Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Museum Liechtenstein closes down

Of the royal collections of Europe, the princely collection of Liechtenstein is second only to the Royal Collection in Britain and since 2004 parts of it have been exhibited in the Liechtenstein Garden Palace (Gartenpalais Liechtenstein) in Vienna. However, as from the beginning of this year the Museum Liechtenstein has sadly closed its doors to ordinary visitors.
In the future it will only be possible to visit the palace when taking part in occasional guided tours of the collection. The focus will from now rather be on renting out the palace to corporate events and so on. The reason for this sad development seems to be that one had hoped for 300,000 visitors per year, but only managed to attract some 45,000.
Meanwhile the Liechtenstein Mansion (Palais Liechtenstein) in the centre of Vienna, which was the main residence of the Sovereign Prince of Liechtenstein until 1938, is being restored. The plan was that it would serve as a second branch of the Museum Liechtenstein, but this too will now not be generally open to the public after the restoration is completed next year.
The closing of the Museum Liechtenstein means that the website of the princely collections has now also changed to www.palaisliechtenstein.com. The new website will be launched in February.
The photo shows a detail of the ceiling fresco in the Great Hall of the Liechtenstein Garden Palace. The fresco was done by Andrea Pozzo between 1704 and 1708 and shows the entry of Hercules into Olympus.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

New books: Europe’s lost states

History books are full of states which no longer exist. Now some of these states have gotten a book of their own: Norman Davies’s Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe, which was published by Allen Lane last autumn.
It is, obviously, a vast subject and Davies, an historian known for books such as Europe: A History, Europe at War, The Isles: A History and God’s Playground: A History of Poland, has had to restrict his book of 830 pages to some of those vanished states. Each chapter begins with a visit to a present-day remnant of the relevant state, followed by the history of its rise and fall and an epilogue on its afterlife. The time span stretches from the fifth century to the present.
Among the states included are Aragon, the many Burgundian states, the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania, Prussia, Savoy, Montenegro, Galicia, Etruria, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the USSR and Ireland. Some of the states included, such as the Byzantine Empire, existed for a very long time, others only very briefly, such as the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine, which lived for a single day in 1939.
Thus the book covers a wide range of European history, but it is also quite uneven. Most of it is well-written and ought to be easily accessible also for those who are not themselves historians, but some chapters are not as clear as one would wish for. It is hard to get through the chapter on the ancient Scottish “Kingdom of the Rock” and while struggling through one often wonders where the author is actually heading.
Other chapters offer clear and concise analyses of the emergence and disappearance of states, and the most successful chapters also offer some fresh perspectives. Sometimes these set the spotlight upon a lesser known part of history, such as the chapter on the Kingdom of Etruria (and the Napoleonic Grand Duchy of Tuscany), which charts the oft-overlooked history of Florence during the revolutionary and Napoleonic age.
Some of author’s choices of states to include in the book may seem surprising, but mostly one finds that there is a good reason behind it. One example is Montenegro, which does indeed exist as a state today, but which was alone among the victorious allies in disappearing from the map following World War I, something which happened in a rather dubious way.
If one wonders why Ireland is included in the book, one will eventually find that Davies considers the history of Ireland’s struggle against the British crown as simply the first part of the ongoing and, in his view, inevitable dissolution of the United Kingdom. The developments concerning a referendum on Scottish independence since the book was published have thus only made it more relevant to the present.
Its diversity is one of the book’s strengths, but also one of its weaknesses. With such a vast subject one can hardly avoid finding some mistakes, but more disturbing than this is the fact that several of the genealogical tables, which one may assume have been included to help the reader keep track of the people and relationship which have influenced the rise and fall of these states, are so flawed that they are in fact useless.
The two rival Serbian royal families, Obrenovic and Karadjordjevic, are for instance presented as one big family; King Petar I (of the House of Karadjordjevic) is in fact shown to be the son of King Aleksandar and Queen Drage (of the House of Obrenovic), whose assassination in 1903 brought him to the throne. Students of the First Empire will also be surprised to learn that Empress Joséphine’s first husband was not Alexandre de Beauharnais, but his brother, and even more astonished to find out that she and Napoléon did in fact have a son.
The book is a tour de force through some of those vanished European states which most people do not normally spare a thought for. It ends beautifully with William Wordsworth’s 1802 poem “On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic”, concluding: “Men are we, and must grieve when even the Shade / Of that which once was great is passed away”.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

