On January 14, Queen Margrethe II celebrates 40 years on the throne of Denmark; one of the longest surviving, unbroken, hereditary royal lineages in the world. (The Danish monarchy has existed for over a 1000 years). Often termed the most popular royal family in Europe, a recent poll in the Danish newspaper Politiken showed that 77 percent of Danes support their monarchy.
In our exclusive interview, the Queen reflects on the role of a monarch in a modern democracy, her role as a woman and mother and the issue of the royal succession - saying she will remain on the throne until the end of her days.
Denmark’s Princess Margrethe was only 31 when on January 14th, 1972 she was proclaimed Queen of one of the world’s oldest monarchies on the death of her father King Frederik IX.
In a society marked by youth uprisings and a break with old traditions, hers was the task of building bridges between the traditions represented by previous monarchs and the movement towards modernisation represented by her own generation. Already, by the time she was proclaimed from the palace balcony on that freezing winter’s morning by then Prime Minister Jens Otto Krag, the new monarch became part of Denmark’s identity.
In an exclusive interview with Politiken’s Editor-in-Chief Bo Lidegaard, Margrethe II speaks frankly of her role as monarch in a Denmark that has Europe’s most popular royal house. Not least, in the 40th year of her reign, and as Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain approaches the 60th year of her reign, she discusses whether modern monarchs should abdicate.
“It is a gradual process of preparation. Father was not the sort of person to sit down and lecture me or give longer discourses on what had to be done and how. It was a slow process of the same type that I have tried to practice with the Crown Prince when he was younger. It is not something that can be learnt by heart and imposed. Rather a mixture of intravenous learning and osmosis - if you can remember what that was.”
“First and foremost you use your eyes. Despite the fact that not many years went by after my 18th birthday to my father’s death, there was enough time for me to have attended many Privy Councils and to have held them or audiences myself if father was away. He always said that audiences were one of the functions that he remembered best, even before he ascended the throne. I trembled with nerves during audiences on many occasions at the beginning. But through my father I had a strong impression of what was required, in full knowledge of the fact that I was different to father. I was a generation younger, and a girl – and that has actually been a great help in many ways. I knew that people would not make direct comparisons, because you cannot. Had I been his son, people would have said ‘The old King used to…’, but you don’t say that of a Queen as you know that things are done slightly differently in certain contexts.”
“How are you raised to do the job? Well, I think a lot of it has to do with how you are brought up. As far as father was concerned he had a completely undue and hopelessly exaggerated pride in me. I had the impression that he was probably certain that I would be able to manage it when the time came. I had no reason to feel otherwise than he was proud that I was to succeed him. When he became ill and died and it all began for me, it was a great ballast to know that this was something he had looked forward to happening when he was no longer. That is a wonderful support to have. Your thoughts are to show everything and everyone, including myself and the memory of father, that this is something I can manage. It has to be managed. I can manage it.”
“Yes – to trust that they can do it. It has been a privilege to have an outstanding father. He gave me much more praise than I was worthy of. I was never in doubt that he was confident that I could do it. And I’m not so sure that this is something that he had felt as a young man.”
“Absolutely. She was very meticulous – I became regent – not immediately, but from the time that father went into hospital or perhaps a couple of days before that. For all we knew, father could have got well again or got worse. But to be honest, and for his sake thank the Lord, things calmly moved towards a conclusion. We didn’t experience a “What do we do now” situation. And here, my mother was fantastic. She had completely come to terms with what was happening. I think my mother felt the same way. Just as my father had confidence in me being able to manage, she was there and ready to help me manage.”
“Immediately. As soon as the old King closes his eyes, the new monarch takes his place. The proclamation is a formality, but one that I feel is very important. Had there been an emergency that required signature during the night, with Father having died during the evening, I would have signed it and it would have been no less valid. That is one of the things with modern monarchies. Unlike in history. In all modern monarchies the situation is that as soon as the old King or Queen closes their eyes, the new King is Head of State. That is a major benefit.”
“The old Cabinet Secretary Morten Olufsen was involved, as was the Lord Chamberlain Count Trampe and my Head of Court Ebbe Munck. And not least my mother – although not on the Constitutional issues. That was not her concern. But everything had to be arranged and we were all terribly busy. In fact we were so busy that we didn’t have time to think about how terrible it was or – in fact it felt strangely natural.”
“The Commonwealth is very important to me and something I hold in high esteem. I also think that it plays a role both for Greenland and the Faroes. As you probably know I am extremely fond of both the Faroe Islands and Greenland and their two peoples, who are so different. The only thing they have in common is that they are a long way away from Copenhagen and in the middle of a great, grey sea. Everything else is different.”
“A European Denmark. Well, what does that mean. Perhaps it helps to keep our windows a bit more open than they otherwise would have been. I have always sailed a lot and for me, the sea is not just something that laps up against a beach where people swim in the summer. It is something that binds us together. It may sound somewhat dramatic, but there is a sort of communion of destiny when you depend on the sea – as we actually do in Denmark but which the Faroes and Greenland certainly do.”
“I do believe that the Commonwealth has a lot to do with the monarchy, because it is an institution that continues unbroken. A new generation always comes along. My parents, my father and grandparents before me, and my sons and grandchildren who also take part in the life of the Commonwealth and visit both the Faroes and Greenland. The Crown Prince has visited both territories, and has had extensive experience of Greenland.”
