Wartime spy, big game hunter and for 80 years the Queen’s best friend

That she died peacefully at home in her own bed would have been just the way she would have wanted it. No fuss, no unnecessary excitement, certainly no blaze of glory.

With her headscarf, perm and sensible shoes, Margaret Rhodes represented the polar opposite of a modern world where television and social media bestow celebrity on the trashy, the flashy and the undeserving.

And yet what a story she had, and what a life she lived. Brought up in a draughty, turreted Scottish castle, she was the childhood playmate of her cousin, the Queen, spent the war years as an MI6 operative when she lived with the Royal Family at Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace, and was one of only a handful at the bedside of her aunt, the Queen Mother, when she died at Windsor in 2002.

The Queen and Mrs Margaret Rose enjoy a relaxed lunch at Glen Beg, Her Majesty’s log cabin on the Balmoral estate

Corgis explore as Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Rhodes rest during a trek through the deer-stalking area at Balmoral

Somehow, it was fitting that the Honourable Mrs Rhodes should also pass away in Windsor, at her treasured home, the Garden House, a short drive from Windsor Castle, that the Queen gave her 35 years ago. Close enough, indeed, for the monarch to drop in on her cousin most Sundays after matins at the Royal Family’s private church in Windsor Great Park.

Their lives had been entwined since before the abdication of King Edward VIII — those carefree days when the shadow of the throne had not yet stretched over the young Princess Elizabeth. Her death at 91 will be a terrible blow to the Queen.

They spent holidays playing games such as ‘catching happy days’ which involved chasing after leaves falling from the trees, and cavorting as make-believe horses. At picnics, they dared one another to see who could eat most slices of brown bread and golden syrup. (Margaret, who was ten months Elizabeth’s senior, apparently held the record for this sickly challenge, with 12.)

The Queen Mother, sporting tartan and a sprig of heather in a jaunty hat, shares a joke with Margaret Rhodes at the log cabin at Birkhall she named the Old Bull And Bush

Decades later, Mrs Rhodes was to write about these times in an enchanting memoir she entitled The Final Curtsey. Shorn of boastfulness and intrusion, it took us gently inside the private world of the Queen Mother and the Queen.

After initially being rejected by publishers and literary agents, it became an unexpected success, reaching No 1 in the Sunday Times bestseller list. Critically, it was neither fawning nor sensational. The affectionate tone was matched by delightfully intimate family photographs of her and the Queen at play.

In it, she told the remarkable inside story — one that has assumed almost mythical status — of VE Day in 1945 when the teenage Elizabeth, her sister Princess Margaret and their cousin slipped out of the Palace to mingle unnoticed with the crowds celebrating the end of World War II and where they danced the conga.

Princess Elizabeth, left, Princess Margaret, centre, and their cousin Margaret Rhodes, enjoyed a blissful childhood

A young Princess Elizabeth, Princess Margaret and their cousin Margaret during the Royal Highland Society in Princess Royal Park

That the Queen not only approved the manuscript but allowed her cousin to check details with her own private diaries served to show the unique bond they shared.

So trusted was Mrs Rhodes, who with the exception of Prince Philip probably knew the monarch better than anybody else, that in recent years, as royal jubilees and anniversaries came and went, no documentary was complete without a contribution from her.

For the Queen, however, one of the downsides of having such a long life has meant having to say farewell to so many friends.

‘Make no mistake, this will be a big loss,’ says a royal figure. ‘Margaret Rhodes has been part of her life for more than 80 years. The Queen was a regular visitor to Mrs Rhodes’ home.’ It is understood she visited her confidante after she fell ill earlier this month.

The Queen (left) and Margaret Rhodes were bridesmaids at the wedding of the Hon Mrs V. Cary Gibbs, her Lady-in-Waiting, and Capt. The Hon. A.C.V. Elphinstone

Usually those visits were marked with laughter. They spoke plainly to one another and gossiped as close friends do. No subject was off-limits because Mrs Rhodes was never truly indiscreet.

No episode, surely, summed up their remarkable relationship more than the profoundly moving description in her book of the Queen Mother’s death at her home, Royal Lodge, on Easter Saturday 2002.

That it was included in the 2011 memoir was significant because, up until then, the Queen had not authorised details of her mother’s death to be made public.

‘As I arrived at Royal Lodge, I saw the Queen’s car was there,’ Mrs Rhodes wrote. ‘I went straight to my aunt’s bedroom and found her sitting in her armchair.

