The Queen Mum – A Tribute
Our Court Correspondent
THE RECENT death of a rich, self-indulgent old lady has filled the newspapers in these islands. Yet, with all the gallons of ink and acres of paper devoted to her life, there are a good many gaps only hinted at in the story, for much is still not considered fitting to spell out in front of the vulgar populace.
The Strathmore family into which she was born was not very wealthy by the standards of the aristocracy, though very respectable and ancient. (It is an odd fact that Elizabeth II is the only monarch of this country, apart from Elizabeth I, who is descended from Henry VIII, but in her case though Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne and the previous lay of bluff Prince Hal, and so through a bastard line.) In the context of the time it was curious that such a family as the Bowes-Lyons should marry a younger daughter to the second in line to the throne – quite extraordinary in fact.
There were two reasons for this bouleversement sociale. The first was the Great War for Civilisation which had ended with the overthrow of the German Monarchy and the disappearance of a whole host of Teutonic princelings whose daughters, as Protestants, would have been considered suitable as consorts for a possible British monarch. In any case, in the immediate aftermath of the slaughter of the World War a German marriage would have been highly unpopular. This immediately narrowed the field somewhat.
The second reason was the fact that the young man in question, Albert, the future George VI, was very dim, boring, tongue-tied and generally hopeless – and in any case not the heir to the throne. It is stated that he proposed three times before he was accepted. One can imagine what pressure was put on poor Lizzie Lyons to say yes. Even so, he had to have three tries, each time one imagines egged on by his advisers, secure in the knowledge that the most frightful scenes were occurring as the future bride’s mother and father put the hard word on. Perhaps when the papers talk about her sense of duty this is what they mean. Clearly this prize had been passed up by all the rest of other youthful and even better born young things of the period. But the future George VI was so feeble that he did what he was told, married a respectable "gel" and by producing a couple of daughters provided some security for the monarchy.
Meanwhile, for nearly twenty years Edward, Prince of Wales, the future Great Traitor Of England (hereafter GTOE), behaved in a scandalous fashion in wealthy, vile and idle café society, just as his niece Margaret and his great nephews have also done over the last 50 years. (There is after all something in this hereditary lark – blood will out.) All would have been well, save that a terrible political crisis loomed – no, not the King marrying a promiscuous American divorcée, but the imminent prospect of another round between the resurgent Germany, this time under Nazi rule, and the British Empire. Of course, in retrospect we can see that the only winners had to be the USA and the Soviet Union, but this could not be recognised at the time by the British ruling class. There were divisions in the ruling class but most were determined to fight to preserve their dominion over palm and pine. The prospect of such a man as the GTOE as King, who, when the monarchy was more important than today, might throw his weight into the scales at the critical moment, could not be borne.
The future King was besotted with Mrs Simpson. Since the lady had had carnal knowledge of Ribbentrop, or so the British Security Services believed, this was not good news. Those in charge were quite convinced that the GTOE would prove a hopeless King anyway, quite apart from his links with the Empire’s future enemies, so the stage was set for the Abdication. And a monarch was still needed, a sort of back-up against the Bolshies, to mislead the working class.
At this point I must tell the comrades an anecdote of the time when I was presented at court in July 1936 (well, nearly presented, as I was inside my mother at the time). It was the custom in the inter-war period when regiments were ordered overseas that the more senior officers, captains and above, were ordered to attend a levée where their wives were also commanded to appear to be presented. This was generally the subject of much upwardly socially mobile rejoicing among the said wives, but in my case my mother was very, very pregnant and felt it would not be fitting, so she had to apologise to the Lord Chamberlain. (Much to her chagrin, she later heard that there were a number of ladies in just as delicate condition if not more so who did the honours.) The old King, George V, who died later that year, was not well and standing in for him at the Palace was the GTOE. He made a dreadful impression, never bothering to conceal his utter boredom and distaste for these dreary middle class people who were taking up his valuable time which could have been better spent with his Nazi friends. (Whatever one may think of a constitutional monarchy, the job does consist in being pleasant, charming and simulating interest in whatever individuals are brought in front of you. It is part of the package. The GTOE was no good at that and would not play his part.) My father’s considered opinion after that was that Baldwin had done a fine job.
So in 1937, after starting with a hopeless hand, from minor Scottish nobility and with a remedial, juvenile and socially inadequate husband, Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon suddenly found herself Queen of England, and then had to keep the show on the road for the next 65 years. But first there was the little matter of a World War and her brother-in-law, the GTOE and possible future Pétain, with his American wife to be dealt with. Of course, she was an appeaser and did not want a war. (The views of the King are irrelevant here – she ran the show.) But this was because she, unlike those of the Blood Royal, knew something of war’s horrors. Her beloved elder brother Fergus had died at Loos in the Black Watch in 1915. One of her nephews, the heir to her father’s title, died in the Scots Guards in the Western Desert in 1941. But, though she did not like Churchill, she played things absolutely constitutionally. And if Britain had lost she would have lost her job.
The GTOE proved to be infernal nuisance. He was living in France but disobeyed orders to come back to the UK, making his way to Portugal, a neutral country, and opened contacts with the Nazis after the fall of France while Britain was threatened by invasion. Eventually, by all kinds of pressure, much of which we will never hear about, he was persuaded to take up the Governor-Generalship of the Bahamas. His mail and that of his wife, which went through the censorship, had to be looked at by someone at the highest political level, probably in the Cabinet. Whatever the security clearance of the censors, his letters and those of half a dozen others were kept from them as too sensitive.
There was one service that Elizabeth Bowes Lyon was prepared to do for the state. Years ago, as a small boy just after the war, I remember a conversation about the GTOE between my father and his brother – there were no other adults in the room and it was assumed I was not listening. Apparently, when in the Bahamas, a courtier was included in his entourage who was under orders to keep a loaded revolver with him at all times to kill the Duke of Windsor when the German submarine came to take him off, whether before or after the fall of Britain. The orders to do such a thing would have had to be signed by two people – one the Prime Minster, Churchill, his supporter at the time of the Abdication, the other, his own brother, the King. But, if the King’s fingers held the pen, his hand was guided by the kindly Queen Mum. The traditional British ruling class could be very ruthless if its back was against the wall. Such a written order, and it must have been a written one, would have been destroyed immediately after the end of the war. Of course, there may have been two courtiers with a gun, neither of whom knew about the other – just "to mak siccar".
We all know the story since: the King died young, the Empire ended, the Royal Family grew up and disgraced themselves, her grandson Charles is clearly rather feeble and all hopes now rest, almost certainly in vain, on handsome Billy Battenberg, now furiously pursued by sundry females at St Andrews. Plus ça change, but this time it is not quite the same thing.
So, for her own dynastic purposes, the Queen Mother did play a role on the side of the angels at a crucial moment. For that, some will forgive her reactionary views, her philistinism, her gross extravagance, her race horses, her large bets and huge overdraft, though not, I hope, her appalling grandchildren. She must have quite enjoyed her widowhood.