My latest article: How Nidaros Cathedral became the coronation church

Picking apart historical myths and misconceptions is of course one of the favourite pastimes of historians and in an article in Adresseavisen (external link) today I address the not uncommon idea that Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim has “always” been the coronation church of this country.
In fact, most medieval coronations took place in Bergen and later in Oslo. It was only towards the end of the medieval age that three coronations happened in Trondheim. The first of them was held on 20 November 1449 and caused by extraordinary circumstances.
After the death of King Christoffer of Denmark, Norway and Sweden in 1448, Sweden chose Karl Knutsson (of the House of Bonde) to be its king, while Denmark opted for Count Christiern of Oldenburg (Christian I). Norway had little choice but to choose one of them and a majority of the Norwegian council voted for Christian, an election which marked the transformation from hereditary to elective monarchy.
However, a minority of the council, among them the powerful Archbishop of Nidaros, Aslak Bolt, tried to push through their candidate by staging an election in which Karl was victorious and consequently had him crowned in Nidaros Cathedral.
At the time of the coronation Karl’s supporters made the claim that rightful kings of Norway ought to be crowned in Trondheim, but this was an invention. However, when Christian defeated Karl the following year, he too was crowned in Nidaros Cathedral, obviously to “annul” the coronation of the “usurper”.
Christian I’s son, King Hans, was later crowned in Trondheim in 1483, but Christian II was crowned in St Hallvard’s Cathedral in Oslo in 1514. However, the claim made in 1449 was so effective that it very soon seems to have become a generally accepted notion that coronations had traditionally been held in Trondheim. For instance, the Council used this argument when Frederik I decreed that his Norwegian coronation should take place in Kongehelle.
Frederik I was eventually never crowned in Norway and neither were his successors after Norway was declared part of Denmark in 1536. But it is possible to find references during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the supposed fact that coronations were usually held in Trondheim and this may well have inspired “the founding fathers” at the Constituent Assembly of 1814, who made it a constitutional requirement that the kings of Norway should be crowned in Nidaros Cathedral.
The myth about Nidaros Cathedral as the ancient coronation church of this country is, I argue, an excellent example of what historians call “the invention of tradition”. This is also a topic which I will return to in a longer and more scholarly article in the near future.

A Princess of Denmark was born this morning

The Danish royal court has announced that Princess Marie gave birth to a daughter at the National Hospital in Copenhagen this morning at 8.27. The newborn Princess is 49 centimetres long and weighs 2,930 grams.
The Princess is the second child of Prince Joachim and Princess Marie, but her father also has two sons from his first marriage to the former Princess Alexandra (now Countess of Frederiksborg). She is the eighth grandchild of Queen Margrethe II and Prince Consort Henrik.
The Princess, whose name in keeping with royal Danish tradition will not be revealed until her christening, is tenth in line to the Danish throne.
Her birth will be marked with a 21-gun-salute at noon and flags will be flown from public buildings from the same hour.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

On this date: Princess Birgitta’s 75th birthday

Princess Birgitta of Hohenzollern, Princess of Sweden, turns 75 today. The older sister of King Carl XVI Gustaf, Princess Birgitta Ingeborg Alice was born at Haga Palace outside Stockholm, now the home of Crown Princess Victoria and Prince Daniel, on 19 January 1937.
She was the second of the five children born to Prince Gustaf Adolf and Princess Sibylla and had only just turned ten when her father died in a plane accident on 26 January 1947. Princess Birgitta studied at the Gymnastic Central Institute in Stockholm, but was not allowed to pursue her intention of training as a physiotherapist.
Having turned down a proposal from Shah Mohammed Reza of Iran, Princess Birgitta eventually married Prince Johann Georg of Hohenzollern, a younger brother of the late Fürst Friedrich Wilhelm of Hohenzollern. The civil wedding was held at the Royal Palace in Stockholm on 25 May 1961, followed by a religious blessing in Sigmaringen five days later.
At the time of her marriage Princess Birgitta converted to Catholicism, but has stated that she has since “distanced” herself from the Catholic church due to her resentment over how “they forced me to sign a paper saying that I should live as a Catholic and raise my children as Catholics”.
Furthermore, her grandfather King Gustaf VI Adolf’s wish that a Lutheran priest should bless the couple was vetoed by Pope Johannes (John) XXIII himself. Apparently unbeknown to Princess Birgitta this seems to have been the result of a dispute between the Swedish and Belgian royal families and Pope Pius XI when the Lutheran Princess Astrid of Sweden married the Catholic Prince Léopold of Belgium in 1926.
As she was the only of the four sisters to marry “equally”, Princess Birgitta is also alone among them of remaining the style Royal Highness and her membership of the Swedish royal house. However, she is not in line of succession to the throne.
Following their wedding, Princess Birgitta and Prince Johann Georg settled in Munich, where “Hansi”, who holds a doctorate in art history, eventually became head of the Alte Pinakothek.
The couple had three children – Carl Christian, Désirée and Hubertus – but when the children moved out, Princess Birgitta realised that she and her husband had nothing in common and consequently left him in 1990 to set up home in Majorca, where she has lived ever since, spending most of her time playing golf.
However, the couple are neither separated nor divorced and Princess Birgitta insists that this arrangement works well for them. They keep up appearances by attending family events together, and the Princess vented her fury in public when her husband some years ago was photographed at some event with his mistress.
While Princess Birgitta goes to Munich twice a year to visit her family, Prince Johann Georg has not been to Munich since her seventieth birthday in 2007. Their golden wedding anniversary last year was celebrated in Munich.
In 1997 Princess Birgitta published her memoirs, Min egen väg(“My Own Way”). She has also given many interviews through the years and become known for her outspokenness. On the occasion of her anniversary today she has been interviewed by Svensk Damtidning, but this does not contain much of interest (perhaps except for the fact that she has “thrown away the family silver”). The birthday will be celebrated by a dinner with friends.

