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History

Elizabeth, Last Empress of India


By Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums - The Queen Mother arriving at Walker Naval Yard, No restrictions, Wikimedia Commons

For many people, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother represented the very heart of Britain. Her steadfastness and dedication to Britain during the Second World War largely defines her legacy. However, she was also the Last Empress of India. 

Early Life 

Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was the youngest daughter and second youngest child of a Scottish nobleman, Claude Bowes-Lyon and Cecelia Cavendish-Bentinck. She grew up at Glamis Castle and spent much of her child spending time outdoors with her ponies and dogs. (This love of the country would stay with her for the rest of her life.) On her 14th birthday, 4 August 1914, Britain declared war on Germany and her life changed. Several of her older brothers served in the military, with one older brother killed in action and another taken as a Prisoner of War. Like many young people, Elizabeth’s life changed. 

Becoming the Duchess of York 

A vivacious and outgoing Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon caught the attention of the second son of the king, the Duke of York. He proposed to Elizabeth in 1921, but she initially refused the proposal. James Stuart, the Duke’s equerry, courted Elizabeth, but he left to take a job in America. The Duke proposed for a second time in 1922, but it wasn’t until his proposal in 1923 that she accepted. They married at Westminster Abbey on 26 April 1923, when she began the tradition of leaving the bridal bouquet at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. 

The Duke and Duchess had two daughters, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose. They led a relatively quiet family life and would spend much of their time together as a family. However, the two princesses were separated from their parents during the Second World War when they were sent to life in safety at Windsor while their parents stayed in London. 

Becoming Queen and Empress 

After George V died in 1936, Edward VIII took the throne for a short nine months. Questionably suited to be king, he gave up the throne in favour of marrying the American Wallis Simpson. The Duke of York became King George VI, and the Duchess became Queen Elizabeth. In 1876, Queen Victoria became the first Empress of India. Under British control from 1858 to 1947, India was a large territory with several different cultural groups and languages. 

The Last Empress

Unfortunately, the Emperor and Empress were not able to visit India before it proclaimed independence in 1947. George relinquished his title as Emperor and became King of India and Elizabeth the Queen of India. At the same time as the establishment of the Commonwealth, India became a republic, and they lost those titles, as well. Their daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, made her first visit to India in 1961.

Later Life 

The King passed away on 6 February 1952, when Elizabeth II ascended the throne. Queen Elizabeth became known as Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, a widow at aged 52. She would go on to live to the age of 101, passing away on 6 March 2002. Elizabeth continued to carry out official engagements and tours for her daughter for most of her widowhood and remained active and lively. The Castle of Mey was one of her passion projects in later life. She purchased it shortly after the King’s death in 1952 and set about restoring it to use as a holiday home. Guests can now stay on the property, and you can visit the castle if you find yourself in Caithness. 

About author

Historian and blogger at AnHistorianAboutTown.com