If you live in the Anglosphere, with its constant trickle — and occasional flood — of news about the British Royal Family, it is easy to forget that there are other monarchs in Europe (if Britain is actually in Europe these days). There are 12 of them, including the Pope as head of Vatican City State, but, with the exception of the Roman Pontiff and Queen Elizabeth, one seldom hears anything of them unless it is of the hatched, matched or dispatched variety.
This week, however, Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands made world headlines by announcing that she is stepping down from the throne and handing it to her eldest son, Prince Willem-Alexander. In a word, she is abdicating, although that has the ring of something done under duress, as in the case of Richard II of England or Mary Queen of Scots, when, in fact, Queen Beatrix is taking an entirely voluntary step.
“I do not step down because the office is too heavy, but with the conviction that responsibility should now lie in the hands of a new generation. I am grateful for the many years that I have been allowed to be your queen,” she said on Monday. “Allowed” is graceful.
The move has brought her considerable respect, even among republicans, of which The Netherlands has it quota of 20 percent or so, like most other monarchies. The 32 years Beatrix has reigned may not seem over-long compared to the 60 years Queen Elizabeth has clocked up (as many are pointedly remarking right now), and she is only 75 compared to Elizabeth’s 86, but it is long enough when the heir-apparent is already 45. There is dignity and humility about retiring while the going is good, thus allowing Prince Willem to assume the responsibility for which he seems well prepared. Nobody is indispensable but it takes a person of character to recognise the right moment to bow out.
Of course, she had great role models in her mother, Queen Juliana, and grandmother, Queen Wilhelmina, who resigned after 32 years and 50 years respectively. In other ways she is her own woman. The famously down-to-earth Juliana, who got around on a bicycle and sent her children to state schools, was so much aware of being an ordinary woman that she said as she acceded to the throne in 1948, “Who am I that I may do this?” Her daughter, on the other hand, is regarded as more distant, although competent (she graduated in law from Leiden University) and having a lot of personal authority.
But Beatrix is also an ordinary woman from whom we can learn some life lessons, according to various sources, including MercatorNet contacts in Holland.
Married to Claus von Amsberg (Prince Claus) she became the mother of three sons, all today in apparently stable marriages with young children (mostly girls, including the next heir apparent) and well regarded by the public.
Her family life has had some severe trials. Prince Claus developed Parkinson’s disease in the early 1990s and suffered from depression requiring psychiatric treatment as well as cancer before his death in 2002. Beatrix remained united with him and caring throughout. Her compassion for anyone who suffered was evident.
Early last year came another sorrow when her second son, Prince Friso was seriously injured in a skiing accident. Buried under an avalanche for 20 minutes he sustained serious brain damage and survives in a coma in a hospital in London, where the family had made their home. Queen Beatrix has coped with this tragic development in an exemplary way — although there has been speculation in the European media that his accident is the reason for her departure from the throne. Germany’s biggest newspaper, Bild, asked: “Has her son’s ski accident broken her heart?”
Somehow that question seems to underestimate both the mother and the queen.
Beatrix has been at the centre of some major controversies in her lifetime. Her marriage to Claus von Amsburg (probably not entirely her own idea) provoked a huge protest when it became known that the German aristocrat had been in the Hitler Youth. (Actually, it was well nigh impossible to escape membership of the Nazi organisation, as Pope Benedict himself can testify.) Claus was later cleared of having deeper links with the Third Reich and went on to become very popular in his own right.
Her coronation in 1980 saw some of the worst street violence ever witnessed in Amsterdam as squatters clashed with police in the streets, angry over the sums being spent on the ceremony when the capital was suffering from an acute housing shortage. Then in 2009, the Royal Family were the target of an apparent attempt on their lives when a man tried to crash a car into their open-topped bus during a parade. He succeeded in killing seven bystanders — a source of anguish to the Queen, no doubt.
Prince Willem’s marriage to Argentinian Máxima Zorreguieta raised another furor because her father had served in the military junta. Her being a Catholic also did not go down well in Calvinist Holland, but the Queen consulted with the then Prime Minister Wim Kok and his government supported the wedding. (Whether the very popular Maxima will wear the title “Queen” on her husband’s accession has also to be decided by parliament.)
Controversy is one thing, but scandal is another, and the House of Orange has been remarkably free of that during the past three decades. The only serious candidate for that label involves Prince Friso’s marriage to human rights activist Mabel Wisse Smit in 2003. It transpired that she had had an association with a (by then) dead drug gangster, Klaas Bruinsma, and because the couple withheld information about the extent of her dealings with the man, Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende refused to seek Parliament’s permission for the marriage. Prince Friso therefore renounced his right of succession to the throne and the wedding went ahead.
Beatrix, by now a widow, no doubt found the publicity very painful, although it pales to insignificance beside what Queen Elizabeth has had to put up with. The two women have something in common, however. With the luck of their generation they grew up in cultures which were still overtly Christian and they have, to all appearances, kept the faith. Like Elizabeth, Beatrix always uses her Christmas speeches (and perhaps others) to acknowledge this faith. That could well be the secret of the quiet dignity that has won the admiration, or at least respect, of Dutch citizens across the political spectrum.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.