New books: The iconography of Margrethe II

Denmark is blessed with a monarch who is passionate about the arts, and portraiture is an art form which has had a revival during her reign, the art historian Thyge Christian Fønss points out in his interesting new book Portrætter af en dronning – Margrethe den [sic] II i portrætkunsten 1972-2012, published in October on the occasion of her jubilee, which was celebrated in the usual grand style last weekend.
The author has chosen to include painted portraits, tapestries and busts, but only those for which the Queen has sat and/or which have been acquired by the monarch herself or by public institutions. He states his reasons for excluding photography, caricature and other art forms, but does not explained why miniature paintings are not included (the “family orders” worn by Queen Margrethe’s daughters-in-law are examples of the now rather rare technique of miniature painting). Some of the portraits show the Queen together with the Prince Consort, one shows her in a group and another is more a history painting than a portrait, but such distinctions are not made here.
While some reigns are almost defined by the works of one artist – such as the reign of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein – or at least strongly identified with one artist – such as Christian IX with Laurits Tuxen or Carl XIV Johan with Fredric Westin – no artist has stood out as The Court Painter of Margrethe II. The individual with the greatest influence on the iconography of Margrethe II is probably the late photographer Rigmor Mydtskov.
The twenty or so portraits of Queen Margrethe are thus rather diverse in style. However, there are some painters who have been commissioned to paint the Queen on several occasions, among them Preben Hornung and Niels Strøbek – the latter’s fourth portrait was unveiled at the Museum of National History at Frederiksborg Palace on the occasion of the jubilee. There are some famous international names among the artists – Pietro Annigoni and Andy Warhol stand out – but the majority are Danes, of various generations, most of them male.
Following an introduction about the history of royal portraits, which may be enlightening to many, the author treats each portrait chronologically. There are large reproductions of the artworks and often also of details. Some are also shown in the milieu where they hang and earlier or alternative sketches for some of them are also included. Fønss analyses the composition of the portrait, the references it contains and frequently he also gives the readers the background history of each portrait and some glimpses of the process leading to the picture’s completion. The author has obviously benefited from the assistance offered him by the artists (or their heirs).
Fønss has done a good job in identifying other artworks of relevance to the portraits he discusses and the historical references they contain. For instance he points out how the Queen’s pose in Thomas Kluge’s second portrait of her is obviously inspired by that of Christian II’s daughter Christina, Duchess of Milan, in Holbein’s portrait of her, painted when she was considered as a possible fourth wife for Henry VIII of England.
Each portrait is thus given a thorough consideration in a chapter of its own, but the book might have benefited from the portraits being seen more in the context of each other. This might perhaps have been solved by including a summarising chapter towards the end, where the author could also have made some concluding remarks about the development of royal portraiture in Denmark through the last four decades. Nevertheless he makes the reader fully aware of the fact that the reign of Margrethe II has been a golden age for portraiture, particularly considering the low standing of this genre in Denmark forty years ago, and that the many portraits of the Queen have been hugely significant for the positive development in this regard.
The author appears quite diplomatic in that he very rarely has anything remotely critical to say about any of the portraits, although it must be admitted that a few of them are not very good. But it seems to me that sometimes, between the lines, one may just sense that some of the portraits are more the author’s cup of tea than others.
Given the absence of critical remarks about the portraits of Queen Margrethe it is altogether more notable that Fønss is generally dismissive of the portraits of other current monarchs. His rather negative view of Lucian Freud’s famous portrait of Elizabeth II comes as something of a surprise, while Håkon Gullvåg’s portraits of the King and Queen of Norway are written off with some remarks about their not being well-received by a tabloid newspaper, which is certainly a very un-nuanced version of the story. And should contemporary art necessarily be uncontroversial?
I am also not sure I agree entirely with Fønss when he states that “English [sic] royal portraiture of the twentieth century has been extraordinarily retrospective and unoriginal”. One may in my opinion well argue that some of the portraits of Elizabeth II or the state portraits of King Harald V and Queen Sonja are more artistically daring than the portraits of Margrethe II, most of which could be described as rather conventional paintings which have not really moved artistic boundaries within the genre.
The book, which is in large format, is beautifully produced, but unfortunately it has been very badly proof-read. As a result there are many grammatical errors, particularly when it comes to punctuation, capitalisation, words being split into two and the difference between “hans/hendes” and “sin”. The author generally writes “England” and “English” where “Britain” and “British” would have been correct, the name of Frederik VIII’s consort is mistakenly given as “Louisa” (she was born Princess Lovisa of Sweden and of Norway and became Queen Louise of Denmark, but she never used the name Louisa), Lucian Freud has become “Lucien Freud” etc.
One also wonders why the author refers to King Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland as a parvenu, given that he belonged to a dynasty which had been reigning for some 300 years at the time. The pearl tiara which Queen Margrethe wears in several portraits is erroneously said to have been a wedding present to “Louisa” in 1869, although primary sources show clearly that it was in the possession of her mother at the time of the latter’s death in 1871 (consequently, Louise must have inherited it after her mother’s death).
While Mikael Melbye’s recent portrait of the Queen surrounded by the three silver lions from Rosenborg is the last to be included in the book, the iconography of Margrethe II keeps evolving. A portrait of her with her two heirs, by Niels Strøbek, who also painted the first portrait of her as Queen, was, as mentioned above, unveiled last week, while Thomas Kluge, the artist behind two of her more significant portraits, is currently working on a group portrait of the Queen and Prince Consort with their sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren, which will hang at Fredensborg Palace and mirror Laurits Tuxen’s famous painting of King Christian IX and Queen Louise with their descendants. I am told that the latter painting will be the subject of Fønss’s next book.
For an art historian of the younger generation this is book is an impressive and convincing debut which makes one look forward to his future publications.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

