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The Queen Mother: The Official Biography

The Queen Mother: The Official Biography

4.0 53
by William Shawcross

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The official and definitive biography of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother: consort of King George VI, mother of Queen Elizabeth II, grandmother of Prince Charles, and the most beloved British monarch of the twentieth century.

Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes Lyon-the ninth of the Earl of Strathmore's ten children-was born on August 4, 1900, and, certainly,


The official and definitive biography of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother: consort of King George VI, mother of Queen Elizabeth II, grandmother of Prince Charles, and the most beloved British monarch of the twentieth century.

Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes Lyon-the ninth of the Earl of Strathmore's ten children-was born on August 4, 1900, and, certainly, no one could have imagined that her long life (she died in 2002) would come to reflect a changing nation over the course of an entire century. Vividly detailed, written with unrestricted access to her personal papers, letters, and diaries, this candid royal biography by William Shawcross is also a singular history of Britain in the twentieth century.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
With unrestricted access to the queen mother's personal papers, letters and diaries, this respectful, mostly uncritical biography by veteran journalist Shawcross (Sideshow) focuses on the courtship of Elizabeth (1900–2002), the daughter of a Scottish earl, by the future King George VI; the shocking abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936 to marry Wallis Simpson; and WWII, when Elizabeth's narrow escape from a bomb that hit Buckingham Palace helped her commiserate with her subjects during the blitz. Throughout, the queen mother is depicted as vivacious, charming, devout and dutiful, a dedicated protector of the arts if not an intellectual, and socially conservative. Shawcross repeatedly pulls his punches when it comes to revealing the workings of Elizabeth's heart, particularly her anguish over her nemesis, Wallis Simpson, and over her role in aborting her daughter Princess Margaret's romance with the married courtier Peter Townsend. The dearth of information on the queen mother's relationship with the late Princess Diana is particularly egregious. Although readers sense some of the parade of people who crossed her path, the royal engagements that filled her calendar and the pivotal historical events that shaped her life, Shawcross delivers a disappointingly bland celebration of the queen mother. 32 pages of photos. (Oct.)
Kirkus Reviews
Former Sunday Times journalist Shawcross follows up his tribute to Queen Elizabeth II (Queen and Country, 2002) with an extremely lengthy biography of the much beloved Queen Mother. Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon (1900-2002) was six months old when Queen Victoria died, which should give readers an idea of the broad sweep of years and historical events our subject experienced in full. The ninth child of Lord Glamis (the Earl of Strathmore), the Queen Mother traced her ancestry deep into Scotland, though mostly grew up in a grand country home in Hertfordshire and in London. Known as Buffy, the young woman was comely, small of stature and full of fun, and apparently had many suitors. When the Duke of York, George V's second son, Albert ("Bertie"), proposed, she rejected him-several times; he was unprepossessing and a stutterer, nothing like his dashing older brother, Edward. However, a taste of royal life was convincing enough and they married in 1923. It seemed they had a happy, stable marriage until his death in 1952, when their first-born, Elizabeth, ascended to the throne. Nonetheless, Buffy and Bertie were, like the rest of the country, shocked and horrified at Edward VIII's abdication on the eve of World War II, plunging the country into a constitutional crisis. Now Queen Elizabeth (the first commoner to become Queen Consort since the 17th century) to King George VI-he took his father's name for the sake of continuity-she won the admiration of the world for her resiliency and loyalty during the war, remaining in London despite the bombing of Buckingham Palace. An intrepid traveler, Elizabeth was, like her daughter, "a good judge of horseflesh," and adored fishing and picnics,among other things. A consummate insider, Shawcross toes the royal line, rarely straying from his slavish devotion to his subject. Tucking scandals neatly under the rug, the author unfurls an exhaustive biography of the Queen Mother, which may leave non-British readers merely exhausted. First printing of 200,000
From the Publisher
“Fascinating . . . Anglophiles and lovers of the crown will relish every morsel." —USA Today 
“A totally absorbing and highly readable account of a remarkable life. . . . Shawcross’s book is genuinely revelatory." —The Times (London)
“Remarkable." —Los Angeles Times
“Lively and elegantly written. . . . A rich portrait." —The Economist
“Splendid. . . . An entertaining page-turner. . . . This masterly biography reveals a character whose charm was matched by courage, optimism, a strong sense of duty and a liking for fun. . . . A wonderful book, authoritative, frank and entertaining. It sets new standards for royal biography. . . . Anyone who finds royal biographies dull and dutiful is in for a surprise." —The Daily Telegraph (London)

