25 September 2018

Empress Eugenie and Her Ladies

"Come see my harlots!" my friend exclaimed as I entered her house. "I've been looking at it for so long at the shop and now it's finally mine!!"

Carried on by her excitement, I turned into the dining room to find the gorgeous eyes of Empress Eugenie staring back at me. There, on the wall, was a magnificent print of one of the 19th Century's most famous group portraits, "Empress Eugenie Surrounded by Her Ladies in Waiting," by none other than Franz-Xaver Winterhalter.

"It's Eugenie!" I exclaimed to my startled friend, "the Empress of the French!!"

The Empress Eugenie Surrounded by Her Ladies by Franz Xaver Winterhalter
via Wikimedia Commons
My friend had no idea that the painting was famous much less that the women in it were famous, too. She only knew that it was wildly appealing and that she had to have it.

Eugenie the woman was equally compelling. Born into the Spanish nobility, Eugenie de Montijo, was raised in Spain and in Paris and educated for a time in Britain. When the newly elected President of France, Prince Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, met her for the first time, the middle-aged lech asked the 23-year-old beauty how to get to her. "Through the chapel, Sire," she declared. Already 41 and still unmarried, he had quite a reputation, and Eugenie wanted no part of it. But, he was in love and persistent.

Shortly after he staged a coup d'etat and became Emperor Napoleon III, however, Eugenie married him and became his Empress. Although her noble roots ran centuries deeper than his, many Frenchman felt that the non-royal Eugenie was too low in rank for the Emperor. Others saw the irony of the Bonaparte dynasty, which had been established just decades earlier, marrying the cream of Spanish society. While Eugenie's older sister inherited most of their father's long string of titles, Eugenie inherited some for herself, including 9th Countess of Teba. As for Napoleon, in his wedding speech, he declared, "I have preferred a woman whom I love and respect to a woman unknown to me, with whom an alliance would have had advantages mixed with sacrifices."

Eugenie and her son
via Wikimedia Commons
However, theirs was a mismatch in other ways besides heritage and age: his well-known libido clashed against her distaste for sex. Though she did not care to sate her husband's appetite, Eugenie was quite displeased and jealous when he turned to philandering. She refused him what little access she had granted him. He was "cut off" as we might say in modern parlance. Not exactly the best circumstance for a man seeking not just an heir but also a dynasty to his credit. Nevertheless, they managed to produce exactly one child; Napoleon, the Prince Imperial was born three years after the wedding.

Eugenie was considered one of the most beautiful women of her day. Both men and women were entranced by her. One American who visited the court wrote, "I was completely dazed by her loveliness and beauty. I can't imagine a more beautiful apparition than she was." But the Empress's beauty was more than just skin-deep. She was also renowned for her kindness and charity and personal bravery, even visiting cholera patients during rampant outbreaks. In the midst of the libidinous Parisiennes, Eugenie was a paragon of virtue. She surrounded herself with equally beautiful and virtuous ladies. Dressed simply when at home and "off duty," Eugenie realized the value of fashion in building not just her own public image but that of the Imperial Bonaparte Family. She partnered with the early forerunners of haute couture like Charles Frederick Worth and Louis Vuitton to create new styles -- including the dramatic transition to wide hoop skirts and then to figure-hugging bustles. Women around the world chose their styles, their colors and even their hairdos based on whatever the Empress of the French was wearing.

Absolutely everyone was in love with Eugenie including her own husband. Although he could not rely on the untouchable beauty in the bed chamber, she became a trusted adviser and representative for the emperor. Like a modern royal, she traveled throughout the country and abroad on official duties, even attending the opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt and traveling as far afield as Sri Lanka. Not hidden at court like the royal women before her, she epitomized the public role that royal women of the next century would come to accept as their life. She was appointed regent several times including during the Franco-Prussian War while her husband and son were at the front. As the war deteriorated, so did things back in Paris. The Emperor was taken prisoner and Eugenie was alone when rioting broke out. She was able to flee the city with help from her dentist, and eventually getting across the Channel to England, where she was later joined by both of her Napoleons, her husband having had to renounce his crown.

