On January 28, the anniversary of the death of Charlemagne and Henry VIII, it was announced that Europe would have a new king. What makes it exceptional is that the Netherlands’ reigning monarch heralded her successor. Most monarchs ascend on the death of their predecessor but not in Holland. Queen Beatrix is the third successive queen to abdicate in favour of her heir, making it almost de rigueur for the House of Orange-Nassau. The accession of Beatrix’s eldest son, Willem-Alexander, will give the Netherlands its first King since 1890.
While the dynasty can be traced to the 10th century and the House of Orange-Nassau has played a princely role as stadtholders (latterly Stadhouder-Generaal) since the 16th century, it is a relatively new monarchy. The Oranges did not become sovereigns until the end of Napoleonic rule in 1813, when William of Orange became Sovereign Prince of the Netherlands, proclaiming himself King William I two years later. His son and grandson succeeded him in turn as William II and William III. On the death of William III in 1890, his only surviving child was a daughter, 10-year-old Wilhelmina, whose mother Emma, acted as regent until her 18th birthday.
Since then daughter has succeeded mother – Wilhelmina, Juliana (in 1948) and Beatrix (in 1980) – and each has won the admiration, even love, of their subjects for their steadfastness, common sense, dignity and courage. The only real difficulties they seem to have encountered, related to their consorts. Wilhelmina’s marriage to Duke Henry of Mecklenburg-Schwerin proved to be an unhappy one but it endured and, as Prince Hendrik of the Netherlands, he became the kingdom’s longest-serving consort. For her part, Wilhelmina was admired by both Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill, who described her as the only real man among the governments-in-exile in London from where she led her country during the Second World War. On her return home, she travelled through the countryside to motivate people, sometimes by bicycle, earning the sobriquet “a bicycling monarchy”.
In 1948, Wilhelmina abdicated in favour of her only daughter, Juliana. In 1936, Juliana had married the heroic, dashing German Prince Bernhard of Lippe-Biesterfeld. It was a love-match that survived wartime separation, his philandering, and a report that he took bribes from the Lockheed Corporation. Juliana too took to a bicycle to greet her people and asked that she be addressed as “mevrouw” (Madam) rather than “majesty”.
Then, in 1980, Juliana abdicated to make way for Beatrix, the eldest of her four daughters. Like her grandmother and mother before her, Beatrix took a German nobleman as a husband. Although it was more than 20 years since the war, Klaus van Amberg was condemned as unsuitable because of his brief membership in the Hitler Youth. However, with Beatrix’s determination, her mother’s support, her consort’s mastery of Dutch, dedication and (despite bouts of depression) energy, Prince Claus overcame this to become the kingdom’s most popular royal. His early death in 2002, two years before his parents-in-law, proved a blow to Beatrix, who, nevertheless carried on.
Her approach was more formal. She is addressed as “majesty” and is more likely to be seen in a saloon or in a horse-drawn carriage than on a bike, but she has brought warmth and astuteness to her role in an increasingly multicultural kingdom. When she was criticised by the Dutch Far Right for wearing a headscarf in Abu Dhabi and Oman on a visit in January, she responded firmly, “It is really nonsense …. You adjust out of respect for a religion.”
And so to Willem-Alexander, the eldest of Beatrix and Claus’s three sons. He accompanied his mother on that recent tour as he has most others, learning, as Dubai’s young sheikhs do, at their ruler’s side. And with him was his charismatic wife, Crown Princess Maxima, who also wore a headscarf in Oman.
Willem-Alexander will celebrate his 46th birthday three days before his investiture on April 30. Like all his fellow crown princes of Europe, he has been rigorously reared to reign. His childhood was spent in the relative peace of castle Drakesteijn in the hamlet of Lage Vuursche near Baarn where he attended school. In 1981, when he had become Prince of Orange, and the family moved to Huis ten Bosch Palace in The Hague, he attended secondary school. He received his international baccalaureate from the United World College of the Atlantic in Wales. Two years of naval service followed and then he studied history at Leiden University. It was here that his impressive and spirited thirst earned him the nickname “Prince Pilsner”.
He has been an enthusiastic pilot, flying as a volunteer in Kenya and sometimes taking the controls of the royal aircraft on holidays abroad. He has run in the New York City Marathon and, at home, in the Elfstedentocht, the 11 cities ice-skating race. Like a handful of other European royals, he is a member of the IOC and apparently supports Amsterdam’s bid for the 2028 Summer Olympics. He has become an expert on water management and chairs a UN board on sanitation and water management.
He too encountered controversy on his choice of consort. His fiancée, Maxima, a New York investment banker of Portuguese, Basque and Italian heritage, was the daughter of Jorge Zorreguieta, a modest customs official who rose to become under-secretary of Agriculture in the Argentinian military junta from 1976 to 1983. The Dutch parliament commissioned a report which cleared him of any direct involvement in the atrocities. Willem-Alexander apparently stated he would rather abandon the throne and have a wedding in Buenos Aires than lose his bride.
Perhaps recalling her own betrothal, Beatrix supported the match and announced the engagement. Shortly afterwards, Maxima announced – significantly in near flawless Dutch – that she abhorred the military regime and “the disappearances, the tortures, the murders and all the other terrible events of that time.” While denying, as her father did, knowledge of this, she said, “I regret that while doing his best for agriculture, he did so during a bad regime.”
Even so, Maxima’s parents were forced to watch their daughter’s wedding on television (as Juliana and Bernhard had done when their second daughter Irene married the Catholic Carlist Pretender in 1964) the Dutch parliament having forbidden their attendance. The same is likely for the investiture. Yet the Argentine press have greeted the succession with jubilation: Argentina’s First Queen! A throne for Princess Maxima!
Due, in large part, to Beatrix’s stewardship, the monarchy remains popular with an approval rating of some 75 per cent. Last year parliament voted to remove the monarch’s remaining political power – the formation of coalition governments. Surely a relief and a source of envy for the neighbouring King of the Belgians. A recent report indicated that the Dutch monarchy was the most expensive in western Europe. The Irish Times reported a study by a Belgian professor that the cost of maintaining the Dutch royal family was €39.4 million (Dh196m), four times that of the Spanish Bourbons. The Queen again firmly rejected any suggestion of reducing the allowance. Interestingly, the paper reports the most expensive head of state is no monarch but the French president François Hollande, whose Elysee Palace costs €112m a year.
The Dutch seem to think their monarch is worth it. As she announced her abdication, the prime minister paid tribute to “a Dutch icon” who “had applied herself heart and soul for Dutch society”.
He added: “I am confident that the prince and princess will fulfil their new tasks and roles as King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima with great success. In the best tradition of Queen Beatrix and generations of the House of Orange before her.”
History will, as ever, be the judge but there is every reason to believe that as Willem-Alexander ascends on April 30 (his late grandmother’s birthday), the House of Orange will continue like clockwork.
1967 Born Willem-Alexander Claus George Ferdinand, Prince of Orange-Nassau
1980 Became heir to the throne and Prince of Orange on his mother’s accession
2002 On the death of his father Prince Claus, he becomes Head of the House of Amsberg
2002 Marries Maxima Zorreguieta Cerruti
2003 His heir, Princess Catharina-Amalia Beatrix Carmen Victoria (soon to be Princess of Orange), is born; sisters Alexia and Ariane are born in 2005 and 2007
2012 On February 17, an avalanche in Lech, Austria buries his younger brother Prince Friso, who remains in a coma in London
2013 On January 28, Queen Beatrix announces she will abdicate on April 30 in favour of her eldest son