“A portrait of a remarkable life lived in step with a century of sweeping change." —Bloomberg News
“A colossal book about a colossal life, a spectacular journey across the entire 20th Century through the eyes of a thoughtful woman who took the hand of a shy royal understudy and was propelled through modern history." —Daily Mail (London)
“A behind-the-scenes glimpse at the Royal Family. . . . Fascinating reading. . . . Shawcross has written a remarkable book." —Tucson Citizen
“[Written] with unprecedented access to the private papers of the queen mother. . . . Her life is seen here as a mirror of the 20th century." —New York Post “Required Reading”
“Shawcross has been given access to the Royal Archives and they have yielded a rich harvest. . . . [There is an] immense amount of new material here. . . . He is to be congratulated for selecting so many juicy tidbits." —A. N. Wilson, Daily Mail (London)
“Engaging. . . . Colorful. . . . Delightful as well as dignified." —The Washington Times
“The correspondence in [The Queen Mother] is illuminating for both royal watchers and historians. . . . Divulges the Queen Mother’s opinions on topics ranging from feminism to homeopathy." —The Associated Press
“Impressively researched. . . . Shawcross avoids the traps [of] hagiography. . . . He succeeds in the difficult task of keeping his subject resolutely centre-stage in an elegant account." —The Independent (London)
“Shawcross’s journalistic skills are evident in the innumerable dabs of pointilliste detail. . . . There are many unexpected vignettes. . . . He serves his subject well." —Sunday Telegraph (London)
“Offers new and fascinating insights into the woman behind the pearls and pastel dresses." —Mail on Sunday

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 2.40(d)

Read an Excerpt


Wednesday 19 July 2000 was the day chosen for the pageant celebrating the hundredth birthday of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother. In London, the day did not begin well. There were bomb scares, the controlled explosion of a suspicious bag, and many trains were cancelled. Senior police officers considered whether the whole event should be abandoned. It was not.

The celebration, on Horse Guards Parade in Whitehall, had been designed as a joyful tribute to Queen Elizabeth and the hundreds of organizations with which she was connected. In warm afternoon sunshine, as the National Anthem was performed by massed military bands, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and a choir of a thousand singers, Queen Elizabeth, dressed in pink, arrived with her grandson the Prince of Wales in a landau escorted by the Household Cavalry.

After she had inspected the troops, she and the Prince sat on a flower-bedecked dais (though she stood much of the time) to watch the parade together. It began with a march-past of the regiments of which she was colonel-in-chief, followed by the King’s Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery and the Mounted Bands of the Household Cavalry. One hundred homing doves were released as a young boy sang ‘Oh for the Wings of a Dove’.

Then came a cavalcade of the century, a light-hearted look at the hundred years she had lived through; more of a circus than a parade, it included 450 children and adults, with a variety of stars. Among the scenes and players who passed in front of her were soldiers of the First World War, ballroom dancers from the 1920s, a Second World War fire engine and ambulance, Pearly Kings and Queens from the East End of London, and people in 1940s dress celebrating victory in 1945.

Then came a series of post-war cars – Enid Blyton’s Noddy in his yellow car, the first Mini Minor, James Bond’s Aston Martin, an E-type Jaguar. More recent – and perhaps more surprising – twentieth-century memories were recalled by Hell’s Angels on their bikes, punk-rock youths in black and the television characters, the Wombles.

After this eclectic depiction of the previous ten decades, representatives of 170 of the more than 300 civil organizations, charities and other groups with which Queen Elizabeth was associated marched past her. This part of the parade began with Queen Elizabeth’s page leading two of her corgis, the breed of dog which had for so long shared her life. There were more animals: camels (ridden by members of the Worshipful Company of Grocers, whose emblem is a camel), horses, an Aberdeen Angus bull, North Country Cheviot sheep, chickens, racehorses. The groups waving gaily as they passed included the Girls’ Brigade, Queen Elizabeth’s Overseas Nursing Services Association, the Cookery and Food Association (a hundred chefs all in their whites), the  Mothers’ Union, the Poultry Club of Great Britain, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the National Trust, the Royal College of Midwives, St John Ambulance Brigade, the Royal School of Needlework, the Colditz Association, the Battle of Britain Fighter Association, the Bomber Command Association and, bringing up the rear, twenty-two holders of the Victoria and George Crosses, Britain’s highest awards for heroism, followed by the venerable Chelsea Pensioners marching stiffly but proudly in their bright red uniforms. Everyone in the stands stood up as these brave men and women passed.

