Queen Mother Personified Toughness

The Queen Mother Elizabeth held an unshakable place in British affections for more than half a century. The small, gray-haired figure of the Queen Mother, with her flowered hats and unfailing smile, was an enduring symbol of old-style royalty.

Buckingham Palace said the widow of King George VI and mother of Queen Elizabeth II died "peacefully in her sleep" at Royal Lodge, Windsor with the queen at her side.

When respect for the younger royals plummeted during the 1990s and Britons wondered about the future of the monarchy, admiration for the Queen Mother only grew stronger.

"In some ways, the queen mother is the most successful member of the royal family, the one that has, I think brilliantly, managed to combine what it is to be a member of a royal family in a democracy with what it is to be a member of a royal family which celebrates continuity," said former member of Parliament Baroness Williams in May 1993.

For many across several generations, the "Queen Mum" personified a toughness mixed with grace.

Those who lived through World War II saw in her the determination that saw them through the Blitz, remembering how she refused Winston Churchill's advice that she flee the country and instead tramped around London's working-class East End, encouraging people who faced nightly German firebomb raids.

Huge cheering crowds of all ages turned out to see the queen mother during 1995's 50th anniversary celebrations for the war's end.

The Queen Mother's decision at age 95 to take the risk of hip-replacement surgery was seen as just one more proof of her toughness. When she left the hospital, she waved aside proffered help and descended the steps on her own.

When her younger daughter, Princess Margaret, died Feb. 9 at age 71, the already ailing Queen Mother insisted on traveling from the royal estate at Sandringham to attend the funeral at Windsor.

"She performed to perfection the major function of royalty: that of causing people of all ranks to feel weak at the knees with excitement at being in its presence," historian Benjamin Pimlott wrote in 1997.

"She possessed an enviable capacity to make whomever she was talking to feel like the one person in the world she wanted to be with," he wrote.

Stories of the Queen Mother's charm, her warmth and vivacity, are innumerable. And biographers determined to find some flaws in the "real woman" run up against a wall of privacy built by a loyal household and friends.

But one thing seems clear: Her personality greatly strengthened the monarchy after World War II.

Without her, many doubt that her shy, stammering husband Albert could have managed when he was thrust unexpectedly onto the throne as King George VI by the abdication of his elder brother Edward VIII in 1936.

The respect and affection they won helped lift the shadow cast on the monarchy when Edward chose private happiness over public duty — leaving the throne to marry an American divorcee — as the nation moved toward war.

And when her 56-year-old husband died of lung cancer in 1952, she became a steadfast support of her daughter, who took the throne as Queen Elizabeth II at the age of 25.

Instead of retiring like the dowager queens of the past, she took on a schedule of foreign tours and public appearances almost as busy as her daughter's, and continued at full tilt into her 90s.

To a small boy who asked whether she really was the queen's mother, she replied, "Yes, isn't it exciting?"

As the reign of Elizabeth II lengthened and the grandchildren grew, the queen mother was cast — largely by the newspapers — in the role of a national granny.

Her fluffy pastel dresses, triple-strand pearl necklace and flowered hats, once the despair of fashion critics, contributed to the image, as did the annual birthday bouquets from a throng of children outside Clarence House, her London residence.

During World War II, some suggested she should be wearing dark clothing instead of her usual pastels as she toured bomb damaged neighborhoods. "They would wear their best dresses if they were coming to see me," she replied.

When invasion seemed imminent and bombs pounded cities around the country, she refused to take refuge in Canada, saying: "The children could not go without me, and I could not possibly leave the king," she said.

Instead, she practiced with a .303 rifle in the palace grounds. When German bombs hit Buckingham Palace, she said, "I'm glad we've been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face."

Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes Lyon, ninth of 10 children of the 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, was born in London on Aug. 4, 1900, and grew up at the family homes in St. Paul's Waldenbury in Hertfordshire, England, and Glamis Castle, Scotland.

In the rolling Scottish lowlands, Lady Elizabeth acquired a love of country life, dogs and horses. She later became a trackside regular with a string of thoroughbreds that made her one of the most successful horse breeders in Britain.

During World War I, Glamis Castle became a convalescent home for the wounded, and Elizabeth wrote letters for the patients and served meals.

When the war ended, she was a very pretty 18; small, dark-haired and lively, with striking blue eyes and no shortage of suitors.

One was Prince Albert — known as Bertie — the Duke of York, second of four sons of King George V and Queen Mary. After a courtship of more than two years they were married in Westminster Abbey on April 26, 1923.

They lived a quiet home life with their daughters Elizabeth, born in 1926, and Margaret Rose, born in 1930. Under his wife's influence, Albert — who had grown up afraid of his father and distant from his mother — consulted speech therapists to try to repair his stammer.

Albert's father died Jan. 20, 1936 and his brother succeeded as King Edward VIII. Within a year, the new king gave up the throne to marry American divorcee Wallis Warfield Simpson.

Among the hints of the queen mother's not-quite-saintly qualities were fondness for a drink and a bet on the horses — both shared by millions of her fellow countrymen and women. She was said to spend more freely than was wise.

Writer Penelope Mortimer created a stir with her 1986 biography, in which she indicated the queen mother loved being the center of attention, could be unforgiving even to members of her family, and was something of a flirt.

But in a 1980 analysis, author Margaret Forster concluded:

"Behind the apparent simplicity has been a deep understanding of human nature; behind the chattering, a sense of mission to communicate; within the sweet heart a steely resolution, and inside the little round face a square-set determination to do her duty."