The Queen Mother is a figure who we probably haven’t spent enough time on. In the past she’s primarily popped up in relation to the Abdication Crisis, or in her capacity as George VI’s wife or Elizabeth II’s mother, but I’ve been remiss in covering her on her own, save a post from last year focused on her courtship with her future husband. Today we’re going to take a look at her upbringing and the years preceding her marriage.
Elizabeth was born at the tail end of Queen Victoria’s reign. At the time of her birth in the summer of 1900, her parents, Claude Bowes-Lyon and Cecilia Cavendish-Bentinck, also known as Lord and Lady Glamis, already had seven children, and that wasn’t counting a daughter who passed away before Elizabeth was born, or David, the younger brother who would arrive in 1902.
Claude was the heir to the earldom of Strathmore, and his background was exactly what you’d expect from a man born into a family tracing their descent and title from before the Tudors. After graduating Eton, he served in the Life Guards from 1876 to 1881, during which time he met and married Cecilia, great-granddaughter of the 3rd Duke of Portland, who served as George III’s prime minister. They were married at Petersham Church on July 16, 1881, while Cecilia was given away by her cousin, the 6th Duke of Portland. They left the wedding for St Paul’s Walden Bury, a house left to Claude by his grandmother.
Their first child, Violet, was born precisely nine months later (though she would die at the age of 11 from diphtheria), followed by four sons (Patrick, Jock, Alec and Fergus), a daughter, Rose, and another son, Michael. There was a seven-year gap between the births of Michael and Elizabeth that is unexplained, but it stands to reason that Violet’s death, occurring the same year as Michael’s birth, played some part in it. It meant that when David was born in 1902, he and Elizabeth were at least a decade younger than the rest of their siblings, and in some cases, nearly two.
Elizabeth and David became inseparable and were known as the two “Benjamins” by the rest of the family. They spent most of their time at St Paul’s, their childhood defined by the family’s close-knit and informal lifestyle and access to the outdoors, where they spent considerable time exploring the houses’s gardens and grounds. The family spent holidays at the ancestral home of Glamis Castle, while Elizabeth’s earliest memory is recorded as her grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary in 1903 where she watched fireworks sitting on her grandfather’s lap. Her grandfather died not long after, the earldom of Strathmore passing to her father on February 16, 1904.
Even so, the family remained at St Paul’s, which they viewed as home, while Glamis became a bit like what Sandringham or Balmoral would become to the Royal Family – a house for holidays. When not in Hertfordshire, the family rented a house in London on St James’s Square, though Elizabeth also benefited from regular trips with her mother to Italy to visit her grandmother. These excursions fueled a life-long love for Italy, and for art and travel, that she would later bond over with her grandson, the Prince of Wales.
The age gap between Elizabeth and her siblings meant that her time under one roof with them was limited. In the autumn of 1908, her eldest brother, Patrick, married Lady Dorothy Beatrix Godolphin-Osborne in London, a match looked on warily by the rest of the family, who found Dorothy difficult. The birth of their first child, John, on New Year’s Day 1910, made Elizabeth an aunt at the age of nine. Patrick was followed to the altar by Elizabeth’s eldest sister, Mary Frances (“May”), that summer, when she married Sidney Buller-Fullerton-Elphinstone, 16th Lord Elphinstone, also in London.
A few weeks later, Elizabeth turned 10, and wrote a letter to May thanking her for her gift of a clock, noting that their father had given her ten shillings, while their grandmother gave her a tennis racket and some coral, and their brother, Michael, gave her four more shillings, making her “very rich.”
The benefit to having older siblings who were out in society was that they often brought the fun home with them. During the summers, the family took to holding long parties at Glamis, where the castle grounds offered excellent hunting. The Bowes-Lyons became popular hosts thanks to the family’s friendliness and, frankly, largeness. In the autumn of 1911, however, tragedy struck when Alec died in his sleep at Glamis at the age of just 24. While at Eton, he had been badly injured by a rogue cricket ball, and it seems to have caused a tumor that eventually proved fatal.
In the background of all of this, the Royal Family was careening into Elizabeth’s view. Edward VII died in May 1910, the crown inherited by his son, George V, and his wife, Queen Mary, while the couple’s two eldest sons – David and Albert – were in the throes of naval training. Their ages meant that they were peers to Elizabeth’s elder siblings, but it was the younger princes who aligned with Elizabeth. In September 1912, David Bowes-Lyon began school at St Peters Court in Broadstairs, joining Princes Henry and George. In the short-term, Elizabeth was mainly upset to lose her playmate.
Her own education was less formal than that of her brothers, all of whom were sent to Eton. She was taught reading and writing by her mother in the nursery years, while she attended local girls’ schools as she grew older, accompanied by her nanny. She later said, “A little poetry I certainly remember. So I’m afraid I’m uneducated on the whole.” In reality, she was taught literature, writing, French, history, French history, geography, mathematics and religion, and was a good student. She was correct in that her education was likely not taken that seriously by her parents, nor by her – it wasn’t to be her currency.
