by Kit Gillet
King Ferdinand I
King Michael I and his father Carol II King Michael I
The death of King Michael I on December 5 brought about an outpouring of emotion seemingly across all levels of Romanian society. Tens of thousands braved the cold to line up for hours in order to pay their respects at his coffin as it lay in state in what is now the National Museum of Art of Romania (formerly the royal palace). Millions more watched the funeral live on television.
King Michael’s funerals, December 2017
For many, it felt like the end of an era, and perhaps also the end of any lingering connection with the former royal family.
Despite Michael I’s seven-decade absence from daily life in Romania – he was forced to abdicate in 1947 by the communist regime that took over in the aftermath of World War Two – he has been a presence throughout much of Romania’s modern history.
Born during the interwar period, he came of age as Romania fought on the side of the Germans in the Second World War, before, in 1944 at the age of 22, playing an integral role in the ousting of the pro-Nazi regime and helping the country switch sides. In his later years, after the 1989 revolution, he actively pushed for Romania’s inclusion in both NATO and the European Union, among many other contributions.
In between he variously working as a chicken farmer, stockbroker and commercial pilot, spending much of his life in the United Kingdom and also Switzerland, where he died at the age of 96.
Some see the former king’s life as a microcosm of Romania’s history. “I believe his history represents the history of Romania,” says Diana Mandache, a Romanian historian who has written several books on the royal family.
Romania’s royal line is relatively new, with Michael I being just the third, and then fifth, king in the country’s recent past (in between, his father, Carol II, who had passed up the crown rather than give up his mistress, decided he did indeed want to rule). Yet, despite the royal line only being established in 1881, and effectively ended in 1947, Michael was widely admired and respected in Romania. The king-in-exile, and then the former king of a republic, but a king nonetheless.
Writing in the book of condolences, President Klaus Iohannis said that Michael “put his entire life in the service of the Romanian nation and served with self-denial, dignity and responsibility the country in which he was born…I am convinced that he will remain in collective memory as a symbol of the struggle of the Romanian people for freedom.”
After a funeral befitting a king, complete with the remnants of royalty past and present from across Europe and beyond, eyes now naturally turn to the future of the Romanian monarchy.
In recent years, beyond the ageing dignity of Michael, the royal family was more likely to be in the news for scandals rather than acts tying them more deeply with Romanian society.
Michael’s third daughter, Irina, was caught up in a cockfighting scandal in the US in 2013, while his grandson, Nicholas Medforth-Mills, was removed from the line of succession in 2015, supposedly for fathering a child with a young Romanian woman (paternity is still being contested). Prince Paul, Michael’s nephew, meanwhile, is under investigation for his involvement in illegal land restitutions related to real estate around Baneasa.
These incidents have probably not endeared the family to many in Romania, though it is unfair to tarnish the whole family for the actions of a few.
Michael’s eldest daughter, Princess Margareta, who has dedicated much of her life to social causes – including work for the WHO, UN, and, after 1990, the Princess Margareta of Romania Foundation – inherits the crown, though she has already said she won’t use the title Queen but rather Custodian of the Crown, given that Romania is a republic.
King Michael I and daughter Princess Margareta
Michael made only occasional visits to the country since 1992. This was no doubt in part due to his age and life abroad, but it was also in large part the result of initial resistance from the political leaders in the early 90s, who made it difficult for him to return, fearing his potential influence on society. He was only given back his Romanian citizenship in 1997.
Going forward, his successors are likely to be far more of a physical presence in the country. Even so, they will struggle to replicate Michael I’s overall appeal and connection with the nation.
Only time will tell whether the royal line will continue to have a relevance in Romania, or whether it was a brief moment in history. In short, will Michael truly be the last monarchy of Romania?
“I don’t believe he will be our last king,” says Mandache.
Photos from casa-regala.blogspot.ro
British journalist Kit Gillet has been based in Romania since 2013, reporting from the region for the likes of the Guardian and the New York Times.