Queen Elizabeth II’s high profile means we often forget that there are six other countries in Europe (or nine if you include the royal minnows, Monaco, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein) that are presided over by hereditary rulers who play an equally central role in their respective nation's lives.
It is these, the Windsors’ continental cousins, who are the subject of an entertaining and highly readable new book, "Great Survivors: How Monarchy Made it Into the 21st Century", by British writer, Peter Conradi, whose previous work, The King’s Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy, which he co-wrote with speech therapist Lionel Logue’s grandson, Mark, was a top 10 best seller on both sides of the Atlantic and wrote the book that tells the true story of the events that inspired the Oscar-winning film.
Most of the Euro-Royals remain a mystery to most people outside their respective realms, beyond the occasional mentions of their sexual and financial indiscretions in glossy magazines or in the foreign pages of newspapers. But, as Conradi reveals, they are quite a lively bunch…
Britain’s monarchy may be the most influential and best known in Europe, but it is not the oldest. That distinction is held by its Danish counterpart. The current queen, Margrethe II, can trace her lineage back more than 1,000 years to the Viking kings Gorm the Old and Harald Bluetooth. Margrethe, who celebrated 40 years on the throne earlier this year, is a feisty but popular monarch with an artistic streak. More controversial is her husband, Prince Henrik, a former French diplomat, born Count Henri de Laborde de Monpezat, who would give Britain’s Prince Philip a run for his money with his gaffes. Confusingly, Margrethe’s ancestors are without exception called Christian or Frederick, which means they can tend to blur into one another. Two stand out: Christian IX, who reigned for most of the second half of the 19th century, became known as the “father-in-law of Europe” because of the success with which he married off his children: they included a future King of Greece, Queen of England, Tsarina of Russia and, of course, King of Denmark. Less impressive was his 18th century predecessor, the half-wit Christian VII, whose scandalous ménage à trois with his wife Caroline Matilda, the sister of George III, and her German doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee, is the subject of a new feature film, A Royal Affair. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t end well for the good doctor…
Most countries in Europe – and indeed the world – have made the transition over the past few centuries from monarchy to republic. The Dutch are unique in having moved in the opposite direction. It was only in the nineteenth century that the country became a monarchy under King Willem I. But his dynasty of Orange-Nassau has reigned ever since. The present monarch, Beatrix, is the country's third queen. Her mother, Juliana, and grandmother, Wilhelmina, both abdicated when they hit retirement age, but Beatrix, 74, has shown no signs of stepping down in favour of her son, Willem-Alexander, 45. The Prince of Orange has gained in stature since his youth, when his love of partying earned him the nickname, Prince Pils. This may be thanks in part to the calming influence of his glamorous Argentinian-born wife, Princess Maxima. The couple's marriage in 2001 was overshadowed by revelations about the past of her father, Jorge Zorreguieta, who was a member of the military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983, during which thousands of people disappeared or were killed. He has always knowledge of any wrong doing. Mention the Dutch monarchy and people always think of bicycles. In fact, although commendably down to earth, Beatrix is more likely to be seen in a limo or a horse drawn carriage than in the saddle.
The Swedish royal family became known to a wider world in June 2010, when Victoria, the heir to the throne, married in a spectacular ceremony in Stockholm. Her groom, Daniel Westling, was an unusual choice: they met when he was her fitness coach. But despite initial misgivings, the Swedish royal family – and public – have warmed to their new prince, and this February Victoria gave birth to their first child, Estelle. This new addition to the royal family has taken some heat off the king, Carl XVI Gustaf, who has had to put up with some rather less flattering headlines after a book revealed his penchant for dubious nightclubs and claimed he had enjoyed a number of affairs. While the modern-day royals seem as Swedish as meat balls and flat-pack Ikea furniture, their dynasty was actually founded by an adventurous French man named Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, who rose to become a marshal in Napoleon's republican army. While governor of Hanover, he befriended some influential Swedish officers who had been taken prison and they later invited him to Stockholm to become heir to the elderly heirless Carl XIII. Bernadotte never bothered to learn the language, but his new locals didn't seem to mind.