George V declared war with an hour to spare on Elizabeth’s 14th birthday, and the effort would dominate British life for the next four years. It was no exception for the Bowes-Lyons and gone were the days – at least for a while – of leisurely shooting parties and trips abroad. Patrick, Jock and Fergus were already in the military, while Michael had just competed his first year at Oxford, but immediately enlisted. That the four able-bodied Bowes-Lyon brothers wouldn’t serve was unthinkable, while David’s only saving grace was that he was 12. Two of them decided to marry before they left home – first Fergus married Lady Christian Norah Dawson-Damer in September, followed just days later by Jock to The Hon. Fenella Hepburn-Stuart-Forbes-Trefusis.
For Elizabeth, the year was also marked by the arrival of a new governess, Beryl Poignand, who was to become a close friend and confidante throughout her adolescence, a bond perhaps tightened by the fact she was now the last of two siblings still at home (her 24-year-old sister, Rose, was still unmarried). Cecilia, meanwhile, was focused on opening up convalescent hospitals for soldiers, one of which was housed within Glamis Castle. Once it became clear that the war wouldn’t be over in a matter of months, Rose decided to leave home herself, setting off in January 1915 to train as a nurse.
Elizabeth was too young to follow suit, but she did make a point of visiting soldiers recovering at Glamis and running errands for them in the nearby village. A few weeks after Rose went to London, Jock was in the city on leave, so Cecilia took Elizabeth and David to go see him – he confidently told his family that the war would be over by the summer. Rose, now working out of London Hospital, was less optimistic. She would be right, of course, and perhaps her insight came from the reality of the carnage, which left every family with serving men vulnerable.
In February 1915, Patrick was back at Glamis, having wounded his foot and suffering from shell-shock. A spell at Glamis with Jock helped, but he was invalidated out of active service for the rest of the war. In March, Elizabeth accompanied her mother in seeing Michael off at Victoria station. She later wrote:
“There was a very young little officer going off, and his mother – I can see her now – was weeping. And I remember my brother leaning out of the train and saying, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll look after him.’ And do you know, he was killed the next day.”
Michael himself ended up at a hospital in Rouen two months later, suffering from shell shock and a head wound. He was eventually shipped home, while Jock lost a finger on his left hand thanks to a bullet. More devastating would be the fate of Fergus, who was killed on September 26, 1915 at the Battle of Loos and buried in Vermelles at the age of 26. His widow, Christian (or Christina), had given birth to their daughter, Rosemary, just two months before.
Poignantly, his death followed a visit to Glamis in August when he was able to meet his daughter and be briefly reunited with his wife, mother and siblings. Cecilia never fully recovered.
It was Elizabeth who took on supporting Rose in wedding preparation. She married The Hon. William Leveson-Gower that May, having finally decided to settle down. Rose was known as the beauty of the family, while Cecilia was reported to have once said she lost count of how many proposals her daughter received after the figure hit 20. It was a happy moment before even more familial anxiety. That September, Glamis caught fire, though the damage wasn’t too dramatic, and then, in April 1917, Michael was reported missing. Of everyone in the family, only David remained optimistic that his brother was still alive and, luckily, he was proven correct when it became clear that he was a prisoner of war, but physically safe.
Amidst all of this, Elizabeth grew up. She received her first marriage proposal from a soldier recovering at Glamis in 1917, while in January 1918 she attended her first ball and in February, her parents held a dance at St James’s Square as a thank you to everyone who had hosted Elizabeth. It was around this time, as Elizabeth was introduced to the heart of London society, that she first met the Prince of Wales.
There is discrepancy over when and where Elizabeth first met Prince Albert, with some claiming they met once as children, and others at a tea held at Spencer House in 1916. They were certainly both at said tea, but they don’t appear to have interacted. Nothing of substance would exist between them until they met – or met again – in 1920. In the meantime, the war finally came to a close. Victory was reached in November 1918, while Michael returned home in early 1919.
For Elizabeth it meant picking back up where her corner of the world had left off. She debuted at court in the summer of 1920, but it was that June at a dinner party on Derby Night that Elizabeth caught Albert’s eye and the two were formally introduced. The rest, as they, is history.
4 thoughts on “The Queen Mother as a Girl: The Upbringing of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon”
Very interesting article, I found many similarities between the Bowes-Lyon family history and Downton Abbey. Do you know if it was inpiration for the tv show?
Ha, I had the same thought when I was writing this! I’ve never heard of Julian Fellowes using the Queen Mother or the Bowes-Lyon family as a reference point, but I find it hard to believe that he didn’t given the similarities and references to other members of the Royal Family. We do know that the Queen herself was a fan of the show when it was on air, and I like to think that part of that stemmed from knowing it portrayed a time and place that would have familiar to her mother in her youth.
My Great Aunt lived with Elizabeth’s Nanny during WW2 after the Nanny retired. She was gifted a clock from the Bowes-Lyon estate as a leaving gift. It would be great to find out more.
Beryl Poignand was my father in laws aunt. We have some items from her time with the family of the Queen Mother- Elizabeth Bowes Lyon. She was a valued employee and confidante I believe. She also wrote books about the young Elizabeth and Margaret under the pen name Anne Ring.