30 January 2013

A Royal Double Standard

What’s good for one queen is not good for another. As soon as Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands announced that she will abdicate in favor of her son on April 30, 2013, people began speculating (again) about whether Queen Elizabeth II would ever “retire” in the same fashion. I’ve some well-informed discussions (like this one on Marilyn’s Royal Blog) on the topic, but the bottom line is that it simply will never happen in Elizabeth’s reign or in the reign of her son, Charles.

The Dutch Difference

The throne in The Netherlands has always had a much more democratic tradition. Until 200 years ago, there was no monarch; the Dutch nations were led by stadtholders, quasi-elected officials albeit usually selected from the same families through the generations. However, it was not at all unusual for the Low Countries to rebel against and replace their leaders if they were unhappy with them. (This tradition is undoubtedly one reason Dutch Prince William was just fine with a de jure takeover of the British throne from his father-in-law King James II in 1688.) In the 17th Century, one of these stadtholders, William of Orange, emerged as the most powerful and it was his line that eventually regained control after Napolean’s brother, his puppet King of Holland, was removed. Only then, in 1815, did a Prince of Orange proclaim himself King of the Netherlands. Even then, however, the kingdom was established as a constitutional monarchy.

Wilhelmina and Juliana
Within a few generations, the dynasty ran out of male heirs and his ten-year-old great-granddaughter Wilhelmina became the first Dutch queen. It was she who set the precedent for regal retirement when she stepped down after shepherding her people through two World Wars and nearly 58 years on the throne.  Her decision was based largely on the stress of ruling in exile during the second war and sharp decline in her health, which had led two brief regencies. Her only child, 39-year-old Juliana therefore became queen in 1948. Wilhelmina lived another 14 years.

Queen Juliana became the personification of the “bicycle monarchies” of Europe. She regularly appeared among the public dressed like an ordinary person, riding her bicycle and insisting on being addressed as “Mevrouw” (Dutch for “Mrs.”) rather than “Your Majesty.” It was not at all for the queen to just pop in without ringing first to schools and organizations around the country. After almost 32 years as queen, she stepped down on her 71st birthday, April 30, 1980. Over the next two decades, Juliana began to sink into dementia and ill health. She passed away in 2004 just before her 95th birthday.

The oldest of her four daughters became Queen Beatrix in 1980 at age 42. At 75, Beatrix has chosen to reign to a later age than her mother and grandmother. Based on their lives, she could easily live another 10 to 20 years. Unlike her grandmother, she had time to enjoy being a child, a wife, and a mother before becoming queen. By waiting until now, she has enabled her heir to see his three little girls at least reach school age. But, the decision also means that the new heir to the throne will be a 10-year-old girl, Princess Catharina Amalia—a parallel to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II who suddenly became the heir when she also was only 10, as pointed out in this post on Royal Musings.

In keeping with the more democratic style of the Dutch monarchy, they also do not crown their monarchs in an elaborate and deeply religious ceremony. In fact, they do not crown them at all—Dutch monarchs are inaugurated.

The British Tradition

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip
after her holy consecration
as Queen in 1953
The British monarchy is steeped in much more ancient and sacred traditions. Even if you reach back only 1,000 years to mark the “beginning” as the Norman Conquest, after which King William I was anointed with holy oil on Christmas Day in 1066, you have gone many times further back in history than the Dutch crown. Over the centuries, British monarchs in both England and Scotland and then the united Great Britain, have been selected by strict (although sometimes revised) dynastic rules or by military conquest, but only once by anything approaching popular decision (the aforementioned Glorious Revolution by William of Orange and his Stuart wife Mary in 1688)—and that led to another century of warfare between William and Mary’s Protestant successors and Catholic claimants to the throne. The turbulent late medieval and Renaissance crown was often characterized by competing dynastic claims and religious strife. The close identification between the person of the monarch and his/her role as head of the Church of England was firmly established nearly five centuries ago by Henry VIII. All monarchs since then, except Edward VIII, have not only been anointed in a holy right and taken kingly vows before God but has been the official supreme leader of the Anglican church.

