The Magazine

Queen of Hearts

The life and times of a royal icon.

Aug 30, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 47 • By EDWARD SHORT
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On her fourteenth birthday, when the First World War broke out, Elizabeth lay in bed listening to jubilant crowds making their way up the Mall towards Buckingham Palace. “The streets were full of people shouting, roaring, yelling their heads off,” she recalled, “little thinking what was going to happen.” After war was declared, Glamis Castle was converted into an army hospital and the Edwardian idyll that had been Elizabeth’s childhood came to an end. It was during these unforgettable war years that Elizabeth acquired her lifelong respect for soldiers. Later, before World War II, she was visiting the Black Watch at their barracks in Perth and noticed her nephew John Elphinstone among the officers. 

“It gave me such a shock to see John in his Black Watch uniform,” she confided to Queen Mary, “for he suddenly looked exactly like my brother Fergus who was killed at Loos, & in the same regiment. It was uncanny in a way, & desperately sad to feel that all that ghastly waste was starting again at the bidding of a lunatic.” 

William Shawcross nicely sums up the impact of the First World War on Elizabeth: “She had acquired, through her experience of the suffering of family, friends, and soldiers from all over the world, an understanding of pain, and of the difficulties of others, which served her and her country well in the years to come.” If, towards the end of her life, she was often called the last of the Edwardians, she was careful to remind her countrymen that there were aspects of the Edwardian age worth preserving.

Elizabeth’s marriage to George V’s diffident second son, Prince Albert, proved deeply happy. Unsure at first whether she could adapt to her new role as Duchess of York, she eventually succeeded simply by making the role her own. As one admirer told another biographer: “Her charm was indescribable. .  .  . She was also very kind and compassionate. And she could be very funny—which was rare in those circles. She was a wag.” Before accepting Prince Albert’s third proposal, she received two from other beaux. Even George V, a morbidly implacable man, had to admit that “Bertie is a lucky fellow.”

If her marriage was unexpected, her husband’s accession to the throne was even more so. In this, Elizabeth sharply differed from Queen Mary, whose marriage to George V was meticulously plotted. No one, least of all Elizabeth herself, planned to make Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon Queen of England. Edward VIII thrust the throne on her and her husband after Stanley Baldwin insisted that he either dump Wallis Simpson or abdicate. When he abdicated, Elizabeth’s life was changed forever. Shawcross adroitly re-creates the day-to-day drama of the abdication crisis.

Soon after George VI ascended the throne, war broke out. When he and his queen consort visited the bomb-battered streets of London, there was nothing factitious about their empathy. “I’m glad we’ve been bombed,” the queen assured a policeman after Buckingham Palace had been hit. “It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.” The sentence has been quoted a million times and still gets to the very heart of why Elizabeth was such a good queen. 

Throughout the war, George VI and Elizabeth rallied the home front by visiting towns and cities bombed by the Luftwaffe and refusing to leave London. They also refused to have the princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, removed to Canada. Hitler thought Queen Elizabeth “the most dangerous woman in Europe,” and when England stood alone against the full fury of Hitler’s bombers, she responded to a letter of sympathy from Eleanor Roosevelt with a letter of her own.

Sometimes one’s heart seems near breaking under the stress of so much sorrow and anxiety. When we think of our gallant young men being sacrificed to the terrible machine that Germany has created, I think that anger perhaps predominates. But when we think of their valour, their determination and their grave spirit, pride and joy are uppermost. We are all prepared to sacrifice everything in the fight to save freedom, and the curious thing is, that already many false values are going, and life is becoming simpler and greater every day. 

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