A nation seduced for 96 years Our real Queen of Hearts

The merry widow of the Royal Family has always used her sex appeal ruthlessly
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A plaque in the parish church of St Paul's Walden, near Hitchin in Hertfordshire, unveiled by the Queen Mother shortly after her Coronation in 1937, states that she was "born in this parish". After this was revealed as (to be charitable) a terminological inexactitude, rumours began to fly: that she first saw the light in a London nursing home, an ambulance, a convenient Ladies' Room. The Queen Mother kept quiet. In her 75 years as a public figure she has never made a meaningful personal statement or voiced an opinion. Everybody recognises her, but nobody, except perhaps a few intimates, knows what the old lady (96 today) is actually like.

In my biography of the Queen Mother, I put forward the scandalous theory that Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Windsor has been Royalty's most successful sex symbol. When the first edition was published in 1985 it was considered derogatory, if not actually treasonable, to mention any direct connection between sex and royalty. Presumably they thought I was implying that the country's most esteemed great-grandmother appealed to men's baser instincts and set out to lure them, en masse, into the royal bed.

The popular connotations of "sex symbol" are, I agree, misleading, but "symbolically sexual" is clumsy. Either way it appears completely contradictory to the commonly held image of the Queen Mother's high moral rectitude. But high moral rectitude, by inhibiting sexual curiosity and activity, often results in an enormous reserve of sexual energy. Margaret Thatcher, for instance - neither she nor the Queen Mother are gifted with remarkable intelligence, certainly not greatness of soul; neither of them were bred for their exalted positions. They were both fuelled by a vast store of sexual power which they used, quite blatantly, for the purposes of their careers. Both of them exploited "the drowsy, caressing voice, the slow sweet smile, the delicious gurgle of laughter, the soft eyes glowing" that so impressed Lord David Cecil in the young Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. As far as we know, neither of them squandered their wealth on trifles or gave anything away, except, presumably, to their husbands. The aura of invitation, the knowing twinkles and impression of solicitous fun under the tweed armour or clouds of chiffon were deployed for the most impeccable purposes.

Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was born with certain natural advantages. As a small child, recalled Lady Cynthia Asquith, she was lifted on and off the piano stool by her teacher "oftener than was necessary, just because she was so nice to take hold of". She spent her early teens enchanting wounded Tommies at Glamis and when the few surviving officers came home they all fell "madly" in love with her. "She is more gentle, lovely & exquisite than any woman alive. I would die for her ... " Chips Channon wrote ecstatically. If she had married a man she loved, all her powerful femininity (to give it an alias) could have been channelled into her personal life. Bertie's idea of a sexual advance, according to Robert Lacey, was holding hands in a boat. Married to Bertie she had enough libido left over to seduce a nation.

Before her marriage, she had been an ordinary upper-class young woman, quite pretty, but nothing to be lingered over in the pages of The Tatler. Though George V doted on her and even Queen Mary thought her promising, it was not so easy to captivate the public. In her first few months as Duchess of York, according to one account of the British monarchy, she even came in for some criticism, "people averring that it was impossible for her to be so permanently good-natured as she would lead them to believe by her everlasting smile".

First she had to tackle her most severe handicap - the Duke of York. He was obsessed with her but it was a tough proposition to turn a stammering, knock-kneed neurotic into a tolerable husband, let alone, eventually, a king. She was just beginning to see results when Wallis Simpson came on the scene.

A more tepid personality would have asked Mrs Simpson to tea, invested some of that charm in a woman-to-woman chat. Even if she hadn't managed to change the course of history, she could at least have made it less painful. But Elizabeth had little rapport with women, except at a distance, and Wallis upset her judgement. Whether this was on account of brother- in-law Edward ("such fun") or Bertie (who found Wallis rather amusing at first) or the British monarchy it is impossible to say. Caution went by the board and the dear little Duchess revealed the other side of her nature (though not to the public): a woman scorned, extravagantly jealous, recklessly spiteful.

Wallis was vanquished, though never forgiven. Elizabeth, now Queen, transferred her energy back to Bertie and winning the war. These years of being surrounded by men brought out the best in her. She soothed and wheedled Churchill, flirted with Wavell, was haughty with Mountbatten. She tripped in her high heels round bomb craters and furnished the royal shelter with gilt chairs, a regency settee and a supply of glossy magazines. She was an exalted forces' sweetheart, toasted in officers' messes, glowing with delight as she lingeringly pinned on medals, or waved goodbye to the troops. Her sentiments were summed up in the songs of Vera Lynn, which she performed with great feeling.

