New book reveals 90 years of Queen Mother’s private letters

      William Shawcross, writer and broadcaster who has been given access to nine decades of remarkable correspondence from Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, has traced the stories the letters tell. The 66-year-old was authorised by Queen Elizabeth in 2003 to write the official biography of her mother and after that the book was published in 2009, he was allowed to compile a collection of Queen Elizabeth’s letters.

From childhood onwards, her words danced on the page, teeming with vitality, ebullience and optimism and she had another gift as well – a beautiful and clear handwriting from the age of ten to the end of her life. By today’s standards, her formal education was limited, but her letters showed a relish for language and sparkled with the joy of living. Aged ten she wrote an essay entitled ‘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,” the Telegraph quoted her as writing. “They are not quite safe yet and many, many axidents have happened,” she wrote.

The First World War broke out on her fourteenth birthday in August 1914. One of her brothers, Fergus, was killed at the battle of Loos and another, Michael, was later taken prisoner of war. When the family heard that Michael was alive, Elizabeth wrote to her governess and friend Beryl “I’m quite and absolutely stark, staring, raving mad. AM I MAD WITH MISERY OR WITH JOY?! WITH JOY! Mike is quite safe….Isn’t it too, too heavenly. I can’t believe it, yes I can but you know what I mean….” During the war her family’s castle was a nursing home, filled with soldiers recovering from their wounds. All of them loved Elizabeth for her ‘joie de vivre’, kindness and skilful hand at cards. In 1920 she met the Duke of York, the second son of King George V, who fell in love with her and pursued her diffidently, but with persistence. She was uncertain and her letters were both kind and poignant.

“Dear Prince Bertie, You write the nicest letters of anyone I know…Yes, I think it has been difficult for both of us, but especially for you,” she wrote. When she finally accepted him in January 1923, her letters exploded with joy. “I do love you Bertie, and feel certain that I shall more and more,” she wrote. In the 1920s and early 1930s she was both happy and popular as Duchess of York, and the mother of two young children, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. There was no thought of her becoming Queen until Edward VIII abdicated in order to marry Wallis Simpson.

She was horrified, but wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, “I can hardly believe that we have been called to this tremendous task …the curious thing is that we are not afraid. I feel that God has enabled us to face the situation calmly.” In summer 1939, as war with Hitler loomed, the new King and Queen travelled together to Canada, to awaken the Dominion’s support for the British cause, and then to New York and Washington to try to shift America’s avowed neutrality. She wrote to her mother-in-law, Queen Mary, that she was reading Hitler’s anti-Semitic testament “Mein Kampf”. “It is very soap-box but very interesting,” she wrote.

Imbued since childhood with a love of God, love of family and love of country, the Second World War brought out her strengths - she wrote that as she sat with the King listening to the Prime Minister’s declaration of war in September 1939. “I could not help tears running down my face, but we both realised that it was inevitable, if there was to be any freedom left in our world, that we must rid ourselves of the cruel Nazi creed of force. We prayed with all our hearts that Peace would come soon – real peace, not a Nazi peace,” she wrote.

A few days later, she wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury. “The only hope for the world is love. I wish in a way we had another word for it – in the ordinary human mind love has so many meanings, other than the sense in which I use it,” she wrote. The happiest moment after the end of the war was the marriage of Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip in 1947 – she wrote to him “to say how glad we are to have you as a son in law. It is so lovely to know you so well and I know that we can entrust our darling Lilibet to your love and care...There is so much that can be done in this muddled and rather worried world by example and leadership, and I am sure that Lilibet and you have a great part to play.” In fact the Princess, and her husband, had to play the greatest part of all when her father died less than five years later in February 1952, and she came at once to the throne.

Queen Elizabeth wrote to Queen Mary, “It is hard to grasp. He was such an angel to the children and me, and I cannot bear to think of Lilibet, so young to bear such a burden.” For the next 50 years, the Queen Mother watched and assisted her daughter in bearing that burden. She carried on writing to old friends and new – like the poet Ted Hughes – until she died, even though her eyesight had almost gone. She died on Easter Saturday 2002, and hundreds of thousands of people publicly mourned her just before the Queen’s successful Golden Jubilee celebrations began.

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