By the standards of the hapless Greek monarchy, Constantine II, the last king of the Hellenes, who has died aged 82, led a comfortable life in exile after a brief and turbulent reign. Of the seven Greek monarchs of the 19th and 20th centuries, three were deposed, one assassinated, two abdicated and one died of septicaemia after being bitten by a barbary ape in the royal gardens.
The Glücksburg monarchy was German-Danish in origin, imposed on Greece in the 1830s. During prolonged wrangling after Constantine’s deposition, the Greek government refused to give him a passport until he acknowledged that he was Mr Glücksburg, whereas he insisted he was just plain Constantine. As the last of Greece’s deposed monarchs he escaped lightly. But decades of exile in London, as one thing the Greeks did not want back from Britain, were not how he would have chosen to spend his life.
In Hampstead Garden Suburb, Constantine lived in some state – apparently supported largely by donations from Greek monarchists – and visitors were expected to address him as Your Majesty. He was included in many invitations by the British royal family, to whom, like most of Europe’s monarchies, he was related. Prince Philip was his father’s first cousin, King Charles III his second cousin and Queen Elizabeth II a third cousin, and he was a godfather to Prince William. His wife was a Danish princess, the sister of Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II, and his sister Sofía became queen of Spain. Only in Greece was he unrecognised, and he was not allowed to return to live there until 2013, long after the events that had toppled him from the throne after a military coup in 1967 and resulted in the abolition of the monarchy in Greece in 1973.
In many ways, Constantine was a victim of the vicious political infighting that has characterised Greek politics and its society for much of the period since the second world war. It perhaps needed a stronger, more experienced and more resolute approach to surmount the crises of his three-year reign than the young man in his early 20s could manage. In later life he said in an interview that he might have liked to be an actor or a journalist, but his fate was to spend his life as an ex-king, harried by Greek politicians and in turn harassing them in a prolonged legal fight for compensation for his family’s lost property, eventually through the European court of human rights.
Born in Athens, Constantine was the son of the Greek crown prince, Paul, the younger brother of King George II, and his German-born wife Princess Frederica, and was taken into exile as a baby following the Italian and then Nazi invasions of the country in 1940-41. His early years were spent first in Egypt and then in South Africa, before the family returned to Greece following the referendum that restored George to the throne in 1946. George died the following year, and Paul became king.
Constantine was educated at a private high school in Athens, modelled on the same lines as the German educationist Kurt Hahn’s principles at Gordonstoun, and afterwards attended Athens University to study law. A keen sailor, Constantine was a member of Greece’s winning sailing team at the 1960 Rome Olympics – the country’s first gold medal in nearly 50 years.
He succeeded to the throne aged 23 on his father’s death in March 1964, becoming head of state in a country that had not got over the civil war between communists and the Greek government of 1946-49, and where political tensions and divisions continued to run deep. The CIA, desperate to avoid Greece falling into communist hands, was also active in Athens. Greece was a strategic pawn between the US and the Soviet Union, each anxious to pull the country into its sphere of influence in the eastern Mediterranean. At the same time, it was attempting to modernise with social and economic reforms as an associate member and applicant to join the Common Market.
The month before Constantine came to the throne, a general election had produced a centrist – moderate, leftwing – government under George Papandreou, following 11 years of rightwing government. Within a year, relations between the king and his prime minister were breaking down. Conservative army officers were alarmed by a perceived leftwards drift among the junior ranks, who were supported by Papandreou’s Harvard-educated son Andreas. When George Papandreou announced that he would take over the defence ministry himself, Constantine refused to allow him to do so, and the government resigned. In the hiatus that followed, the king attempted to appoint a government without holding an election and was accused of acting unconstitutionally.
When elections were finally called in April 1967, the likely re-election of Papandreou was forestalled by an army coup led by colonels. Constantine initially appeared to go along with the insurgents. He argued later that he had had no choice as the palace was surrounded by army tanks, but there were also persistent suggestions that he had been urged by the American embassy to do so in order to avoid another radical government. Many Greeks and civilian politicians never forgave the king for acceding to the coup, but within months he attempted a counter-coup of his own, fleeing to loyalist troops in the northern city of Kavala that December in an attempt to create a rival military support and force the junta to resign.
The operation was poorly organised and, although the air force and navy declared their support, the army and its officers rallied to the coup leaders. Support for the king melted away within 24 hours. Fearing bloodshed if it came to a military confrontation, Constantine and his family fled into exile, first in Rome and then a few years later in London.
There was no going back for the king. The junta, led by Colonel Georgios Papadopoulos, brutally consolidated their regime using censorship, mass arrests of opponents, torture and imprisonments, and were not going to reinstate Constantine after his attempted coup. When monarchist navy officers unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the colonels in June 1973, Papadopoulos declared the country a republic, endorsed subsequently in a plebiscite widely assumed to have been rigged.
Nonetheless, when the regime fell following the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, to be succeeded by a civilian government, a further referendum was held to determine whether the king should be restored. Constantine was not allowed to return in order to campaign on his own behalf, though he was allowed to broadcast an address from London in which he apologised for his previous errors. But his maladroit interference with the civilian governments before the coup was held against him and the outcome of the vote in December 1974 was heavily in favour of a republic: by 69% to 31%.
Thereafter, for decades, Constantine was prevented from visiting Greece except briefly and on rare occasions: for his mother’s funeral in 1981 and for an attempted holiday in 1993, when he found his yacht was constantly harried by torpedo boats and aeroplanes. The following year, the Greek government revoked his citizenship and passport and seized the royal family’s property. “The law basically said that I had to go out and acquire a name. The problem is that my family originates from Denmark and the Danish royal family haven’t got a surname,” he said, adding that Glücksburg was the name of a place not a family: “I might as well call myself Mr Kensington.”
In 2000, the court of human rights found for the king in relation to the property, though it could only order compensation, not the return of his extensive estates nor the royal palace at Tatoi and awarded him only 12m euros (around £10m), rather than the 500m he had asked for: a reduction that the Greek government counted as a triumphant vindication. It nevertheless took another two years to pay the money and, when it did so, the government took it from its extraordinary natural disasters fund rather than general reserves. In retaliation, Constantine used the money to set up a charitable foundation in the name of his wife to assist Greeks suffering from natural disasters. He said: “I feel the Greek government have acted unjustly and vindictively. They treat me sometimes as if I am their enemy – I am not the enemy. I consider it the greatest insult in the world for a Greek to be told he is not a Greek.”
Generally, while expressing a wish to be allowed to live in Greece, which was granted in 2013, Constantine seemed equable about his fate and did not attempt to regain the throne. “All I want is to have my home back and to be able to travel in and out of Greece like every other Greek. I don’t have to be in Greece as head of state. I am quite happy to be there as a private citizen,” he told the Sunday Telegraph in 2000. “Forget the past, we are a republic now. Let’s get on with the future.”
Constantine is survived by his wife, Princess Anne-Marie of Denmark, whom he married in 1964; and their three sons, Pavlos, Philippos and Nikolaos, and two daughters, Alexia and Theodora.
• Constantine II, former King of Greece, born 2 June 1940; died 10 January 2023