New portrait of Queen Margrethe and her heirs

Today Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, who is celebrating her forty years on the throne, opened the exhibition “Regent for Forty Years - Margrethe II 1972-2012” at the Museum of National History at Frederiksborg Palace in Hillerød. The Queen also unveiled a new portrait of herself, Crown Prince Frederik and Prince Christian which the museum has commissioned from the artist Niels Strøbek to mark the jubilee.
The Queen is shown in the Great Hall of Christian IX’s Mansion at Amalienborg, wearing the emerald parure which is part of the Danish crown jewels and the collar of the Order of the Elephant. This is the fourth time Niels Strøbek has painted the Queen since her accession.
The portrait will be part of the exhibition, which runs until 22 April, and then join the permanent collections of the museum, which is also Denmark’s national portrait gallery.
Later this year another family portrait will be completed, this time by Thomas Kluge and showing the Queen and Prince Consort with their sons, daughters-in-law and all their grandchildren. This painting will be a private gift to the Queen and hang at Fredensborg Palace, but will go on public display before being taken to Fredensborg.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

New book: Elizabeth II and her times

Among the books on Queen Elizabeth II of Britain published ahead of her upcoming diamond jubilee is Queen Elizabeth II: Her Life in Our Times, a study by Sarah Bradford, whose many books includes Elizabeth: A Biography of Her Majesty the Queen (1996). Bradford is currently writing a biography of Queen Victoria of Britain, but has taken time off that project to produce another volume on her great-great-granddaughter. Her new book is considerably shorter than the 1996 biography and aims to see Elizabeth II in the context of the times in which she has lived. However, I am afraid I cannot say that Bradford has succeeded in that.
Bradford calls herself a historian, but has stated that she never completed her degree as she, in another world, broke off her studies in order to marry. The book bears the marks of this, as Bradford’s concept of history seems to be a record of events, not an analysis of developments.
The author tells the story of Queen Elizabeth’s life from its beginning until today, although the fifteen years after the publication of Bradford’s first biography of her are dealt with rather summarily. There is little new material and no new revelations, but Bradford has made good use of biographies, memoirs and diaries of some of the central politicians of the long reign of Elizabeth II, who the author describes as “politically, the first passive sovereign”.
But the supposed context of “our times” is often reduced simply to lists of memorable events which happened during those years a certain chapter deals with, such as one chapter which ends: “The fun was definitely over: in Asia the bombing of North Vietnam escalated with Johnson’s Operation Rolling Thunder, and Chairman Mao initiated his deadly Cultural Revolution. In the Middle East in June 1967 the Israelis rolled over the Egyptians in the Sinai, capturing the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem and taking over control of thousands of Palestinians. The next year, 1968, was a terrible year of the United States, with the assassination of Martin Luther King in April and Robert Kennedy in June; [and so on]”.
Such lists of events read like one of those news summaries which the media like to publish at the end of a year or a decade. What was the significance or influence, if any, of these events on Queen Elizabeth or the British monarchy, one may ask, but the author provides no answers. The result is that the Queen and the historical events of her lifetime are both seen isolated and not in context.
Authors of other recent books on Elizabeth II have addressed some of the key changes to the monarchy in the current reign, but Bradford passes this over. This gives the impression that the British monarchy just happens to have survived without much thought being given to how to make it relevant to changing times and circumstances.
We now seems to have reached the stage where serious authors of serious books may allow themselves to end the book, as Sarah Bradford does, by nothing less than exclaiming “God save the Queen”. Yet Bradford is not entirely uncritical; for instance, she notes that Queen Elizabeth “consistently and temperamentally has failed to prohibit her children from doing what they wanted and has reaped the consequences”.
It also detracts from the overall impression of the book that there are quite a lot of factual mistakes. Dates, years and ages are very often incorrect and the author frequently gets other facts wrong as well. To name a handful of examples George VI’s funeral took place on 15 February 1952, not the 16th; King Haakon VII of Norway did not seek exile in England in April 1940, but only when the campaign in Norway ended two months later; Franklin D. Roosevelt did not die on 27 April 1945, but on the 12th, and thus not the day before Mussolini was captured; George V’s Indian durbar took place in 1911, not in 1912; Lady Diana Spencer was not twenty in July 1980; Tony Blair, who is born in 1953, was indeed “not quite fifty-six” when becoming Prime Minister in 1997, but twelve years younger; and the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday was not the last time she appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.
The idea that “Prince Philip of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg [sic] was not, as the satirists later dubbed him, ‘Phil the Greek’, but ‘Phil the German’” is certainly nonsense. For one thing he was Prince of Greece and Denmark and not of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, and furthermore his Danish family was notoriously anti-German while his mother was born at Windsor Castle and the daughter of a British subject. The fact that his sisters all married Germans does not make Prince Philip himself German.
Despite all these reservations it ought to be said that the book is well-written and can probably be read as an introduction to the life of Elizabeth II by those unfamiliar with the subject, but other books provide more insight. Sarah Bradford is the author of three good biographies of members of the British royal family: George VI (1989), Elizabeth (1996) and Diana (2006). Thus it is even more unfortunate that her latest book appears to be a left-hand work, written in a hurry and based on earlier works, while the author has had her mind on another project.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