‘The Queen was beside her wearing riding clothes. She had been alerted while riding in the Park — her groom always carries a radio link to the Castle.

‘The nurse from the local surgery and my aunt’s Dresser were also there. My aunt’s eyes were shut, and thereafter she did not open them or speak another word.

‘The doctors came and went, but the nurse, the Dresser and I stayed throughout.’

She described how the Queen’s chaplain, the Rev John Ovenden, prayed and recited a Highland lament. After being persuaded to take a break, she went for a walk in the garden.

Margaret Rhodes represented the polar opposite of a modern world where television and social media bestow celebrity on the trashy, the flashy and the undeserving

‘When I came back, she had been put to bed. She looked so peaceful. At that point the Queen returned, accompanied by Princess Margaret’s children, David Linley and Sarah Chatto. John Ovenden also came back and we all stood round the bed when he said the prayer, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”. We all had tears in our eyes, and to this day I cannot hear that prayer being said without wanting to cry.’

The following day, Mrs Rhodes returned to see her aunt one last time. ‘She looked lovely and almost younger, death having wiped the lines away. I knelt by her bed and said a prayer for her. Then I stood up and gave her my final curtsey.’

There was a postscript when Mrs Rhodes went to register her aunt’s death at the Windsor registrar’s office. After going through the formalities with a ‘rather fierce-looking lady’, she was asked the occupation of the deceased’s husband.

‘After a second hesitation, I answered “King”. I think Queen Elizabeth might have found that almost amusing.’

Margaret with husband Denys Rhodes with daughter Victoria Ann Rhodes in their Devon home

Elsewhere in the book, she revealed how the Queen Mother was a fan of the TV shows Two Fat Ladies and Dad’s Army, liked the poetry of the aristocratic Dame Edith Sitwell and had struck up a friendship with the former Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, who was a regular guest.

Her book is also an insight into a now almost forgotten world of privilege, while Margaret Rhodes herself emerges from it as a formidable and capable figure, who shot her first stag at 15 and who emptied her gun at a German fighter plane when it dared swoop low over their Scottish home.

She was born the Hon Margaret Elphinstone in 1925. Her mother Lady Mary Bowes-Lyon — known as May — was the Queen Mother’s eldest sister. Her father, the 16th baron, was a diplomat at the Imperial Russian court, where one of his relatives was Prince Felix Yusupov, who participated in the assassination of Rasputin.

Away from diplomacy, Lord Elphinstone travelled the world shooting. In 1896 alone he bagged 13 tigers, three leopards, 39 buffalo, 21 rhinos, ten bison and three pythons, as well as countless quail, deer and peacocks.

His daughter only gave up field sports in her 70s, writing that ‘the thrill of a successful shot, after a long, wet crawl through the heather, was an exceptional pleasure’.

In celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, Mrs Rhodes revealed stories and pictures from behind the palace doors ø that have never been revealed.

In Africa, at the age of 64, she shot two Thomson’s gazelle with a single bullet.

She estimated that she had killed some 350 stags. As a youngster she shot an eagle — then regarded as pests. But then Margaret, the youngest of five, was raised in a world of castles and country houses, which went hand-in-hand with an outdoors life. ‘We were raised to believe that it was positively immoral to stay indoors, regardless of the weather,’ she recalled.

The family home, Carberry Tower, near Edinburgh, was run by a staff that included a butler, a housekeeper, a footman, three housemaids, a cook, a scullery maid and countless others.

But despite the servants and its size, the house ‘was a touch spartan. There was no central heating and the water in the bowl on my washstand in my bedroom would sometimes freeze over.’ 

Mrs Rhodes pictured in 2014 accompanying her cousin to Sunday service at St Peter’s Church Wolferton, near Sandringham House

While her brothers went away to school, Margaret — like her cousin — received no serious education.

‘Princess Elizabeth and I were really the last generation of girls from families like ours who didn’t go to school,’ she said.

‘I did, however, have dancing lessons and I was at the dancing school, in Edinburgh, the day the abdication of King Edward VIII was announced. To my eternal shame, I hopped around the room chanting: “My uncle Bertie is going to be King.”‘

Uncle Bertie became ‘Sir’ and the young Margaret was at the palace for his coronation as King George VI.