By the time the war ended, Elizabeth was universally adored, and had transformed Bertie into an admirable king. The future could have been fun if only he hadn't been a weakling from birth, and a chain-smoker. Inflexible in her feminine logic, Elizabeth held Wallis Windsor solely responsible for her being left a widow at 51. Alone, uncomplemented by a man, she was at a loss. She had no great sympathy with the human race, no intellectual resources; her royal duties were part of the public love affair, always conducted from the safety of her position as irreproachable wife. It wasn't enough that she could make strong men weep and lesser men like Cecil Beaton long for her to wrap them in bath towels. She must have a completely trustworthy man in her inner circle - not a lover, that went without saying - but a confidant, a protector to help her in and out of Daimlers, look after her while she worked out the best way of tackling the future. She appointed her younger daughter's idol, the divorced Group- Captain Peter Townsend, as Comptroller of her household.

Townsend was eminently suitable for the job. As George VI's equerry he had been a reliable "big brother" to the girls, galloping with them over the South African veldt, entertaining them at Balmoral, where he had been bold enough to dance the hokey cokey with Queen Mary. Both Margaret's parents knew that their ravishingly pretty younger daughter had "a terrific crush" on him - rather sweet, but not to be taken seriously.

While Elizabeth's kind of sex appeal worked wonders, her actual experience was very limited. Perhaps when she took Townsend over she thought it would be nice for Margaret to have him about the place. It is equally likely that, although Margaret was 22 when Townsend finally fell in love with her, the (by now) Queen Mother dismissed her daughter's feelings or complacently disregarded them. Consideration for others was never her strong point. The battle that eventually followed - over whether Margaret should be allowed to marry Townsend - caused unnecessary suffering. Allying herself with her righteous elder daughter, Archbishop Fisher and the Times, Elizabeth exiled her chevalier and reduced her daughter to a state of snivelling apology.

When this discreditable performance was over, the Queen Mother began spending long periods abroad, many of them in Kenya or Rhodesia where she could coast on waves of adoration. "She'd be a pleasing handful at playtime," a New York taxi-driver remarked, watching her appreciatively as she arrived all giggles and dimples and royal sparkle to see The Pyjama Game. "She left behind her five gibbering worshippers," Noel Coward wrote, less picturesquely, after she had been to lunch at Blue Harbour. By the time she was in her seventies she was a cosseted and merry widow presiding over the fun-loving court at Clarence House.

In the past there had been some nastiness among her distant relations, but this she had simply ignored, crossing both innocent and guilty off her visiting list. She had found it more convenient to think of Edward's abdication as a cold-blooded betrayal of his people rather than the consequence of sexual passion. She even seemed to regard Margaret's divorce from Anthony Armstrong-Jones as a grave family mishap, an accident on the polo field, rather than the breakdown of a marriage. Her grand-daughter and both her grandsons' wives wore virginal white to their magnificent weddings. They and their husbands were blessed by the highest dignitaries of the Church and solemnly promised the Almighty that they would leave their husbands only in death. The Queen Mother's fluttering smiles, tiny touches, subtle advances, breathless retreats were appropriate to these occasions. This was love, glamour, fun, the acceptable surface of the energy that kept her going.

What followed those glamorous weddings was a series of crushing blows from which the British monarchy seems unlikely to recover. As the century and the Queen Mother approach their end, it has become impossible, perhaps even for her, to maintain that God Save The Queen is more than a pious hope. All her great-grandchildren are victims of broken homes; the palace where she so gracefully danced in the arms of princes and presidents, where she dodged the bombs that made her feel she could look the East End in the face, is trampled by paying sightseers; all those delightful gentlemen who had been "a little bit in love" with her are long dead.

"We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when/But I know we'll meet again some sunny day ... " I'm sure she believes it.

For 75 years the Queen Mother has played a significant role in the royal tragi-comedy, most notably as a symbol of potent femininity. She may not see the final curtain come down on centuries of privilege, ceremony and tradition, but her old age signals the end of a very long chapter in the history of women.