HM Queen Elizabeth II is undoubtedly the most famous monarch in the world. Along with Prince Philip, Prince Charles and The Duchess of Cornwall, The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, they are instantly recognizable. But far less is known about The Queen’s family on her mother’s side, the Bowes-Lyon’s.
The Queen’s mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, married the second son of King George V and Queen Mary – the future King George VI – in 1923, eventually becoming Queen Consort. One of The Queen’s closest friends, when she was growing up, was Margaret Rhodes. Margaret was the daughter of Lady Mary Bowes-Lyon, elder sister of The Queen Mother.
Being so close in age to The Queen, Margaret Rhodes spent a lot of her childhood with the two princesses, even staying at Windsor Castle with them during World War II. Her memoir, The Final Curtsey, was published in 2012 and became a Number One Bestseller. In it, she details her extraordinarily privileged life as constant companion and confidante of The Queen and Lady-in-Waiting to The Queen Mother.
Margaret grew up in Scotland amid breathtaking wealth, reminiscent of the upstairs inhabitants of Downton Abbey. She spent her summers at Balmoral and regularly visited Sandringham in Norfolk to stay with her cousin. In her world, rank was even observed downstairs, with the butler and housekeeper eating separately from the maids and other lower-level staff. Women who visited the house were expected to change three times a day, culminating in a formal dinner where wearing a tiara was mandatory.
During the war, she worked at MI6 as a secretary, in the department responsible for coordinating agent activity in the Middle East. When interviewed for The Telegraph in 2011, Margaret said: “The King used to tease me, trying to get me to tell him things that were going on, knowing that I couldn’t say.”
Margaret encountered many of the world’s most famous people due to her proximity to the Royal Family. In her memoir, she recalls sitting next to Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia during a banquet being held in his honour at Windsor Castle. The Emperor spoke French and not much English, so the Queen sat Margaret next to him since she knew French well.
It seemed strange, Margaret wrote, to be seated in one of the oldest inhabited British castles, speaking French to an African Emperor. Other prominent figures she encountered were Sir Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama.
Margaret and her husband had a love of travel, especially to remote outposts in Asia and Africa. On one such occasion, they found themselves in danger. Margaret and her husband Denys went to the Himalayas in 1963 to attend a Buddhist royal wedding, the wedding of the Crown Prince of Sikkim.
It was there they received an invitation to visit the remote Kingdom of Bhutan, where they were arrested during an attempted coup that almost toppled the reclusive country. Shirley MacLaine, the Academy award-winning actress, was also present. After a ten-hour drive over mountainous terrain to the Indian border, they were detained by armed troops after it was decided that Bhalla, one of the Prime Minister’s aides travelling with them, could not leave.
Eventually, they were all released on the orders of the King of Bhutan.
Margaret died aged 91 in 2016. She led an extraordinary and unusual life as a member of the Scottish aristocracy and cousin to Queen Elizabeth II. She witnessed first hand the importance of duty and family to The Queen as she transitioned into her role as Head of State after her father’s untimely death. Britain’s identity and role have changed dramatically in the past century, yet the one constant that has united the nation has been the reassuring presence of The Queen.
For more on Margaret’s life and times, check out her memoir, The Final Curtsey.