Don't let the foul critics upset you, my darling Charles. Everyone LOVES you! The wickedly irreverent, funny and intimate new book revealing nine decades of the Queen Mother's private letters
01:06 GMT, 8 October 2012
At the fag end of the Seventies, as the Winter of Discontent was about to consign Labour to the political wilderness and usher in the Thatcher years, the Queen found herself on a hectic tour of the Middle East.
With so many pressures at home and abroad, you can only imagine her relief as she returned to the Royal Yacht one evening to find a letter waiting for her in an unmistakable hand.
‘My Darling Lilibet,’ her mother began, before launching into yet another pen portrait of the vast sweep of royal life through the eyes of the longest-lived consort in royal history.
High praise: A collection of letters written by the Queen Mother, pictured here before her marriage in 1923, give a fascinating insight into the character of one of Britain's best-loved royals
Congratulating the Queen on always
looking cool in the Gulf heat, the Queen Mother goes on to report of
‘strikes everywhere . . . yesterday, people arriving by air had a
marvellous time smuggling at the airports because the Customs men were
on strike!’ She describes holding an investiture on the Queen’s behalf,
at which she decorated a young sailor for bravery during an accident in
an atomic submarine.
‘I said to him “That must have been a
terrible experience” and he replied “Not half as terrible as this”,
which was rather nice. He was white with apprehension and fear!’
There is a racing update — ‘Upton Grey
ran on Thursday, jumped badly & ran abominably’ — and news of
another monarch passing through London.
‘The Tongas came to tea — he has lost 90lb & ate a hearty tea.’
Adoring: Queen Mother with Prince Charles in the early 1970s
She reports that Prince Charles has
just courted controversy ‘by saying, in his innocent way, that
management is not good in this country!!’.
And she offers her thoughts on all the
gifts being heaped on the Queen by her Arab hosts: ‘How exciting being
given pearls, there is nothing nicer, & such a relief not being
given huge echoing caskets.’
Signing off with an update on family travel movements and the state of the corgis, she concludes: ‘Your very loving Mummy.'.
The Queen Mother lived the 20th century as the last empress, resolutely maintaining Edwardian standards into the digital age.
Duty and discretion were her
watchwords. But she was also blessed with a flair for story-telling, a
sense of mischief, gentle wit and vivid imagination.
And she just happened to be a prolific letter-writer.
And now, ten years after her death, we can capture something of her extraordinary, exhilarating life in her own words.
No one else, surely, encountered such a
cast of characters, from World War I colossus Admiral Jellicoe (‘too
nice, so silly — just like a sailor!’) to the Shah of Iran (‘I do feel
for the Shah, trying to be a “do-gooder” and a practical dictator’) to
TV’s Clive James (‘the first Socialist Democrat I have actually met’).
Has any previous collection of letters
spanned Queen Mary, Eleanor Roosevelt, Benjamin Britten and Norwich
City Football Club (to whom she sent personal congratulations after they
won the Division Two title in 1972)
Three years ago, author William
Shawcross produced the official biography of the Queen Mother, a
magisterial work revealing an indefatigable optimist with tungsten
opinions and an unswerving loyalty towards all who reciprocated it.
With a nod from the Queen and the
Royal Family, Shawcross has returned to the Royal Archives, and to the
Queen Mother’s extensive circle of friends, to explore her herculean
It has been a rich harvest. Here is a
fluent narrator who, despite frequent grumbles about journalists, would
have made a very good one with her natural eye for the telling detail.
At the height of the Blitz in 1940,
she is already pondering the rebuilding of post-war London, and full of
amusing asides about the chaos at Buckingham Palace as royal refugees
pour in from occupied Europe.
Slightly sickly affair: Reading the Queen Mother's letters is like 'being fed Violet Creams'
There are countless fresh insights to
be found in the book’s 686 pages, which has many letters to the Queen
and Prince Philip that have never before been seen by the public.
This was a very fond mother/son-in-law
relationship. Just as the Queen prepares to mark the Silver Jubilee in
1977, her mother can’t resist writing Prince Philip a short letter
telling him how wonderful he is.
‘Please no answer,’ she adds impishly.
‘Just a wink at the installation on Monday.’ The bond between the Queen
Mother and Prince Charles —her ‘darling Charles’ — dominates the latter
stages of the book.
‘The Press are perfectly foul,’ she writes to him during the hectic days leading up to his 1969 investiture as Prince of Wales.
THE QUEEN MOTHER IN HER OWN WORDS
Eloquent, witty, playful and devoted, the Queen Mother’s letters offer a charming insight into her private world. From a tender note sent to comfort and reassure the Duke of York after she rejected one of his many marriage proposals, to fond letters to both of her beloved daughters, the correspondence paints a touching portrait of a doting wife and mother.
Young writer: The Queen Mother aged five
A ten-year-old Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon writes an essay titled ‘A recent invention: Aeroplanes’.