By W&D Downey
via Wikimedia Commons
The family were quite welcome in England. Eugenie had long before made friends with the widowed Queen Victoria, who was just seven years older than she. So it was to Victoria that Eugenie turned for comfort when the emperor died in 1873. The two widows were very close and so were their children. Eugenie was very fond of Victoria's youngest child, Princess Beatrice (read my posts about her childhood and about her death) and perhaps harbored hopes that Beatrice might marry the Prince Imperial. Queen Victoria, however, was famously opposed to Beatrice marrying and nothing came of the romance before young Napoleon went off to Africa to fight in the Anglo-Zulu War, where he was killed. Eugenie was alone in the world at the age of 53. Beatrice remained devoted to her and even named her only daughter (when Victoria finally allowed her to marry) after the Empress and her own mother, Princess Victoria Eugenie (read my post about her). Interestingly the little namesake grew up to marry the King of Spain and went to live in Eugenie's homeland.

Eugenie spent much of her widowhood in a villa on the French Riviera that she had built for herself, and she was a frequent hostess to European royalty. When World War I broke out, the now elderly Eugenie did what she could to help by funding hospitals in both England and France and by donating her personal yacht to the British Navy.

Eugenie died at the age of 94 during a visit back home to Spain in 1920, but her body was returned to England to be buried with the husband who had departed almost 50 years earlier. And, our memory of Eugenie was frozen even earlier in time, when she was the beautiful, young Empress surrounded by other pretty ladies posing for a painting before the century's most famous portraitist. From that painting, Eugenie lived on for decades. Unlike other iconic royal beauties (Marie Antoinette, Sissi of Austria, Diana), there was no tragic death for Eugenie. Rather, her tragedy was in a long life surrounded not by ladies, but by ghosts.

More about Eugenie:
Charles Frederick Worth, The Empress Eugenie and the Invention of Haute-Couture on Napoleon.org
Consort Profile: Empress Eugenie of France on The Mad Monarchist
The Daily Diadem on The Court Jeweller
The Dentist and the Empress on American Heritage
Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie on Historical Men and Women
Empress Eugenie on History's Women
Empress Eugenie's Bow Brooch on Eragem
The Empress Eugenie in eighteenth-century costume on Gods and Foolish Grandeur
Empress Eugenie: Her Unique Sense of Fashion with Diamond Jewels on Baunat
The Empress Eugenie Surrounded by Her Ladies in Waiting on Napoleon.org
Eugenie de Montijo, Empress of the French on Unofficial Royalty
Eugenie the Tragic Empress on Victorian Paris
Impress of an Empress on Independent.co.uk
L'Imperatrice Eugenie on Napoleon.org
Marie Antoinette and Eugenie on Versailles and More
Obsession: Empress Eugenie's Shoe Collection on The Bowes Museum's Blog
Two Empresses and Their Sons on Wellcome Library

19 September 2018

Your Favorite Princess of Wales

The badge of the Prince of Wales, with the
motto "I serve"
Confession time: I thought long and hard about posting a Twitter poll about your favorite Princess of Wales in the current Twitter climate. I expected full-blown ugliness around Diana versus Camilla -- including a lot more flack about Camilla even being included. As it turns out, 20+ years later, the vitriol may be starting to settle a bit. At least it is clear that the Kate fans versus Meghan fans debate is far more explosive on Twitter. (By the way, I do not believe that there is any actual rivalry between the Duchess of Cambridge and the Duchess of Sussex.)

Amazingly, the four most recent Princesses of Wales spread across more than two centuries. This is partly because there were two periods of time with a female heir (Victoria and Elizabeth II) and therefore there was no Prince of Wales to marry a Princess of Wales. Secondly, one of the Princes of Wales (Edward VIII) did not marry until after he had both ascended and abdicated the throne. So, two and a half centuries has yielded four Princesses of Wales, including two who married the same Prince Wales (the current heir Prince Charles). These four women are Princess Caroline of Brunswick, Princess Alexandra of Denmark, Lady Diana Spencer and Camilla Shand, better known as Camilla Parker-Bowles.