New books: A political biography of Elizabeth II

The diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II of Britain has, unsurprisingly, inspired several books on the aging monarch, among them The Diamond Queen: Elizabeth II and Her People by Andrew Marr, one of Britain’s best-known political journalists and host of a Sunday morning political talk show on BBC 1.
Marr’s book, which was published by Macmillan in October, is to a great extent a political biography of the British Queen. His stated aim is to “tell her life story, looking at the influences on her, and trying to explain why she does what she does”. This is done in a mostly chronological way, but the chronology is interspersed with short topical chapters.
The first quarter of the book deals with Queen Elizabeth’s life before her accession and the people the author thinks has had the greatest influence upon her, but also with the “remaking” of the British monarchy in the reigns of George V and George VI. However, this story is very familiar from other books and Marr adds no new insights. He also overdoes things a bit when he insists that Elizabeth II is “only the fourth monarch of a fairly new dynasty”, when in fact the dynasty has been the same since 1714 although its name has changed along the way.
The reign of George V saw several important reforms which strengthened the monarchy and widened its scope. Marr argues that “the House of Windsor has seen an unusually direct transmission of ideas and behaviour from its origin in 1917 through grandfather, father and daughter”. Most specifically this refers to the aim stated by George V’s Private Secretary, Lord Stamfordham, namely to “endeavour to induce the thinking working classes, socialist and others, to regard the Crown, not as a mere figurehead and an institution which, as they put it, ‘don’t count’, but as a living power for good ... affecting the interests and well-being of all classes”. This is indeed an idea which has been central also to the reign of Elizabeth II, but it ought to be said that her sixty years on the throne have also been hugely transformative.
The remaining 300 pages of the book deal with the reign, with a particular emphasis on the monarchy’s place in society and its relations to politics. The latter topic was well covered in the late Ben Pimlott’s excellent biography of Elizabeth II (first published 1996, updated edition 2002) and again Marr does not really have much original to add. It also seems that, apart from some interviews, he bases what he writes mostly on published material.
The story of the reign and its ups and downs is told in a well-written, accessible prose, but the longer lines are sometimes hard to find. As such another new book on the same monarch, written by another journalist, Robert Hardman’s Our Queen, is both clearer and more insightful.
Occasionally Marr seems to be too fond of the fancy sound bite, as when he quotes an anonymous source saying that Private Secretary is “the only appointment in the Royal Household that really matters a damn”. That this is nonsense is made clear from what he subsequently writes about the crucial role the Earl of Airlie as Lord Chamberlain played in thoroughly changing the way the monarchy is funded, which leads Marr to quote another anonymous source describing Airlie’s “importance as rivalling that of Prince Albert for the Victoria monarchy”.
“To a degree that has never been fully understood, they privatized the Queen”, Marr writes about Airlie and his team. Had these reforms not been underway at the time the reign reached its nadir around 1992, “the year of disasters could have led to a downward spiral in the Queen’s story – not the end of the British monarchy, but its radical diminishing”. But this quiet revolution is again more thoroughly and conclusively dealt with by Robert Hardman in his book.
“The Queen has been Queen of a nation in decline, and many would say her greatest achievement has been to soften and humanize that inevitable process”, Marr acknowledges. If he is at some stage critical of his monarch it seems to be in relation to how her beloved Commonwealth has “pragmatically accepted some brutal and undemocratic regimes rather than lose members”.
While stressing that the book is not authorised, Marr states in the preface that the manuscript has “been read by the Palace to correct errors of fact”, which leaves one with the impression that the both Marr and the Palace are weak on facts. To mention just a few of many factual errors the future Queen had no fiancé in 1948, George VI had never been Prince of Wales, Queen Mary did not just live to see the coronation of 1953, Prince Philip does not undertake state visits on his own and Princess Margaret did not live “with her mother at Kensington Palace”.
One is also left wondering how the Queen at the time Britain joined the EEC in 1973 may have “reflected that the Swedish, Dutch and Danish monarchies had managed perfectly well in the new bloc, never mind the reviving Spanish monarchy”, given that Denmark joined at the same time, Spain in 1986 and Sweden only in 1995.
Andrew Marr’s book adds little to our knowledge or understanding of the British monarchy under Elizabeth II, but may well be useful as an introductory read.

