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The starkly new face of the Netherlands' monarchy

Willem-Alexander, who is to be sworn in Tuesday, will be the first man to wear the crown since 1890.

April 27, 2013|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times
  • Dutch Crown Prince Willem-Alexander and Princess Maxima greet the public Friday at an event in Enschede.
Dutch Crown Prince Willem-Alexander and Princess Maxima greet the public… (Robin Utrecht / AFP/Getty…)

AMSTERDAM — Even by the unconventional standards of the Dutch, their new king is going to be a bit of a novelty.

He has a license to fly commercial airliners. He's married to a South American, a lively Argentine who's more popular than he is. He says he won't mind it if people fail to address him as "Your Majesty" because he's no "protocol fetishist" — an amusing description here in a city that caters to nearly every fetish imaginable.

But his biggest break with Dutch history of the last 120 years is the simple fact that he's a he. Queens have reigned over the Netherlands since 1890, a matriarchy that will come to an end Tuesday when Crown Prince Willem-Alexander is sworn in as monarch.

His soon-to-be subjects are taking the shift in stride, though no one alive today can recall a time when people spoke of their koning (king) rather than their koningin (queen).

"It's strange," 68-year-old Ineke Flier says, rolling the word around in her mouth. "But he's nice.… He can do a lot of good things for Holland."

Chief among his duties will be to represent the Netherlands as its head of state, its standard-bearer around the world. Here at home, he's supposed to be the uniter-in-chief, a symbol of Dutch identity, cohesion and continuity.

But some are wondering whether things will feel different when the nation's public face is one that has whiskers. The last king was Willem-Alexander's great-great-grandfather, Willem III; first-born daughters of the House of Orange-Nassau have succeeded him since. (In the Netherlands, the monarch's eldest child is heir to the throne regardless of gender, unlike in Britain, where a son takes precedence over older sisters. The British Parliament is currently amending that rule.)

"Having a female head of state has been so much the style that [there's] a kind of feeling it's going to be harder for a male to fit the mold," says James Kennedy, a historian at the University of Amsterdam. "Some people say that the Dutch monarchy has taken on … a caring, nurturing style — the maternal thing. How is Willem-Alexander going to be able to do that?"

The prince, who turned 46 on Saturday, will also be the youngest sovereign in Europe, where most of the remaining crowned heads are gray (or balding).

But that doesn't faze his compatriots, who are confident that his feckless days as "Prince Pils," the nickname he earned as a beer-swilling college student, are well behind him.

"He's serious enough to be king," says Flier, a retired designer. "The world is changing. In America it's a young president."

Contrast that with Britain's Prince Charles, who at 64 is seemingly no closer to ascending to the throne than when he was Willem-Alexander's age nearly two decades ago. Charles' mother, Queen Elizabeth II, is in excellent health at 87.

In fact, Willem-Alexander's succession is possible only because of a tradition that would horrify the British royals. Beatrix, the prince's 75-year-old mother, is voluntarily stepping down as queen, as did her mother before her, in 1980, and her grandmother, in 1948.

Those abdications, almost in the manner of CEOs opting for a comfortable retirement, illustrate just how different the Dutch royal family is from the House of Windsor.

As institutions of hereditary privilege go, the Dutch monarchy is a relative newcomer, created after the Netherlands won its independence from Napoleon about 200 years ago. It's therefore not so freighted — or burdened — with the same weight of history and expectations that surround its much older British counterpart.

Tuesday's investiture of Willem-Alexander, the oldest of three brothers, isn't even a "coronation." Dutch kings and queens are sworn in, not crowned, during a special joint session of the two chambers of parliament, which form the Netherlands' democratically elected government. The prime minister remains the country's political leader.

"It's often been said that this is a republic ruled over by a monarch," Kennedy says. "There is this kind of notion that the queen or the king really does need to know this was once a republic and that monarchs are kind of guests in the Netherlands. They serve at the pleasure of the people."

Particularly in the 20th century, the Dutch royals have cultivated a far greater sense of informality and closeness to the people than has the British monarchy, which strives to maintain an otherworldly aura through its matchless pomp and circumstance.

Juliana, the present queen's mother, was often seen riding her bicycle in public, sometimes to the supermarket. Today's princes and princesses are expected to hold down "real" jobs, making them more like royal professionals than professional royals. Willem-Alexander's career focus has been water management. (The commercial pilot's license is just a hobby.)

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