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C o r r e s p o n d e n t s

The Queen Mother at 100


By Ann MacMillan

CBC Television News

It's no wonder they call Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, an icon of 20th century Britain. She participated in some of the key events of modern British history. She was there when King Edward VIII abdicated and when the Germans blitzed London during the Second World War.

She witnessed the premature death of her husband King George VI and the coronation of her daughter Queen Elizabeth II. She has also watched a series of royal marriage meltdowns starting with her daughter Princess Margaret's divorce from Lord Snowden and continuing with the divorces of three of the Queen's four children. The Queen Mother was on hand to comfort Prince Charles and his sons after the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was born into a very different world on August 4, 1900. Queen Victoria was still on the throne. Elizabeth was the ninth child of the Earl and Countess of Strathmore and spent a happy childhood moving between stately homes in England and Glamis Castle in Scotland, once the home of Macbeth. A biographer describes her as "the Lady Diana Spencer of her day." She was pretty, shy and very natural.

In spite of her privileged, aristocratic upbringing she was able to reach out and relate to people from all backgrounds. She was a strong character with a well developed sense of duty. It took Albert, the Duke of York, three years to persuade Elizabeth to marry him. She didn't want to be part of the Royal Family and twice turned down proposals of the second son of King George V. When they did marry on August 26th, 1923, she was the first commoner to wed the second in line to the throne since the time of King James II in the 17th century. Elizabeth called her husband "Bertie" and helped him to overcome an almost pathological shyness. She gave him confidence and helped control a serious stutter by sending him to the best available speech therapist.

When the Duke of York's older brother, King Edward VIII abdicated on December 10th, 1936, after just 327 days on the throne, "Bertie" became King George VI and his "Little Duchess", Queen Elizabeth. She never forgave her brother-in-law for renouncing the throne in order to marry twice divorced American Wallis Simpson. The former King was granted the title Duke of Windsor. His wife became the Duchess of Windsor but she was denied the title "Her Royal Highness." Queen Elizabeth referred to her as "that woman."

Aug. 4, 1999

Michel Cormier reports for CBC TV on the Queen Mother's 99th birthday

June 27, 2000

Ann MacMillan reports on the start of birthday activities marking the centenary.

The new Queen set out to re-establish public faith in the monarchy. She was determined to make it more relevant to the public. She promoted the family monarchy, allowing cameras to record scenes of the King and Queen with their children, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. In 1939 she made history with the first ever royal walkabout in Ottawa, chatting to First World War veterans at the unveiling of the war memorial in Parliament Square.

She could have returned to live in Canada during the Second World War with her daughters, but Queen Elizabeth stayed in London. She and King George insisted upon remaining in Buckingham Palace during the blitz and made regular visits to bombed out areas in London's East End. Buckingham Palace received several direct hits. The Queen Mother said that narrowly escaping death in the palace meant she could "now look the East End in the face." She got a revolver and practised hitting targets in the palace courtyard. She did so much to keep up morale that Hitler called her "the most dangerous woman in Europe." Her courage helped to hold King and country together.

When King George died of lung cancer in 1952, his Queen blamed the stress of his job for his early death. She refused to allow the Duke of Windsor to attend a lunch after the King's funeral. Bitter and depressed, she withdrew from public life for several months. After the coronation of her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, she reinvented herself. She became Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. Her dignity and grace became a trademark.

Today she still takes on official duties and is patron or president of 300 organizations and colonel-in-chief of eight regiments. She adores her three corgis, Rush, Mini and Dash, and owns 50 racehorses and 200 mares. It was while she was inspecting mares in foal at her stud farm in 1998 that she slipped and broke her hip. She underwent a hip replacement operation for the second time.

The Queen Mother lives in Clarence House in London. She has a staff of 50-housekeepers, footmen, ladies' maids, cooks, gardeners and chauffeurs. She calls them her "old cosies." She still entertains in lavish style. Guests tell of sumptuous meals served by butlers wearing white ties and medals. Her favourite tipple is gin and Dubonnet. Her favourite food is scrambled eggs. She receives around $2 million from the Civil List and the Queen supplements her income from her private funds.

She is close to her grandson, heir to the throne Prince Charles. She promoted his courtship of Lady Diana Spencer. She was best friends with Lady Diana's grandmother. In the end, the Queen Mother feared that Princess Diana was out to destroy the monarchy.

Somehow, in spite of all the image problems the royal family has faced in recent years, the Queen Mother has remained beyond reproach. Her ability to maintain a certain mystique yet remain relevant to ordinary people has made her one of the most popular royals. She has never let being a Duchess, a Queen or a Queen Mother go to her head.

Recently the Queen Mother visited Westminster Abbey to see how plans for her funeral were getting on. When she was shown the candles which will be placed on the altar around her coffin, she shook her head. I don't like those at all, she said, "do you mind if I bring some of my own?"

Someone asked the Queen Mother what she was looking forward to about turning 100. Without missing a beat she replied "receiving a telegram from my daughter." The Queen sends everyone a telegram on their 100th birthday, even her extraordinary mother.

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