From the age of five onwards, she spent most of the summer with her cousins Elizabeth and Margaret. They were there together on the day that war was declared, on September 3, 1939.

When they weren’t rushing around outside, they had a gramophone to play, but with just one record: ‘Either Land Of Hope And Glory or Jerusalem, I can’t remember which — but we played it all the time.’

She recalled how Princess Margaret, four years younger than the Queen, would keep her awake at night singing Old MacDonald Had A Farm.

In 1941, aged 16, Margaret was sent to a finishing school in Oxford before joining a secretarial college in Surrey, where she learned to type. After that, home became Windsor Castle where she was reunited with the two princesses, who had been evacuated from London and away from the Blitz.

Life was far from luxurious, though. ‘We were allowed only three inches of water in the bath and the King commanded that a black line be painted as a sort of ablutionary Plimsoll line,’ she wrote.

Her seat as she watched the history of the 20th century unfolding was extraordinary. She was at Balmoral when news of a very personal tragedy reached the Royal Family — the death in a flying accident of the King’s younger brother, George, Duke of Kent

‘Often there were air raids. I remember one particularly heavy attack when we all had to go to the shelter. We were roused in the middle of the night and taken first to the King and Queen’s bedroom, where I think I saw the King take a revolver from the drawer of his bedside table. It was a defensive precaution, bearing in mind the possibility of an enemy parachute drop aimed at his capture.

‘I know, too, that Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) practised revolver shooting in the garden of Buckingham Palace, particularly after the palace was bombed, which meant a huge number of rats ran free, so she was able to practise on moving targets.’

Her seat as she watched the history of the 20th century unfolding was extraordinary. She was at Balmoral when news of a very personal tragedy reached the Royal Family — the death in a flying accident of the King’s younger brother, George, Duke of Kent.

After completing her secretarial course, she went to work at the headquarters of the Secret Service, MI6 — ‘a small cog in the shadowy world of espionage. It was all dreadfully hush-hush and, for an impressionable 18-year-old, tremendously mysterious. I reported each day to an office disguised as “Passport Control” near St James’s Park Underground station.

‘One of my daily tasks was to read every single message transmitted by our spies all over the world. It was fascinating but frightening, too.’

The Queen wearing a headscarf with Margaret Rhodes (centre) and, right, lady-in-waiting Susan Hussey outside one of the log cabins she uses for picnics at Balmoral

As a bridesmaid at Princess Elizabeth’s wedding to Prince Philip in 1947, she found herself on the Buckingham Palace balcony. Three years later she was married herself, to Denys Rhodes, ‘a very attractive pauper’ who earned his living writing thrillers. The King and Queen attended their wedding.

They began married life in a large county house in Devon — bought by her father — where the royals were regular guests. Princess Margaret, she notes, could be ‘demanding’. On one occasion the lavatory seat in the bathroom she and her husband Lord Snowdon were using, fell apart.

‘They wanted a replacement installed at once, but it was just not possible over a weekend and we firmly told them so. For a couple whose every whim was pandered to, they took it quite well.’ Her stories were fused with wry observations. David Stirling, السوق المركزي الاردني celebrated founder of the SAS, was a house-guest when the Queen Mother came to stay. Charades was the order of the day.

Stirling had to act out the Taming Of The Shrew, which involved ‘this immensely tall man pretending to be a mouse running up the Queen Mother’s skirts. We were all crying with laughter, but David got quite huffy because we thought his acting was not of Old Vic standards.’

The couple were pioneering travellers, and were once caught up in a coup in the remote kingdom of Bhutan where they were arrested along with the Hollywood star Shirley MacLaine.

When Denys Rhodes became ill, the Queen offered her cousin a grace-and-favour home in Windsor Great Park, asking: ‘Could you bear to come and live in suburbia?’

After her husband’s death, Mrs Rhodes went to work for her aunt the Queen Mother as a ‘woman of the bedchamber’. From the Garden House, she could visit both her cousin and her aunt.

Crisp of voice and of mind, she welcomed visitors to her slightly higgledy-piggledy home, where Wellington boots were lined up inside the front door. If the occasion demanded, she would slip on high heels — even at the age of 89. (On turning 90, she stopped wearing them, though, because ‘they make you a little bit more susceptible to a wobble’.)

It was to this cosy home that the Queen loved to come, a refuge from her daily routine as monarch. Without her spirited cousin, life will never be quite the same again. 

The Queen