When Queen Elizabeth came to Nigeria in 2003 and I, as a British expatriate, was presented to her at a reception in Abuja, I felt tongue-tied and said the blandest of things.
Afterwards I regretted that I had not said to her: “Ma’am, when I was a boy of six in London, and you and your husband were wedded, I pored over the reports and photographs in the newspapers.”
Last month, she and her husband celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary and in an era when marriage (in the traditional sense of the word) is so much threatened, so much being undermined, that is something fervently to celebrate.
Present at the wedding of Princess (as she then was) Elizabeth and Prince Philip of Greece were many of their royal relatives, and among them was the young, 26-year-old King Michael of Romania.
His country adjoined Russia, where in 1917 two revolutions had taken place. The second brought to power the Bolshevik or Communist party, which in the name of the proletariat destroyed Russia’s old ruling class.
First under Lenin, then under Stalin, Russia tried to foster world revolution, and after 1945, at the end of the Second World War, it imposed Communist governments on other countries in Eastern Europe, including Romania.
In the Communist system there was no place for monarchy, which was considered a ‘reactionary’ relic of the past, linked to ‘feudal’ or ‘bourgeois’ interests.
Hence, as soon as Michael returned from the wedding in London, he was compelled by Romania’s Communist government virtually at gun-point to abdicate, and he went into exile. He lived at first in Britain, later in Switzerland.
At the wedding he had met and fallen in love with another royal, Princess Anne of Bourbon-Parma, and the following year they married. They had five daughters, but no son. When I told the story a few days ago to my old friend Titus Madu, he exclaimed ‘Heiiii!’ at this point, for in Nigeria – and not only in Nigeria – it is regarded as a great misfortune for any man not to have a son, who will take his name and perpetuate the family line.
King Michael had a particular reason for wanting a son: he would be heir to the throne that Michael hoped one day to recover, and in Romania the succession of females was not allowed. But nature took her own unpredictable course.
Western Europeans once looked down on south-eastern Europe, ‘the Balkans’, as a region where unexpected, rather ridiculous events happened. The first twenty-six years of King Michael’s life provided examples.
His father Carol (the name is the equivalent of ‘Charles’) lost his right to succeed to the Romanian throne because of his dissolute life (his arranged marriage to Princess Helen of Greece had broken down, and the woman he openly lived with, Helen, or Magda Lupescu, was not of royal blood, was a divorcee, and was a Jewess); the six-year-old Michael therefore succeeded King Ferdinand on the latter’s death in 1927.
But three years later Carol engineered a coup against his own son and became King for the second time, and Michael and his mother were sent into exile. In the 1930s, Carol and Magda and her relatives plundered the resources of the country.
Meanwhile, the German dictator Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party were spreading their unique form of evil across Europe and in 1939 the Second World War began.
The smaller countries of Europe became German client-states, and in Romania the pro-German General Antonescu seized power and Carol went into exile for the second time, with as much loot as he and Magda could carry. Michael was recalled to the throne, albeit as Antonescu’s puppet.
A few years later, however, in 1944, by which time Germany was clearly heading for defeat, Michael aided by a group of supporters (and his mother Queen Helen) carried out a coup, assumed full power, arrested Antonescu, and caused Romania to switch sides in the War.
For this courageous act the shy, solemn-faced young man, known hitherto mainly for his interest in motor mechanics, won unprecedented popularity among the Romanian people.
He retained it all through the years of his exile, and it was in evidence at the hero’s funeral that he was given in Romania when he died recently at the age of 96.
His beloved wife Anne had preceded him by a little more than a year, and was similarly honoured. His funeral took place just before the publication of this article, which thus serves as a kind of obituary.
In exile, Michael trained as an aircraft pilot and engaged in stock-broking for a while. For as long as Romania lay under Communist rule, it was impossible for him and his family to return there in any capacity. But towards the end of 1989 one unpopular Communist regime after another in Eastern Europe collapsed.
Just before Christmas, when I was spending a few days with Titus Madu and his family, it was the turn of Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu, who had ruled and exploited the country for over twenty years. Just before midnight on December 25, the BBC reported that, following days of popular demonstrations, the dictator and his wife had been executed; and I banged on Titus’ door to tell him the news. He was puzzled by my excitement.
Chiefly I was rejoicing to see that a people had recovered its freedom, had risen to overthrow a dictatorship that, like many dictatorships in modern times, had hypocritically claimed to rule in its name. But the inveterate romantic in me also relished the thought that King Michael might now be restored to the throne that he had been compelled to relinquish 42 years earlier.
In the event, the new democratic government of Romania, which included many ex-Communists, was fearful of Michael’s popularity. For some years he was not allowed to return, and polls indicated that although he was personally popular, most Romanians did not favour the restoration of the monarchy. Its time seemed to have passed, as in other countries in Europe and around the world. Romania remained the republic it had become in 1947.
In 1997, however, Michael and his family were at last officially welcomed back. His Romanian citizenship was restored, a former palace was given to him to reside in, and from then until his death he was a frequent visitor to the country and once addressed the Romanian Parliament.
His eldest, well-educated daughter, Crown Princess Margareta, who had worked for UNESCO and other aid agencies, began to carry out engagements on behalf of successive Romanian governments.
With an eye to the future, Michael designated her ‘Custodian of the Romanian Crown’. Years earlier, in the 1970s, she had studied in Britain at Edinburgh University, and there became a close friend of Britain’s future Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. It is possible that he knew that a permanent relationship with a princess might prejudice his political career, given that the Labour Party championed the interests of ordinary people.
In Romania later, and with the lifting of the ban on her family, Margareta married a Romanian actor. They had no children, however; and while all her four sisters married, they are now divorced. Some of them, and at least one of the King’s grandchildren, have by their behaviour spoiled the image of the royal family.
The very future existence of the royal family, and with it of the monarchical idea in Romania, therefore looks uncertain. Nevertheless, the quasi-official position accorded to Michael and his family in the past twenty years suggests that in a republic a royal figure may still have a useful function. Though lacking any constitutional role, he or she may be the recognised if unofficial symbol of a people’s best traditions and of its continuity through time.
The incorporation of monarchical institutions in a republican system is also a flourishing feature of Nigerian life, and is found in other African countries such as Ghana and Uganda.
In Nigeria, as we all know, a plethora of such institutions thrive under the republican umbrella, each associated with a particular ethnic group or sub-group, and each regarded by the people concerned as the custodian of their customs and traditions. Undoubtedly their existence contributes to social stability.
Jowitt is a professor of English at the University of Jos