RAF planes from the Second World War – a Spitfire, a Hurricane, a Lancaster bomber, a Bristol Blenheim – flew overhead, followed by the Red Arrows trailing red, white and blue vapour trails. And all the while the bands and the orchestra played on and the choirs sang. Hubert Parry’s glorious anthem ‘I Was Glad’, which had been sung at King George VI and Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation in 1937, was followed by First World War music-hall favourites such as ‘Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag’, ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ and (nicely vulgar) ‘My Old Man Said Follow the Van’. Three hundred children from the Chicken Shed Company danced. Altogether some 2,000 military personnel and more than 5,000 civilians celebrated on Horse Guards Parade.

The whole event lasted an hour and a half, and at the end the Queen Mother made a short speech of thanks saying it had been a wonderful afternoon and ‘a great joy to me’. The crowd cheered, the National Anthem was sung again, and Queen Elizabeth got into her car to make a lap of honour past thousands of happy, cheering people before driving off to St James’s Palace, where she climbed the stairs to the State Rooms and spent the next hour and a half at a reception, sitting down only to talk to the singer Dame Vera Lynn.

Two weeks later, on the morning of her actual hundredth birthday, 4 August, a large crowd gathered outside her London home, Clarence House. The gates were opened and Queen Elizabeth came out to take the salute when the King’s Troop, the Royal Horse Artillery, marched past. In front of the crowd the royal postman, Tony Nicholls, delivered her the traditional message sent by the Queen to all her subjects who reach their hundredth birthday. The Queen Mother started to open it and then passed it to her equerry. ‘Come on, use your sword,’ she said. Captain William de Rouet unsheathed his ceremonial blade and slit the envelope open. The message was written in the Queen’s own hand and read, ‘On your 100th birthday all the family join with me in sending you our loving best wishes for this special day. Lilibet’.1 Then, with the Prince of Wales, Queen Elizabeth climbed into a landau decked with flowers in her racing colours of blue and gold, and was driven to Buckingham Palace past the large crowds lining the Mall. The Prince was deeply moved by the rapturous reception for his beloved grandmother. It was, he thought, ‘the British at their best – and you always manage to bring the best out in people!’2  At the Palace, Queen Elizabeth appeared alone on the balcony. She waved to the crowds as she had first waved after her marriage in 1923 and, most famously, on Victory in Europe (VE) Day in May 1945. As the Band of the Coldstream Guards played Happy Birthday and the crowd roared its approval, she was joined by twenty-seven of her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nephews, nieces and many of their spouses.

In her long life the world had undergone technological change with unprecedented speed, and political transformations of exceptional violence. It had moved from the age of travel by horse to that of travel through space. The First World War and the Russian Revolution had toppled the emperors of Austria, Germany and Russia. Many other European kings and queens had subsequently departed their thrones. The United Kingdom had suffered the trauma of the Great War and then faced almost continuous challenge from economic and political turmoil, from war and the threat of war – through a world slump, the abdication of King Edward VIII, the Second World War, the Cold War. Queen Elizabeth had come to terms with massive changes – loss of empire, the growth of a modern multi-racial Commonwealth of newly independent states in Asia and Africa, and a social revolution in Britain itself which had begun with the first majority Labour government elected in 1945.

The British monarchy was not isolated from the political and social changes. Indeed the abdication in 1936 was a self-inflicted wound from which it might not have recovered. It had adapted itself, and it had survived; more than that, it had retained the consent of the people essential to constitutional monarchy. This adaptation was largely due to the efforts of successive sovereigns and their advisers. But a key question, explored in this book, is the extent to which the consent necessary for its survival was generated by the woman who was for almost eighty years at its heart – as Duchess of York, Queen and Queen Mother.

In any biography of a public person there is a danger of overemphasizing the role of the individual in shaping events. This is particularly true when the individual has, like Queen Elizabeth, great prestige but no real power. Nevertheless, it remains legitimate to ask how Queen Elizabeth responded to the great personal and public crises of her life and what wider effect this had.

