Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (continued)

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Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon: born London 4 August 1900; GBE 1927; CI 1931; LG 1936; LT 1937; GCVO 1937; Royal Victorian Chain 1937; married 1923 Albert, Duke of York (succeeded 1936 as King George VI, died 1952; two daughters); died Windsor, Berkshire 30 March 2002.

Queen Elizabeth's health remained sturdy until 1993, when she began to find life more tiring. The ever-vigilant press began to chart her decline. She suffered from a painful hip, which brought her to virtual immobility and eventually necessitated the occasional private use of a wheelchair (which she much disliked). Likewise her eyesight began to fail, to the point that she could only recognise friends when they spoke. Otherwise she remained mentally alert.

In 1995 she underwent cataract operations and had – at the age of 95 – both hips replaced. These operations were entirely successful and arrested her decline. Thereafter she resumed active life with astonishing verve. She paced herself better and sometimes used a golf buggy (given her by the Queen) to move amongst the crowds where earlier she would have walked. Early in 1997 she was one of five nonagenarians at a dinner and the only one to dance afterwards, effortlessly and with evident enjoyment. Later that year she thought nothing of entertaining 24 at luncheon, attending a tiring garden party and then going on to yet another party in the evening. During the Scottish holiday following her 100th birthday, she still walked her dogs alone for 20 minutes three times a day.

Living so long had inevitable hazards. In February 2002 Princess Margaret died, three days after the 50th anniversary of the death of King George VI. Stalwartly, though in frail health herself, Queen Elizabeth made the effort to leave Sandringham by helicopter, and attend the funeral at St George's Chapel. It was a rare occasion on which she allowed herself to be seen in a wheelchair, though very few even of the mourners witnessed this, and Queen Elizabeth rose from the chair to watch the departure of the hearse from Windsor Castle.

Her courtiers, too, died or failed in health or reason, a niece while at luncheon at Clarence House fell into a coma from which she did not recover. Most of her ladies-in-waiting either died or eventually retired, while she remained resilient. Her page of 40 years, Reg Wilcock, died exactly a week after her 100th birthday.

Surely the most remarkable example of her defiance of years was the way she walked the full length of Westminster Abbey, aided only by a stick, at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in September 1997. Her presence was the more poignant when it is recalled she had attended the funeral of another Princess of Wales, Queen Alexandra, some 72 years before, and that that princess had married into the Royal Family in 1863.

She was back at Westminster Abbey in November 1997 for the Queen and Prince Philip's Golden Wedding service of thanksgiving and intrepidly attended a ball at the newly restored Windsor Castle that evening.

There were other hazards of longevity – those of surviving into an alien age. Though adept at ignoring that which displeased her, the Queen Mother was forced to acknowledge a number of family crises. The divorces of her grandchildren were dealt with in vulgar style by the tabloids and she had to face up to the newly intrusive methods of the media, notably the bugging of telephones and the publication of intimate photographs by long-lensed paparazzi. Nor did she approve of the airing of private grievances in public circumstances.

Many of the values of domesticity and family union that she had upheld with sterling resolve all her life were called into question. Though by and large she was not the victim of these attacks herself, there was even criticism of her unveiling of the statue of "Bomber" Harris, and speculation as to her possible wish not to attend the second marriage of the Princess Royal in Scotland in December 1992. But public sympathy was wholeheartedly hers when she was taken to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary following an incident when a piece of salmon became lodged in her throat in May 1993.

 

On 4 August 2000, the Queen Mother celebrated her 100th birthday, the culmination of weeks of celebration in all of which the she herself played a full and vigorous part. The Lord Mayor of London gave a luncheon for her at Guildhall in June, following which she made an impromptu speech before the toast and had to reclaim her glass of wine from the Archbishop of Canterbury. A traditional service of thanksgiving was held at St Paul's Cathedral in July, after which the Queen Mother walked slowly but surely down the aisle, the entire length of the cathedral, turning from left to right, her eyes "surfing" the congregation.

Later in July there was the imaginative pageant on Horseguards Parade, "A National Tribute to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother's 100th Birthday". Processing were the massed bands of the three Services, representatives of her many regiments, including the Queen's Dragoon Guards, the Black Watch, the London Scottish and, from the Commonwealth, even the Cape Town Highlanders and the Transvaal Scottish. Then, led by William Tallon, the Queen Mother's Page, with a brace of corgis on the lead, came the doughty representatives of the many organisations associated with the Queen Mother. These comprised Royal Colleges, numerous Worshipful Companies, the Automobile Association, the Dachshund Club, the Hastings Winkle Club, the Battle of Britain Fighter Association, the Centre for Policy on Ageing, the Georgian Group, Mencap, the Royal School of Needlework, the Vacani School of Dancing, and many more. The Queen Mother was on parade throughout, in warm evening sunshine, and made another speech afterwards, without notes. On this occasion, she brought "Old Britain" back to its feet again.

Between these events, moreover, it was business as usual, a helicopter trip to Walmer Castle, the Sandringham flower show, Diamond Day at Ascot, receptions, lunches, and dinners. The season came to a magnificent crescendo on her birthday when the Queen Mother was cheered all the way up the Mall to appear before a crowd of thousands on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.

It was a schedule that would have daunted a younger woman, and to carry it off as magnificently as she did was down to two factors – the iron will of the Queen Mother herself and the intense warmth of the public response to her, which must have been all the more heartening after the somewhat difficult years experienced by the Royal Family in the 1990s.

In a long life, there were few distinguished figures of the 20th century that the Queen Mother did not have the chance to meet, and many of them became personal friends. She knew the playwright J.M. Barrie and the popular scientist (with psychical leanings) Sir Oliver Lodge. The poet Dame Edith Sitwell lifted her spirits in her widowhood, the Poets Laureate Sir John Betjeman and Ted Hughes read to her guests at Royal Lodge and Birkhall, the choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton stayed at Sandringham, and she was a regular guest at the table of the journalist-politician (and Chairman of the Tote) Woodrow Wyatt, who betrayed many of her confidences in posthumously published diaries.

Beloved by the general public for her many virtues, her warm smile and radiant cheerfulness, the Queen Mother was beneath the surface a woman of considerable resolve. She possessed a greater appreciation of the arts and literature than was publicly known. The walls of Clarence House sported paintings by Allan Ramsay, Landseer, Beechey, Lely and Winterhalter, Walter Sickert, Fantin-Latour and Fra Angelico, while among her modern picture collections were works by Augustus John (commissioned by her) and John Piper (The Church of SS Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, as well as studies of Windsor Castle), L.S. Lowry and Edward Seago.

She had, too, a wistful but naughty sense of humour. Once, in Rhodesia, she expressed the hope that the much-needed rains would come. To the astonishment of the natives, there was a sudden downpour. As her car was winched out of the mud, the Queen Mother turned to her lady-in-waiting and exclaimed: "Well, if they don't need me in England, I can always come here and be a witch doctor."

Hugo Vickers

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