When people learn that I have a royal blog, I am often asked when the Queen will step down and Charles will become King. With yesterday’s news that Spanish King Juan Carlos is abdicating, this question has again come my way. Traditionally, reigning as a King or Queen was considered a lifetime job. The monarch’s place on the throne was usually secure until they were overthrown or died either in battle or from old age. Throughout 2013-2014 many of Europe’s monarchs have bucked this “job for life” tradition and passed their duties down to the next generation of younger royals.
The abdication trend started in the Netherlands in January 2013. After ruling for more than three decades, 75-year-old Queen Beatrix used the 200th anniversary of the current Dutch crown to step aside in favor of her 46-year-old son Willem-Alexander, who became the country’s first king since 1890. After signing a short document relinquishing her rights to the throne, Beatrix told the crowds gathered outside the royal palace, “I am happy and grateful to introduce you to your new king, Willem-Alexander.”
For the Dutch, abdication is a regular part of their royal tradition that happens with little fanfare or disruption. Beatrix’s grandmother, Queen Wilhelmina, abdicated in 1948 at the age of 68 and her mother, Queen Juliana, reigned for 32 years before passing the throne to Beatrix in 1980. Much loved by the Dutch people, Beatrix reassured them that even though she was stepping down, she would still be a part of their lives. “This doesn’t mean I’m taking leave from you,” she told a group of admirers in Dam Square outside the palace in Amsterdam.
In July 2013, Belgium’s King Albert II announced he was abdicating in favor of his son, Prince Philippe, a 58-year-old fighter pilot. After ruling 20 years, 79-year-old
Albert retired due to old age. In an address to his nation, King Albert said, “I have noticed how my age and my health have not permitted me to exercise my duties the way I would like to.”
While age and health may be the main reason for Albert II’s abdication, ethnic friction between the northern and southern parts of Belgium where residents speak different languages may also have contributed to the King’s decision to let a new generation lead Belgium into the future.
2013 saw other notable abdications. While not a reigning monarch, the abdication of the 85-year-old Pope Benedict was a first in Vatican history. His decision to retire
because of his age made Benedict the first Pope in almost 600 years to renounce his post. In Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, decided to
step aside in favor of his son after ruling for 20 years. His son, Sheikh Tamim, became the youngest monarch in the region at the age of 33.
The Spanish King’s popularity suffered in 2012 after he broke his hip while on a luxury safari trip to Botswana. After the accident, Spanish news outlets ran a photo
showing the King next to an elephant he had shot, which appalled many Spaniards who were grappling with 25% unemployment. Making matters worse, during a pre-trip interview, the King said he was so distraught over Spain’s on-going economic crisis that he was having trouble sleeping. This contrast between the luxury trip and the King’s apparent insensitivity to the suffering of his people caused his popularity to plummet.
The Spanish royal family’s image was also tarnished by a scandal surrounding the King’s youngest daughter. Princess Cristina and her husband, Inaki Urdangarin, have been embroiled in a tax fraud and money laundering investigation and are accused of using funds from Urdangarin’s non-profit for lavish parties and personal expenses. The three-year investigation provided details into the privileged lifestyle of the Spanish royals at a time when 4.7 million Spaniards are unemployed.
The King’s declining health must have also been a factor in his decision. In recent years, the King appeared frail and distracted in public, partly the result of his
advancing age and a series of surgeries following sporting accidents, which have required him to walk with the aid of a cane.
During his abdication announcement, King Juan Carlos said it is “time to hand over to a new generation” and remarked on the suffering the economic crisis had caused his people. “The long, deep economic crisis we are going through has left a lot of scars socially, but it is also pointed toward a future of hope,” he said.
After the announcement, the crowds gathered outside the royal palace in Madrid expressed a variety of feelings about the abdication.
“Change is good, new blood could be good, why not?” said Spaniard Natividad Andres.
Another Spaniard, Lola Garcia, expressed uncertainty about Spain’s future and what the abdication meant. “It’s a shame. I’m really sorry,” she said. “I don’t know what’s
going to become of Spain and I don’t like what I see coming.”
How history will judge King Juan Carlos is still to be determined. Once one of the world’s most popular monarchs, Juan Carlos was admired for his service to Spain and defense of democracy after dictator Francisco Franco‘s death in 1975. Many consider the King’s finest hour to be his decisive stand to stop a right-wing military coup in 1981 when he went on television and said that the monarchy would not tolerate attempts to interrupt democracy by force.
Royal watcher Richard Fitzwilliams calls the King’s abdication a tragedy and says there is a “tremendous amount of goodwill” toward Juan Carlos despite the recent scandals. “He wanted to go down in history as the king who was a symbol of national unity for a very disparate Spain,” Fitzwilliams said. “Spaniards – many of them older – are great admirers of his.”
In contrast, Britain’s 88-year-old Queen Elizabeth II has made it clear that retirement is not for her. British monarchs reign until the end, even if it is a violent end like Charles I, who lost his head in 1649, or Richard III, who was killed in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth field. British monarchs are also allowed to go mad like George III or become a recluse like Queen Victoria after the death of her much beloved Prince Albert, as long as they remain on the throne.
One of the factors that keeps Queen Elizabeth firmly on the throne is the fact that there has been only one voluntary abdication in British history: that of her uncle
Edward VIII in 1936. While Edward VIII’s abdication sent shock waves through the country, it impacted young Elizabeth’s family even more. Her parents viewed Edward VIII’s decision to abdicate to marry Wallis Simpson as a selfish betrayal of duty. The Queen Mother always believed that becoming monarch was difficult for the gentle-spirited George VI and contributed to his early death at age 56. For the 10-year-old Princess Elizabeth, she went from being a relatively normal (albeit royal) young girl to the future heir and most famous little girl in the world.
The Queen’s sacred vow is another reason that abdication is unthinkable. During a visit to South Africa in 1947, the 21-year-old Princess pledged to her country: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and to the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” A deeply religious woman, the Queen believes that her role as monarch is God-given, which doesn’t permit her to quit.
In a speech before both houses of parliament during her 2012 diamond jubilee, the Queen re-dedicated herself to the service of her country for the rest of her life. This
re-dedication left no doubts that the Queen’s service to her country would continue until her death.
The Queen’s cousin, the Hon Margaret Rhodes, confirmed on the Queen’s 80th birthday that retirement is not an option. “It’s not like a normal job, it’s a job for life,” she said. The vow the Queen made on coronation day was “so deep and so special” to the monarch that she “should wouldn’t consider not continuing to fulfill those vows until she dies”.
Even with her good health, the Queen’s advanced age has required her to re-examine how she will handle her responsibilities in the years to come. A “job-sharing” program has been put in place by the Palace, with Prince Charles beginning to take on some of the Queen’s engagements. English writer Hugo Vickers confirms that the younger generation of British royals are increasingly assuming more of the sovereign’s workload. “The Queen has a royal family to support her. She doesn’t have to do long-haul flights if she doesn’t want to,” he said. “There is now a three-tier family with the Prince of Wales to support her and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry flying all around the Commonwealth.”
With the support of her family, it is possible the Queen could continue her role for another 10 years. If she’s anything like her mother, who lived to be 101, there is little doubt the Queen will overtake Queen Victoria’s long reign of 63 years and 217 days in September 2015 and become Britain’s longest reigning monarch. In the meantime, 2013 also marked a significant milestone for 65-year-old Prince Charles, who became the oldest heir to the British throne. If the Queen continues firing on all cylinders as she has been, Charles may still have a while to wait before becoming King like his European cousins.