Fun fact: It took George VI three tries to get the Queen Mother to accept his marriage proposal. Decades before the Queen Mother became synonymous with royal duty and the House of Windsor’s matriarch, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was a 20-something and unsure about a life in the spotlight.
Elizabeth first met the future king when he was still Prince Albert, Duke of York in June 1920. They met at a dinner party in London also attended by Queen Mary, Princess Mary and Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester on Derby Night, while George V hosted a lavish celebratory supper at Buckingham Palace. Later that evening, a ball was held with the same party and Albert went up to fellow attendee James Stuart and asked, “Who was that lovely girl you were talking to? Introduce me to her.”
The girl was Elizabeth, the 19-year-old daughter of the Earl of Strathmore, who was due to debut at court later that summer. She grew up at Glamis Castle in Angus, Scotland, the ninth of her parents’ 10 children and, unlike her royal husband, enjoyed a close-knit, idyllic childhood. Her debut was postponed by World War I, which ensured a jarring transition into maturity. Not only was Glamis turned into a hospital for convalescing soldiers, but she lost her elder brother, Fergus, during the war, while another was taken prisoner. In 1918, while her mother was ill, Elizabeth single-handedly ran the household while it was still operating as a hospital, a weighty responsibility for a girl just coming of age.
By 1920 the war was over and the Strathmores looked to introduce their youngest daughter at court. Little is known about the introduction between Elizabeth and Prince Albert that June night – indeed, they may very well have met as children – but they certainly saw one another again a month later when Elizabeth debuted on July 15 before George V and Queen Mary. She was an instant hit thanks to her bubbly personality, inherent kindness and the allure of her large and welcoming family. As one former suitor later said:
“I was madly in love with her. Everything at Glamis was beautiful, perfect. Being there was like living in an van Dyck picture. Time, and the gossiping, junketing world, stood still. Nothing happened … but the magic gripped us all. I fell *madly* in love. They all did.”
That obviously included Albert who spent as much time as possible visiting Glamis and ensuring his social calendar was full of events he thought Elizabeth would attend. By the winter, it was well-established that Albert was in love; Queen Mary even brought it up to one of her confidantes, Lady Airlie, who was able to give her a glowing report of the unknown girl. In the spring, Albert finally got up the nerve to propose, but Elizabeth turned him down.
We don’t know exactly why she did, except that she was being pursued by a number of men at the time and it’s entirely possible that she had feelings for another. Or, she may very well have not been ready to give up her independence for not just marriage, but a royal marriage, which brought with it a host of public responsibilities and pressures. Elizabeth had likely envisioned a life of aristocratic comfort and quiet domesticity – though she had no reason to believe she would one day be queen at that point, she apparently didn’t much fancy becoming the Duchess of York either.
Albert and Elizabeth remained on good terms despite her rejection and the following September he returned to Glamis with Queen Mary. After meeting Elizabeth and her family properly she became “more than ever convinced that this was ‘the one girl who could make Bertie happy.'”
Fate brought them together once more in February 1922 when Albert’s sister, Mary, married Viscount Lascelles and again that April when Lord Louis Mountbatten and Lady Edwina Ashley were married. The latter wedding, of course, saw the return of Louis’s sister, Alice, from Athens where she was living with her husband, Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark. She brought with her her infant son, Prince Philip.
In-between these wedding, in March, Albert proposed for a second time, and was once again turned down. Albert was deeply upset, having now been madly in love with her for nearly two years. He was reported to seem dejected and at a crisis point as he went about his work throughout that summer. In the autumn, he was back at Glamis when his parents were in residence at Balmoral, incapable of staying away and still determined to win Elizabeth over.
In early January 1923 a newspaper ran a gossip item that Elizabeth was soon to be engaged to Albert’s elder brother, the Prince of Wales – a story that reportedly annoyed her. Rumor has it that part of Elizabeth’s hesitance to marry Albert was due to her being in love with David – the loftier “catch” – however, these stories are highly unlikely and probably have more to do with trying to explain her later hatred for Wallis Simpson. More likely, she knew that the story meant more pressure for her to make up her mind about Albert and/or she knew the rumor would wound him.
Soon afterwards, Albert told the Duchess of Devonshire that he was going to try his hand once more – “This is the last time I’m going to propose to her. It’s the third time and it’s going to be the last.”
Even the taciturn George V was a fan, telling his son, “You’ll be a lucky fellow if she accepts you.”
On Saturday, January 13 he went for a walk with Elizabeth at the Bowes-Lyon home at St Paul’s, Walden Bury and proposed again. She accepted. His telegrammed his parents later: “All right. Bertie.” Queen Mary wrote in her diary a few days later, once the couple had visited, “We are delighted and he looks beaming.”
Bertie wrote to Lady Airlie, who had long championed him to Elizabeth and Elizabeth to the rest of the RF:
“How can I thank you enough for your charming letter to me about the wonderful happening in my life which has come to pass, and my dream which has at last been realized. It seems so marvelous to me to know that my darling Elizabeth will one day be my wife. We are both very, very happy and I am sure always will be. I owe so much to you and can only bless you for what you did.”
The wedding took place on April 26, 1923 at Westminster Abbey. Three years later they would welcome their first child, Elizabeth, to be followed by a second daughter, Margaret, in 1930. Seven years after that, they would be crowned king and queen after the unexpected abdication of David to marry Wallis Simpson, leaving Albert and Elizabeth to ascend the throne and lead Britain through World War II. Not the quiet life Elizabeth might have imagined, but Albert was right in that they remained happy with one another until the end.