King Alexander and Queen Draga
Previously on Red Room: Uncrowned Heads: Whatever Happened to the 20th Century’s Ousted Monarchs?
With the possible exception of the Romanovs, King Alexander I and Queen Draga, right, suffered the most ghastly end of any of Europe’s crowned heads.
Alexander was only 13 years old when his father, Milan, the first king of Serbia, abdicated in his son’s favor in 1889 due to Milan’s unpopular alliance with Austria and a series of defeats by the Turks.
A group of regents ruled Serbia until the willful Alexander, only 16, fired his ministers and took over the reins of government.
Alexander was not only too young for the job, but out of step with the democratic movements sweeping the rest of Europe.
A year after his accession, the king abolished the liberal constitution and replaced it with one that limited the power of Serbia’s parliament.
The king added to his unpopularity by recalling his hated father from exile and naming him commander in chief of the armed forces in 1897.
Alexander responded to critics in the press with censorship. To prevent crowds from turning into riots, he limited freedom of association.
When assassins unsuccessfully tried to kill his father in 1899, Alexander’s government became even more repressive and reactionary.
The king’s personal life also increased his unpopularity. His subjects bitterly objected when Alexander married his mother’s lady-in-waiting, a commoner, Draga Mašin.
The new queen was a beautiful widow 10 years her husband's senior. She had an undeserved reputation as an adulteress and adventuress.
Alexander’s ministers resigned en masse to protest the marriage. Condescension turned into outright loathing when Draga’s brothers began to dominate her husband’s government.
In 1901, to reverse his diminishing popularity, Alexander agreed to a liberal constitution, which he treated with contempt by temporarily suspending it whenever he wanted to introduce repressive measures.
By 1903, the king and queen had become so reviled and threatened by mobs in the street that they lived under siege at their palace in Belgrade.
Alexander’s ouster seemed inevitable, but it didn't come from a popular uprising against his anti-democratic rule but by a clique of junior army officers led by Colonel Alexander Mašin, a brother of the queen’s first husband.
On the night of June 10, 1903, the military blew open the palace doors with dynamite. The explosion also cut off electrical power. The leaders of the coup swept through the palace in the dark searching for the king and queen.
The royal couple had hidden in a bedroom closet whose doors were hidden under wallpaper that matched the rest of the room’s.
Unable to find their quarry, the officers left after two terrifying hours. Draga then ran to the window to call for help from the commander of the palace guard, who was stationed in the courtyard below.
Her action turned out to be a fatal mistake. The commander was a participant in the coup. After firing but missing the queen, he sought out his fellow conspirators. They resumed their search for the royal couple.
Alexander offered to abdicate, but it was too late. The officers shot the king and queen, then threw them, still alive, over the balcony. As the king grabbed on to the railing to break his fall, one of the conspirators cut off his fingers.
The couple died from the fall, but the anger of the mob was not satisfied, and the corpses were mutilated.
An Unlikely Royal Restoration
King Juan Carlos of Spain
In 1969, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco named Prince Juan Carlos his successor. The prince was the grandson of Spain’s last king.
Disabled by Parkinson’s, Franco appointed his protégé head of state the year before he died in 1975.
A Communist politician, Santiago Carillo, presumed the new king would continue Franco’s authoritarian rule and nicknamed him “Juan Carlos the Brief.”
Instead, Juan Carlos has reigned as a constitutional monarch and figurehead with no real power except the prestige of his position.
The king used his position and put his life in direct jeopardy when he thwarted a right-wing coup in 1981 with a speech on national television proclaiming his support for the elected government.
After the failed coup, Carillo, the king’s one-time Communist detractor, said in a tearful speech, “God save the king! Today, everyone is a monarchist.”
A newspaper poll of readers in 2005 gave Juan Carlos an approval rating of 75 percent, calling him “good” or “very good.”
That year the king supported legislation legalizing gay marriages, which was enacted. He has also supported abortion rights in Catholic Spain.
At about the same time, I happened to be on plane after a business trip to Spain. A Spanish woman in the seat next to me was reading a magazine with Juan Carlos on the cover.
I asked her opinion of the king, who functions mostly as a booster of foreign trade with Spain. She embodied the results of the opinion poll and said, “He’s a very nice man.”
The New Tsar of Russia?
Grand Duke Grigorii Romanov, a collateral descendant of Tsar Nicholas II and the current claimant to the Romanov throne, returned with his mother to Russia in 1996.
Since then, he has been quietly politicking to become emperor, an unlikely goal since Russia’s authoritarian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is an anti-monarchist who jealously maintains his power.
Asked if there would ever be a Romanov restoration, the would-be tsar said, “I hope so.”
Two Pretenders to the Throne of France
King Henri or...
...King Louis of France?
Both Henri, Comte de Paris, and his cousin Louis Alphonso, Duc d’Anjou, lay claim to the throne of France as direct descendants of King Charles X, who was ousted during the Revolution of 1830.
A royal restoration seems unlikely. In 2004, the Comte de Paris ran for a seat in the European Parliament and lost.
The present day royals of Western Europe, known as “the bicycling monarchs” because they display the common touch and none of the aloofness of the Queen of England, have survived because they backed the right side in both World Wars and remain above politics.
The victors write history, per Churchill’s famous phrase, and royal victors get to keep their crowns with head still attached.
Ashdown, Dulcie M. Royal Murders. Phoenix Mill, UK: Sutton, 1998
Sanello, Frank. To Kill a King: A History of Royal Murders From Ancient Egypt to the Present. Los Angeles: Genesee Avenue Books, 2011
Causes Frank Sanello Supports
ACLU, ASPCA, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders