Behind every man, there’s a great woman—but this went double for "The Queen Mother". Not only did Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon rule through her husband King George VI, she also oversaw the reign of her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II. Yet before that, she’d already experienced a lifetime’s worth of royal scandal. From bedroom gossip that rocked the monarchy to Elizabeth’s high-class feuds, this seemingly stately Queen hid some very dirty laundry.
Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon’s birth was about as aristocratic as they come. Born into a wealthy noble family on August 4, 1900, she was the ninth of a whopping 10 children, and her family spoiled their baby rotten. Elizabeth's father even thought his darling girl looked so much like a cherub that he demanded her middle name be “Angela". But this angelic quality didn’t stick around for long.
As it turns out, spoiling a child doesn’t have the best results—and Elizabeth turned very naughty very quickly. Her family nicknamed her “Merry Mischief” for her impish plots, including the time the young girl telegrammed her father a message that translates to, “Send money now". Elizabeth's trickster side would serve her well in the future—just not always in the best of ways.
In case you haven’t noticed by now, Elizabeth was one smart cookie. Although her family prized good breeding over academic achievements, Elizabeth had both in spades. Her literature essays deeply impressed her teachers and governesses, and she passed her standard exams with distinction. Yet sadly, her glittering world soon turned dark.
When Elizabeth was just 14 years old, WWI rocked England and threw her carefully manicured upbringing into total chaos. Indeed, Britain officially declared itself against Germany on the very day of Elizabeth’s 14th birthday, baptizing “Merry Mischief” into a grim new world order. Then suddenly, her gravest tragedy yet hit.
Although Elizabeth was too young to do much when WWI first began, eventually, the conflict dragged its bloody carcass right to her front doorstep. Four of her brothers served in the fight, with her eldest brother Fergus perishing in combat. Two years later, another of her brothers became a prisoner of war. Unable to sit around twiddling her thumbs any longer, Elizabeth sprung into action.
As WWI wore on, the family turned their home at Glamis Castle into a sick bay for wounded men, with Elizabeth showing her steely side. She threw herself into the work and became a great favorite with the boys. One teasingly wrote in her autograph book that she should be "Hung, drawn, & quartered...Hung in diamonds, drawn in a coach and four, and quartered in the best house in the land".
And you can bet that wasn’t the only male attention that Elizabeth was getting…
As a young woman, Elizabeth drove men wild, and she did it in an extremely curious way. Although people didn’t consider her conventionally beautiful, she was still irresistibly attractive, with what one commenter called an “innocent sensuality”. She was an English rose with creamy skin, dark hair, and curves in all the right places. And those curves took her right to the British throne.
In the 1920s, WWI was over at last, and Britain’s monarchs were looking for love. So when Prince Albert, the younger son of King George V, locked eyes with Elizabeth for the first time since they were children, he was blindly determined to have her. He proposed marriage to Elizabeth in 1921—but the fair lady had other ideas.
In a move that must have been shocking to some of her acquaintances, our Elizabeth turned down her “Bertie” flat. Why? Well, for one, Albert was quite shy. So shy, in fact, that he didn’t even propose to Elizabeth himself. Instead he had a proxy do it. Yeah, that’s not a slam-dunk. Then again, Elizabeth's refusal also stemmed from more heartbreaking reasons.
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Besides her paramour’s total lack of matrimonial game, Elizabeth wasn’t at all attracted to the idea of becoming a royal. She was terrified of the burden of the monarchy and the loss of her freedom, saying that she was "afraid never, never again to be free to think, speak and act as I feel I really ought to”. Given how things turned out…she was right to worry.
When Prince Albert received Elizabeth’s refusal, he wasn't deterred. Despite the fact that everyone at court thought he was stooping in marrying a “mere” noble and not a princess, Albert dogged Elizabeth for months. The lovelorn prince even told his own mother that he refused to marry anyone else. Determined on getting Liz, he popped the question again in 1922.
Guess what? Elizabeth rejected her beau again. Oh, but it gets more embarrassing.
Prince Albert’s mother, Queen Mary, was so desperate to find out what all the fuss was about, she traveled to meet Elizabeth herself. Well, Elizabeth charmed the crinoline off the interfering Queen, with Mary declaring that she was "the one girl who could make Bertie happy". Yet during this dramatic courtship, Elizabeth wasn’t being completely honest…
Throughout Prince Albert’s wooing, Elizabeth may have been hiding a dark secret. There is evidence that at the same time as she was rejecting Bertie’s proposals, she was flirting heavily with the Prince’s own aide, the dashing James Stuart. Even when Stuart left for a business opportunity in America, though, Elizabeth didn't fall into Albert's arms. Instead, she found herself yet another suitor…
With her good looks and easy charm, Elizabeth was a very eligible bachelorette, and it wasn’t just the likes of James Stuart sniffing at her petticoats. According to the rumor mill at the time, one of Elizabeth’s other potential beaux was none other than Prince Albert’s older brother, the Prince of Wales, Edward. Talk about awkward family dinners.
In January 1923, after nearly two years of courting her, Prince Albert took another shot and proposed to Elizabeth for the third time. Well, the third time must be the charm, because she finally said yes to him. The minute they announced their engagement, all the men in England felt the loss of Elizabeth’s single status. As one diarist put it, “The clubs are in gloom".
After such a rough wooing, the new couple went in for a quick engagement, marrying just months later in April 1923 at Westminster Abbey. While there, the bride nearly brought the crowd to tears. As she passed by the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, she unexpectedly left her bridal bouquet on top of the memorial that honored her fallen brother Fergus.
Elizabeth was now the Duchess of York, and she wasted no time in becoming a popular royal bride. This lady pushed out her first child, the Princess Elizabeth, just three years into her marriage. Then, four years later, Elizabeth gave birth to another girl, the Princess Margaret. Yet just as her personal life was settling in nicely, the rest of her life started to fall apart.
On January 20, 1936, Elizabeth’s father-in-law King George V passed, leaving the throne to her brother-in-law Edward. Under the surface, this was a total disaster. Edward was an infamous partier and seducer, and no one in the royal family, Elizabeth included, trusted his ability to rule responsibly. It didn’t take long for Edward to prove these suspicions right.
Mere months after Edward took the crown, it all royally fell apart. He infamously abdicated to marry his divorced lover Wallis Simpson, leaving the throne instead to Elizabeth’s husband Prince Albert, now called King George VI. Practically overnight, cheery little Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon became the Queen Consort of all England. Her reaction, uh, wasn’t good.
Although some people dream of becoming Queen, Elizabeth was furious at this turn of events. For one, she detested Wallis Simpson as an upstart—and she let her know it in an utterly cruel way. During Edward’s brief reign, Elizabeth visited him at Balmoral castle. When Wallis greeted her for dinner, Elizabeth blew right past her, sniffing, “I came to dine with the King”. And the feud didn’t end there.
Elizabeth also made rude comments about Wallis Simpson behind her back. According to reports, she used to refer Simpson only as “that woman” scornfully. She also refused to grant Simpson the right to use the title “Her Royal Highness” even after she married Edward. Don’t worry, though, Wallis ending up getting Liz back.
As it turns out, Simpson could give it as good as she got. It didn't take long for her to come up with her own nickname for Elizabeth—one that was, if I’m honest, way better and way meaner than Liz's catty name for her. The notorious divorcee used to call Elizabeth “Cookie” because, after two children, Elizabeth had become a little plump and apparently reminded Simpson of their Scotch cook. Shots fired.
Elizabeth’s hatred of Wallis Simpson and her disappointment in Edward didn’t end with her coronation, either. After the lavish ceremony took place, Elizabeth and the newly-minted King George VI called becoming King and Queen “an intolerable honor” that nearly ruined their lives. But before long, Elizabeth had much bigger problems.
In the summer of 1938, Elizabeth suffered a tragedy amid her chaos. Her mother, Lady Strathmore, passed. And then it got even more complicated. She and King George were due to make a state visit to France, and now all Elizabeth’s custom clothing needed to be in mourning colors. Never one to fuss, Elizabeth came up with a genius solution.
In order to overcome her haute-couture crisis, Elizabeth’s royal designer Norman Hartnell re-did her travel closet all in white, which was just as much a mourning color as black. His traditional, even old-fashioned tulle, lace, and chiffon confections soon became Elizabeth’s enduring classic style. Yet dark clouds were on the horizon.
In the late 30s, WWII began, and Queen Elizabeth more than rose to the occasion. She became a symbol for stalwart British resolve along with her husband. She even refused to send her children to Canada for safety, famously saying, "The children won't go without me. I won't leave the King. And the King will never leave".
Although Elizabeth became iconic during these years, she also caused huge controversy.
At the height of the danger, the German Luftwaffe destroyed huge swaths of East End London, and the Queen responded by visiting many of those affected by the bombings. However, in her traditional royal way, Elizabeth made these appearances while dressed to the nines in cheery, pastel colors and her finest jackets. To say this went poorly would be a huge understatement.
The bereft crowds of the East End saw the Queen as out of touch and began to look at her visits with scorn. The people grew so angry with her that they even started jeering at Elizabeth and pelting their monarch with garbage. The Queen, somewhat tragically, never quite understood why—she felt that since the public would wear their best clothes to see her, it was only right she wore her best clothes to see them.
Eventually, the Luftwaffe grew so powerful, they even dropped hits onto Buckingham Palace itself, the center of royal life. Elizabeth’s response was heartbreaking. Instead of thinking of herself, she could only think back to those ruined crowds elsewhere in London. As she said, “I'm glad we've been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face".
If you think Queen Elizabeth sounds like one brassy broad now, just wait. During the harsh years of WW2, she not only forced her entire royal household into rationing like the rest of the nation—even a visiting Eleanor Roosevelt had limited bathwater—she also learned how to fire a gun to protect herself. It didn't take long for a great enemy to notice her resolve…
You know you’ve done something right when Adolf H hates you and has your face on a target. The Fuhrer was so threatened by Queen Elizabeth’s popularity throughout England, he actually called her “the most dangerous woman in Europe” at one point. I mean, do compliments get any better than that? I really don’t think so.
For all that Queen Elizabeth was one heck of a dame during WWII, she really let it all hang out after peace came. She hosted legendarily riotous parties at Windsor Castle with courtiers and cabinet ministers alike, with the dignitaries playing very undignified games of “Sardines” all over the ancestral home. But that wasn’t all…
Elizabeth looked prim and proper on the outside, but nothing could be further from the truth. Our Liz was actually quite the little lush, and enjoyed a beverage routine that would knock some grown men off their feet. According to sources, the Queen’s day included a Dubonnet at noon, red wine at lunch, a port and a martini for supper, and two glasses of champagne for dinner. Yow.
Elizabeth learned a thing or two about public relations during WW2, and she put these lessons to good use. One day, students protesting the monarchy threw toilet paper rolls at her. Elizabeth’s response? She picked up a roll, walked coolly over to the students, and said, “Was this yours? Oh, could you take it?' They were so flabbergasted they had no choice but to comply.
Although Elizabeth’s fame was at its peak, everything up must come down. In 1947, while she was on a tour of South Africa, the Queen’s placid exterior broke—and revealed some unsavory tendencies. After a fan approached her car too quickly, she hit him violently on the head with her umbrella. It was a small moment, but it turned out to be an omen of dark things to come.
By the early 1950s, King George VI’s health took a turn for the worse. He had been suffering from bad circulation for years, but in 1951, doctors diagnosed him with lung cancer. Although the King had an operation to remove part of his lung and appeared to recover, it was all for naught. In February 1952, he passed. Elizabeth’s reaction was gut-wrenching.
In one fell swoop, Elizabeth lost her title of Queen Consort and her beloved husband. Unable to bear the devastation, she became a recluse in Scotland and swore she would never take up public duties again. It took no one less than Prime Minister Winston Churchill to convince the former Queen that her country still needed her and to come out of retirement. Yet she still held grudges…
Elizabeth blamed two people for King George’s early end: the ex-King Edward and her old enemy Wallis Simpson. The former Queen Consort swore that if her “Bertie” had never borne the burden of the crown, he could have lived a long and healthy life. By abandoning their post as royals, Ed and Wallis had doomed her husband. Elizabeth was furious with the couple, and her revenge was brutal.
Elizabeth was now Queen Dowager to her daughter Elizabeth II, and she wasn’t here to play little parlor games anymore. Although Edward and Wallis Simpson made sounds about wanting to go to George’s funeral, Elizabeth staunchly refused to let them in. Yep, she denied Albert's own brother entry to his burial. And that’s far from all.
Elizabeth had grown up in the ravages of WWI, and survived horrors of another worldwide conflict as an adult. So it didn't surprised anyone that she didn’t shed a single tear at King George’s funeral—after all, she had to keep up appearances as the Rock of England. But behind closed doors was another story. When someone praised her for her stoicism, she replied, “Not in private".
Thing is, Elizabeth’s glory—and infamy—was just hitting its stride.
During these widowed years, the 51-year-old Elizabeth never lost sight of her worth, and she demanded her daughter Elizabeth give her the unprecedented title “Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother". This wasn’t just to avoid confusion, oh no. It was mostly because our Elizabeth wanted everyone to know she was still a Queen, dangit. And the next phase of her life certainly echoed that…
Elizabeth also had a razor sharp wit well into her old age. When she attended a gala with the gay playwright Noel Coward, they passed a line of guards on their way up the stairs. After slyly watching Coward check out the men, she whispered pertly, "I wouldn't if I were you, Noël; they count them before they put them out".
