Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (nee the Honorable Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon), 101, widely considered the most beloved member of Britain’s Royal Family, “died peacefully in her sleep this afternoon, at Royal Lodge, Windsor,” a spokesperson for Buckingham Palace announced on Saturday, March 30. Her daughter Queen Elizabeth, 75, was at her mother’s side. This is the second death in the Windsor household in as many months, with Elizabeth’s sister, Princess Margaret, having died at the age of 71 on Feb. 9.
The Queen Mum, as she was best known, saw her country suffer through two world wars, her smiling face and stoic presence as queen during World War II serving as an emblem of her nation’s optimism and bravery. And, unlike many other members of the Royal Family, she managed to keep largely out of the spotlight of adverse publicity — the only whispers being that she liked a strong gin and tonic now and then.
The Queen Mother had been maintaining a scaled-back but still rigorous schedule since the celebration of her 100th birthday in August 2000, which drew tens of thousands of well-wishers to Buckingham Palace. But word of her failing health began surfacing in the press in January 2002, when it came to light she was missing social engagements. After her death, a Palace spokesman said that the Queen Mother “had become increasingly frail in recent weeks following her bad cough and chest infection over Christmas. Her condition deteriorated this morning and her doctors were called.” On Sunday, the Palace announced that a funeral will be held at London’s Westminster Abbey on Tuesday, followed by private burial at Windsor Castle.
The Queen Mother was a figure with whom many Brits identified, from her grandmotherly manner with Prince Charles and her great-grandsons, princes William and Harry — all of whom were frequent visitors to her London residence — to her love of horse racing and those gin and tonics. Indeed, at her birthday celebration, loyal subjects were out in force to honor her.
“She’s marvelous,” observer Elizabeth Clifford told the Los Angeles Times at the time. She had waited with her infant daughter for four hours to see the Queen Mum. “I came here 20 years ago for her 80th birthday with my mother, so I wanted to bring my daughter with me today.”
The Queen Mother’s life was as full of drama as it was long. Born on Aug. 4, 1900, her aristocratic family’s home, Scotland’s Glamis Castle — the setting for Shakespeare’s Macbeth — became a hospital during World War I, after Britain declared war on Germany on the Queen Mum’s 14th birthday. The teen Elizabeth, who suffered the loss of a brother to the war, helped care for wounded soldiers at the castle.
After the war she moved to London, where she eventually married King George V’s second son, Prince Albert, in 1923. She had no expectations of becoming queen, but after Albert’s brother, Edward VIII, abdicated the throne in 1936, her husband was crowned King George VI.
World War II brought turmoil to her doorstep again. She refused to follow the advice of aides that she should evacuate to Canada with her daughters, remaining instead with the king throughout the war, even during the London Blitz. She spoke so openly and forcefully to Britain’s allies that Hitler reportedly called her the most dangerous woman in Europe.
Even after the death of her husband in 1952 and the succession of her elder daughter as Queen Elizabeth II, the Queen Mother maintained a heavy schedule of royal duties. She moved down the street from Buckingham Palace to Clarence House, where she employed a staff of up to 50 handmaids, footmen and others to keep her looking her signature stylish best in couture and abundant jewelry.
It was a measure of her extreme popularity that, though there were many complaints about the cost of other members of the Royal Family, hardly a protesting word was heard about her extravagant spending.
— MEREDITH MURRAY