Friday, 6 January 2012

New books: Elizabeth II and her court

The literature on Queen Elizabeth II of Britain is enormous already in her lifetime, but the journalist Robert Hardman’s new book Our Queen, published by Hutchinson in September, is one of the most insightful so far. However, its title is somewhat misleading, as it is not so much a book about Queen Elizabeth herself as a book about the British monarchy and its workings in what will inevitably be the final decades of her reign. The title of the American edition, Her Majesty: Elizabeth II and Her Court, is perhaps more fitting.
While great jubilees often cause writers to present the era in question as one glorious triumph, Hardman is more realistic. He argues that the reign of Elizabeth II has “consisted of three episodes of sustained success and two periods of recurring difficulty”. He considers that some 2/3 of the reign should be considered “contended”, but that the 23 years of the remaining third to some extent could be described as “troubled”.
And while the statement that Queen Elizabeth “has never put a foot wrong” seems to be a favourite cliché of royal writers at this stage of her reign, Hardman observes that she actually has, although only rarely. The slow response to the Aberfan mining disaster of 1966 and the royal family’s absence in the aftermath of the Lockerbie bombing in 1988 stand out as examples. According to Hardman, Queen Elizabeth has herself acknowledged to her advisers that she got it wrong on those occasions.
But this is not a book on her entire reign. The focus is set on the last twenty or twenty-five years, which have been an age of transformation for the British monarchy. Hardman has obviously benefited greatly from being granted access to some key players during those years, among them family members such as the Duke of Cambridge, politicians such as David Cameron and Tony Blair (interestingly, the latter highlights the Queen’s “total ability to pick up the public mood”), and courtiers who have been close to the crucial events of these years.
Among the latter category, Hardman points to the 13th Earl of Airlie, who was appointed Lord Chamberlain in 1984, as one who will stand out on the list of those he rather romantically calls the “New Elizabethans”. Lord Airlie had “greater impact on the mechanics of the monarchy than almost anyone since Prince Albert”, the author states and goes on to argue his point by charting how he set out to reform the way the monarchy was run and in particular how it was funded.
While the Queen “liked the status quo”, she gave Lord Airlie the permission he needed to go through with these changes while “the Queen Mother was continuing her guerrilla war against the modernisers from within her Clarence House redoubt”. Thus the monarchy was better equipped than what has been generally assumed to handle the momentous challenges of the 1990s, a decade which certainly ranks among the troubled times of the reign.
A major reorientation has occurred along the lines of the 1992 book Elizabeth R: The Role of the Monarchy Today, where Sir Antony Jay (of “Yes, Minister” fame) stressed the monarch’s role as “head of the nation” as at least equally important as the role as head of state. That role involves the duties “concerned with behaviour, values and standards; the ones which earn the respect, loyalty and pride of the people”, Jay wrote. According to Hardman, this was “a definition which has since helped to shape the entire way the Palace goes about its business”.
Since then the death of the Queen Mother has also meant that her daughter is no longer caught in some sort of limbo between the old and the young generations, but has herself taken on the mantle as “mother of the nation” with all that goes with such a conception. Thus her mother’s death has actually made her life in public easier, a courtier argues.
The death of the Queen Mother and the golden jubilee in 2002 marked a watershed, a courtier says: “Up until then, it felt like a reign of two halves – Act One: good, Act Two: bad. Then, suddenly, we were into Act Three”.
“For all her instinctive conservatism, this sovereign has steered the monarchy through more transition than any in modern times”, Hardman writes. He is of the opinion that the British monarchy “has actually changed more in the last twenty-five years than in the previous one hundred and twenty-five”. This is obviously not solely Elizabeth II’s achievement, but would, also obviously, hardly have happened if she had been unwilling to go along. “She is actually more open to new ideas now than ten, twenty or thirty years ago”, says one senior official.
Hardman’s account generally seems even and fair, but occasionally he goes overboard. As in the first sentence of the book, where he argues that “[w]hen the world comes to look back on the early twenty-first century, two events in Britain – just weeks apart – will be lodged in the collective memory”, i.e. the diamond jubilee and the London Olympics, which is surely to overestimate the impact on the rest of the world, or when he argues that Prince Philip should be considered for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Hardman has previously done the BBC television series “Monarchy: The Royal Family at Work” and parts of the book are clearly influenced by this in the way that the readers are served many “behind the scenes accounts” of how foreign tours, public engagements, state visits et al are organised. This is a bit long-winded and as this topic has been thoroughly dealt with by the TV series, the book which accompanied it and also by other television series, it might perhaps have been cut somewhat in this book.
Another note of criticism might be that Hardman, like many British authors, gets caught by the impossibility of reconciling the notion that Britain is superior to most other countries (if not all) with the idea that simplicity is something exclusively British. Thus the story of how the Queen’s car broke down during an official engagement: “With certain heads of state, there would be panic stations, much yelling into electronic cuffs, a public inquiry and high-level redundancy”. Problems sorted out, “off she goes in a convoy of two cars and one police outrider – the sort of modest motorcade which might be laid on for, say, a middle-ranking trade minister from the European Union” – or, in fact, most non-executive heads of state on an ordinary day. The fact that David Cameron’s car had to stop for red lights on his way to Buckingham Palace when he was to be asked to form a government is apparently considered something essentially British, with Cameron himself chiming in to say that “[t]here’s no other country in the world which has this sort of changeover”, which is far from true.
A rather large part of the book is dedicated to the Royal Household, which Hardman argues has seen “a shift in management culture away from the gentleman amateur to unisex professionalism”. However, his account of the Royal Household is so enthusiastic that one feels that everything cannot possibly be that marvellous. And when he enthuses that there are a housekeeping assistant “with a 2:1 degree in physics from [...] St Andrews” and a footman who is “a graduate in aeronautical engineering from one of Britain’s top universities” and that such things are quite common one wonders if it is really a good thing that people are holding jobs for which they are grossly overqualified.
One department which has been particularly successfully reorganised is the Royal Collection, in recent years transformed “from a dusty curatorship into a self-financing, world-class assembly of great treasures employing hundreds and viewed by millions”. Its director, Jonathan Marsden, argues that “[i]n terms of access and conservation, this reign has been a high point in the history of the collection. It will be seen as [as] significant as that of Queen Victoria”. Thus the modernised Royal Collection “will be one of the Queen’s greatest legacies”. This is a rather surprising conclusion about a monarch who is not really known for her appreciation of fine arts, but it does speak of a professionalism extending outside the areas of the monarch’s personal interests.
So what is her greatest achievement personally? Somewhat surprisingly Hardman suggests that it might be Britain’s development into a multicultural society, which the author argues that she has not only observed, but been part of.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Book news: Some royal books expected in 2012