Elizabeth didn’t fade away in her twilight years, let me tell you, and in 1998, the newspapers broke a scandalous story. The aging Queen Mum somehow had an incredible 4 million pound overdraft at her bank, indicating the extravagance of her spending. In a truly boss move, the day the article came out, the Queen Mother went to the races. But then again, as we'll see, she had other secrets...
If nothing else, Elizabeth had stacks of self-awareness. When Margaret Thatcher stepped down, the Queen Mum asked a Tory minister why they sacked her. He answered, “Well, frankly Ma'am, towards the end she became completely impossible”. Quick as a flash, Elizabeth quipped back, “Oh, then I think I should be thankful you're not responsible for me”.
In the end, the Queen Mother became one of the longest-lived royals in history, and her 100th birthday in 2000 was cause for celebration all over the Commonwealth. It was also case for personal celebration for the centenarian herself; Elizabeth insisted on having a splash of gin (or two) in the icing on her momentous birthday cake. Priorities: straight.
Sadly, Elizabeth’s waning years were marked by accidents and tragedies. She suffered several broken bones in her old age, and underwent a slew of procedures in the hospital. Somehow, though, she managed to retain her sense of humor. When a fish bone got stuck in her throat and she rushed to hospital, the keen fisherwoman managed to joke, “The salmon got their own back".
But in private, Elizabeth wasn't so full of bravado.
Some of Elizabeth’s biggest accomplishments had to do with the care she provided for others. In order to help her husband Bertie get over his pronounced stammer, Elizabeth supported him through his speech therapy work with the pioneering Lionel Logue. As you might know, the Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech dramatized this period of their lives.
The Queen Mother could charm crowds wherever she went, but one instance in particular is worthy of the history books. One time while on public duty, Elizabeth was in a long receiving line, shaking hands, when a stray dog wandered into the ceremony. Without skipping a beat, Elizabeth delightfully picked up the dog’s paw and shook it as well.
One of Elizabeth’s greatest legacies was a bizarre one: She hardly ever spoke in public. As a young newlywed, people called her “The Smiling Duchess” for her cheery, wordless demeanor, and she kept up the image throughout her husband’s reign. To Elizabeth, to be silent was to be an eternal figurehead; she called the strategy being “utterly oyster".
Although she lived an incredibly long life, Elizabeth’s end was tragic. As she grew weaker, she started shielding her aging body from the public. When she eventually had to travel by wheelchair, she demanded to fly in and out of Windsor castle via helicopter, just so the public would never see a photograph of her in a vulnerable state.
In the 1980s, the royal family went through one of their most legendary crises when Prince Charles and Princess Diana got married, got dysfunctional, and then got divorced. But few know the Queen Mother’s unsettling role in the tragedy. She herself learned to utterly despise Diana and her scandals, once commenting, “I know she's very young, she ought to have known better”. Yet Elizabeth might have had other reasons to dislike her new in-law…
As the base of it, the Queen Mum was against everything Diana stood for as “the People’s Princess”. A traditionalist until the bitter end, Elizabeth thought that Diana and her controversies were “fouling up” the monarchy. Even in Diana's worst moments, she made no secret of her dislike of the young woman. Note: You do not want Elizabeth as your enemy.
At the very end of her time, one last scandal threatened to ruin Elizabeth’s immaculate legacy, and this one was a doozy. In 1987, one of her biggest family secrets was exposed. Two of her nieces, Katherine and Nerissa Bowles-Lyon, had been presumed dead for years—until the press found out that they had actually been hidden in psychiatric hospitals this whole time. The plot only thickened from there.
As it turned out, Katherine and Nerissa weren’t mentally ill; they were mentally handicapped. People immediately (and rightly) accused Elizabeth and her family of hiding them away in shame, and then covering their tracks with death certificates. The family claimed the death notification was simply an error on a form, and Elizabeth denied all knowledge of the events entirely. Many are skeptical of both claims.
On March 30, 2002, Elizabeth passed at her apartments near Windsor Castle. Ever mindful of her image, the Queen Mum’s last wishes were ingenious and touching. Her funeral contained a wreath of camellias from her own garden, and she instructed her aides to place the decoration at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior once more, just as she had done on her wedding day nearly 80 years before. A class act, even from beyond the grave.
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