Constantine, the last king of Greece, dies at the age of 82

Constantine, the former and last king of Greece, has died in a private hospital in Athens, his doctors said late Tuesday. He was 82.

Staff at the private Hygeia Hospital in Athens confirmed to The Associated Press that Constantine died after being treated in an intensive care unit, but had no further details pending an official announcement.

When he ascended the throne as Constantine II in 1964 at the age of 23, the teenage monarch, who had already found fame as an Olympic gold medalist in sailing, was immensely popular. By the following year he had squandered much of that support in his active involvement in the machinations that brought down Prime Minister George Papandreou’s popularly elected Center Union government.

The Wedding of Prince Guillaume of Luxembourg and Stephanie de Lannoy - Official Ceremony
Former King Constantine of Greece and former Queen Anne Marie of Greece attend the wedding ceremony of Prince Guillaume of Luxembourg and Princess Stephanie of Luxembourg at the Cathedral of Our Lady in Luxembourg October 20, 2012.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The episode, still widely known in Greece as “apostasy” or defection from the ruling party of several lawmakers, 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, while a referendum following the restoration of democracy in 1974 dashed all of Constantine’s hopes of reigning again.

Reduced to only cursory visits to Greece in the decades that followed, each time causing a political and media storm, he was able to settle back in his native country in his late years, when opposition to his presence was no longer seen as a sign of vigilant republicanism. With minimal nostalgia for the monarchy in Greece, Constantine became a relatively uncontroversial figure from the past.

Konstantin was born on June 2, 1940 in Athens to Prince Paul, younger brother of King George II and heir presumptive to the throne, and Princess Federica of Hanover. His older sister Sophia is the wife of former King of Spain Juan Carlos I. Greek-born Prince Philip, late Duke of Edinburgh and husband of the late Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, was an uncle.

The family, which had ruled Greece since 1863 except for a 12-year republican interlude between 1922-1935, descended from Prince Christian, later Christian IX. of Denmark, from the Danish branch of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg from the ruling family.

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

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

In 1960, at the age of 20, he and two other Greek sailors won a gold medal in the kite class – now no longer an Olympic class – at the Rome Olympics. While still a prince, Konstantin was elected a member of the International Olympic Committee in 1963 and made an honorary member for life in 1974.

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

The Prime Minister, George Papandreou, and Constantine initially had a very close relationship, but this soon deteriorated when Constantine insisted that control of the armed forces was the monarch’s prerogative.

With many officers toying with the idea of ​​a dictatorship and seeing any non-conservative government as soft on communism, Papandreou wanted to control the Ministry of Defense and eventually demanded appointment as Minister of Defense as well. After a bitter exchange of letters with Konstantin, Papandreou resigned in July 1965.

Constantine’s insistence on appointing a government of centrist defectors, which won a narrow parliamentary majority on the third attempt, was extremely unpopular. Many viewed him as being manipulated by his scheming mother, Dowager Queen Frederica. “People don’t want you, take your mother and go!” became the rallying cry of the often violent protests that shook Greece in the summer of 1965.

Eventually, Constantine struck a truce of sorts with Papandreou and, with his approval, appointed a government of technocrats and then a conservative-led government to hold elections in May 1967.

But with polls strongly favoring the Central Union and Papandreou’s left-leaning son Andreas gaining popularity, Constantine and his courtiers feared revenge and, with the help of high-ranking officers, prepared a coup d’etat.

However, a group of lower-ranking officers, led by colonels, prepared their own coup and called the 21st

Constantine was surprised and his feelings towards the new rulers were evident in the official photograph of the new government. He pretended to go along with them while preparing a counter-coup with the help of troops in northern Greece and the navy loyal to him.

On December 13, 1967, Constantine and his family flew to the northern city of Kavala with the intention of marching to Thessaloniki and establishing a government there. The poorly managed and infiltrated counter-coup failed and Constantine was forced to flee to Rome the next day. He would never return as reigning king.

The junta appointed a regent and, after a failed naval counter-coup in May 1973, abolished the monarchy on June 1, 1973. A referendum in July, widely regarded as rigged, upheld the decision.

When the dictatorship collapsed in July 1974, Constantine was keen to return to Greece but was dissuaded from doing so by veteran politician Constantine Karamanlis, who was returning from exile to lead a civilian government. Karamanlis, who also headed the government between 1955 and 1963, was a conservative but had quarreled with the court over what he saw as excessive interference in politics.

After his triumphant victory in the November elections, Karamanlis called a referendum on the monarchy for December 8, 1974. Constantine was not allowed to campaign in the country, but the result was clear and widely accepted: 69.2% voted for a republic.

Soon after, Karamanlis famously said that the nation had rid itself of a cancer. Konstantin said the day after the referendum that “national unity must come first…I wish with all my heart that developments will justify the outcome of yesterday’s vote.”

Until his last days, Constantine accepted that Greece was now a republic, continued to refer to himself as the king of Greece and his children as princes and princesses, although Greece no longer recognized noble titles.

Living in Hampstead Garden Suburb, London for most of his exile, he is said to have been particularly close to his second cousin Charles, the Prince of Wales and now King Charles III.

While it took Constantine 14 years to briefly return to his country to bury his mother, Queen Federica, in 1981, he multiplied his visits thereafter, settling there from 2010. There were ongoing disputes: in 1994 the then socialist government stripped him of his citizenship and expropriated the remaining property of the royal family. Konstantin appealed to the European Court of Human Rights and was awarded 12 million euros in 2002, a fraction of the 500 million he had applied for.

Constantine traveled as a Danish prince on a Danish passport.

He is survived by his wife, former Princess Anne-Marie of Denmark, youngest sister of Queen Margrethe II; five children, Alexia, Pavlos, Nikolaos, Theodora and Philippos; and nine grandchildren. Constantine, the last king of Greece, dies at the age of 82

Rick Schindler

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