As usual I will begin the new year with a survey of some of the books due to be published this year. The royal weddings and jubilees of 2010 and 2011 helped make those two years unusually rich on the book front, but 2012 also has some jubilees and related books to offer.
First out is Queen Margrethe II of Denmark’s jubilee next week. The museums at Amalienborg and Frederiksborg will both host exhibitions to mark her forty years on the throne and the former will focus on the Queen’s dresses. To accompany the exhibition Katia Johansen, who has for many years been a curator at the Royal Collections, has written Dronningens kjoler, which will be out next week.
The recent TV show on royal jewels is expected to result in a book to be published by Lindhardt og Ringhof in April, titled De kongelige juveler, written by Anna von Lowzow and Bjarne Steen Jensen. Anna von Lowzow is identical with Anna Lerche, a filmmaker at Nordisk Film who some may remember for her work on the A Royal Family series and book nearly ten years ago, while Bjarne Steen Jensen considers himself a jewellery expert and is the author of the not very reliable Juvelerne i det danske kongehus.
While Queen Margrethe celebrates her forty years on the throne, her third cousin Queen Elizabeth II of Britain will on 6 February be able to mark the sixtieth anniversary of her accession. Several books have already been published to mark the diamond jubilee – among them books by Robert Hardman, Andrew Marr and Sarah Bradford, of which I will post reviews in the foreseeable future – and on Tuesday Sally Bedell Smith, author of several well-received biographies, will join the rank of Elizabeth II biographers with her Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch, of nearly 700 pages, to be published by Penguin.
The British historian Kate Williams’s contribution to the jubilee is Young Elizabeth: The Making of Our Queen, to be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 12 April. I suppose this slim volume (208 pages) may be considered some sort of sequel to Williams’s similar book on Queen Victoria of Britain.
This will, by the way, not be Williams’s only book this year; in June her biography of the Empress Joséphine of the French, Mistress of Empires: The Extraordinary Life of Josephine Bonaparte, will be published by Hutchinson.
February will also see the 75th birthday of King Harald V of Norway, on which occasion the National Museum will open the first of their six exhibitions based on the Royal Collections. The exhibitions will be accompanied by a sumptuous book titled Arv og tradisjon – De kongelige samlinger, which will be published by Orfeus and contain contributions by Tor Bomann-Larsen, Per Egil Hegge, Nina Høye, Ingeborg Anna Lønning, Knut Ljøgodt, Widar Halén, Bjørn Høie, Knut Ormhaug, Jan Haug, Sven Gj. Gjeruldsen and myself.
Also on the occasion of the King’s 75th birthday Dag Erik Pedersens has written Idrettskongen, an authorised book on the King’s interest in sports, which will be published by Gyldendal. The Queen will turn 75 in July and in the autumn Gyldendal will publish the much-awaited authorised biography of her, written by Ingar Sletten Kolloen.
The 150th anniversary of the death of Prince Consort Albert of Britain in December 1861 was recently commemorated by a conference on male consorts in history and I hear that this conference will result in a book. Meanwhile I. B. Tauris has published two biographies of such consorts, namely Jules Stewart’s Albert: A Life and Harry Kelsey’s Philip of Spain, King of England: The Forgotten Sovereign. Although both these books bear the date 2012 they did actually go on sale before Christmas.
Another British book expected this year is Jane Ridley’s Bertie: A Biography of Edward VII, which has been postponed at least twice.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Norway’s royal collection goes on display across the country

