George VI and Elizabeth
Prince Albert’s quest for the hand of Elizabeth Bowes Lyon was less a courtship than a campaign. He conducted it for thirty months. He used spontaneous charges, tactical retreats, and evidently well-considered feints. From time to time he called in reinforcements. He often despaired, but he persisted with single-minded determination, taking even the most ambivalent responses as signs of encouragement.
If Elizabeth had been as enamored as Bertie was, they would have had a textbook romance. Within months of his first flash of interest in the summer of 1920, she would have accepted his inevitable proposal. But her heart was with another man, James Stuart, the third son of the seventeenth Earl of Moray, and, as irony would have it, Bertie’s equerry, an aide-de-camp who arranged his logistics and assisted him at events.
Stuart was a tall, fine-featured, and mustachioed Scotsman with a lady-killer reputation. He and Elizabeth had met at a house party hosted by her family at Glamis Castle in September 1919, when James was twenty-two and she was nineteen. Something must have clicked because Bertie knew he had a formidable rival. Lured by the prospect of a financial windfall, Stuart left Bertie’s employ and went to the United States—a move rumored to have been arranged by Bertie’s mother, Queen Mary. In any event, the field had been cleared for Bertie.
The denouement of Bertie’s campaign played out over twelve days in January 1923. On the evening of Wednesday, the third, Elizabeth was invited to an intimate dinner hosted by Bertie at Claridge’s, the rosy-hued Victorian hotel known as “the Palace of Mayfair,” a magnet for aristocrats, bright young things, and British royalty since the late nineteenth century.
Intriguingly, Francis Doune, James’s older brother, came to visit Elizabeth at five-thirty that day and stayed an hour. She made no record in her diary about what they discussed. Although she was suffering from a “heavy cold,” she was ready when Bertie and his equerry, Captain Giles Sebright, arrived to pick her up an hour later. They were joined by Lady Anne Cameron, Sebright’s girlfriend.
After dinner, the foursome attended a performance of The Co-Optimists, a popular revue in the West End featuring numbers by Irving Berlin and Arthur Schwartz, among others. It was fast-paced topical entertainment, with ten performers switching from character to character as they sang and danced across the stage. One subversive song by Noël Coward, “Down with the Whole Damn Lot,” poked fun at “the idle rich” and “the bloated upper classes.” To Elizabeth, it was all “great fun.”
Back at Claridge’s, Bertie took Elizabeth to the dance floor in the stately foyer, with its crystal chandeliers and fluted columns. (They both loved dancing and were equally graceful and accomplished.) There he asked for her hand in marriage for the third and final time. On leaving Claridge’s, they went to Anne Cameron’s house, and Elizabeth didn’t arrive home until two a.m. before falling asleep at three a.m. As Bertie recounted later in a letter to his mother, he “had a long talk with her & told her how I had always felt towards her & she told me that she looked upon me as more than an ordinary friend & asked me to give her time to think over what I had said.”
During the following eleven days, Elizabeth vacillated as she confided in friends and family and sent reassuring letters to lovestruck Bertie. She alternated between giddy activity—teas, luncheons, dinners, theater, being photographed for a fashion magazine, trying on clothes, playing cards, tramping across fields on a shooting weekend, dancing all night at two country house balls—and quiet moments riven with worry: fretful, morose, confused, guilt-stricken, and exhausted.
Based on the entries in her diary, she devoted more than twenty hours to discussing the proposal with Bertie and a selection of confidantes. Over fifteen of those hours were one-on-one talks with her persistent suitor.
A century later, it is difficult to divine what was running through her mind, especially her motivations. She was drawn to Bertie’s sweet and humble simplicity—a rare trait in the British royal family—and to the vulnerability betrayed by his stammer. But she was frustratingly hazy when finally, at age ninety-four, she tried to explain her thinking to her friend Eric Anderson, the head master of Eton College. He had asked whether she took advice from anyone about “the serious proposal” or “did you know at once?”
She admitted it had gone on for “a year or two,” adding, “You know you are not sure about anything, and then one of my brothers said to me, ‘Look here, you know, you must either say yes or no. It’s not fair.’ I think he was right. Because one is rather inclined to dither along if somebody’s fond of you, you know. I suppose when one is young and busy and things. No, he was quite right. . . . It’s a good thing, having brothers.” The sibling in question was likely her older brother Michael or younger brother David, both of whom had been friendly with the prince since September 1921, when he stayed at Glamis to shoot partridges.
Others who knew Elizabeth well offered their own explanations, most hinging on her unwillingness to give up her freedom for a lifetime of duty inside the royal family. “She was so uncertain with Bertie because she had been brought up in such a closed world of a large family and small circle of close friends,” her great-niece Lady Elizabeth Anson told me. “She was smart and grounded and understood what being a member of the royal family would mean. She was not eager to have a public life. That was the crux of it.”
The twelve days in January 1923 from proposal to acceptance encompassed a drama of Elizabeth’s own making, if not her explicit design. Behind the scenes, family and friends had been working for a full year to ensure that the third time would be the charm. Principal among them were Bertie’s mother, Queen Mary; her trusted friend and lady-in-waiting Mabell, the Countess of Airlie; Elizabeth’s mother, Cecilia Strathmore; Louis Greig, the comptroller and head of Bertie’s household; even, perhaps unwittingly, Bertie’s younger sister, Princess Mary. Other peripheral characters were involved as well. Neither Bertie nor Elizabeth was fully aware of stratagems that included subterfuge and misdirection plays. But well before they took to the dance floor at Claridge’s, she sensed a proposal could be imminent.
Amid all her activity and emotions that January, two pivotal events nudged her toward becoming Bertie’s wife: a nearly two-hour conversation with Mabell Airlie, and a false gossip item in a newspaper that embarrassed and alarmed her.
In the late afternoon of Thursday, January 4, 1923, Elizabeth sat down for tea in Lady Airlie’s small flat in a Victorian-era apartment building in London’s Westminster neighborhood. Elizabeth arrived in an agitated state because her mother had forbidden her to attend the popular Pytchley Hunt Ball that night in the Northampton Town Hall. She and Bertie had been invited to a house party at nearby Pitsford Hall, a grand eighteenth-century estate owned by Captain George Henry Drummond, and they had both planned to go to the hunt ball.
It had been ten days since Lady Strathmore had squelched her daughter’s plans, and Elizabeth was still upset. In no uncertain terms, her mother had said she “must not go.” This was a thoroughly uncharacteristic action by Cecilia Strathmore, who enjoyed an open and trusting relationship with her daughter. It turned out that her prohibition had followed an urgent letter from none other than Lady Airlie, who was acting in the belief that Elizabeth was stringing Bertie along.
“My dearest Cecilia,” Mabell had written on December 23, noting that Elizabeth doubtless had many invitations for the winter season. “I don’t suppose there is any likelihood of her accepting one to Pitsford for the Northampton Ball,” she wrote, adding that she “had been asked to hint” that “perhaps you could announce” that Elizabeth “should not accept it as it is perhaps wiser for the young man [Bertie] . . . that nothing further could come of the friendship.”
Although no record exists of what precisely Lady Strathmore said to her daughter, the source of the “hint” was undeniably Queen Mary. On what must have been a ruined Christmas Day, Elizabeth said as much in an overwrought letter to Bertie, who was spending the holidays with his family at their Sandringham estate. “Perhaps you know already,” she wrote, that the idea of her joining him at the Drummonds’ house party “is very unpopular in some quarters?” She added, “I quite understand your family’s point of view,” which she knew was “for the good,” and they were “probably quite right.”