How did she do it? What combination of qualities had enabled this young Scottish aristocrat to come into the Royal Family and play such a central role in the life of the nation for almost eighty years? What part did she play in her unique family, as a young married woman, as a mother, as grandmother and great-grandmother? And on the national stage, how did she earn and, more remarkably, how did she retain her popularity through all of the turbulent twentieth century? What were the drawbacks to her very particular style? What did she really contribute to the monarchy and to the nation in times of crisis and social revolution? Would the British monarchy have evolved in a very different way without her influence? And would that have helped or hindered the institution and the country? All these questions can perhaps be examined in the context of a few words from Walter Bagehot, the mid-nineteenth-century writer who is often seen as the greatest interpreter of modern monarchy: ‘The nation is divided into parties, but the crown is of no party. Its apparent separation from business is that which removes it both from enmities and from desecration, which preserves its mystery, which enables it to combine the affection of conflicting parties – to be a visible symbol of unity.’

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Born in 1946, William Shawcross is an internationally renowned writer and broadcaster who appears regularly on television and radio. His articles have appeared in leading newspapers and journals throughout the world. www.williamshawcross.com.

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The Queen Mother: The Official Biography 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 53 reviews.
Capparoo More than 1 year ago
"The Queen Mother" is a wonderful book, full of history and insights to the youth of Elizabeth that made her the Queen she became. It is at once tragic, endearing and charming - one feels a part of Elizabeth's family as they celebrated holidays, spent time at their estates in London and Scotland, tended the wounded soldiers in their home during World War I, cried at death and rejoiced in daily life. Shawcross treats his subject realistically (including her spelling errors in correspondence) and allows the reader into a home environment that cultivated the woman the world adored. Shawcross describes Elizabeth's youth as both privileged and common, her life filled with joy and sorrows, her temperament as strong and caring. In his coverage of her life, he leaves no wonder that all the pieces of her life ultimately created a picture of a woman who would graciously conquer life's challenges, win the love and admiration of the people in the United Kingdom, and ultimately pass these qualities on to her children. Like the Queen Mother's life, this book is unpretentious, honest and fun.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
At first glance, this book can seem a bit intimidating- after all, it is a 1000+ page official biography of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Yet as the reader begins to tackle this book, they will find that it is much as Her Majesty is portrayed in this work- sophisticated, yet unpretentious. Shawcross has succeeded in writing a highly detailed, intelligent biography without boring or overwhelming the reader. It is at times poignant, other times humorous, and overall a fascinating story of not just the Queen Mother herself, but the United Kingdom and its citizens from the end of the Victorian Era to the 21st Century.
S-Dutch More than 1 year ago
Most interesting story of love and dedication. A woman of the upper class in England; pursued and finally married into the royal family and suddenly thrown into an unwanted and unexpected situation of dedication to service to her country. Widowed at an early age and continued to serve her people and country until well into her ninth decade with dignity and grace. It is sometimes hard not to smile and chuckle to think of the Queen of England with a fishing pole or in a horse barn; dancing a little dance with some young people at a private party she "crashed". She really enjoyed mingling with the common people just to allow them to know she cared without loosing the dignity of her office.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a surprising book. Initially I was very put off by its size - it looks like "War and Peace." I thought that this was going to be far more than I ever wanted to know about the Queen Mother. But Shawcross writes very, very well and he does a truly outstanding job of interweaving quotations from Queen Elizabeth's letters with his narrative (apparently the royal family communicated daily via letters / notes rather than talking to each other). One gets an excellent understanding of Queen Elizabeth's family, the Bowes-Lyons and one truly appreciates the personality of the Queen Mother, which is a remarkable achievement in a biography.
JBPA More than 1 year ago
Much admired by the British people, the Queen Mother was a very public woman, but her private life was closely guarded. Shawcross' research, though, introduces the reader to another side to the Queen Mother. She was compassionate, tough, witty and intelligent. She was a woman who didn't ask for the role of queen, but when called upon, she put aside her own misgivings for the good of her country. There are no big surprises in this book, as Shawcross chose to be respectful to her memory and write a dignified tome.
sjstaln More than 1 year ago
If you have any interest at all in British history, British royalty, or the "Queen Mum" you will enjoy this book. 
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I loved this book. If you're interested in WWII era, Great Britain, or the royal family, you'll love this book. I was afraid that being an authorized biography, it might be insincere, but there is so much great correspondence quoted, that you really get an authentic flavor of personalities. This is a beautiful biography of a beautiful figure in history.
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