Constantine, last Greek king whose monarchy ended in exile, dies at 82

Constantine II, the last king of Greece, who came to the throne in 1964 as a young monarch celebrated for an Olympic gold medal in sailing, but whose reign effectively ended three years later when he fled into exile after facing a military junta, died January 10 in a hospital in Athens. He was 82 years old.

A statement from Hygeia Hospital said the former king suffered a stroke and complications from other health issues.

He was the last ruler of a 19th century family dynasty whose ties to Greece were tenuous but which sought to derive its legitimacy from ties to the wider genealogical tree of European royalty.

He lived for decades in London and was a cousin of King Charles III, a godfather to Prince William and part of the extended family line of Greek-born Prince Philip. The former king traveled as Constantine of Grecia on a Danish passport due to his family’s shared lineage with a branch of Denmark’s royal family – in addition to his marriage to a former Danish princess, Ann-Marie . His sister Sophia is the wife of the former King of Spain Juan Carlos.

But for Greeks, it remained deeply rooted in the history of the right-wing dictatorship of 1967-1974, whose ruthless crackdown on opposition still resonates as uncomfortable memories in the country’s political and cultural life.

Events began to unfold in 1965 when the young king fell out with Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou, leading to the collapse of his government. The political crisis – still known in Greece as the “apostasy” – opened a period of upheaval and interim governments.

“People don’t want you, take your mother and go!” protesters shouted in 1965 in denunciations of the King and his mother, Queen Frederica.

The ongoing political turmoil has been used by a clique of Greek military officers as justification to seize control of the country by April 1967. The “colonels”, as they were called, also feared that the king was planning preemptive maneuvers to install his supporters in power.

Overwhelmed in a corner, he agreed to officially inaugurate the junta as the new rulers of Greece. The king and his family then moved to northern Greece, seeking to lead a counter-coup. Plans fell apart and the family fled to Rome and later settled in London.

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“It was the worst day of my life,” he said of leaving Greece in a 2015 memoir published by Greek newspaper To Vima. “That day I saw my first white hair.”

Some Greek naval officers remained loyal to him and in 1973 made another attempt to revolt against the junta. The military rulers abolished the monarchy – even as he continued to claim he was the rightful monarch of Greece.

Junta leader George Papadopoulos called the former king a “collaborator of foreign forces and murderers”.

After the dictatorship collapsed in 1974 – following a military crisis with Turkey over Greek attempts to unite with the island nation of Cyprus – he sought to make a dramatic comeback. He was advised to wait by political leaders, who feared he would disrupt efforts to restore democracy. Instead, a referendum was held on whether to bring back the monarchy.

On the eve of the vote, the former king seemed confident. The result “will find me and my family at home”, he said from London. However, almost 70% of the votes cast were against the restoration of the royal family. Prime Minister Constantine Karamanlis reportedly said voters had rid the nation of cancerous growth.

The former king did not return to Greece until 1981, after being allowed a five-hour visit to bury his mother in the family cemetery at the former Tatoi royal palace, north of Athens. (The Greek government announced that the remains of the former king would also be buried there.)

From London, the former king used his royal title and claimed ownership of family lands in Greece, including Tatoi. In 1994, the Greek government officially stripped him of his citizenship and confiscated royal property.

A lawsuit he filed in the European Court of Human Rights resulted in compensation of €12 million, far less than the €500 million he sought. In 1995 he bragged to Vanity Fair that he received 65,000 letters a year from Greek citizens and needed a staff of four to help run his affairs.

His life in exile was far from a bumpy ride. He dated other European royalty, who often referred to him as “Your Majesty”. He and his wife lived in a mansion in London’s Tony Hampstead Garden Suburb. If the British royal family had a gala, he was on the guest list.

When Athens hosted the Olympics in 2004, he returned as an honorary member of the International Olympic Committee. The appearance, however, was intentionally toned down at the behest of organizers despite his stature as a former Olympic medalist.

At the 1960 Rome Games, the then-Crown Prince was part of the gold-medal winning three-man Dragon-class sailboat team. He was also the flag bearer at the opening ceremonies in Rome and a Greek postage stamp was made in honor of his team’s victory.

In an interview with NBC’s “Today” during the Athens Olympics, the former king called Greece “his country”.

“I remember I had the privilege of holding the flag when our team arrived,” he said, recounting the Rome Games, “and the roar of the crowd was something that is still in my mind. ears.”

For more than a decade, he spent increasingly more time in Greece as authorities made accommodations and protests against his presence largely died down. He also made some slight concessions. He belatedly recognized that the era of monarchy in Greece was long over.

His official website listed him as King Constantine, former King of the Hellenes.

The future king was born on June 2, 1940 in Athens to Princess Frederica of Hanover and Prince Paul, younger brother of King George II of Greece and heir to the throne.

Before Prince Constantine’s first birthday, the family fled to Alexandria, Egypt as Nazi forces occupied much of the country. The family then spent time in South Africa before returning to Greece in 1946 – just as the country entered a disastrous civil war between communist-backed forces and nationalists, many of whom were loyal to the monarchy.

The Nationalist side won, but political divisions remained strong for decades and turned into divided opinions on the monarchy – which some critics have decried as foreigners with family ties to wartime enemy Germany.

The prince was educated at boarding schools and military academies in preparation for the throne. His turn came in 1964, when he was 23, after the death of his father, King Paul. (The family had ruled Greece since 1863 except from 1924 to 1935).

The last king of Greece is survived by Anne-Marie, his wife of 58 years; five children, Alexia, Pavlos, Nikolaos, Theodora and Philippos; and nine grandchildren.

His lineage goes back to the house of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, which includes Denmark and other countries. He, however, refused to adopt either of these names after the Greek government said he could only have his passport reinstated if he adopted a surname.

“I don’t have a name,” he said in 1995 in London. “My family has no name.

Glücksburg is the name of a place, he noted, like any borough in London.

“I might as well call myself Mr. Kensington,” he said.

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