Margaret Rhodes was born Margaret Elphinstone on June 9th, 1925 into a British aristocratic family. But not just any family—Rhodes was first cousin to none other than current reigning matriarch Queen Elizabeth II. She was the youngest daughter of the 16th Lord Elphinstone and Lady Mary Bowes-Lyon, the older sister of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother.
As she was less than one year older than the young Princess Elizabeth, who would one day rise to become queen, the pair of them spent their childhood playing together. Rhodes' insight into the royal family only broadened as she grew older. During World War II, Rhodes lived at Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace while she worked as a secretary for MI6. Additionally, she served as Woman of the Bedchamber—a position which encompassed the duties of both a lady-in-waiting and companion—to her aunt, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, from 1991 until the queen's death in 2002.
As a woman who was close enough to the royal family to be considered a third daughter by the Queen Mother, Margaret Rhodes penned a fascinating memoir. The Final Curtsey offers a gripping account of the behind-the-scenes lives of the royals. Born into a life of wealth and privilege, Rhodes was thrust into more responsibility as the world rapidly changed around her with the tides of war. Her book offers readers a look at a time and place like no other.
In this excerpt from a charming work which offers delightful anecdotes, an array of intriguing characters, and personal photographs, Margaret Rhodes sets the scene of her childhood acquaintance with the British monarchy and the early days of World War II.
Read an excerpt from The Final Curtsey below, then download the book.
My memories of Queen Elizabeth started when I was about five with my annual visits to Birkhall, on the Balmoral estate. The house dates from the eighteenth century, and since 1930 it had been lent by King George V to the Duke and Duchess of York to use when the Royal Family migrated to Scotland for their summer and early autumn holiday. When I was very young I told the King and Queen that if I ever married I would love to spend my honeymoon there and when I did get married, to Denys Rhodes, a cousin of Patrick Plunket, in 1950, they angelically remembered and let us have the house for two weeks, generously installing a cook as well. Three years earlier Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip spent part of their honeymoon there too. My cousin wrote to me from Birkhall, two weeks after her marriage describing its beauty under the December snows, the peace and quiet and how the local people left them undisturbed. ‘Scots are nice that way,’ she said. There were shooting outings, but the stalkers who, because of the eccentricity of their attire resembled a very mixed rag bag, rather took the Princess aback. ‘We were,’ she said, ‘confronted with the most scurvy-looking lot of ruffians that I have ever seen!’ Thereafter, having found her army boots and leather jerkin, ‘I looked more in keeping with everyone else.’ She added: ‘I couldn’t help wishing that a photographer would come along, just for once, as he would never have believed what he saw! I imagined that I might be like a female Russian commando leader followed by her faithful cut-throats, all armed to the teeth with rifles.’
The seclusion of Birkhall was in strong contrast to the first part of her honeymoon which was spent at Broadlands, the Hampshire home of Earl Mountbatten, where she and Philip had little escape from a curious press and public; the crowds arriving on foot, by car and by motor coach, besieging Romsey Abbey, where they attended morning service on the first Sunday of their week’s stay. Those who couldn’t get inside climbed on tombstones, and propped ladders and chairs against the walls so as to peer through the windows. One family, it was reported, even carried their sideboard into the churchyard and stood on it to watch the couple at prayer. Others queued for a chance to sit in the pew occupied a short while earlier by Royalty.
The Princess in her letter told me that although she liked Broadlands, ‘we were terribly pestered by the Press, and, of course, our going to church at Romsey Abbey was a most vulgar and disgraceful affair’. However she was obviously content with the state of matrimony and in a postscript wrote: ‘I’m blissfully happy, in case you weren’t aware of the fact and I’m enjoying being married to the best and nicest man in the world.’
Birkhall is a very special place and the greatest fun of the whole year was my annual childhood visit to join Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. The garden descended steeply to the river Muick and sometimes we would picnic on an island in the river. I remember a rather sick-making contest to see how many slices of brown bread and golden syrup we could eat. My record was twelve slices and I always won with ease which is not really a matter to be proud of. Princess Elizabeth, just ten months younger than me, was a natural playmate. We endlessly cavorted as horses, which was her idea. We galloped round and round. We were horses of every kind: carthorses, racehorses, and circus horses. We spent a lot of time as circus horses and it was obligatory to neigh. Another game was called ‘catching happy days’. This involved catching the leaves falling from the trees. There was a gramophone and just one record, either ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ or ‘Jerusalem’. I can’t remember which, but we played it all the time. Princess Margaret used to keep me awake at night as I was given the next door bedroom. The walls were very thin and Margaret would sing ‘Old Macdonald Had a Farm’ which goes on and on with its refrain of animal noises. It was an incessant chant and I prayed that she would exhaust herself and fall asleep. We used our imaginations and were easily amused. How we passed our time must seem extraordinarily unreal to the present generation of computer game children, who only seem happy with much more sophisticated pursuits.
In childhood, the only time I can recall Princess Elizabeth pulling rank was when we squabbled over the ownership of a wooden seat outside the front door of Birkhall. Territorially she claimed it declaring: ‘I’m the biggest “P” for Princess’. I don’t know why, but my aunt had somehow acquired the nickname ‘Peter’, bestowed by my eldest sister, Elizabeth, and was regularly addressed as such by the close family. Queen Elizabeth and the King would always come up to the nursery, no matter how busy they were, to tuck up their daughters and kiss their children goodnight. The Queen was sheer magic with her children, as she was with the public, particularly during the Second World War air raids, when as a great unifying force, she was described by a patriotic media as ‘the Queen of the Blitz’.
