Denmark’s Queens

Denmark has the longest continuous rule by a single family of any European nation, tracing its lineage back to at least Gorm the Old, who reigned in the mid-10th Century. Yet, in all its history, Denmark has been ruled by only two queens. Margrethe I ruled in the 14th Century, Margrethe II has been on the Danish throne since 1972.

Margrethe I was born in 1353 in prison where her mother was confined, possibly for adultery, by her father, Valdemar IV of Denmark. At this time Denmark, Norway, and Sweden were embroiled in a struggle with German princes over control of the Baltic. Marriages, births, depositions, and occasional battles were part of this ongoing struggle. At the age of six Margrethe was betrothed to the Crown Prince of Norway for political reasons which shifted causing the engagement to be cancelled, then shifted again, resulting in Margrethe’s marriage at the age of ten to her original betrothed, Haakon VI, King (then) of both Sweden and Norway. She was raised by a Swedish noblewoman and was more or less an adult by contemporary standards when she finally consummated her marriage. She bore Haakon a son, Olaf, when she was eighteen. By that time Haakon had been ousted as King of Sweden by a German noble from Mecklenburg. Meanwhile, Haakon had a stormy political relationship with his father-in-law that ended with Valdemar’s death in 1375. Margrethe did manage, then, to ensure that her son, Olaf, was named heir to the Danish throne. This was a tricky matter since Margrethe’s elder sister was married to the Duke of Mecklenburg and she also had a son. Valdemar’s only son had died before the throne became vacant and, succession being what it was then, only a male could inherit the crown. Margrethe also pressed for Olaf’s claim to the Swedish crown, a claim that later bore fruit.

Margrethe I, tomb effigy. [Wikipedia]

In 1380, Haakon died. Margrethe took over as regent for her son, Olaf, now the child-king of both Norway and Denmark. Margrethe proved an adept and popular ruler, taking back some territory held by Germans. In 1387, teen-aged Olaf suddenly died, but Margrethe stayed on as Regent (or one of a number of other titles that were invented to fit her status). Denmark was then aiding the Swedes in removing their unpopular king, Albert of Mecklenburg. The Mecklenburg line had long been a problem for Margrethe, who Albert sneered was “King No-Pants”. The Germans were unhappy about losing Sweden, of course, and a decisive battle was fought in 1389 between Albert of Mecklenburg’s forces and those of Margrethe (which were led by a Mecklenburgian general). Margrethe’s victory made her ruler of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, which was formalized as the Kalmar, an alliance directed against the German Hanseatic League. Eventually, she was called Queen of Denmark, especially by foreign potentates, such as the Pope, though the title was not exactly official in Denmark itself. Margrethe never re-married but trained an heir from her father’s bloodline. She remains an important monarch of the day, vastly superior to those male kings who were her contemporaries. She died in 1412.

WikiMedia Commons

Sarcophagus of Danish Queen Margrethe I, Roskilde Cathedral. [WikiMedia Commons]

Margrethe II was born in 1940, one week after the German invasion of Denmark. Her father, then the Crown Prince, became King Frederick IX in 1947. Frederick had three daughters and no sons. Immediately on taking the crown he began working for constitutional reform that would allow a woman to ascend the throne of Denmark. The Act of Succession passed in 1953 said that women could reign if there were no immediate male heirs. Frederick died in January, 1972, and Margrethe became Queen of Denmark.

The Danish Royals, last April, on the occasion of Margrethe’s 77th birthday. Crown Prince Frederik at far right, Prince Joachim at left, Prince Consort Henrik to Joachim’s right, then the Queen, God bless her. [copyright Getty Images. via]

Margrethe had married a French diplomat, Count Henri de Laborde de Monpezat, now known as Henrik, Prince Consort, and the couple has two sons. Margrethe has been a popular queen, one seen as an example of Denmark’s acceptance of feminism. But therein lie complications. Henrik has never been completely happy with his secondary role as Prince Consort. Sometimes he has thrown a hissy-fit or two about this problem. Margrethe has always cajoled him back into public acceptance of his secondary status. When Margrethe celebrated her 75th birthday, Henrik was not present at the celebrations, apparently relaxing in Venice instead. But, on Margrethe’s 76th birthday, Henrik was right there, waving at the crowd like any dutiful member of the monarchial establishment. When the Heir Apparent appeared as Crown Representative in 2002, while Margrethe was ill,  Henrik refused to attend, saying publicly that he was used to being number two, but being demoted to three was too much. He complained that he had to beg for pocket change and cigarette money (whatever that means to someone at this level of wealth) and won an official allowance. “I should be King,” he says.

Tapestry by Nørgaard depicting the marriage of Margrethe and Henrik. Hey! That’s an apple. And a tree! Does this have anything to do with that old anti-feminist myth? You know the one I mean… [via]

Margrethe was trained as an artist (she illustrated the Danish translation of Lord of the Rings after corresponding with Tolkien) and is today very involved in design, both stage design and her own clothing. Sometimes this draws criticism, because a woman is judged by how she dresses. Henrik is a poet and much of the domestic turmoil around the two might be explained by the problem of having two artists in the house. Who gets recognition? Hollywood is full of such problems. In 2009, Margrethe gave a commission to Bjørn Nørgaard to design her final resting place. See, she knows how important commissions are to artists and handed this plum to the guy who has done other great Danish works including a series of tapestries that depict Danish history — the marriage of Margrethe and Henrik is the final hanging in the series. A model of the sepulchre has been produced; it is a lavish design that would have Margrethe’s silhouette encased in crystal or glass and raised on marble pillars decorated with silver elephants. (This sarcophagus would actually stand above the place where the bodies are interred.) There is space for Henrik, who is 83, to rest there, too, but he has publicly refused and said that he wants to be buried somewhere else, maybe France, maybe another part of Denmark. Margrethe says that she understands. The Press is indignant and calls Henrik “petty” and “grumpy”. It may or may not be relevant that Henrik is just back from a stay in hospital.

Margrethe’s sarcophagus. The base is layers of sandstone, possibly a reference to Henrik’s France. The pillars are stone from Greenland, the Faroes, and Bornholm. Silver elephants. Glass made to look as though someone is there even though they aren’t — Margrethe will be buried in the floor below. The whole thing topped with gilded bronze bric-a-brac. [Photo:  Mikkel Møller Jørgensen © Scanpix. via]

This might be a joke, one of those squabbles between old folks over issues meaningless to the young, or another of those silly problems created by the ridiculous institution of monarchy, which is certainly in the mix. Consider that several Danish royal family members and their progeny were cut out of the succession because they married commoners, succession being what it is now. (Margrethe has made certain that her sons’ children have rights to succession, despite both princes marrying  commoners. The future Queen is Australian, for goodness’ sake!) And consider that when Henrik complained that women’s rights didn’t seem to mean human rights, at least for guys like him, some feminists replied that this was not about men and women, it was about royalty and the law around that: “The law on gender equality does not apply to the royal court.” Others suggest that Henrik is a model of male feminism, who had been chief caretaker of the Royal children back in the day. Then consider that it took six centuries for Denmark to allow a woman to rule officially and now, perhaps, the Danes are still in the process of working out what that means. Consider as well, that it is only in the last century, less than sixty years ago, that human beings decided that they should be able to control their reproduction and the entire status of women everywhere changed. No other species has ever attempted to manage this kind of change. Everyone is walking a new road. Henrik’s discomfort is the new reality.