28 February 2021

Birthplace of a Queen

Princess Elizabeth of York
from Time Magazine via Wikimedia Commons
Once upon a time in a rather unremarkable townhome, the future Queen of England was born in the middle of the night. Although it was indeed a royal birth -- Home Secretary Sir William Joynson-Hicks was officially in attendance to ensure no changeling was smuggled in to replace the royal baby -- but no one expected this child to inherit the throne. This was the child of the Duke of York, second son of King George V. His older brother was certainly father the heir. When the newborn turned out to be a girl, her distance from the throne seemed even further in an era when younger brothers would supersede older sisters in the Line of Succession. The royal parents even opted not to include Victoria among their daughter's names, breaking a royal tradition for all of the previous descendants of Queen Victoria. King George made note of it in his diary only to declare that it probably didn't matter. 

But, fate has a funny way of doing what it will. And so it was that 25 years later, when this baby girl became Queen Elizabeth II, she also became the first British monarch not to be born in a palace or on a royal estate since King George came over from Hanover two centuries earlier.

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor was born at 2 a.m. by Caesarean section on the 21st of April in 1926 in her maternal grandparents home located at 17 Bruton Street in Mayfair, London. (See my post about her birth, A Princess Is Born.) Although her parents, Prince Albert The Duke of York and the former Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, were less than week from celebrating their third anniversary, the couple was still essentially homeless. They had been offered White Lodge in Richmond Park but declined it. Originally a hunting lodge built for King George II, its previous royal residents included his daughter Princess Amelia, George III's daughter Princess Mary Duchess of Gloucester, and George III's granddaughter Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge. Mary Adelaide raised her own family there, including her daughter Mary, who had married King George VI and was therefore Princess Elizabeth of York's paternal grandmother. Unfortunately, the house had not been updated in decades and was a bit of a wreck when the Yorks decided against living there. Instead they had bounced around from rental to rental in search of their "forever home". As the Duchess prepared for the birth of her first child, she longed to be somewhere more familiar than a temporary rental or a stodgy royal palace. She opted instead to have her baby in her parents' London home.

The Duchess of York, better known to posterity as the long-lived Queen Mother, was the youngest daughter of the 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne and Nina Cavendish-Bentinck. Their ancestral home was Glamis Castle (of Macbeth fame) in Angus, Scotland. They also had an English estate at St. Paul's Walden Bury in Hertfordshire. Both of those homes had been in the Bowes-Lyon family for centuries. Number 17 Bruton Street, however, had no ancestral connections. The Earl had acquired the house less than five years earlier to serve as the family's base during the London social season. Although located in tawny Mayfair between Regent Street and Berkeley Street, the house was fairly typical of the neighborhood. A five-story 18th Century house large enough for the extensive Bowes-Lyon family (Elizabeth was one of 10 siblings) and their servants.

By the time they moved to Bruton Street from previously rented London addresses, their daughter Elizabeth had already made her society debut and had earned herself many suitors. The more serious young men were outpaced by the Prince, not because he was more handsome or more charming, and definitely not because he was royal. He had to propose three times before Elizabeth finally said yes during a weekend visit to St. Paul's Walden Bury. That Monday, he drove her to 17 Bruton Street before taking her to lunch at sister Princess Mary's London home, Chesterfield House, where they were joined by their older brother, the Prince of Wales. Prince Albert, or Bertie as he was called, returned Elizabeth to Bruton Street while he dashed off to Sandringham House to see his delighted parents. The Bowes-Lyon home was then besieged by telephone calls from "hundreds of reporters clamouring!" she wrote, "Last day of peace I suppose."

Embed from Getty Images

A few months later, the eyes of the world were on Bruton Street as the "commoner" royal bride departed for her wedding as Westminster Abbey. It was a cold rainy day in the middle of economic troubles that would soon erupt into strikes, but the tiny little Lady was a ray of sunshine for the crowd that had gathered. On her father's arm, Lady Elizabeth departed the town home at 11:12 a.m. in a state landau escorted by Metropolitan Police on horseback. 

Three years later, Bertie and Elizabeth moved into 17 Bruton Street ahead of their child's arrival. Queen Mary longed to be present for the birth, but feared her arrival would draw attention from the press, writing to her son, that's "the last thing one wants is for any inkling of this to appear in the papers, so I hope you will both understand & will not think me a heartless wretch." Elizabeth own mother was ill at the time and so could not be in the room either. Queen Mary recommended that they send for Elizabeth's older sister, Rose Countess Granville, because having someone who has been through childbirth already is "such a comfort."

Elizabeth undoubtedly needed such comfort. It was a long a difficult labor. The doctors had anticipated a breech birth and knew that the petite duchess might struggle to deliver the baby. They planned ahead for the caesarean delivery, but the procedure was still considered risky. It was also thought that it could hinder future pregnancies and deliveries. The Duke and Duchess decided that it was worth the risk. If one child was all they had, they would be content. 

So, while the Duke paced the entire house, the Home Secretary waited patiently, the little princess finally emerged by a "certain line of treatment", as the official bulletin stated. The King and Queen were awakened at 4 a.m. to hear the news. Later that day, they drove up from Windsor to meet their first granddaughter, whom Queen Mary "too sweet & pretty." Grandmother and granddaughter would develop a very close relationship over the years.

By Spudgun67 via Wikimedia Commons
The York family remained in residence at 17 Bruton Street for several more weeks as the Duchess recovered from the birth. The future Queen didn't visit a royal palace for the first several weeks of her life, finally being taken to Buckingham Palace for her christening on May 29 by the Anglican Archbishop of York before being whisked back to Bruton Street.

Today, a Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant stands at 17 Bruton Street in the heart of a bustling commercial district. Although some reports say the old house was destroyed in the London Blitz other say it and the neighboring home were actually taken down in 1937. Whatever the fate of the house itself, a blue plaque at Hakkasan restaurant now reads, "On the site stood the townhouse of the Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne where Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, later to become Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, was born on 21 April 1926."

Works Consulted

"A Look at 17 Bruton Street." The Royal Post. 16 November 2014. theroyalpost.wordpress.com/2014/11/16/a-look-at-17-bruton-street/ Accessed 18 January 2021.

Bradford, Sarah. Elizabeth. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1996.

Johnstone, Anna. "The Queen's SURPRISING birthplace is now a Chinese takeaway." Hello! 26 March 2019, www.hellomagazine.com/cuisine/2019032671328/queen-elizabeth-birthplace-mayfair-hakkasan-chinese-restaurant/. Accessed 18 January 2021.

Murphy, Victoria. "Homes fit for a Queen: From her birthplace to her current Royal residence of Buckingham Palace," The Daily Mirror,  10 June 2016. https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/homes-fit-queen-birthplace-current-8145399 Accessed 18 January 2021.

Shawcross, William. The Queen Mother: The Official Biography. Vintage Books, 2009.

Timms, Elizabeth Jane. "The Queen's London Birthplace: 17 Bruton St." Royal Central. 20 April 2017, royalcentral.co.uk/uk/queen/the-queens-london-birthplace-17-bruton-st-59298/ Accessed 18 January 2021.

Williams, Kate. Young Elizabeth: The Making of a Queen. Pegasus Books, 2015.