“It has continued to develop. And I am sure it will continue to do so. I hope so at least. Things should not stand still. But only time will show how it will develop. I have a son in whom I have a lot of confidence. He will be up to the job. He is an adult and gifted person. A happy person. With a good family around him, a lovely wife, lovely children and a full measure of responsibility about what he is going in to. He shows it in many ways, and I am really pleased to see how he does things. Not least he has many of the traits that my father had. Among others being able to talk to all sorts of people. Down to earth – without any problems and without having to exert himself. He has that gift and it is something that I envy him. It is a gift to be able to do that. And he has a down to earth way of dealing with people in all sorts of situations. He has an innate community with people – and they with him. And he has a fine wife who can also talk to people and does a good job.”
“He has precisely the same benefit that I had. He does not succeed a father, but a mother. Comparisons may be made – but no-one expects him to turn up in a red skirt do they?”
“Things will be different. But I can see many small things that remind me of my father. The funny thing is that he has not experienced my father that much. Frederik was not yet four when my father died – so there is not much that he can remember. It was also a wonderful thing that he developed an unusually warm and close relationship with his grandmother. Both as a child, but also as an adult. That has been a major benefit, as Granny could tell him things and have fun. She was very fond of him.”
“Yes I am. I cannot provide the recipe – and if I could it would be more worrying. This is something that has to develop and grow naturally.”
“Yes – and no. Yes because I am part of society and live in a period when the role of women has changed a lot. No, because since the age of 13, I have been the one who was to succeed my father. The fact that my parents did not have any sons, is not my fault. I am certainly the only person who cannot be accused of anything. The fact that a decision was taken in 1953 to change the laws of succession so that a woman could succeed a man- ascend the throne as I did – showed itself to be more in keeping with developments than was realised when the decision was taken. It was perhaps foresight. But I have always found it difficult to compare my own destiny with that of other women, as I did not forge it myself. That is just how it came to be. You shoulder the task – because it is your job to do so. I have always felt that the decision that was taken for my life was that I should succeed my father. The fact that I am a woman does not play into the equation. Apart from the fact that I dress as the woman that I am.”
“Let me put it like this: The fact that I was a woman has never really played into what I have done or not done. I have just been lucky that things have played out so that I could do things. The times have of course been in my favour, although I have never really felt this as a determining factor. I just did it, and it could be done. The only thing that I have really perhaps done consciously has been the fact that I paint, and haven’t kept it to myself.”
“Yes. After I had painted and drawn and illustrated for several years I thought: ‘No, I’m not just going to put these in a desk drawer. I want them to be seen and judged. They make it or they don’t. Perhaps people will faint in horror. But that is what I want to do.”
“Some of those who really made a major impression on me have been the new leaders in Eastern Europe. Some of them had endangered themselves. That was an intense experience. It was stimulating to meet Lech Walesa, and Vaclav Havel… the Hungarian president was also one of them. And a little later the Estonian President Meri was a wonderful person with a delightful personality who I was happy to meet. A person such as Nelson Mandela is also one of those you really remember.”
“That is something very special. There was something unique in these developments. One of my life’s greatest experiences was when that Wall fell – and as peacefully as it did.”
“The most important thing for me and my family is to try to be a unifying factor for our country and our people. To help to determine who we all are. Hopefully something – that although we do not have an active political role – people trust and feel – yes, is inclusive for them to be part of it all. That we belong together.”
“I am happy that they see this as something of value.”
“I hope it’s because of what one is. That is what counts. You can say so much. And I can understand that it must be agreeable when you come to a country that has an obvious core, a focal point that people can reckon with – which is something that a royal family, or a king or queen can be. I don’t know if that is the reason, but it could be.”
“Yes. The word benchmark is a good one. But remember, I didn’t say it.”
“Yes, but also across age groups. I’m an old woman now, but when I was younger I was very conscious of the fact that I also had to be someone for much older people who had perhaps experienced two or even three generations before me.”
“I have always felt that it is a task that you are given, and that you have it as long as you live.”
“Yes. That is my fundamental view. It is an integral part of the job that you have it for life.”
“Hmm. I suppose that’s quite true. It is a life-task, a task for life. That sounds like a rather big and precious word. But it is, in fact a rather big and precious thing to have.”
“Perhaps I’m a little less reticent about it than I was 20-30 years ago.”
“Indeed. One has become old enough so that it doesn’t seem silly in saying it.”A brief pause, and with a glance at the digital recorder, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark asks the last question:
“Do you think that little machine is satisfied now?”A big thank you to Bo Lidegaard, Editor-in-chief of Polititiken, Denmark: Bo.firstname.lastname@example.org, and Danish Embassy, Luxembourg
The Danish monarchy is among the oldest in the world and can certainly be traced back in direct succession to Gorm the Old who died in 958.
Name: Margrethe Alexandrine Þorhildur Ingrid
Born: April 16, 1940 during German occupation of Denmark
Parents: King Frederik IX (dec. 1972) & Queen Ingrid (dec. 2000) Proclaimed Queen: January 14, 1972 Married to (1967): Prince Henrik né Henri Marie Jean André, Count of Laborde de Monpezat
Children: Crown Prince Frederik (1968), Prince Joachim (1969).
University education: Copenhagen (philosophy), Cambridge (archaeology), Århus/Sorbonne/LSE (political science).
Languages: Danish, French, Swedish, English, German
Other: Illustrator and translator of books, scenographer, design and embroidery of ecclesiastical textiles, painting with exhibitions in Scandinavia, US, China and Japan.