Europe's royal circus
The chink of silver cutlery on fine china and the clink of crystal Champagne flutes will echo around Windsor Castle on the evening of 17 June. Gathered in the great dining hall of the Queen’s most cherished home will be the crowned kings and queens of Europe for the greatest gathering of ruling monarchs in 50 years. United under the castle’s great oak ceiling, royalty will raise a toast to royalty in a sumptuous celebration of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.
The conversation will then probably turn to family. Prince Rainier, the ruler of the principality of Monaco, might share his concerns over Princess Stephanie, mother to three children born outwith the marital bed, now the mistress of a circus elephant-tamer, the grand palace of Monaco exchanged for a mobile home. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands might brood over how much she dislikes her new daughter-in-law and could remind Queen Silvia of Sweden how much she adored her daughter, Princess Victoria, her son’s former love. Together they could mull over what might have been.
At the other end of the table, as the fantasy continues, the Queen remembers Diana and Fergie, before wishing Queen Beatrix the best of luck and inquires after the health of Prince Ernst August of Hanover. Has he recovered from the court case? Still, it’s a nasty business kicking a photographer, especially a girl. Prince Philip declares they were probably asking for it, but then again "Ernie" was taking a whiz against the Turkish pavilion wall at the time. As the table cracks up with laughter, King Harald and Queen Sonja of Norway are notable by their silence.
The proponent of Europe’s most progressive monarchy, King Harald has seen the future and taken evasive action. While the British monarchy extends across dozens of titles, costing tens of millions in costs, salaries and the civil list, Norway’s has been pared to the bone. Their royal family’s total budget is a mere 4.3 million. No gates separate the walls of the kingdom’s royal castle from its subjects, the gardens are open to the public and the Queen can often be seen out shopping for ingredients for the night’s dinner. Where a gulf lies between the British monarch and her citizens, all Norwegian society requires is but a polite distance.
In Britain Prince Edward and the Countess of Wessex combine a lucrative civil list salary with disastrous attempts to run their own companies. In Norway, Princess Martha this week relinquished her royal title and any government funds to become a commoner. "This is a release. I can enter working life and earn my own money," she said. "It’s the best for all parties."
In Britain royal marriages tend to begin in triumph before descending into scandal. In Norway the scandal is taken care of first, allowing the eventual nuptials to be transformed into a grand event of national healing. The wedding last August between Crown Prince Haakon and Mette-Marit Tjessem Hoiby, a former waitress and a single mother of a four-year-old son, could have been a national disaster. Instead, the judicious use of a televised press conference where the princess-to-be confessed to her drug-taking past and asked for forgiveness - "I cannot, unfortunately, undo the things I have done." - won her the respect of even her harshest Lutheran critics. At the wedding King Harald said: "For the Queen and me this has been a challenging and valuable process, but above all it has been a good one."
A wind of change is blowing through the monarchies of the world and crowns are blown around.
For centuries they were a symbol of certainty and principle, appointed by God to rule over their subjects with a kind hand and a warm heart. Today, with their principal functions long since replaced by elected governments and with any stature remaining attached to past achievements, royal families are being forced to adapt or be swept away. Where once disputes, brawls and affairs would never surface, the life of every Royal is now an open book, and many do not like where the plot is driving them.
The finite supply of eligible princes and princesses has meant the effective demise of one royal family marrying into another. Instead the so-called commoner has become the essential ingredient. Rarely though is the Royal so egalitarian as the Crown Prince of Norway. Bride or groom normally comes from a leading family. But even this does not guarantee a convenient fit.
The wedding last weekend of Crown Prince Willem Alexander of the Netherlands to Maxima Zorreguieta, the daughter of an Argentinian politician, took place in front of the gritted teeth of Queen Beatrix. The guest list included kings, queens, Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, and Nelson Mandela, but the bride’s mother and father were notable by their absence. Jorge Zorreguieta and his wife stayed away in order to spare the Dutch royal family further embarrassment over Zorreguieta’s past involvement in a government that executed or jailed thousands of political opponents.
The Queen’s objections to Zorreguieta are based as much on personal dislike as her father’s political abuses. Queen Beatrix attempted to stifle the relationship by banning her son from spending the night with his girlfriend. And when a wedding became inevitable she insisted that all Maxima’s friends run what they intended wear past her officials, lest they lower the tone of the event.
For all the problems, however, there are still people ready to take on the challenge of modern monarchy. Italy has announced through the government of Silvio Berlusconi that the Italian Royal family, in exile for the previous 54 years will be welcomed back. When they arrive, the re-instated House of Savoy will epitomise the new European royalty, a wealthy family with extensive outside interests who just happen to be related to the previous monarchs. Prince Victor Emmanuel, the son of Umberto II, who was sent into exile in 1946 after the country voted for a republic, has said he would be delighted to return. Unlike his father who sided with Mussolini and described the racial laws that led to the segregation and deportation of Jews as "not all that bad", Prince Victor is a loyal democrat. "My son and I guarantee our loyalty to (Italy’s) republican constitution and to our republic’s president," he said in a recent statement. The family, who live between Geneva and New York, have fought for the last 20 years, since the death of Umberto in 1982, for the right to return to the country Prince Victor last saw as a small boy. "My son and I hope that the revocation procedure may be completed in a short space of time, to enable us to return as quickly as possible to our beloved Italy."
The advice of Prince Henrik of Denmark, however, would be: "Don’t hurry back." After 34 years in the role of a Danish Prince Philip, always a few steps behind his wife, Queen Margarethe, the prince has announced that he has had enough. In a fit of pique, the French-born former diplomat has abandoned the country in favour of his vineyards in France on the grounds that he is not appreciated enough. In the past he refused to open new buildings unless he was paid, a position that would have lost him his head in his native land. Now he wants to take precedence over his son and heir to the throne. Great offence was caused to his pride when he was not permitted to host a New Year’s Eve ball. Instead, protocol demanded his son, Prince Frederik, take on the task. "I have been satisfied with the role, but after so many years in Denmark, I don’t suddenly want to become number three and become some sort of wearisome attachment," Henrik said. In a demonstration of familial solidarity that might just shift his sulk, his wife and son rushed to his vineyard south-west of Paris to plead for his return.
Beyond the courts of Europe, the greatest change in a royal family is expected in Japan, which claims to be the world’s oldest hereditary monarchy. The last 3,000 years have witnessed 127 Emperors, but the next occupant of the Chrysanthemum Throne could be an Empress. The birth of Princess Aiko last year triggered off joyous scenes, fireworks and pastries made in the shape of a stork, so delighted were the public by the fruitful result of an eight year-marriage that many believed would be barren. The daughter of Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife, Princess Masako, the ninth royal female birth since 1969, has led courtiers to suggest that the time has come for a change of direction if the monarchy is to continue.
Public polls in Japan show that over 80 per cent of the population support the idea of an Empress and Princess Takamatsu, the oldest royal and sister-in-law of the late Emperor Hirohito has publicly announced her support.
The law of male primogeniture is a royal standard across the globe and if it falls in Japan the rest of the royal families will surely follow suit. Sweden was the first to grasp the nettle when the country changed the law in 1977 and Belgium followed in 1991. The subject could make interesting after-dinner conversation at Windsor Castle this summer and for once our own Queen could take a lead. In 1998 she announced that she would have "no objection to the government’s view that in determining the line of succession to the throne, daughters and sons should be treated the same".
A close examination of the royal families around the world reveals tangled love lives, bitter rivalries, warmth and generosity, arguments and reconciliation that would be common to any other families. In the future, perhaps the Royal Family should be spelt Royle - for their blue blood is finally turning red.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 8 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: West