‘On the throne till I drop’: how does British monarchy compare with European royals? (2023)

While the pomp and tradition of the British monarchy continue to fascinate people and media around the world, the Windsors are far from the only royal dynasty to have survived into the 21st century. Other European monarchies, from Spain to Belgium and from Norway to the Netherlands, have made similar efforts to adapt, modernise and stay relevant. Some have been more successful than others.

Spain’s royal family, once seen as a model of modest, modern monarchy, has endured a turbulent few years. Juan Carlos, long lauded for helping to steer the country back to democracy after the Franco dictatorship – and facing down an attempted coup in 1981 – has had a protracted fall from grace.

The former monarch abdicated eight years ago amid plummeting popularity, handing the throne to his son, Felipe. Pictures of Juan Carlos posing in front of a dead elephant while on safari in Botswana in 2012 did not go down well in a country still devastated after the 2008 economic crisis.

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Two years ago, the former king went into voluntary exile after damaging allegations were made about his business dealings that further dented his already battered reputation and embarrassed his son.

In March 2020, Felipe stripped Juan Carlos of his annual stipend and renounced his own personal inheritance from his father after reports that he was in line to receive millions of euros from a secret offshore fund with ties to Saudi Arabia. Three months later, Spain’s supreme court launched an investigation into the former king’s role in a deal in which a Spanish consortium landed a €6.7bn (£5.9bn) contract to build a high-speed rail line between the Saudi cities of Medina and Mecca.

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Although the public prosecutor’s office has since shelved all investigations into the former king on various grounds, his legal troubles are not over. His former lover, the Danish businesswoman Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn, has brought action against him at the high court in London, claiming he used Spain’s spy agency to target and harass her and her children after their five-year relationship ended.

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In February 2017, Juan Carlos’s younger daughter, Princess Cristina, was cleared of helping her husband, Iñaki Urdangarin, evade taxes after a year-long trial. But Urdangarin was sentenced to six years and three months in prison and fined more than €500,000 after being found guilty of charges including embezzlement, fraud and tax evasion.

In the Netherlands, a string of blunders during the coronavirus pandemic have sent the popularity of King Willem-Alexander and his family to an all-time low, with one survey last month showing trust in the monarch had slumped to 54% from more than 80% when he took over from his mother, Queen Beatrix, in 2013.

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“There is hard work ahead for them to restore their popularity and show they are in touch with the common people,” said the Dutch historian Han van der Horst.

The royals had to cut short a holiday to Greece in October 2020, soon after the Netherlands went into partial lockdown, following an outcry, and were also criticised last year when Princess Amalia, the future queen, celebrated her 18th birthday with 21 guests while people were allowed to receive no more than four adults at home.

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Approval for the Argentine-born Queen Maxima, the most popular member of the royal family, fell to 61% this year from 84% in 2019. Surveys also suggest, however, that more than 55% of the Dutch still believe their country should remain a constitutional monarchy.

And the royal family has made positive gestures: Amalia last year waived her right to €1.6m (£1.4m) a year in income and allowances until she takes up royal duties after her studies, and Willem-Alexander made a castle available for 32 Ukrainian refugees.

Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II turned 82 in April, three months after marking 50 years on the throne during which she has sidestepped scandals, modernised the monarchy, and made the Danish royal family one of the most popular in the world.

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Polls show more than 75% of Danes support their monarchy, compared with fewer than half when Margrethe succeeded her father, Frederik IX, with only 15% wanting Denmark to become a republic – and Margrethe, a unifying and resolutely non-political figure, is largely responsible, commentators say.

Public celebrations for the jubilee were postponed until September because of Covid, with commemorations confined to Margrethe, who was widowed in 2018 and has eight grandchildren, simply laying a wreath at her parents’ grave.

The queen, commonly known as Daisy in Denmark, is often compared to Britain’s Elizabeth for her strong sense of duty and unquestioning acceptance of her role: she has repeatedly said she will never abdicate and will “stay on the throne till I drop”.

Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf turned 76 this year but is a modern Scandinavian monarch, taking part in podcasts, fitting solar panels on the royal palace, and backing a change in the law so his eldest daughter could succeed him.

‘On the throne till I drop’: how does British monarchy compare with European royals? (4)

Carl Gustaf had a reputation as a bit of a lad with a love of fast cars when he became the world’s youngest monarch at 27. A 2010 biography later revealed rather more, alleging visits to underground sex clubs and an affair with a Swedish singer. The king never denied the allegations, saying only that he and Queen Silvia had “turned the page”.

