ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Constantine, the former and last king of Greece, who won an Olympic gold medal before becoming entangled in his country’s unstable politics in the 1960s as king and spent decades in exile, died. He was 82 years old.
Doctors at the private Hygeia Hospital in Athens confirmed to The Associated Press that Constantine died on Tuesday evening after treatment in an intensive care unit, but had no further details pending an official announcement.
When he acceded to the throne as Constantine II in 1964 at the age of 23, the young monarch, who had already achieved glory as an Olympic gold medalist in sailing, was hugely popular. By the following year, he had wasted much of that support with his active involvement in the machinations that brought down the elected Center Union government of Prime Minister George Papandreou.
The episode of the defection from the ruling party of several legislators, still widely known in Greece as the “apostasy”, destabilized the constitutional order and led to a military coup in 1967. Constantin finally confronted military leaders and was forced into exile.
The dictatorship abolished the monarchy in 1973, while a referendum after democracy was restored in 1974 dashed any hope Constantine had of reigning again.
Reduced in the following decades to simple ephemeral visits to Greece which each time raised a political and media storm, he was able to resettle in his country of origin in his years of decline when opposing his presence no longer had emblematic value of vigilant republicanism. With minimal nostalgia for the monarchy in Greece, Constantine became a relatively uncontroversial figure.
Constantine was born on June 2, 1940 in Athens to Prince Paul, younger brother of King George II and heir apparent to the throne, and Princess Frederica of Hanover. His older sister Sophia is the wife of former King Juan Carlos I of Spain. The Greek-born Prince Philip, the late Duke of Edinburgh and husband of the late Queen Elizabeth II, was an uncle.
The family, which had ruled Greece from 1863 apart from a 12-year republican interlude between 1922-1935, descended from Prince Christian, later Christian IX of Denmark, of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg branch of Denmark’s ruling family.
Before Constantine’s first birthday, the royal family was forced to flee Greece during the German invasion in World War II, moving to Alexandria in Egypt, South Africa and back to Alexandria. King George II returned to Greece in 1946, following a disputed referendum, but died a few months later, making Constantine King Paul I’s heir.
Constantine was educated at a boarding school, then attended three military academies as well as law classes in Athens to prepare for his future role. He also participated in various sports, including sailing and karate, in which he held a black belt.
In 1960, at the age of 20, he and two other Greek sailors won a gold medal in the Dragon class – which is no longer an Olympic class – at the Rome Olympics. While still a prince, Constantin was elected a member of the International Olympic Committee and became an honorary life member in 1974.
King Paul I died of cancer on March 6, 1964, and Constantine succeeded him, weeks after the Center Union party triumphed over the Conservatives with 53% of the vote.
The Prime Minister, George Papandreou, and Constantine initially had a very close relationship, but it quickly soured due to Constantine’s insistence that control of the armed forces was the prerogative of the monarch.
With many officers toying with the idea of a dictatorship and viewing any non-conservative government as soft on communism, Papandreou wanted control of the Ministry of Defense and eventually demanded to be made Minister of Defense. After an acrimonious exchange of letters with Constantin, Papandreou resigned in July 1965.
Constantine’s insistence on appointing a government of centrist defectors that won a narrow parliamentary majority on the third try was hugely unpopular. Many saw him as manipulated by his scheming mother, Queen Dowager Frederica.
“People don’t want you, take your mother and go!” became the rallying cry of the protests that rocked Greece in the summer of 1965.
Eventually, Constantin made a sort of truce with Papandreou and, with his agreement, appointed a government of technocrats and then a government led by conservatives to organize elections in May 1967.
But, with the polls strongly in favor of the Center Union and with Papandreou’s left-wing son Andreas gaining popularity, Constantine and his courtiers feared revenge and, with the help of high-ranking officers, plotted a Rebellion.
However, a group of lower-ranking officers, led by colonels, plotted their own coup and, informed of Constantine’s plans by a mole, proclaimed a dictatorship on April 21, 1967.
Constantine was taken by surprise, and his feelings for the new rulers were evident in the official photo of the new government. He pretends to accompany them, while preparing a counter-coup with the help of troops from northern Greece and the navy, which is loyal to him.
On December 13, 1967, Constantine and his family flew to the northern city of Kavala with the intention of marching on Thessaloniki and establishing a government there. The counter-coup, badly managed and infiltrated, collapses and Constantine is forced to flee to Rome the next day. He would never return as the reigning king.
The junta appointed a regent and, after a failed naval counter-coup in May 1973, abolished the monarchy on June 1, 1973. A July plebiscite, widely seen as rigged, upheld the decision.
When the dictatorship collapsed in July 1974, Constantin was eager to return to Greece, but was advised against by veteran politician Constantin Karamanlis, who returned from exile to lead a civilian government. Karamanlis, who also led the government between 1955 and 1963, was a conservative but clashed with the court over what he saw as excessive interference in politics.
After his triumphant victory in the November elections, Karamanlis called for a plebiscite on the monarchy in 1974. Constantine was not allowed to campaign in the country, but the result was unambiguous and widely accepted: 69.2% voted voted in favor of a republic.
Shortly after, Karamanlis said the nation got rid of a cancerous growth. Constantin said the day after the referendum that “national unity must come first… I wholeheartedly hope that the developments justify the outcome of yesterday’s vote”.
Until his last days, Constantine, while accepting that Greece was now a republic, continued to style himself King of Greece and his children as princes and princesses even though Greece no longer recognized titles of nobility.
For most of his years in exile, he lived in Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, and is said to have been particularly close to his second cousin Charles, the Prince of Wales and now King Charles III.
While it took Constantine 14 years to return to his country briefly to bury his mother, Queen Frederica in 1981, he increased his visits thereafter and, from 2010, took up residence there. The conflicts continue: in 1994, the socialist government of the time withdraws its nationality to him and expropriates what remains of the goods of the royal family. Constantine sued in the European Court of Human Rights and won 12 million euros in 2002, a fraction of the 500 million he had claimed.
He is survived by his wife, the former Princess Anne-Marie of Denmark, younger sister of Queen Margrethe II; five children, Alexia, Pavlos, Nikolaos, Theodora and Philippos; and nine grandchildren. ___ Derek Gatopoulos in Athens contributed.