The Belgian royal house was also founded by an outsider, Léopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who, like Bernadotte, took advantage of the frequent redrawing of the map of Europe during the first half of the 19th century to secure himself a throne. Leopold's life could so easily have turned out differently: his first wife was Charlotte, daughter of Britain's George IV, but she died in childbirth, effectively leaving him without a role. He took the throne of newly created Belgian in 1831 after having turned down the Greek one. Few expected Belgium – or its ruling dynasty – to survive but getting on for two centuries later, his great-great-grandson, Albert II, is still on the throne. The family has not been without its controversies: Léopold II, who succeeded to the throne in 1865 on the death of his father, was a monster best known for his acquisition of the Congo, which he ran with enormous brutality as a private fiefdom until his own death in 1909, acquiring huge riches in the process. Léopold III, father of the present king, was something of tragic figure: his wife, Astrid, died in 1935 in car accident near Lake Lucerne when her husband was as the wheel – which provoked an anguished reaction that was to be echoed decades later by the deaths of first Princess Grace of Monaco and then Princess Diana. During the second world war, his apparent defeatism counted against him and after only narrowly winning a referendum, he abdicated in 1951 in favour of his son, Baudouin.
It's only since 1905 that Norway has had a royal family of its own (before that, they used to share Sweden’s) – and they didn’t start off very Norwegian at all. The first king, Haakon VII, who reigned until his death in 1957, was born Prince Carl of Denmark, while his wife (and cousin) was Edward VII’s daughter, Maud. The current monarch, Harald V, has established himself as a popular and genuinely Norwegian ruler, although the dynasty has had its wobbles – not least in the late 1990s when Harald’s son, Crown Prince Haakon, the heir to the throne, fell for Mette-Marit Tjessem Høiby, a single mother with a son by a man with a conviction for drug-dealing. Since their marriage in 2001, Mette-Marit has turned into the model princess, even though, in the early days she had to put up with some severe embarrassment from her father, Sven, an alcoholic former advertising executive who engaged in a number of stunts for the tabloids – including marrying a stripper half his age. Sadly, Sven has since died, but entertainment continues to be provided by Haakon’s elder sister Märtha Louise, who claims she can speak to angels (which surely must be more interesting than Prince Charles’s conversations with plants).
It can’t be easy being a Spanish monarchist these days. First there was a messy corruption scandal involving the King’s son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin. Then an embarrassing royal elephant hunt in Botswana that only came to light after King Juan Carlos broke his hip and had to be flown back home in a hurry for treatment. And, to cap it all, his 13-year-old grandson shot himself in the foot – literally – which had alarming echoes of an incident in 1956 when the future monarch's younger brother, Prince Alfonso, then aged 14, was shot dead with a single bullet from a revolver when the two of them were playing together – in circumstances that have never been fully explained. Monarchy in Spain has had a chequered history and actually disappeared in 1931 with the declaration of the republic, which in turn gave way to General Franco's dictatorship. Juan Carlos has led Spain back to democracy since becoming king on the death of Franco in 1975 and seeing down an attempted military coup in 1981. In the years since he has proved a model modern king, though the ill-advised hunting trip was not his only recent faux pas. Like his Swedish counterpart, he is said to have a roving eye, which has not gone down well with Sofia, his Greek-born consort. Suggestions that all was not well in the royal bed chamber were confirmed by the absence of public celebrations of their 50th wedding anniversary in May.
...AND THE REST
Three more countries – a grand duchy and two principalities – complete Europe's royal roll call. Neither the Luxembourg nor the Liechtenstein royal families are especially noteworthy – even though the latter's prince, Hans-Adam II, enjoys the curious distinction of being Europe's only absolute monarch. What that they lack in colour is more than made up for Monaco, which has given us not only the fairy tale romance between Rainier and Grace Kelly which ended so tragically with her death in 1982 – but also the colourful liaisons of Princesses Caroline and Stéphanie. And just when they seem to have retreated from the limelight, there is the curious on-off relationship between Albert, the current ruler, and Charlene Wittstock, the former South Arican Olympic swimmer who last July became his –- by all accounts – reluctant bride.
The Great Survivors: How Monarchy Made it into the Twenty-First Century by Peter Conradi is published by Alma Books, $13.43