by Nick Parfjonov via Wikimedia Commons
Not surprisingly, Diana reigned supreme in the poll, taking first place with 62% of the votes. Diana was a superstar in every way during her lifetime and her tragic early death has sealed her into history, as young and beautiful with so much potential still unfulfilled. As Linda Rossi @LRos123 responded, "Princess Diana was beautifully perfect and imperfect at the same time. Lady, Princess of Wales, Mother, Humantarian, Champion of People; One of a King! Her radiance will never be forgotten or extinguished. Adored and admired across the globe. She related to our struggles." She also has an advantage over the earlier princesses: she emerged amidst celebrity culture as indicated by my husband @SavageTechman's half-serious comment on the poll:  "She has one thing the others don't, an #EltonJohn tribute song...'Goodbye England's Rose'."  Guin Sobral @Guinevere530 also strongly supported Diana, writing that although Diana was "out of the box...she changed the royal mold, from the raising of royal children to how the royal family should interact with the public and with their charities." Guin went on to assert that "What we all see and love about William, Kate, Harry and Meghan is a direct result of the different path Diana chose to take."

But, not everyone agreed, and some strongly disagree about the Diana's greatness, noting a negative aspect to her celebrity and behavior. The Royal Watcher @saadsalman719 shared, "IMHO Diana was the most damaging PoW to monarchy (much more than Caroline of Brunswick) because of her celebrity and personal issues which she exploited!" So, clearly we will never all agree on the Saint Diana versus Demon Diana debate regardless of the Camilla rivalry.

Nevertheless the larger-than-life popularity of Diana clearly shines through this poll. Perhaps Larissa Bona @LarissaBona captures the Diana phenomenon most succinctly. "Diana was a global icon," she commented. "She was bigger than her title and has also managed to outshine her ex-husband and keep him forever in her shadow. She's the most iconic Princess of Wales so far." All of which seems fairly accurate for good or for bad to me. (For my own conflicted take on Diana, read my post Diana and Me.)

by Robert Jefferson Bingham from the Royal
Collection via Wikimedia Commons
In second place is Diana's equally beautiful predecessor Alexandra, who married Queen Victoria's oldest son, the future Edward VIII. She served as Princess of Wales for almost 40 years and Queen Consort for just nine years. She survived her husband by 15 years, dying just one year before the birth of her great-granddaughter Elizabeth II. Like Diana, Alexandra was recognized as a leader of fashion. Alexandra had several personal challenges. Alexandra inherited otosclerosis, an ear abnormality that led her to become increasingly deaf throughout her life. Then, as a child, she acquired a scar on her neck that she sought to hide with high collars or loads of choker-style necklaces, both of which became fashion staples for women of her generation. She nearly died during her third pregnancy due to a simultaneous case of rheumatic fever that left her with a permanent limp. Even that became a positive trait for the popular princess as ladies adopted the "Alexandra limp" in their own gaits. Tragically, Alexandra lost two children during her lifetime. Her sixth and youngest child, Prince Alexander John, died shortly after birth in 1871. Her oldest child, Prince Albert Victor Duke of Clarence, the expected future king, died at age 28 from flu and pneumonia. Add to this a famously promiscuous husband, and it is easy to understand why the gentle but fun-loving Alexandra was always a figure of public sympathy and admiration.

On the downside, within her close circle and extended family considered her a bit selfish, particularly when it came to her almost smothering affection for her children, who called her "Motherdear." Many believe that she prevented the marriage of her youngest daughter Victoria (click for my profile of Victoria) in order to always have a companion with her. In our poll, Alexandra garnered a fifth of the votes with 20%. (Here is my profile of Alexandra.)

by Kelvin Johnson via Wikimedia Commons
Camilla, the current Princess of Wales, ran a close third. Again not surprisingly, she generated a variety of differing opinions. One area of concern mentioned is whether she actually is a Princess of Wales because she never uses that title, opting instead to use her husband's second-highest titles as Duchess of Cornwall and Duchess of Rothesay (when in Scotland). As Guin correctly points out, "While I'm not a Camilla fan, technically she does hold the title Princess of Wales...they (she, Charles and the Palace) have wisely chosen not to refer to her with that title because it was so closely associated with Diana." Even Diana fan Linda agrees that it was a "very wise decision," although she does call Camilla a "home wrecker" for her longtime affair with Prince Charles, which was one of the causes of Charles and Diana's marital breakdown.

Even for those, who picked Camilla, it was not necessarily an easy choice. "Camilla and Alexandra were the best," wrote Zef Dahlia/QRC @nelainedahlia93. "It was a hard decision to pick but my choice went to Camilla. Similarly, The Royal Watcher struggled: "My favourites are between Camilla and Alexandra, who have grace, poise and a strong sense of duty!" All of which are appropriate characteristics for women who married men whose shared motto as Princes of Wales is "I serve." (You can read my profile of Camilla. I also have a post about whether she will be Queen one day.)

from the National Portrait Gallery via Wikimedia Commons
At the bottom of our poll is Caroline of Brunswick, of whom, I would venture to guess, most modern royal watchers have never heard. Although she captured a miniscule 3% of the vote, none of her supporters offered a comment to provide insight into their choice. Caroline and George IV had one of the most controversial and hate-filled royal marriages of all time in any nation. Despite the fact that he was already secretly (and illegally) married to someone else, he agreed to marry his first cousin in order to get Parliament to pay off his exorbitant debts. The fussy and fastidious Prince of Wales and the frumpy and gauche Caroline hated each other on sight. He showed up drunk to the wedding and managed to impregnate her within days before swearing to never sleep with her again--one of the few promises he ever kept. The two nearly divorced with each of them taking only cursory interest in their only child Princess Charlotte. Caroline eventually moved to the Continent where she attracted attention of the worst kind due to her low-class lovers and over-the-top personality. Following her daughter Charlotte's tragic death (my post about Charlotte's death), their relationship no longer served any purpose at all. When George finally became King after years of serving as the Regent for his father the "Mad King" George III, Caroline rushed to Britain to claim her crown but George actually locked her out of Westminster Abbey!

11 September 2018

A Wise Financial Decision: Blanche of Lancaster

Detail from The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry
via Wikimedia Commons
Some kings have too few sons and some kings have too many. When the prolific Edward III and his Queen Philippa of Hainault produced five strapping sons (plus five daughters) who lived to adulthood, the royal line certainly seemed secure. More fragile, however, was the royal treasury. Grown-up princes are luxuries that most kingdoms can rarely afford. How to provide lands and income for so many sons? Edward III had a perfect solution: heiresses!

Fortunately, some of England's richest lords had not been as prolific as Edward and Philippa, leaving no sons to claim their vast holdings. First son Edward Prince of Wales married his cousin Joan, who was Countess of Kent in her own right. Second son Lionel married Elizabeth de Burgh, 4th Countess of Ulster. (See my post about her.) While fourth son Edmund Duke of York married a Spanish princess, fifth son Thomas Duke of Gloucester married Eleanor de Bohn, co-heiress of the great Earl of Hereford. But, the one who really hit the heiress jackpot was third son John of Gaunt, who at age 19 married Blanche of Lancaster, the younger of two daughters of Henry 1st Duke of Lancaster.

Henry was not only Duke of Lancaster; he was also Earl of Derby and Earl of Leicester. He was the second person ever to be created a Duke in England, a favor he earned for his service to the king at the Siege of Calais. Although most peerages today cannot be inherited by daughters (neither of Prince Andrew's daughters will become Duchess of York), in those days, a man's titles and riches could go to his daughters, but they were split among multiple daughters. Thus, Blanche and her older sister Maud were set to inherit his riches upon his death.

John and Blanche married in May 1359. He was 19. There is some historical debate over Blanche's birthdate, but she was likely in her early teens at the time. Ten months later, their first child Philippa was born. In March 1361, both Henry Duke of Lancaster and Blanche's mother Isabella de Beaumont were killed by the plague and Henry's vast fortune was divided between Blanche and Maud. Among other properties, Blanche received the earldom of Lancaster and John, as her husband, received the right to use that title. His father, the king, later elevated him to Duke of Lancaster, like his late father-in-law. Just one year after that, Maud also died from the plague. Since she had no children, all of her inherited titles and properties went to Blanche and therefore also to John. They were now among the richest people in Britain. Their household was comparable in size to the king's household and their annual income was equal to several million dollars a year in today's money.

