The Great Survivors: How Monarchy Made It Into the Twenty-First Century by Peter Conradi (Review)

In 1948, King Farouk of Egypt reputedly predicted, “The whole world is in revolt. Soon there will 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.” The First World War had seen in the overthrow of the German, Austrian and Russian Imperial Houses and the Second World War destabilized another series of monarchical governments including that of Egypt. King Farouk’s prediction that only the British monarchy and the Kings pictured in decks of cards would survive this unrest, however, turned out to be untrue.

The number of constitutional monarchies in Europe has been constant since Juan Carlos I became King of Spain in 1975. In addition to Spain, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Norway all have reigning Kings or Queens. The  Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and the principalities of Lichtenstein and Monaco also have titled leaders. Despite this plethora of royalty in Europe, the English language media focuses its coverage on Queen Elizabeth II and her family with only occasional attention to the wealth, weddings or scandals of the continental royal families. In The Great Survivors: How Monarchy Made It Into the Twenty-First Century. Peter Conradi, the author of The King’s Speech, compares all the surviving royal families of Europe.

Conradi’s masterful work reveals the different paths that the institution of monarchy has taken in the 20th and 21st centuries and the similar challenges faced by all Europe’s crowned heads. Rather than devoting a chapter to each European royal house, Conradi approaches the material thematically, comparing such topics as succession law, a typical day of royal duties for a European monarch, wealth and pageantry, marriage and the education of heirs. This approach reveals the full range of royal customs throughout Europe, challenging popular perceptions in the English speaking world regarding how monarchy works.

For example, the iconic televised coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 created the popular perception that the legitimacy of a King or Queen depends on a ceremony of this kind. In fact, the House of Windsor is the only royal dynasty where the King or Queen experiences a coronation. The other monarchs of Europe are sworn into office. In Spain and Norway, the royal regalia is visible during this investiture but the new monarch is not crowned in manner of the monarch of the United Kingdom.

Conradi’s approach also reveals that numerous events in royal history considered unprecedented when they occurred in the United Kingdom actually had clear antecedents among the continental royal houses. In 2011, Prince William became the first direct heir to the British throne to marry a woman from a middle class background with little controversy but a generation earlier, the future Kings Carl Gustav of Sweden and King Harald of Norway challenged the traditions of their families and their countries to marry middle class brides. For the future Queens Beatrix of the Netherlands and Margrethe of Denmark, there few available princes of their generation and marriage to a commoner was a near certainty.

The Great Survivors contains an enormous amount of material and Conradi generally does an excellent job of organizing all this information. The only place where the book briefly loses it way is the chapter about royal mistresses, children out of wedlock, and complaisant husbands. In this section, Conradi moves away from the current reigning houses to look at some the royal scandals that allegedly took place in eighteenth century Russia. With so much material to cover concerning the royal families that reign to the present day, there is little room for the inclusion of additional dynasties. In contrast to the rest of the book, the discussion of Russia’s eighteenth century Empresses cites unreliable source material and could have been easily omitted from the narrative.

The Great Survivors is an excellent introduction to the full scope of current European royal monarchy. Peter Conradi places all the current reigning houses of Europe in their proper historical context and compares how they have achieved success in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, The book ends with informed predictions about the future of monarchy in Europe, providing convincing arguments that this form of government remains effective to the present day.

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