An aeroplane is usually shaped like a cigar, and has a propellor at one end and on each side the great white wings, which make it look like a bird. They are not quite safe yet and many, many axidents have happened.’
28 February 1921
Written to the Duke of York (pictured right) just after he had proposed to her — and been rejected.
Dear Prince Bertie,
I must write one line to say how dreadfully sorry I am about yesterday. It makes me miserable to think of it — you have been very nice about it all — please do forgive me . . . it worries me so much to think you may be unhappy — I do hope you won’t be. Anyway, we can be good friends can’t we Please do look on me as one. I shall never say anything about our talks I promise you — and nobody need ever know . . .
Yours very sincerely, Elizabeth
28 October 1926
To Elizabeth’s mother, Lady Strathmore, from Sandringham, Norfolk. The letter was written when Princess Elizabeth — the future Queen — was just over six months old.
My Darling Mother . . . The baby is very well, and now spends the whole day taking her shoes off & sucking her toes! She is going to be very wicked, and she is very quick, I think . . .
Your very loving
10 September 1930
Written from Glamis Castle, Scotland, to the Most Rev Cosmo Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury. Princess Margaret was less than a month old.
My dear Archbishop . . . Daughter No 2 is really very nice, and I am glad to say that she has got large blue eyes and a will of iron, which is all the equipment that a lady needs!
As long as she can disguise her will & use her eyes, then all will be well . . .
Yours very sincerely,
27 June 1944
To her daughter, Princess Elizabeth from Buckingham Palace, as Germany unleashed ‘Doodlebugs’ on London in a final, brutal phase of the Blitz.
My Darling Lilibet . . . This is just a note about one or two things in case I get ‘done in’ by the Germans! I think that I have left all my own things to be divided by you & Margaret, but I am sure you will give her anything suitable later on . . .
Let’s hope this won’t be needed, but I know that you will always do the right thing, & remember to keep your temper & your word & be loving — sweet — Mummy
9 September 1955
To Princess Margaret, in the midst of turmoil over her romance with the divorced Group Captain Peter Townsend.
My Darling Margaret, I sometimes wonder whether you realise quite how much I hate having to point out the more difficult and occasionally horrid problems which arise when discussing your future . . .
I suppose that every mother wants her child to be happy, and I know what a miserable & worrying time you are having, torn by so many difficult constitutional & moral problems.
I think about it and you all the time, and because I have to talk over the horrid things does not mean that I don’t suffer with you, or that one’s love is any less . . .
Your very loving Mummy
‘I can’t tell you what charming and heart-warming things I am always hearing about you. Everyone loves you.’
The result is an enchanting, often
moving and sometimes hilarious canter from the Great War to the new
millennium with a rider who refuses to slow down.
It was during World War I that (the
then) Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon emerged as an energetic correspondent,
constantly reflecting on the carnage and cruelty unleashed on her
One brother, Fergus, was killed at the
Battle of Loos. Another, Michael, was missing in action for an
agonising few weeks in 1917 before he surfaced in a prisoner-of-war
‘I’m quite and absolutely stark, staring, raving mad,’ she writes to her confidante and former governess, Beryl Poignand.
‘Can’st thou e’en guess AM I MAD WITH
MISERY OR WITH JOY WITH! JOY!! Mike is quite safe! Oh dear, I nearly
burst this morning.’
Prolific: The Queen Mother's writing desk in the Castle of Mey in Caithness. From her early childhood, right up until her death age 101 she penned thousands of letters
War dominates all. In March 1918,
years before she falls for the future George VI, she writes of a dance
attended by the most glamorous man alive, the Prince of Wales (later
He is clearly something of an admirer. ‘I had great fun last night at the Harcourts,’ she writes to Beryl.
‘Rather a terrifying dinner first, in which I sat between the Prince of Wales and Count Michael Torby. It was very nice.
‘As usual, I danced the first dance with the P. W. I don’t know why, but I usually do. I danced three with him.’ow, for many — if not most — women of
her generation, being the object of such princely flattery might be the
cue for endless excited ramblings. But after a brief summary of the
other guests, Lady Elizabeth returns to her recurring theme of the cruel
toll of the war:
The Queen mother was fastidious when it came to thank you letters as this note sent to Rene Roussin once chef at the palace shows
‘Tho’ I enjoyed it very much, I felt
slightly depressed at moments. Such a lot of these boys are going out
[to the War] quite soon — in fact, nearly everybody I know. They are so
young, a great many only 19.’
She would never forget the sense of loss.
When it comes to the pivotal moments
of the Queen Mother’s life — her engagement, the abdication, the war and
the death of her husband, George VI — the collection of letters offer
new insights rather than surprises.
In 1933, writing to her mother-in-law
Queen Mary, she cannot bear to write the name ‘Wallis Simpson’ and
simply refers to a ‘certain person’ among a clique of ‘naughty ladies’.
But once her darling ‘Bertie’ has been
propelled to the throne after the abdication, her views on the Duke and
Duchess of Windsor are set in stone.