I well remember the preparations for the coronation of the King and Queen in 1937. My cousins had specially designed dresses, robes and coronets. Princess Margaret was a couple of months short of eight, but I was not invited as I was thought to be too young. Everybody else seemed to be going, shaking the mothballs from their robes and ermine — probably rabbit in some cases — including my mother and father as a peer and peeress and also my brothers and sisters.
I was particularly put out because a girl I knew of my own age, who had a tiny drop of Royal blood, was attending in a lovely long dress. However on the morning of the great day I was taken to Buckingham Palace, kitted out in my best pink coat with a velvet collar, where I had breakfast with my cousins and was then taken along the corridor to see the King and Queen in their finery. The King was wearing a white shirt, breeches and stockings and a crimson satin coat and the Queen a wonderful be-sequined long dress. Then a Page came in and said it was time for the Princesses to go down to the Grand Entrance where their carriage was waiting. My only other memory of the coronation was looking out of a window of the palace and watching the procession of the Indian maharajahs and princes, their tunics, coats and turbans encrusted with diamonds worth a king’s ransom. They looked wonderfully grand and romantic. Even the horses pulling their carriages were clad in the most gorgeous tack and over seventy years on the memory of that fantastic procession remains vivid.
The 1937 coronation was the last enactment of British style pomp and circumstance before Europe was plunged into war. Princess Elizabeth recorded her day in a lined exercise book, neatly tied round with a piece of pink ribbon and with a touching dedication inscribed in red crayon on the cover. It read: ‘The Coronation, 12th May 1937, to Mummy and Papa, in memory of their coronation, from Lilibet by Herself. An Account of the Coronation.’ It is preserved in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle and its ingenuous freshness has lost nothing by the passing of the years, setting the scene in my view more effectively than the prose of official historians. I got a small mention on the last page.
I did make it to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, sixteen years later, as one of the privileged 8,000 that had been invited to the Abbey. We all received a list of do’s and don’ts from the Earl Marshal, the Duke of Norfolk, the choreographer of the occasion, including notes of what we should wear. I was pregnant with my second daughter, Victoria, but contrived to match up by wearing my wedding dress cunningly let out around the waist. My husband Denys of course came too in the full dress uniform of the Rifle Brigade. Throughout the ceremony we sat on stools stamped with the royal cypher, and were allowed to take them away as souvenirs. One is now, a touch lèse majesté, in the loo and the other in my bedroom. We had to get there hours before the action started and were rigidly enclosed. At the time I wondered about the predicament of the more elderly peers and peeresses when nature beset them.
In 1938 and 1939, despite the sabre-rattling coming from Berlin, my routine continued. In the last August of peace I was dispatched to Birkhall as usual to keep Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret company. The King and Queen must have been desperately worried, but they never imparted the deepening sense of crisis to us. I didn’t know it, but on 22 August Europe shuddered at the announcement of the Soviet-German non-aggression pact and then groaned in anguished apprehension for few doubted that this could but betoken war. The King and Queen at once returned to London.
The tide of war seemed inexorable and at dawn on 1 September, the Wehrmacht crossed the Polish frontier. The timing of the ultimatum sent to the German Chancellor, demanding he withdraw his troops or accept a declaration of war by Britain and France, had passed and so we were at war from eleven o’clock on the morning of Sunday 3 September. We three girls were in Crathie Kirk for the morning service at this time. The Minister, a small, spare man called Dr Lamb preached a highly emotional sermon and told his flock that the uneasy peace which had prevailed since the end of the First World War was now over. It seemed unreal, yet in a strange way it was exciting and it was impossible not to dream of adventure and derring-do. We were so utterly ignorant about the actual horrors of war.
Our routine continued. Every evening at six the King and Queen would telephone and speak to their daughters. We had a French governess, Georgina Guerin, who when the war got fully under way, would return to France and become a leading light in the Resistance. There was also one of the Queen’s Ladies-in-Waiting, Lettice Bowlby, to keep an eye on us. Our two carers were not best of friends and behind her back Georgina called Lettice ‘la sale Bowlbee’. I was just fourteen, Princess Elizabeth thirteen and Princess Margaret was only nine. We were at war but nothing much was happening. There was no sign of Panzer divisions or enemy parachutists. We did lessons of a sort; rode our ponies, went on picnics, all the usual things. Then the week before Christmas the Queen telephoned to say it was safe for the Princesses to go to Sandringham in Norfolk, even though it was close to one of the coast lines where a German invasion was considered most likely. I returned to Carberry for our family Christmas. I tried on my gas mask, just to be on the safe side, and awaited what was to come.
Want to keep reading? Download The Final Curtsey.
Margaret Rhodes' close relationship with the monarchy saw her stand as a bridesmaid at the wedding of then-Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. In 2000, she was appointed Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order, and spoke in many interviews and documentaries alike about Queen Elizabeth II and the royal family.
Rhodes died on November 25, 2016 at the age of 91. Though she is no longer with us, the royal world she occupied lives on through her gripping memoir, giving readers a taste of a life many only dream about.
This post is sponsored by Open Road Media. Thank you for supporting our partners, who make it possible for The Archive to continue publishing the history stories you love.