Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands announced today that she will abdicate on April 30, 2013, allowing her eldest son Prince Willem-Alexander to become King. The Prince will become the first male sovereign of The Netherlands since the death of his great-great grandfather King Willem III in 1890. The timing of the announcement surprised the Dutch media but the Queen’s decision has clear historical precedents. In contrast to the United Kingdom where the abdication of King Edward VIII threatened to destabilize the monarchy, the twentieth century monarchs of the Netherlands have all abdicated for medical or personal reasons, allowing their successors to assume the throne at a comparatively young age. Click here for my interview about Queen Beatrix’s abdication on the CTV news channel.
Queen Beatrix’s grandmother, Queen Wilhelmina succeeded to the Dutch throne in 1890 at the age of ten. Her father, King Willem, was predeceased by all three of his sons. The birth of Wilhelmina to the King’s second wife, Emma of Waldeck and Pyrmont, ensured the continuation of the direct line of the House of Orange-Nassau.
Wilhelmina spent the first years of her reign under the regency of her mother, becoming well known for her intelligence, confidence, dignity and strong will. Queen Victoria expressed her approval of the young Queen of the Netherlands when they met in 1895 and the young Wilhelmina was not intimidated by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. When the Kaiser commented that his guards were taller than those of the young Queen she replied “your guards are seven feet tall but when we open our dykes, the water is ten feet deep!”
As an adult sovereign, Queen Wilhelmina was a decisive Queen determined to follow her own principles and act in the best interests of her kingdom. She maintained Dutch neutrality during the First World War but attempted to secure adequate funding for a well equipped, well trained army from her successive Prime Ministers. During the Second World War, Wilhelmina served as a leader of the Dutch Resistance from London, giving inspirational speeches over the radio to her people. The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill admired Wilhelmina’s leadership abilities and she returned to the Netherlands at the end of the War as an immensely popular symbol of Dutch nationhood.
Despite her postwar popularity, Wilhelmina abdicated in 1948, fourteen years before her death in 1962. Although Princess Juliana hoped that her mother would celebrate sixty years on the Dutch throne, Wilhelmina’s health began to fail after the war and she sought a quiet period of retirement. While previous twentieth century royal abdications occurred during periods of revolutionary activity, Wilhelmina’s renunciation of her throne at the height of her popularity resembled that of King Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire who abdicated to enjoy a quiet retirement in a monastery in 1555.
The new Queen Juliana did not have her mother’s forceful personality but became popular with the Dutch people for her comparative informality and interest in humanitarian causes including child welfare. Juliana experienced a series of crises over the course of her reign, however, the threatened the long term stability of the Dutch monarchy. One of her first acts as Queen was to recognize the independence of the former Dutch colony of Indonesia. During the 1950s, Juliana came under the political influence of the faith healer Greet Hoffmans who reputedly alleviated the impaired sight of the Queen’s youngest daughter, Princess Christina. Denounced as a Dutch Rasputin, Hoffmans was banned from the court at the insistence of Prime Minister Willem Vrees following an enquiry in 1956.
In 1976, Queen Juliana faced a further crisis when her husband, Prince Bernhard was revealed to have accepted a $1.1 million bribe from the American aircraft manufacturer Lockheed to influence the Dutch government’s purchase of fighter planes. The Prince refused to discuss his actions with the press but agreed to step down from his military positions and charitable patronages in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Despite fears that this crisis would precipitate the Queen’s abdication, she maintained her authority throughout the inquiry into her husband’s dealings with Lockheed.
Juliana abdicated four years later, stating in her final speech as Queen, “As one gets older, one realizes sooner or later that one’s powers decrease and one cannot fulfill one’s duties as before. There comes a moment that it would not be responsible to do so.” Queen Juliana suffered from dementia from the mid 1990s and lived in seclusion until her death in 2004.
In common with the ascension of Queen Juliana, Queen Beatrix’s reign began in difficult circumstances. On April 30, 1980, the day of her investiture, demonstrations occurred in Amsterdam protesting the lack of affordable housing in the Netherlands. The demonstrators, who shouted, “No Housing, No Crowning!” clashed violently with the police.
Despite this inauspicious beginning, Beatrix has enjoyed great popularity throughout her reign. The Queen shares her grandmother Wilhelmina’s assertive personality and received widespread public acclaim when her eldest son, Prince Willem-Alexander, was born in 1967, the first twentieth century Dutch Prince. The State Opening of Parliament each year attracts large crowds with many wearing colourful hats as the Queen does when she addresses her government. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte honoured Beatrix’s achievements today, stating, “The queen was there for us in good times, but also in bad times. Her knowledge and compassion made her an icon of the Netherlands.”
Although Beatrix is older than Wilhelmina and Juliana were at the time of their abdications she has not experienced the same health problems as her mother and grandmother. The past decade, however, has been a period of personal sorrow for the Queen. Her husband, Prince Claus died of Parkinson’s Disease in 2002 and her second son, Prince Friso, was severely injured in an avalanche last year and is currently on life support. The Queen’s retirement will allow her to spend more time with her family in these difficult circumstances.
Queen Beatrix’s abdication follows twentieth century Dutch royal tradition. Both her grandmother, Queen Wilhelmina, and her mother, Queen Juliana, abdicated after long reigns. Prince Willem-Alexander will become King at the comparatively young age of forty-five having been carefully mentored by his mother. It remains to be seen if he will follow in the recent family tradition and abdicate once his daughter, Princess Catharina Amalia reaches a suitable age to become Queen of the Netherlands.