‘The mass of people do not forgive
quickly the sort of thing that he did to this country,’ she writes to
Prince Paul of Yugoslavia in 1939. ‘And they hate her.’
It is the war years that bring out the
best in Queen Elizabeth. Outwardly stoical and sturdy, she writes
letter after letter revealing her fears and emotions for the people she
meets on her travels.
We see, too, how protective she was of
the King, always ready to interfere whenever she senses a threat to the
She gets particularly cross when the
Government announces that Commonwealth subjects will henceforth be
rebranded as ‘citizens’.
Another recurring theme is a bond with her staff. Hers genuinely was the age of Downton Abbey.
Overall the letters portray a distinctly jolly figure from a bygone age with a love of good times, friends and a drink or two
'Dear Prince Bertie': She wrote to the future King George VI – the man who would be her husband – and apologised for turning down one of his proposal
There are several references to a
beloved Bowes Lyon family butler, Barson, who might almost be the model
for Downton’s Carson. He is devoted to Lady Elizabeth’s father, the Earl
of Strathmore, is inconsolable at her mother’s funeral in 1938 and ends
up being included in the family portrait.
She forms a lifelong bond with many of
the wounded Great War soldiers who come to convalesce at her Scottish
childhood home, Glamis Castle.
Years later, when she hears that one
of them is jobless in Sunderland, she finds him a job on the Windsor
estate, where he spends the rest of his life.
Characters such as Pearl, the Birkhall
ghillie (gamekeeper); Anne Beevers, a maternity nurse known as Nannie
B; former governess Beryl Poignand, with whom she shared many private
jokes; or her lady’s maid Catherine Macelan pop up in correspondence as
regularly as Cabinet ministers.
When Robert Brown, the Balmoral
ghillie, dies in 1972, the Queen Mother shares her anguish in a letter
to Prince Charles: ‘I never thought of Balmoral or the river without
Brown, he is so much part of all one’s happiest memories —that little
light, compact figure, so courteous & so full of fun & such a
pleasure to spend the day with.’ Hers was a life of luxury, of course,
but also one of dedication and good humour in the face of adversity.
Right up to the last page, as she
paints an enchanting picture of the Scottish coast for the Prince of
Wales months before her death, this is someone with a relentless zest
for both the small and the great things in life.
Not for nothing is the book titled Counting One’s Blessings.
CRAIG BROWN BOOK OF THE WEEK: QUEEN OF THE THANK-YOU LETTER
The Queen Mother: 'Hers was a world that made Downton Abbey look like the Crossroads'
The Queen Mother was nearly 30 years old before electricity came to her family home in Scotland. Her parents installed it at Glamis Castle in 1929: before then, the entire place was lit by candles, with two bagpipers marching round the table at the end of dinner.
Even in that bygone era, she belonged to a bygone era. Hers was a world that made Downton Abbey look like the Crossroads Motel: had her parents ever come across the Earl of Grantham, they would doubtless have taken him for the under-butler and handed him their shoes for shining.
The ninth of ten children, she came from an unusually secure and happy family, and she was given more than her fair share of love. ‘I think you know that you are by far the most precious of all my children & always will be,’ her mother once wrote to her.
Throughout her long, long life, she spent much of her time being given things, and an equal amount saying thank you for them. The very first letter in this book, written when she was eight, begins with a ‘Thank you’, and so does the last, written when she was 101.
Her single-minded pursuit of jollity makes reading this vast selection of her letters a slightly sickly affair, like being force-fed Violet Creams. Anything that does not meet her exacting standards of heavenliness is either not admitted, or is given extremely short shrift.
In 1964, the year of Herzog and Last Exit To Brooklyn, she writes to Cecil Beaton that modern novels are ‘so loathsome & so perfectly horrible, that I felt quite sick with distaste. I think that we must be living through a moment of bad taste in many forms of art, & I hope that the English will revolt soon’.
From time to time, she lets the venom she holds for her great betes noires, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, spill on to the page. After war is declared, she writes to Queen Mary: ‘I haven’t heard a word about Mrs Simpson – I trust that she will soon return to France and STAY THERE. I am sure that she hates this dear country & therefore she should not be here in war time.’
A week later, she writes to Prince Paul of Yugoslavia about the Duke: ‘I think that he at last realizes that there is no niche for him here – the mass of the people do not forgive quickly the sort of thing that he did to this country, and they HATE her! . . . What a curse black sheep are in a family!’
But by and large, she keeps anything unheavenly or – another of her favourite words – ‘unhelpful’ out of her letters.
Anyone reading these letters without prior knowledge of the Royal Family would come away thinking that the first marriages of her grandchildren Andrew, Charles and Anne were still going strong.
COUNTING ONE'S BLESSINGS: THE SELECTED LETTERS OF QUEEN ELIZABETH THE QUEEN MOTHER edited by William Shawcross
Macmillan 25 ☎ 18.99 inc p&p