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Before they were royal: The life of the Queen Mother

Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, was a beloved member of the Royal Family, living for 101 remarkable years. But even before she married a future king, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was descendant from the Royal House of Scotland and already lived in a castle. Here, we take a look at the early life of the Queen Mother.

The Honourable Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon was born on 4 August 1900. Her actual place of birth is not clear and has been debated by many (read more in our recent article).

Regardless of her birthplace, she was welcomed into a large aristocratic family, the ninth child of Lord Claude George Bowes-Lyon and Lady Nina Cecilia Bowes-Lyon.

Elizabeth’s oldest living sibling (her parents’ first child died of diphtheria at age 11) was 17 years her elder, and the closest in age was seven years older. But Elizabeth’s mother went on to have a tenth and last child, David, in 1902.  Elizabeth and David did everything together and were extremely close (and often, pranksters).

Elizabeth’s family owned several properties, and she spent most of her early days at St Paul’s Walden Bury, a large country home in Hertfordshire. The family spent the London Season in their home at 20 St James’s Square, and when she was four, they inherited a Scottish castle.

In 1904, her grandfather, Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, died. Elizabeth’s father inherited the Earldom, and young Elizabeth then became Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. This also meant the family now owned Glamis Castle in Scotland, the setting for Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

The centuries-old castle provided an idyllic home for the Bowes-Lyon family and a great place for Elizabeth and her brother David to get into mischief – they loved to pour water from the ramparts on arriving visitors.

Glamis Castle

Glamis Castle. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Maciej Lewandowski

Elizabeth was taught by a governess at home until the age of eight, then attended a private academy in London. In 1913, Elizabeth was taken out of school and educated again at home by a German-born tutor.

When World War I started, life changed greatly for Lady Elizabeth. Similar to the events that played out during the First World War on the programme Downton Abbey, Glamis Castle was turned into a war hospital. Her tutor left the family, and teenaged Elizabeth spent her time helping with the wounded soldiers and the running of the hospital. Surely, this experience greatly matured Elizabeth and helped to prepare her for a life of service as a future monarch.

The Bowes-Lyon family was not immune from the horrors of the war, and Elizabeth’s brother Fergus was killed fighting in the Battle of Loos in 1915. Her brother Michael was taken as a prisoner of war but survived.

In 1916, Elizabeth was an integral part in helping to save Glamis Castle from a fire. She rang the fire department and along with some of the soldiers staying there, assisted firefighters and organised a team to get the castle’s many valuables outside. Her take-charge attitude was admired by the firefighters, who actually thought she was a servant because of how diligent she was in assisting with cleanup efforts.

Elizabeth’s debut into society was delayed by the war, but once peacetime finally arrived, she was presented before King George V and Queen Mary. She was a popular debutante and had many admirers, but one man was determined to make Elizabeth his wife.

The Bowes-Lyons were friendly with members of the Royal Family, and Elizabeth likely met Prince Albert at some point as a child. But she first caught the eye of the Prince, also known as “Bertie,” in 1920 at a dance in London given by Lord and Lady Farquhar.

Albert, who was five years her senior, proposed in 1921, but she refused him. Elizabeth expressed serious concerns about becoming a member of the Royal Family, saying she was “afraid never, never again to be free to think, speak, and act as I feel I really ought to.” The pair remained friendly, despite her turning down the marriage proposal.

At the time she was also being courted by Albert’s equerry, James Stuart, until (rather coincidentally) he left England for a job in America.

Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (back row, second from left) at the wedding of Princess Mary in 1922. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In 1922 Elizabeth served as a bridesmaid at the wedding of Albert’s sister, Princess Mary. Lady Elizabeth probably never imagined her own wedding would take place just over a year later – especially since she would soon turn down yet another proposal from a rather persistent Prince Albert.

Despite her hesitations, Elizabeth eventually accepted Albert’s third proposal of marriage. The engagement of The Duke of York and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was announced on 15 January 1923.

Albert, Duke of York with Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1923. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The couple married at Westminster Abbey on 26 April 1923. Elizabeth laid her bouquet on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in memory of her brother, starting a tradition that has carried on with royal brides through the years. Most recently, the Duchess of Sussex sent her bouquet to be left on the tomb.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain 

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