It is an iconic image symbolising the continuity, stability and tradition at the heart of Brtiain’s monarchy. The photograph depicts three Queens in mourning at the Windsor Castle funeral of George VI, the King-Emperor who had died nine days earlier on 6 February 1952. But this is not a collection of foreign royals assembling to pay their respects to the British monarch. This is a unique image of three Queens of England (or, more properly, Queens of the United Kingdom) whose lives (and reigns) overlapped.
The most senior member of the three was Queen Mary, the Queen Consort of King George V and the mother of George VI. Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, had been the Queen Consort of King George VI and the mother of Queen Elizabeth II, the third of the three royals.
The three queens are shrouded in the heavy black mourning outfits that etiquette demanded for the death of a King. It is a dreary, damp and cold February day, the dreadful weather deepening the sombreness of the occasion. George VI was a relatively young 56 when he died, and the untimely death of Britain’s wartime king shocked the nation.
The photograph was widely circulated, featuring on the front pages of newspapers across Britain, the Empire and Commonwealth and around the world. And, although the picture depicts the great continuity through the generations of the British royal family, it also shows some striking differences. As noted in Canada’s National Post:
“Queen Mary is in full, solemn and solid black from veil to toe. The Queen Mother’s dress is slightly shorter, and the Queen’s a touch shorter still.”
With Princess Elizabeth acceding the throne as Elizabeth II there would be a brief period when three British Queens were alive at the same time. Queen Mary would only last for a little over a year, and passed away ten weeks before Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. There has never before or since been such a royal assembly.