Constantine, Former and Last King of Greece, Dies at 82

11/01/2023

Constantine, the former and last king of Greece who spent decades in exile, died Tuesday. He was 82.

Doctors at the private Hygeia Hospital in Athens confirmed to The Associated Press that Constantine died late Tuesday after treatment in an intensive care unit but had no further details pending an official announcement.

When he rose to the throne as Constantine II 1964 at the age of 23, the youthful monarch who had achieved glory as an Olympic gold medalist in sailing was hugely popular. By the following year he had squandered much of that support with his active involvement in the machinations that brought down the elected Center Union government of Prime Minister George Papandreou.

The episode involving the defection from the ruling party of several lawmakers, still widely known in Greece as the “apostasy,” destabilized the constitutional order and led to a military coup in 1967. Constantine eventually clashed with the military rulers and was forced into exile.

The dictatorship abolished the monarchy in 1973; a referendum after democracy was restored in 1974 dashed any hopes that Constantine had of ever reigning again.

Reduced in the following decades to only fleeting visits to Greece that raised a political and media storm each time, he was able to settle again in his home country in his waning years when opposing his presence no longer held currency as a badge of vigilant republicanism. With minimal nostalgia for the monarchy in Greece, Constantine became a relatively uncontroversial figure.

Constantine was born June 2, 1940, in Athens, to Prince Paul, younger brother to King George II and heir presumptive to the throne, and Princess Frederica of Hanover. His older sister Sophia is the wife of former King Juan Carlos I of Spain. The Greek-born Prince Philip, the late Duke of Edinburgh and husband of the late Queen Elizabeth II, was a relative.

The family, which had ruled in Greece from 1863 apart from a 12-year republican interlude in 1922-1935, was descended from Prince Christian, later Christian IX of Denmark, of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Gluecksburg branch of the Danish ruling family.

Before Constantine’s first birthday, the royal family was forced to flee Greece during the German invasion in World War II, moving to Alexandria in Egypt, South Africa and back to Alexandria. King George II returned to Greece in 1946, following a disputed referendum, but died a few months later, making Constantine the heir to King Paul I.

Constantine was educated at a boarding school and then attended three military academies as well as Athens Law School classes as preparation for his future role. He also competed in various sports, including sailing and karate, in which he held a black belt.

In 1960, at age 20, he and two other Greek sailors won a gold medal in the Dragon Class — now no longer an Olympic class — at the Rome Olympics. While still a prince, Constantine was elected a member of the International Olympic Committee and became an honorary member for life in 1974.

King Paul I died of cancer on March 6, 1964, and Constantine succeeded him, weeks after the Center Union party had triumphed over the conservatives with 53% of the vote.

The prime minister, George Papandreou, and Constantine initially had a very close relationship, but it soon soured over Constantine’s insistence that control of the armed forces was the monarch’s prerogative.

With many officers toying with the idea of a dictatorship and viewing any non-conservative government as soft on communism, Papandreou wanted to control the ministry of defense and eventually demanded to be appointed defense minister. After an acrimonious exchange of letters with Constantine, Papandreou resigned in July 1965.

Constantine’s insistence on appointing a government composed of centrist defectors that won a narrow parliamentary majority on the third try was hugely unpopular. Many viewed him as being manipulated by his scheming mother, dowager Queen Frederica.

“The people don’t want you, take your mother and go!” became the rallying cry in the protests that rocked Greece in the summer of 1965.

Eventually, Constantine made a truce of sorts with Papandreou and, with his agreement, appointed a government of technocrats and then a conservative-led government to hold an election in May 1967.

But, with the polls heavily favoring the Center Union and with Papandreou’s left-leaning son, Andreas, gaining in popularity, Constantine and his courtiers feared revenge and prepared a coup. They were instead surprised by a coup led by a group of lower-ranking officers who proclaimed a dictatorship on April 21, 1967.

On Dec. 13, 1967, Constantine and his family flew to the northern city of Kavala with the intention of marching on Thessaloniki and setting up a government there. His counter coup, badly managed and infiltrated, collapsed and Constantine was forced to flee to Rome the following day. He would never return as reigning king.

To his final days, Constantine, while accepting that Greece was now a republic, continued to style himself King of Greece and his children as princes and princesses even though Greece no longer recognized titles of nobility.

For most of his years in exile he lived in Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, and was said to be especially close to his second cousin Charles, the Prince of Wales and now King Charles III.

While it took Constantine 14 years to return to his country briefly to bury his mother, Queen Frederica in 1981, his visits increased and, from 2010, made his home there.

He is survived by his wife, the former Princess Anne-Marie of Denmark, youngest sister of Queen Margrethe II; five children, Alexia, Pavlos, Nikolaos, Theodora and Philippos; and nine grandchildren.

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