As previously mentioned the government’s present for the King and Queen’s 75th birthdays this year is 30 million NOK to fund exhibitions based on the royal collections (now mostly in storage due to lack of space) to be held around the country in 2012 and 2013. The exhibitions, which are prepared by the National Museum in cooperation with the royal court, will be accompanied not by a regular catalogue, but by a lavish book titled Arv og tradisjon - De kongelige samlinger (i.e. “Heritage and Tradition: The Royal Collections”), to be published by Orfeus Forlag.
The book will consist of an interview with the King and Queen (by Ulf Andenæs) and a wide range of chapters on topics from history and art history relating to the monarchy. The contributing authors are Tor Bomann-Larsen, Per Egil Hegge, Nina Høye, Ingeborg Anna Lønning, Knut Ljøgodt, Widar Halén, Bjørn Høie, Knut Ormhaug, Jan Haug, Sven Gj. Gjeruldsen and myself. My two chapters deal with the history of royal travels and with the coronation coach of 1906, the previous coronation processions and why the traditional coronation procession was replaced by a cortege in 1906.
Each of the exhibitions will have one theme. The first of them, to be held in Oslo, deals with royal travels and will show, among other things, presents, travel equipment, dresses, uniforms, jewellery, orders and - the pièce de résistance - the newly renovated coronation coach. This exhibition will be opened by the King on 15 February and be open to the public from 16 February to 26 August this year. (The King’s 75th birthday falls on 21 February, but there will be no public celebrations on that date as the King will not be at home. However, his and the Queen’s birthdays will be celebrated on 31 May).
The second exhibition, which will be held in Bergen from 24 May to 2 September, will show gifts from the people to King Haakon and Queen Maud after their arrival in Norway in 1905 and for their coronation in 1906. The exhibition in Trondheim will open in June 2013 and focus on royal vehicles (here the coronation coach will again be on display), while the exhibition in Tromsø, also to be held in 2013, will show the magnificent collection of artworks which was the people’s present to King Oscar II and Queen Sophie for their silver wedding anniversary in 1882 and which they donated to the state when they were deposed in 1905. In addition there will be a travelling exhibition going to smaller towns which will focus on World War II and the royal family’s exile, and a travelling exhibition of photos from the royal collections which will be sent to schools all over the country.
The exhibitions also have a website, which was officially launched today: http://www.denkongeligereise.no/no/

Majority in favour of Queen Margrethe’s abdication

Ahead of Queen Margrethe II of Denmark’s jubilee later this month Politiken today publishes an opinion poll conducted by Megafon, which shows that a majority of the respondees wants the Queen to abdicate within ten years. 11 % hold the opinion that the Queen should abdicate immediately, while 40 % believe she should do so in five or ten years’ time. Only 31 % think she should remain on the throne until her death.
This may be compared to a similar opinion poll by Rambøll/Analyse Danmark for Jyllands-Posten at the time of Queen Margrethe’s 70th birthday in 2010, which found that 23.5 % thought she should abdicate on her 70th birthday, 22.1 % that she should do so before she turned eighty and 42.6 % thougth she should remain on the throne for life.
Personally I believe that these results are more a result of the popularity of Crown Prince Frederik and his wife and the general infatuation with everything that is new and young. However, Queen Margrethe has made it clear many times, most recently in an interview published in Politiken yesterday, that she will never abdicate.

President of Iceland to stand down

The President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, used his New Year speech to announce that he will not seek re-election to the office of President. After sixteen years as head of state he will thus leave office when his fourth and current term comes to an end on 1 August this year.
A political scientist by profession, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, who will be 69 this year, was elected President with 41.4% of the votes in succession to Vigdís Finnbogadóttir in 1996. He was re-elected unopposed in 2000, won 67.5% of the votes cast in 2004 and again re-elected unopposed in 2008.
The role of President of Iceland is largely symbolical, but Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson has twice used his right to veto parliamentary legislation (and thus cause a referendum to be held), a right which none of his four predecessors had ever used.
The next President of Iceland will be elected by popular vote in June.
This means that both Nordic republics will get new heads of state this year, as the second term of the current President of Finland, Tarja Halonen, also expires this year and she is not constitutionally eligible for re-election.