This long-established religious aspect of the British crown is one of the strongest reasons the deeply faithful and observant Elizabeth would never willingly step down as monarch. She would see it as breaking a promise she made to God.

Elizabeth also would see it as breaking a promise she made to the people of the United Kingdom and its old Empire, a vow she made voluntarily on her 21st birthday when she announced that her “whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family.” The fact that it has been long, then, really has no bearing on her willingness to continue to fulfill her sacred trust. Based on her own mother’s life, she could live in relatively good health to be more than 100 years old. Even if she were develop serious illness, including dementia, it is unlikely that anyone would require her to abdicate. Britain already has the example of the relatively long regency of mad King George III’s son that could be employed if the Queen really could not continue her duties.

Elizabeth's parents
We also must remember that while the Queen has lived a relatively charmed life, it has been dotted with a few tragedies: the popular backlash against her in the wake of Diana’s death in 1997, the Windsor Castle fire of 1992, the early death of her father and her own accession at the tender age of 25 in 1952, and the transformation of her beloved Uncle David into the wayward Duke of Windsor. 

While the David’s brief reign as King Edward VIII in 1936 is merely a historical footnote to nearly everyone else on the planet it is an indelible scar on the heart of Elizabeth. His decision to pursue his personal desires over his royal duties caused his 10-year-old niece, who had so recently lost her beloved grandfather King George VI, to be torn from her cozy family home in a London townhouse to the drafty, discomfort of Buckingham Palace. It drastically reduced her time with her beloved and doting parents. And, perhaps most importantly, it created deep bitterness in her mother that was undoubtedly communicated to her Elizabeth. When the strain of being king, especially through World War II, seriously weakened the health of King George VI and contributed to his early death, Elizabeth’s mother was lost and angry for many, many years. All of this made a huge impression on Elizabeth: to not do one’s duty, in her mind, has serious and far-reaching consequences.

William and Kate
on their wedding day
Plus, arguments that Charles will be too old to be king likely make little sense to her. After all, her great-grandfather waited 60+ years to be king, too. And, as Edward VII, he was a much better king than he was a Prince of Wales. Plus, the longer she reigns, the longer her beloved, motherless grandson William can enjoy the less demanding status of second-in-line instead of heir. It was for William and Harry’s sake that she miscalculated the public’s anger against her in 1997. She thought to protect them in the obscurity of the Scottish royal estate instead of expose them to the paroxysms of grief that were choking London. If she thinks keeping William #2 will enable him to enjoy more time with Kate and their growing little family, that alone might be reason enough to stay on the throne until her very, last breath.


  1. Good post!

    I think it is admirable that the Queen views her role for life. She will never abdicate and there is no question about that. Although it interesting to discuss it!

    But I find it even more admirable that the Dutch can abdicate, keeping an eye on the future of the monarchy, without sacrificing duty in the process.

  2. Either way they both are doing what seems best for Country, Family and Self.

    It is good to know if you are not well enoughb to continue then to not do well by your Country.You would not do anyone any good in that case.

    If you know you can yet function well enough, then again, it is absolutely 'your duty' ,to continue on.

    Giving both Countries credit for their rules they have followed, and whatever seems to be working for them best.

    Never allowing pride to lessen the ability to perform in the utmost way. One must not place your Country at any risk. So as long as you are able, to perform well, you must "carry on"

    These are my heartfelt thoughts.

  3. We are from New York State, ( USA) but my husband has found through his mom's side he( and our sons and grandchildren) are of the lost Plantagene/ Tudor line . We were very surprised, and yet pleased.

    Goes back to King Henry the 11 etc. My husband is greately enjoying , in his new found retirment, learning so much about this.

    It does us no good, except to know of it!

    Pleased to at least have found out.

    My family is not traced to Royalty at all, but yet back to England and to a few Sir Knights!It is so very interesting and how exacty we ended up here ,we will maybe never know? Quite complicated, am sure.

    We do hold an interest in the Royal family to be honest, as the line ( not to mention any names here, comes into Danny's family tree. ) Looks like cousins, evidently now.

    Carol Ann ( Danny) Weaver