IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Retiring royalty: Kings and queens can just quit?

The decision of Spanish King Juan Carlos to step down in favor of his son, Felipe, makes him the latest European monarch to decide to end his days in retirement and not on the throne.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The decision of Spanish King Juan Carlos to step down in favor of his son, Felipe, makes him the latest European monarch to decide to end his days in retirement and not on the throne.

Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands may have started a trend toward retiring royalty when she announced her abdication last year after a 33-year reign. She was quickly followed by her Belgian counterpart, King Albert, and on Monday by Juan Carlos.

In between those royal retirements, Pope Benedict XVI shocked the Catholic world by becoming the first pontiff in 600 years to step down.

There are still monarchs — most notably Britain's 88-year-old Queen Elizabeth II — who consider they have a job for life, but others clearly believe that their privileged position also should come with a retirement plan.

Here are some questions and answers about why some of the continent's kings and queens are quitting while others remain resolutely seated on their thrones.


There is no single reason for the three recent abdications. In the Netherlands, abdication is the norm at the egalitarian House of Orange. Beatrix's mother — Juliana — and her mother's mother — Wilhelmina — all stood down and eased into retirement. Belgium's King Albert was 79 years old and in frail health when he handed over the reins of his fractious country to his son Philippe. Advancing years and declining health also appear at play in Spain, where Juan Carlos is 76 and also has been in poor health in recent years. He told his nation it was time for "a new generation."

There is a growing feeling in Europe that "monarchs have a job to do and they should do that while they are fit and able ... and when they can't they should hand on," said Mary Vincent, professor of modern European history at the University of Sheffield in England.

British historian and royalty expert Hugo Vickers agreed.

"I suppose they feel they should retire like everybody else," he said. "But that is not how we do things over here," he added in a reference to Queen Elizabeth II's 61-years-and-counting reign.


Yes. There was a time when royal houses were revered leaders and figureheads. These days, experts say, they are more like celebrities, dogged by reporters and paparazzi everywhere from shopping trips to state openings of Parliament.

"There's an apparently insatiable appetite for the lives of these people to be played out either in very familiar ways — Kate Middleton around the supermarket — but also the red-carpet events, the dresses, the ceremonies," Vincent said.

Life in the limelight can be tiring and maybe make a monarch long for a bit of privacy in retirement. It can also make royals more susceptible to scandal.

Belgium's King Albert was prone to gaffes and Juan Carlos has been dogged by a series of royal scandals in recent years ranging from outrage at his decision to go elephant hunting while his debt-ridden country was buckled under austerity measures, to an investigation into his son-in-law's alleged embezzlement.

Of course, upsetting one's subjects is nothing new. Belgium's King Leopold III abdicated in 1951 amid lingering public resentment about his record during World War II, when he stayed behind in Nazi-occupied Belgium against the wishes of the country's government, which had gone into exile.


Some royal houses are remaining popular by embracing generational change while keeping their elderly sitting kings and queens. England is a key example — the ever-popular Elizabeth is increasingly delegating duties to her son and grandsons. Even great-grandson George made a splash when he joined Prince William and his wife Kate on their recent tour of New Zealand and Australia.

Likewise, in Sweden, King Carl XVI Gustaf has also been tainted by recent scandals but his daughter, Princess Victoria, is hugely popular.

Kings and queens also have increasingly been breaking down barriers between themselves and their subjects — the British royal house has had a Twitter account for five years.

"These days, sitting behind the safe walls of a gated palace is no longer possible," said Rick Evers, a correspondent with Dutch royalty magazine Vorsten. "A stable base for a modern monarchy is that it has to be approachable and open."


That looks unlikely in the short term. Queen Elizabeth II has made clear she has no plans to abdicate and monarchs in Scandinavia also are showing no intention to step down.

"The British crown will not be passed on before they announce, 'The Queen is dead, long live the King,'" said Evers. "The same is true for Denmark, Sweden and Norway. They all have a senior king or queen, but have been told many times: being a king is a duty for life."