A profile in British courage, a treasure of stability is lost

Matriarch who stayed through Blitz, shored monarchy, dies at 101

Queen Mother: 1900 - 2002

March 31, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother - Britain's royal matriarch who steadied the monarchy, stayed in London during the Blitz and charmed the kingdom - died yesterday at age 101.

The queen mother "died peacefully in her sleep" at 3:15 p.m. with her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, at her bedside at Royal Lodge, Windsor, outside of London, a Buckingham Palace spokesman said.

Widow of King George VI and grandmother of Prince Charles, she was affectionately known to her countrymen as the "Queen Mum."

The queen mother had been in failing health and last month endured the death of her younger daughter, Princess Margaret, 71. The queen mother "had become increasingly frail in recent weeks following her bad cough and chest infection over Christmas," the palace spokesman said.

Funeral arrangements are expected to be announced today and are likely to include a ceremony at Westminster Abbey.

For Queen Elizabeth II, the back-to-back deaths of her mother and sister seemed difficult blows during her 50th year on the throne. Prince Charles was scheduled to curtail a ski vacation in Switzerland and return home today with his sons, Princes William and Harry.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair lauded the queen mother's "sense of duty" and "remarkable zest for life."

"She was part of the fabric of our nation, and we were immensely proud of her," he said. "Along with her husband, King George VI, she was also a symbol of our country's decency and courage."

From the abdication crisis in 1936, which placed her reluctant husband on the throne as King George VI after Edward VIII gave up the crown, to her emergence as a symbol of British perseverance during World War II, the Queen Mum stood as an emblem of a heroic age.

The oldest British royal in history - and a power behind two thrones - she was the last major link to a time when a monarch ruled a vast empire. She was royal, charming and seemingly a bit of a dame, and she once accounted for her longevity by declaring, "I love life - that's my secret."

She favored chiffon outfits and floral hats, adored horse racing, and had a taste for gin and champagne. A sprite at 5-foot-2, she wore fancy heels to the end of her life, even while walking with the aid of canes.

As royal scandals tested the country's loyalty to the monarchy, the queen mother remained above the fray, growing older gracefully and gaining in public esteem by assuming a role as Britain's unofficial national granny.

Prince Charles once said of her: "Ever since I can remember, my grandmother has been the most wonderful example of fun, laughter, warmth, infinite security and, above all, exquisite taste. For me, she has always been one of those extraordinarily rare people whose touch can turn everything to gold."

Beneath the warm smile and royal flourishes, though, a certain toughness enabled her to survive the ups and downs of even so cosseted a life. "Under all that lilac chiffon there beats a heart of steel," royal historian Hugo Vickers once said.

The signposts of the 20th century marked her life, and she eventually marked the century.

When she was born Aug. 4, 1900, Queen Victoria was on the British throne and President William McKinley was in the White House.

Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon was the ninth child of the Earl and Countess of Strathmore, destined for a wealthy upbringing at homes dotting the countryside, including the turreted Glamis Castle in Scotland, the historical home of Macbeth in the 11th century.

Young Elizabeth's mother taught her to read and write, a French governess had her speaking fluent French by the time she was 10, and a German governess tutored her in piano and science. She made a notation in a photo album that she liked "making friends."

A reluctant bride

World War I broke out on her 14th birthday, and Glamis Castle was transformed into a convalescent hospital for wounded soldiers, with the young Elizabeth helping out.

As a young woman on the London social scene, Elizabeth was a bit of a beauty who could whirl on a dance floor. "She makes every man feel chivalrous and gallant towards her," diarist Chips Channon noted.

She caught the eye of a royal, Prince Albert, King George V's second son. They had met first as children. In 1920, the shy prince saw her at a May Ball given by Lord and Lady Farquhar at 7 Grosvenor Square in London, asked her to dance and was apparently smitten.

Their courtship was long. He proposed three times before Elizabeth finally accepted Jan. 13, 1923. In the only interview she ever gave, shortly after the engagement was announced, she denied the three-proposal claim, saying the story "amused me and it was news to me."

In the interview, she said she liked hunting, played golf "badly" and was fond of lawn tennis.

The couple married at Westminster Abbey on April 26, 1923. An effort to have the event broadcast on radio to the nation was blocked because the archbishop of Canterbury feared men in pubs would listen without taking off their hats.

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