With their financial future set, John and Blanche continued building their family. Sadly, their second child, a son named John died as a baby as did another little boy named a Edward, a second baby also named John, and a little girl named Isabel. However, their third child Elizabeth thrived and their youngest son Henry of Bolingbroke was also hearty and healthy. All seven children were born in the first nine years of the marriage.

The Marriage of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster in Reading
Abbey on 19 May 1359
by Horace White, 1915, via Wikimedia Commons
Blanche was considered a very lovely young woman and John is thought to have been in love with her, something that was assuredly not true of most royal and noble marriages of the day. They were also leaders of society and a huge establishment in London, that was later destroyed by fire. Among their wide circle was a young man named Geoffrey Chaucer, who as a poet, would become one of the most famous people of the 14th century. Another interesting person associated with their household was a gentleman named Hugh Swynford. One of Hugh's daughters was named Blanche after the Duchess and the Duke was godfather to the child. The Swynford girls were placed in the household of the two Lancaster daughters, Philippa and Elizabeth. Eventually, Hugh's wife Katherine even became governess to the Lancaster princesses. Katherine Swynford (whose sister Philippa was married to Geoffrey Chaucer -- read my post about these sisters) would later play a very significant role in John of Gaunt's life.

For a woman who lost every member of her family to the Black Death, Blanche is supposed by some to have been terrified of the relentless pestilence. And, it may have been the plague that took her life, too, on September 12, 1368. Unlike her birth date, we do know her death date, but we know little else. Was it indeed the Black Death or was it that other relentless killer of young women: childbirth. What we know for sure, is that John was overseas and that he seems to have entered into a true mourning. This is at least the belief of many who interpret Chaucer's poem, "The Book of the Duchess," as retelling of John's grief over his "young and pretty," "fair and bright" duchess. However, it is not certain that John commissioned the work or that Chaucer even modeled his characters on them, but I would say it is likely.

What is known for sure is that John, after he was already married to his second wife Costanza of Castile (for whom he fought unsuccessfully to claim her Spanish throne), ordered a extravagant tomb to built for Blanche and for himself at St. Paul's Cathedral. In almost certain sign of affection, their figures are holding hands on the tomb. By the time he died in 1399, he had married his third wife, the above-mentioned Katherine Swynford, who became his mistress sometime after Blanche's death and throughout his marriage to Constance. The relationship between Katherine and John is considered another of the era's great romances, but at the end of his life, John still chose to spend eternity next to Blanche. Sadly, their monument was destroyed along with a huge chunk of London in the Great Fire of 1666.

Despite her death at a young age (somewhere in her 20s), Blanche and John's marriage left two lasting legacies to the British monarchy. First, their surviving son Henry of Bolingbroke became King of England as the first monarch in the House of Lancaster. Despite having grown up with his cousin King Richard II, young Henry had several serious quarrels with the king as an adult, one of which led to Richard banishing him from the kingdom. While he was abroad, John of Gaunt died and Richard denied Henry the right to succeed his father to the title and wealth of the Duchy of Lancaster. This inspired Henry to raise an army, depose Richard, and have himself declared king. This was the first spark that eventually led to the Wars of the Roses. (Interestingly, the wars were ended by a descendant of John of Gaunt's legitimized Beaufort children by Katherine Swynford.)

As king, Henry ensured the permanent impact of Blanche and John's second legacy: the Duchy of Lancaster itself. He attached the duchy to the monarch himself (or herself) as a private estate. Since Henry IV, every English and later British monarch has also been the Duke of Lancaster, regardless of gender. The duchy is held and administered separately from the Crown Estate for the benefit of the monarch. (The Duchy of Cornwall is similarly held for the heir.) Today, the Duchy of Lancaster includes more than 45,000 acres of property and other investments, which in 2018 are valued at nearly $700 million. However, the monarch cannot touch the capital in the portfolio, but does get to use its income, an amount equal to about $26 million per year. As Duke of Lancaster, the Queen is not required to pay tax on the portfolio or on its income. Nevertheless, she voluntarily pays income tax and capital gains tax on it.

When Elizabeth II's great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, Edward III, married his sons off to heiresses, he knew that he was making a wise financial decision, but he could never have imagined just how well it really would pay.

