The new year 2024 has begun with Queen Margrethe II of Denmark handing in a shock abdication. After 52 years of monarching, the sovereign of the wealthy little kingdom in the north has called it quits.
World citizens who have never known another Danish queen – or, indeed, maybe have never known that a prosperous parliamentary social democracy in Europe had a queen at all – are now confronted with a sudden upset in the formal dinner seating. A succession is taking place – fortunately, without the formal public oiling of the new monarch, as is the British way.
Margrethe’s son Frederik now becomes king, and his wife, Mary, becomes queen, raising all manner of interesting questions that return to the theme of “dear God, how are modern democratic countries still engaging this medieval bullshit?”. And, also, perhaps provoking some fond reviews of the new Queen Mary’s public wardrobe; she really does dress with exceptional taste.
As Frederik becomes king of Denmark, and the public representation of its state, history and culture entirely because he was born the eldest child of his mum, the inevitable comparison is with the British monarch, Charles III – who, by the way, is also king of Australia – whose trajectory towards the crown was, of course, exactly the same.
For all the pomp and pageantry associated with these changeovers, it’s far less Game of Thrones than it is Steptoe and Son. The last British monarch obliged to actually fight someone else for the crown was Henry VII, who relied on someone to ram at least two swords through Richard III’s head at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.
While Charles II (1660) and William III (1689) had to mobilise armies to hustle their rivals out of the way, their manoeuvrings were hardly so brutal, and, yes, in Denmark too, it’s all been more family business than smashy-smashy for quite some time.
So if monarchy’s not even that fun to watch any more, why does anyone stick with it?
Despite countries like Denmark (1849) and Britain (1649) elevating the notion of “some base kind of representation” over “someone’s kid doing whatever they want” as a governing mechanism, modern monarchies persist in thousand-year-plus traditions in which “someone’s kid doing whatever they want” was not merely a matter of enforceable law, but of deeply held cultural value.
The “divine right of kings” was the ancient doctrine asserting the political legitimacy of a monarch as absolute sovereign over a state. The theory goes that as God’s magic powers will the monarch into the position of king, queen, emir, sultan or cazique, the divine authority of their placement cannot be overridden by anything so tawdry as accountability to a bureaucracy, capital flows or the will of the people.
Ancient, medieval and Renaissance literature are all somewhat heavy on the message that to usurp the monarch is to declare war on God, and the consequences shall be sticky. If you don’t believe me, you really should make time to finally see Macbeth.
One presumes the mysterious divinity that wills the earthly machinations of this theory is also bored with generations of mere heredity determining who gets to win the shiny hat and a palace to live in … because the wonderful result of this week’s tumult in Denmark is that the promotion of Mary from princess to queen places someone on the Danish throne who exposes what a pure lottery aristocracy has always been.
It’s not merely that Mary was born outside the bejewelled clique of titled and entitled aristo-trash seen primarily pissing around the world’s most trashy supermarket magazines. It’s that she’s an Australian who grew up in Hobart with a maths academic dad and a mum who worked as an EA.
She went to Taroona High, and although she’s got degrees in commerce and law from the University of Tasmania, she was working in real estate when she picked up a hot Dane in a bar during the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and he turned out to be the crown prince of Denmark.
Reader, she married him. “I was born in a rank which recognises no superior but God, to whom alone I am responsible for my actions,” declared Richard I of Britain in 1193. “I am sending my son somewhere else,” one presumes the now-Queen Mary may have said when recently pulled the young heir-to-the-Danish-throne kid from a private school because of a bullying scandal. He now attends the public school down the road.
Mary’s relentless abjuration of drama, her enthusiastic commitment to causes in the public interest and her truly rare championing of the LGBTQ+ community in Denmark and beyond tempts even this fervent anti-monarchist to Maryist sympathies.
Alas, Australians will be stuck constitutionally as an imperial remnant of Britain and encumbered by its oily royals until such a point as we finally stop freaking out about referendums.
In the meantime, while Queen Mary may indeed fulfil an imaginative role as a local queen, it’s incumbent on a modern society to remind itself that it was not God that put her there, but a warm Sydney night … and the Slip Inn.
Van Badham is a columnist for Guardian Australia