With no formal political power and a purely ceremonial role, however, Carl Gustaf, a keen environmentalist, has since presided over a modernisation of the monarchy. His daughter Victoria was retroactively made crown princess in 1980, replacing her younger brother Carl Philip, who would otherwise have been heir.

Victoria married her personal trainer, and Carl Philip a former model and reality TV contestant, and both are active in a range of good causes, from action against bullying to the LGBT movement and children with disabilities. Their sister, Madeleine, married a businessman and lives in Miami.

In 2019, Carl Gustaf announced that to save taxpayers’ money and in agreement with the rest of the family, the offspring of Madeleine and Carl Philip – five of the king’s seven grandchildren – were to be removed from the royal house, meaning they would no longer be entitled to a state allowance.

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In a sign he may be straining against the constraints of his role, Carl Gustaf last year caused some controversy by describing the government’s Covid policy as having “failed” to save lives.

King Harald has similarly modernised Norway’s monarchy, revamping the crown estates, changing the way the court is run, marrying a commoner, Queen Sonja, in 1968, and welcoming two others, Mette-Marit and Ari Behn, as the spouses of his children, Crown Prince Haakon and Princess Märtha Louise.

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Harald, who succeeded his father, Olav V, in 1991, studied at Oxford and represented his country in sailing events at three Olympics, took on a role with no real political power. He is thought to be a highly effective speaker and passionate about national unity, especially in times of national crisis.

In 2011, after Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people in two attacks, he told his subjects, with tears in his eyes, that “freedom is stronger than fear”, adding: “It is good to be together at this time … As a father, grandfather and spouse I can only begin to sense some of the pain you feel. As king of the nation I feel for every one of you.”

A 2016 speech marking his 25 years on the throne was widely praised as Harald voiced his support for refugees, religious tolerance, diversity and LGBT rights, saying Norwegians came from Afghanistan and Pakistan, believed “in God, in Allah, in the universe and in nothing”, and included “girls who love girls, boys who love boys and girls and boys who love each other”.

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Harald has experienced several years of ill health, including an operation for bladder cancer in 2003, forcing Haakon to step in as regent, but has said he will not abdicate.

Belgium, in the notorious words of one Flemish nationalist politician, is “an accident of history” united only by its king, national football team and a few beers. Since Léopold I, an uncle of Queen Victoria, arrived in the recently created Belgian state in 1831, monarchy has played its part in holding together a country fractured along linguistic lines. The current monarch, Philippe, King of the Belgians, has more than a ceremonial role. After national elections it is the king who invites party leaders to the palace to begin the delicate process of constructing a Flemish-Francophone multiparty coalition.

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Despite that role, enthusiasm is limited. A 2017 survey in Le Soir found that nearly two-thirds of Belgians thought the €35m cost of the monarchy was too high, while half wanted to end state payments to Prince Laurent, the king’s gaffe-prone brother. The family has not managed to avoid scandal. Albert II, who abdicated in 2013, was forced to admit paternity of the artist Delphine Boël, after years denying he had fathered a child during an extramarital affair.

Meanwhile Philippe, who succeeded Albert II, has been forced to wrestle with Belgium’s colonial past. In 2020 the king expressed his “deepest regrets” for the violence and brutality inflicted on Congo during Belgium’s colonial rule, but stopped short of an apology.

But royal watchers are looking ahead to Belgium’s first female monarch: Princess Elisabeth. Styled the Duchess of Brabant, Elisabeth, 20, is the eldest daughter of Philippe and Queen Mathilde and is studying history and politics at Oxford University.

Monaco’s Grimaldi royal family, said to be the oldest dynasty in Europe, adds a dash of colour to the European royal rota and has been around in the microstate on the French Riviera since the 15th century, enjoying absolute rule until 1911 when Monaco became a constitutional monarchy. The principality of Monaco is home to fewer than 10,000 nationals but has almost three times as many rich residents within 2.1 sq km (0.81 sq miles) of territory often called the “rock”.

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Sovereign Prince Albert II inherited the crown from his popular father, Prince Rainier (Monaco’s monarchs are princes not kings), who died in 2005 and whose main claim to fame was marrying the glamorous Hollywood star Grace Kelly who died in a car accident in 1982.

The antics of the house of Grimaldi – Albert, his wife, the former South African swimming Olympian Charlene Wittstock, and his sisters Caroline and Stephanie – are a source of fascination in republican France and fill the pages of glossy magazines such as Paris Match.

The royal family’s wealth is estimated at $1bn (£0.8bn), mostly in land, palaces, art, stamps and a collection of antique cars. In 2020, Monaco taxpayers were thought to be paying $1,386 per person for the royal family every year.


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