For More about Blanche of Lancaster
Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster on History...The Interesting Bits
Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster in Modern Philology
Blanche of Lancaster on English Monarchs
Blanche of Lancaster on Meandering Through Time
Blanche of Lancaster on Royal Women
Blanche of Lancaster, Duchess of Lancaster on Unofficial Royalty
Blanche: The Woman Behind the House of Lancaster on Rebecca Starr Brown
The Complicated Love Life of John of Gaunt on English Historical Fiction Authors
The Lady & the Unicorn on Plantagenet Dynasty
The Date of Birth of Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster on Edward II
The Marriage of John of Gaunt & Blanche of Lancaster on Naked History
'Nature's Chief Patron of Beauty' on History of Royal Women
#OnThisDay in 1368 on Royal Central

05 September 2018

An African Honeymoon

Via Wikimedia Commons
The royal newlyweds emerged from their safari tent and headed to their favorite spot to watch the sun rise on another happy day far from the world back home. The tiny bride was dressed more casually than history would ever have cause to remember her. Her white cotton trousers and blouse draped over, catching with every breeze. Her dark hair hung in a long braid to her waist, for once free of the eternal updo that was usually tucked under the fashionable cloche of the day and would later be hidden under giant feathered hats with upturned brims or fuzzy turbans in bright colors. For these brief weeks, the new Duchess of York was free to be just Elizabeth, just Bertie's wife. Still nervous, perhaps, about the future before her, but blissfully unaware of what the decades would bring.

Beside her, Prince Albert is uncharacteristically serene. The second son of an overbearing father and a distant mother (who also happened to be King George VI and Queen Mary) and the product of neglectful, even abusive nursery staff, Albert Duke of York, was slender and sickly. Leg braces had forced most of the knock out of his knees but it would take years of speech therapy, encouraged and supported by Elizabeth, to control the anxious stammer he developed from his insecure upbringing. Compared to his confident, exuberant, athletic older brother the Prince of Wales, Bertie looked fairly pitiful. But, he was a hard worker, brave and tenacious. Despite lifelong battles with stomach ailments, which often sent him for long convalescences during the Great War, he had fought courageously on HMS Collingwood during the Battle of Jutland. After the war, he devoted himself to improving working conditions and even launched his own series of programs and camps for young man.

From the Royal Collection via Wikimedia Commons
No one expected much of him. Even Elizabeth turned down his marriage proposal not once, but twice. Her concerns were less about the shy young man with a flash of temper and more about what it would mean to be a princess. The youngest daughter of an Earl, she had been born into a large, boisterous and joyful family. Their homes in Scotland and England were always filled with guests and family, parties, singing and fun, except during the war when Glamis Castle became a hospital and teenaged Elizabeth helped look after the recovering soldiers and sailors, many of whom fell half in love with her, and all of whom she would recognize again years later and miles away when her duties brought them together again. Vibrant and charming, Elizabeth had many suitors from which to choose and the son of a king was no particular catch for her. But Bertie was persistent and eventually won her hand, much to his parents' delight. They welcomed their first daughter-in-law with more warmth than they are usually credited and it is rumored that only she (and later her daughters) could turn her gruff father-in-law into a Teddy bear.

Elizabeth thought that interest in her as a royal bride would soon fade. Once Bertie's older brother married and had children, Bertie would move further and further from the throne, and they would be able to simply enjoy their life together: dancing until the early hours in London or Paris, dashing off to country house parties, fishing in freezing Scottish rivers, interrupted occasionally by royal duties. She was grateful for this holiday far from the attention back in Britain. What an adventure! But, even their African safari honeymoon had been interrupted by their royal responsibilities.

Embed from Getty Images

Now, however, they were just two young people tramping across the African landscape. Their trip had been planned to serve the British Empire, which was still strong and growing in the 1920s. In fact, Britain had taken over two million square miles from Germany after the Great War, but the strains on the continent were still growing, too. The government sent the happy, young couple to shake hands and say thank you to the African nations who had sacrificed to much in the war. They were the first British royals to visit East Africa in nearly 15 years, and so they traveled far and wide and people traveled from either further afield to see them. They came to Kenya, Uganda and the Sudan from the Congo and Nyasaland. The couple opened parks and clubs, met with government and tribal officials, attended Christmas Day services at an English church and again at an African one. Engagement after engagement, they smiled and charmed their way across African society at every level.

