The Great Survivors: How Monarchy Made it into the Twenty-First Century

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 June, 2012, 12:00am


The Great Survivors: How Monarchy Made it into the Twenty-First Century
by Peter Conradi
Alma Books

Not another book about royals, I hear you say. Yet this one is different.

Countless tomes have been written about Britain's Queen Elizabeth II who celebrated her 60th year on the throne this month.

Yet Europe's nine other monarchs are less widely recognised, beyond the odd mention in gossip columns.

So journalist Peter Conradi - co-writer of best-seller, The King's Speech - decided to take a look at them, too.

The influence of Britain's Queen Victoria can be seen in the history of European royalty because of her nine children and the energy she and her husband, Prince Albert, devoted to getting them married; most European monarchs and former monarchs today - from Romania to Norway - can trace their ancestry back to Victoria, says Conradi.

The first years of the 20th century were the high point for Europe's monarchies: apart from France, Switzerland and San Marino, every country was headed by a monarchy. Today seven European nations have kings and queens - Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Norway and Spain, plus the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and the principalities of Liechtenstein and Monaco. They are 'the great survivors', says Conradi, as he tries to explain how the 'apparent anachronism' of monarchy survives, and has not been swept aside and replaced by elected heads of state.

These 10 nations - between them home to more than 150 million people - retain a political system in which the head of state owes his or her position to birth alone, and whose lifestyle, funded by the state, is way beyond the dreams of most of his or her subjects, he says. 'In almost every other sphere of society, the idea that someone's lineage should guarantee them a lucrative job for life ... would be considered laughable,' he says.

'No one setting out to create a constitution from scratch today would seriously suggest such a system.'

His absorbing, well-researched efforts to explain this paradox are enlightening and written with wit and verve.

We learn about Norwegian Princess Martha Louise's 'ability to talk to angels, which she acquired while working with horses' - a 'gift' she is happy to share for an annual fee of 24,000 kroner. And we are told of Dutch Princess Irene's conversations with dolphins and trees.

Prince Albert of Monaco's marriage to former Olympic swimmer Charlene Wittstock almost ended before it began. The South African reportedly tried to flee three times before the wedding, after learning of Albert's third illegitimate child. They were married last year only after a rumoured pact whereby she would provide the legitimate heir Albert craved before departing.

Europe's monarchs all face the same challenge - to remain relevant in the 21st century. Yet they all look more firmly entrenched today than they did 50 years ago, Conradi says. 'The point is, quite simply, that monarchy - at least in the constitutional form found in Britain and elsewhere in Europe - actually works. Monarchs play a special unifying role.'

In 1948, King Farouk of Egypt said: 'The whole world is in revolt. Soon there will only be only five kings left - the king of England, the king of Spades, the king of Clubs, the king of Hearts and the king of Diamonds'. He was partly right: he had to flee four years later. Yet 60 years on, the European monarchs are still on their thrones.