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QUEEN ELIZABETH / 1900 - 2002

Queen Mother, Britain's Link to an Empire, Dies at 101

March 31, 2002|PATT MORRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Queen Elizabeth the queen mother, whose relentless charm and iron will steered the British monarchy through a world war and an abdication crisis and into a modern age where its robes were sullied by embarrassing marital antics, died Saturday.

She was 101, the oldest member of Britain's millennium-old monarchy, which has a history of short-lived men and long-lived women. Each successive birthday further exalted the "queen mum" as an ageless British fixture--the Rock of Gibraltar upholstered in pastel silk and crowned with a feathery hat.

As her husband, King George VI, did 50 years before, she died in her sleep. Her daughter, the queen, was with her "beloved mother" when she died at Royal Lodge, Windsor, at 3:15 on an English spring afternoon. Since Christmas, her health was complicated by a cough and chest infection, and her younger daughter, Margaret, had died seven weeks ago. A palace spokesman said her condition deteriorated suddenly Saturday. "It was a very moving and very sad moment, but luckily it was very peaceful," Margaret Rhodes, the queen mother's niece, told BBC television.

Prince Charles, said to be her favorite grandchild, was said to be "devastated" at the news. He and his sons, Princes William and Harry, were returning to London today from a ski holiday in Switzerland.

As with all senior royals, plans for the queen mother's funeral--code-named "Tay Bridge" after a bridge in her Scottish homeland--have been in place for a long time, but her robust health kept defying the preparations.

Her body is to be taken to the Royal Chapel of All Saints in Windsor Great Park early today, where it is to lie in state for three days. The funeral will be held at Westminster Abbey, and she will be buried at Windsor. No precise schedule has been announced.

The queen mother's life spanned the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Born in the reign of Queen Victoria, she married one of Victoria's great-grandsons, before a soap opera drama made her queen of England and the last empress of India. She outlived her husband by half a century and lived to witness her elder daughter celebrate 50 years on the throne of an England much diminished in the queen mother's lifetime.

News of the "queen mum's" death spread on a quiet Easter weekend.

Scores of mourners, some bringing flowers, gathered outside Windsor Castle, about 20 miles west of London. The bells of a church nearby tolled to mark her death.

Small crowds gathered outside Buckingham Palace, where a death notice was posted on the black iron gates. The Union Jack flew at half-staff. As was done for Princess Margaret's death in February and Princess Diana's death in 1997, condolence books are to be opened for signing at St. James's Palace today.

Prime Minister Tony Blair called her "a symbol of Britain's decency and courage," a woman possessed of "a profound sense of duty and service. She had this selfless devotion to duty. That's what she believed in. That's how she lived her life. And that's how I hope she will be remembered."

The archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, said of her, "I loved her sense of fun and her interest in people. She had the common touch."

The death of this living relic of an empire brought forth a wistful sorrow that lacked the shock of Diana's death but instead arose from a country that seemed to be mourning not just the "queen mum" but the glory days of Britain itself.

Wartime Resolve Helped Unite Nation

The queen mother's own Elizabethan Age spanned the 15 years that she was queen consort to King George VI. It began on the December day in 1936 that her husband's elder brother, King Edward VIII, abdicated the throne to marry an American divorcee named Wallis Simpson. It ended in February 1952, when her husband died and her elder daughter, Elizabeth, became queen.

Over the years, the queen mother was handled with kid gloves even by the fickle British tabloid press, which can be fawning and carnivorous by turns, but her greatest compliment came from Adolf Hitler. The German Fuehrer, watching newsreels of her morale-building visits with bombed-out Britons during World War II, called her "the most dangerous woman in Europe."

Her own wartime "charm offensive" is remembered in remarks of almost Churchillian resonance. When the Nazis added Buckingham Palace to their bombing targets, she was quoted as saying, "I'm glad we've been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the [blitzed] East End in the face." And when thousands of London children were evacuated to safety in Canada and elsewhere, she declared famously, "The children won't go without me, I won't leave without the king, and the king will never leave." (The children, the future Queen Elizabeth II and her sister, Princess Margaret, spent much of the war just outside London, at Windsor Castle, hidden away along with the crown jewels.)

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