Kings, queens, pretenders blanket Europe as monarchies resist tide of time

January 07, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- As it nearly always does, the queen of England's honors list this year provoked some controversy and displeasure.

One writer to the Daily Telegraph complained of "dishing out honors" to ex-hostages, rugby players, television personalities and others "just because they have been creditably in the news."

Knights bachelors were made, as were barons and baronets. There were investitures in the Order of the Bath, and archaic titles bestowed, such as Commander of the British Empire and the lowlier Order of the British Empire. About a thousand people were honored. All were chosen by the government, not the monarch.

The actual medals and decorations will be given by the queen during the year at about a dozen ceremonies. These events will be rich in heraldic pomp and heavy with arcane medieval ceremony. They are designed to impress on those who participate, and those who watch, the continuing if peripheral role of the monarchy in the political life of Britain.

By and large it is not her list. She follows the recommendations of the ruling party chief, Prime Minister John Major in this case.

Yet, when the queen walks into the House of Lords under a crown of jewels seemingly too heavy for her head, the scene serves as a reminder that the past is not so far removed from the present here.

Queens and dukes, princes and princesses, earls and counts and kings and pretenders abound not only in England, but all across the old continent of Europe, where once their ancestors mapped the destinies of those countries now persuaded to the wisdom of democracy.

Just how rampant are the royals? How viable are the antique institutions of the blue bloods? Do they have anything to offer the modern world?

They are more widespread than many people imagine, these royals. And it is possible, with chaos threatening in the territories where the old Soviet Union used to be, and the desire spreading there for some means to guarantee political stability, that they may enjoy a small renaissance.

Late last year Duke Vladimir Kirilovich, a great nephew of Czar Nicholas II, slain by the Bolsheviks in 1918, returned to Russia after a lifetime of exile. He was greeted by the mayor of St. Petersburg amid speculation that a constitutional monarchy might be a viable alternative in the former Soviet Union.

Since the collapse of communism, other former monarchs have made tentative gestures toward their homelands. Crown Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia recently visited that country. King Simeon, the pretender to the throne of Bulgaria, sent his sister to Sofia to test the water there. King Leka, pretender to the throne of Albania, is reportedly watching events in his country, formerly the most communist of all.

King Michael, deposed as king of Romania after World War II, was perhaps too precipitous. He presented himself and offered his services to the new rulers of his country in December a year ago. They were uninterested and threw him out again.

Nor are royals only appropriate for troubled lands. The European Community is the most advanced grouping of independent nations in the world today. Yet half its 12 members have sitting royal families, and royal heads of state: Britain, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain.

Three of the seven states in the European Free Trade Association, which is expected to join with the EC next year in a major trade bloc, have royals as heads of state: Norway, Sweden and Liechtenstein.

None of the royal houses have any real political power. Most are simply ornamental, though there are those who suggest they offer a sense of continuity to their people.

The British monarchy is the most ostentatious -- some might say Disneyesque -- in Europe. But there are reasons for all the show. Of the $16 billion Britain earns from foreign tourists each year, much of it is spent by people attracted here to see the horse guards in glittering helmets, soldiers at Buckingham Palace who move with the cadences of mechanical toys, or all the sumptuous castles spotted here and there around the realm.

Most of the other monarchies of Europe are much less emphatic in their nation's life, and not much into displays of monarchical splendor. Some are actually quite ordinary.

During the Maastricht summit of EC leaders in December, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands declared she would not be put out if her likeness were removed from the national currency, and the guilder replaced by the new European currency unit, the ecu.

The Dutch are very strong for a single European currency, unlike the British. Queen Beatrix has a fortune estimated at about $5 billion and apparently doesn't care what currency she receives her interest in. She gets a salary of about $3.5 million a year from the state to carry out her duties.

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