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Britain's Queen mother dies at 101

LONDON, March 30 (UPI) -- The Queen Mother, a reluctant queen who became one of the most popular members of Britain's royal family by showing great war-time strength and in her later years a charming zest for life, died Saturday, Buckingham Palace announced. She was 101.

A palace spokesman said, "Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, had become increasingly frail in recent weeks following her bad cough and chest infection over Christmas."

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The death is the second for the royal family in less than two months, which has been preparing for ceremonies this summer to mark the 50th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II's ascension to the throne. Princess Margaret, the queen's sister, died Feb. 9 at age 71.

Increasingly frail in recent years, the Queen Mother lately had canceled many of her public appearances as her illnesses became more serious. The spokesman said Queen Mother Elizabeth "died peacefully in her sleep" at 3:15 p.m with her daughter, the reigning queen, at her bedside.

Queen Mother Elizabeth, widow of King George VI and mother of Queen Elizabeth II, was the best loved royal figure of her time, partly due to the British veneration for age and partly to her own warmth and friendliness within the constraints of her position.

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When she turned 100 in August 2000, Britain applauded a life that mirrored the 20th century, from the age of Victoria to the reign of her daughter, Elizabeth II, from the first flight of the Wright brothers through two world wars, the end of the British empire, the crumbling of the Soviet Union.

She never wanted to be queen and feared her shy, stammering husband was not prepared for the job of king when it suddenly was thrust upon him with the abdication of his brother King Edward II in 1936 so he could marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. George VI died 16 years later, at the age of 56, and Elizabeth forever blamed her for his death.

"Behind that trademark crinkly smile and coquettish tilt, there lies a tough old broad -- and we mean that as a compliment," the Toronto Sun said in a special 100th birthday report. "She exiled Wallis Simpson and ensured the American was never made a royal highness; she scuttled her daughter Margaret's bid to marry a divorcee even though he would be the only love of her life; and of course, well into her 90s, she ruthlessly cut off Diana as soon as she saw the threat she posed to the family firm.

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"The reluctant queen dragged the stiff monarchy into the modern age with an inspiring sense of duty and her winsome charm. She saved it from the crisis of abdication and the martyrdom of Diana. Now woe to those who dare threaten the institution she built with her life."

The Queen Mother over the years was described as "a woman of delicious contradictions" with "a strict moral code and a weakness for gin; an aristocrat with a genuine rapport with the common man; a royal who lives a grand life but who detests haughtiness." She was seen as "a soft, gentle persona and a political point of view just right of Attila the Hun."

Amid great fanfare of bells from the dome at St. Paul's Cathedral, the Queen Mum, as she was widely known, appeared on her 100th birthday, looking sharp in pastel salmon pink dress with matching hat and jauntily walked, with the aid of two walking sticks and Prince Charles, her favorite grandson.

There was some apparent opposition among the masses but generally the monthlong celebration was a lovefest. Among those honoring her were six royal houses of Europe and four generations of Windsors.

Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was born Aug. 4, 1900, at Strathmore in Hertfordshire in the south of England but spent much of her childhood in Glamis and always considered herself a Scotswoman. Educated privately, she showed a flair for languages, music and the dance, talents and enthusiasms that remained with her all her life.

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Her marriage in 1923 marked the first time in more than 200 years that a member of the immediate British royal family had married a commoner. The birth of their daughters, Elizabeth in 1926 and Margaret Rose in 1930, completed the family picture.

After the death of King George, and elevation of the young Princess Elizabeth to the throne, his widow used her new freedom to travel far more widely than she had in 28 years as queen. In 1952 she became the first member of the royal family to fly around the world and also the first to ride in a helicopter, which became her favorite mode of transportation.

She became patron or president of many hospitals, institutions and educational foundations and took a special interest in the welfare of nurses and women serving in the armed forces. She also acted as a counselor of state while the queen was abroad on tours.

Her private life was as active as her public one. Her interest in horse racing made her one of Britain's leading owners of steeplechasers. She even had a special race commentary wire installed in Clarence House, her London home, and was known to ask friends to place bets for her from time to time.

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Her favorite private occupation was that of grandmother to the children of her daughters. Tea time with "Granny Royal" included magic tricks she had learned and other treats.

Lady Diana Spencer was her choice when Charles, heir to the throne, began looking for a bride. Once the engagement was announced, the Queen Mother moved Diana into her London mansion, Clarence House, and gave her a crash course in the art of being royal, to prepare her for becoming the princess of Wales.

But after Charles and Diana's fairytale wedding in July 1981, the royal matriarch lived to see their marriage disintegrate and finally end in divorce. They had two children, William and Harry. Diana was killed in a 1997 Paris car crash.

Elizabeth never wanted to be queen and twice rejected the marriage proposal of the Duke of York, son of King George V. She was content to be Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, technically a commoner but a member of a family of historic Scottish lineage whose home was storied Glamis Castle, seat of the Earls of Strathmore, where Shakespeare set the tragedy of "Macbeth."

Then the young Duke's imperious mother, Queen Mary, told him to remember that the son of a king did not take no for an answer. This time Lady Elizabeth agreed. In later years she said that although she liked the future King George VI when they were married, real love came later. That it did come was obvious to observers who saw their pleasure in each other and their two children, Elizabeth and Margaret.

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The duke and duchess of York unexpectedly became king and queen in 1936 when his brother, King Edward VIII, abdicated to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Opposition to Edward's marriage and abdication was headed by Elizabeth, who feared the health of husband would suffer if he was suddenly elevated to the throne since he had not undergone the years of preparation required for that arduous role.

Britons loved her tireless round of royal engagements, her fussy hats and costumes, her love of horse racing and fishing, her ready smile and her wartime courage. After World War II broke out, the king and queen heartened the British people by remaining in Buckingham Palace in central London during the bombings of the Battle of Britain. For those who advised the family to seek safety, the queen had a sharp reply.

"The children will not leave unless I do," she said. "I shall not leave unless their father does. And the king will not leave the country in any circumstances whatever."

Elizabeth, in the tradition of long life and service of the Windsor women, maintained her rigorous schedule into her mid-90s. But old age and frailty began to take their toll, with minor health problems forcing the queen mother to cancel public engagements and take more rest.

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