Until, at last, they were granted this treat: three weeks on a safari, a kind of belated honeymoon for the Duke and Duchess, who had married 20 months earlier. The couple who had spent their courtship and early marriage in the clubs all night and sleeping until the crack of noon, soon found themselves enjoying early mornings creeping through bushes to watch zebras, rhinos, lions and giraffes. They walked and walked, as much as 20 miles in a day, soaking in the tropical sun and enjoying their wild new companions. Elizabeth was a keen reporter in her letters back home, "Rhinos are very funny," she wrote, "very fussy, like old gentlemen, & very busy all the time, quite ridiculous in fact."

They camped in wild areas on some nights, unable to sleep for the noise of lions and hyenas circling round, unaware of the royal status of the humans in the tents. They shot big game. The Duchess herself took to rifle, becoming quite a crack at killing zebras and rhinos, but frequently opining that it broke her heart to do so. When at last they drove 200 miles back to civilization in Nairobi, Elizabeth had her hair washed and set for the first time in weeks. "Feel clean again!" she told her diary.

The official royal duties carried on as though they had never ceased. More clubs, more dinners, more railway platforms, more tribal ceremonies before being interrupted by another little safari, walking and boating in Uganda, where she had a close encounter with an elephant. "It came bearing down on us at full speed, so we slipped behind an ant hill & flew past."

Through all the adventure, one thing was clear to the couple's hosts and guides: the Yorks were in love. "Left no doubt as to whether it was a love match," one of their guides wrote. "He utterly adores her."

The official tour continued down the Nile into Sudan, still rife with anti-British rebellions. Then, it was on to Tonga. At every stop, they were greeted by British officials and tribal leaders and welcomed with great ceremony to see new buildings and inspect new dams. After nearly four months of interwoven royal tour and private safari, the Duke and Duchess at last set sail back to Britain. "It is very sad having nothing to get up for now!" she confided to her diary.

Throughout her long life, Elizabeth would return again and again to the African continent. Perhaps the most famous visit would be the couple's post-World War II tour of South Africa and Rhodesia. By then, her brother-in-law had shirked the throne, making the Duke and Duchess King and Queen. They triumphantly led the nation and the soon-to-crumble empire through the war and emerged on the other side ready to celebrate a new future. For this tour, they brought along their daughters, Margaret and Elizabeth, who on that trip turned 21 and pledged that her whole life, "whether it be long or short shall be devoted...to the great imperial family to which we all belong."

Embed from Getty Images

Just five years later, their daughter Elizabeth would be deep in Kenya when Bertie's life slipped away in his sleep back in England, and older Elizabeth's life would take another new and unexpected course that would stretch five decades into a new millennium.

Throughout the years of her long widowhood, Elizabeth, now best known as The Queen Mother, her gentle smile and untiring devotion to duty helped heal many of the rifts that decolonization brought as the Empire transitioned to the Commonwealth. In 1953, she made her first tour as a widow back to Rhodesia. For the first time, Bertie was not by her side as she retraced many of the steps that they had taken as a family in 1947. On a visit to Kenya in 1959 with Margaret, she arrived following a terrible drought. In her opening speech, she hoped for rain. Within an hour, the rains finally arrived and she was hailed as a rain-maker by the local Masai. A year later, she was back in Rhodesia to open a dam, where she understood the need to shift to black rule, but was concerned about the growing gulf between whites and blacks. When the divide erupted into a white-ruled Rhodesia and an apartheid South Africa, she was deeply disappointed but never surrendered her interest in these countries. When apartheid ended and South Africa was readmitted to the Commonwealth, she was beaming with delight at the celebration service in London.

Embed from Getty Images

Elizabeth continued her world travels well into her 90s, rarely slowing her pace for the younger people who traveled with her. Often, they would schedule "time off" during her tours, but she always filled those hours up with some new adventure, just as she had done so many decades earlier following the Nile with her husband.

In her last moments, 50 years and one month after Bertie's death and nearly 80 years after that first safari dawn, Elizabeth's thoughts might have slipped back to those precious, private moments when it was just her and her sweetheart alone in a giant world far from the crown they would carry.

For More About Elizabeth