s 10 children, Elizabeth (in 1906) spent summers at Glamis, the fabled Scottish castle of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Three years after they married, the Duke and Duchess of York welcomed their first daughter, the current Queen Elizabeth (on her christening day in 1926). Margaret Rose arrived in 1930. The family occupied a grand, but not palatial, home near Green Park and tried to live in relative normalcy. The girls were taught at home by a governess.
After Elizabeth’s husband died in 1952, her daughter rose to the throne, and, as the Queen Mother, she moved to Clarence House, a few hundred yards from Buckingham Palace. Shortly after the funeral, a relative complimented Elizabeth (center, the belle of a ball at Grosvenor House in 1959) on the composure with which she was bearing the loss. “Not in private,” she replied.
In 1936, King Edward VIII rocked the monarchy by abdicating to marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcée who was deemed unsuitable. His shy younger brother, Elizabeth’s husband, succeeded him as King George VI (right, greeting his subjects after the 1937 coronation, with the new Queen Elizabeth, left, and their daughter Princess Elizabeth, center).
During World War II the royal family decided to share the plight of the rest of the country. They spent their nights in air-raid shelters and observed all the rationing regulations. Indeed, Buckingham Palace was even damaged by the German Blitz. One U.S. newspaper described the queen (visiting the bombed-out East End of London in 1940) as Britain’s “Minister for Morale.”
The Queen Mother (with her 4-year-old grandson Prince Charles in 1953) is one of the most beloved members of the royal family. With a human touch that Princess Diana would echo, she popularized the “walkabout,” a way of informally meeting her well-wishers.
Despite her hip-replacement surgeries in 1995 and 1998, the Queen Mother (presenting the shamrock to the Irish Guards on St. Patrick’s Day, 1994) still carries out two or three engagements a week when in London. In 1982 she overtook Queen Victoria as the longest-lived queen, her longevity due perhaps to her use of alternative medicine and her daily tipple—a stiff gin-and-Dubonnet.