World & Nation

The starkly new face of the Netherlands’ monarchy

The starkly new face of the Netherlands’ monarchy
Dutch Crown Prince Willem-Alexander and Princess Maxima greet the public Friday at an event in Enschede.
(Robin Utrecht / / AFP/Getty Images)

AMSTERDAM — Even by the unconventional standards of the Dutch, their new king is going to be a bit of a novelty.

He has a license to fly commercial airliners. He’s married to a South American, a lively Argentine who’s more popular than he is. He says he won’t mind it if people fail to address him as “Your Majesty” because he’s no “protocol fetishist” — an amusing description here in a city that caters to nearly every fetish imaginable.


But his biggest break with Dutch history of the last 120 years is the simple fact that he’s a he. Queens have reigned over the Netherlands since 1890, a matriarchy that will come to an end Tuesday when Crown Prince Willem-Alexander is sworn in as monarch.

His soon-to-be subjects are taking the shift in stride, though no one alive today can recall a time when people spoke of their koning (king) rather than their koningin (queen).


“It’s strange,” 68-year-old Ineke Flier says, rolling the word around in her mouth. “But he’s nice.… He can do a lot of good things for Holland.”

Chief among his duties will be to represent the Netherlands as its head of state, its standard-bearer around the world. Here at home, he’s supposed to be the uniter-in-chief, a symbol of Dutch identity, cohesion and continuity.

But some are wondering whether things will feel different when the nation’s public face is one that has whiskers. The last king was Willem-Alexander’s great-great-grandfather, Willem III; first-born daughters of the House of Orange-Nassau have succeeded him since. (In the Netherlands, the monarch’s eldest child is heir to the throne regardless of gender, unlike in Britain, where a son takes precedence over older sisters. The British Parliament is currently amending that rule.)

“Having a female head of state has been so much the style that [there’s] a kind of feeling it’s going to be harder for a male to fit the mold,” says James Kennedy, a historian at the University of Amsterdam. “Some people say that the Dutch monarchy has taken on … a caring, nurturing style — the maternal thing. How is Willem-Alexander going to be able to do that?”


The prince, who turned 46 on Saturday, will also be the youngest sovereign in Europe, where most of the remaining crowned heads are gray (or balding).

But that doesn’t faze his compatriots, who are confident that his feckless days as “Prince Pils,” the nickname he earned as a beer-swilling college student, are well behind him.

“He’s serious enough to be king,” says Flier, a retired designer. “The world is changing. In America it’s a young president.”

Contrast that with Britain’s Prince Charles, who at 64 is seemingly no closer to ascending to the throne than when he was Willem-Alexander’s age nearly two decades ago. Charles’ mother, Queen Elizabeth II, is in excellent health at 87.


In fact, Willem-Alexander’s succession is possible only because of a tradition that would horrify the British royals. Beatrix, the prince’s 75-year-old mother, is voluntarily stepping down as queen, as did her mother before her, in 1980, and her grandmother, in 1948.

Those abdications, almost in the manner of CEOs opting for a comfortable retirement, illustrate just how different the Dutch royal family is from the House of Windsor.

As institutions of hereditary privilege go, the Dutch monarchy is a relative newcomer, created after the Netherlands won its independence from Napoleon about 200 years ago. It’s therefore not so freighted — or burdened — with the same weight of history and expectations that surround its much older British counterpart.

Tuesday’s investiture of Willem-Alexander, the oldest of three brothers, isn’t even a “coronation.” Dutch kings and queens are sworn in, not crowned, during a special joint session of the two chambers of parliament, which form the Netherlands’ democratically elected government. The prime minister remains the country’s political leader.

“It’s often been said that this is a republic ruled over by a monarch,” Kennedy says. “There is this kind of notion that the queen or the king really does need to know this was once a republic and that monarchs are kind of guests in the Netherlands. They serve at the pleasure of the people.”

Particularly in the 20th century, the Dutch royals have cultivated a far greater sense of informality and closeness to the people than has the British monarchy, which strives to maintain an otherworldly aura through its matchless pomp and circumstance.

Juliana, the present queen’s mother, was often seen riding her bicycle in public, sometimes to the supermarket. Today’s princes and princesses are expected to hold down “real” jobs, making them more like royal professionals than professional royals. Willem-Alexander’s career focus has been water management. (The commercial pilot’s license is just a hobby.)

As queen, Beatrix is credited with dispatching her duties with businesslike efficiency and dedication but also with a certain aloofness, in contrast to Juliana’s affectionate style.

“Juliana was much more the people’s mother, the mother of the nation. Beatrix has been more formal, more serious, perhaps too serious,” says Dick Pels, a sociologist in Amsterdam.

Pels believes that, despite being a man, the affable Willem-Alexander is capable of bringing back some warmth to the monarchy and bolstering what Pels calls the more “feminine” image of Dutch society as a whole: open, conciliatory, more emotional. In 1996, the prince famously ran onto the field to celebrate with members of the Dutch women’s hockey team after they won the bronze medal at the Atlanta Olympics.

“I think he’s a softy,” says 20-year-old Shanice Adams. “He’s not like a boss.”

The Prince of Orange’s not-so-secret weapon is his wife, Maxima, a former investment banker from Argentina who has charmed this country with her infectious laugh, outgoing personality and mastery of the Dutch language.

Their relationship has been touched by controversy because of her father, who was a government minister during Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship; he was not invited to their 2002 wedding, and is not on the guest list for Tuesday’s swearing-in. But Maxima endeared herself further to people here by scolding Willem-Alexander for trying to downplay her father’s past, calling his ill-judged attempt “een beetje dom,” or a “little stupid.”

The couple were also embroiled in a minor scandal over their decision to buy an expensive resort home in Mozambique, which they gave up amid criticism over its price, location and taxpayer-funded security costs.

Still, polls show the vast majority of the Dutch to remain in favor of the monarchy; only a small number of republicans are expected to show up in protest Tuesday wearing white instead of orange, the national color.

“They get a lot of money for doing nothing,” grumbles lingerie salesman Richard Flapper, 48, although he acknowledges liking Maxima.

In fact, Willem-Alexander’s tax-free $1-million salary as king, which does occasion some complaints, now comes with at least one duty less than his mother had. Last year, lawmakers voted to strip the monarch of the political role of inviting a lawmaker to be a mediator in forming a government after elections, overseeing negotiations on coalitions. In the Netherlands’ fractured political scene, that was a not-inconsiderable bit of power.

The crown prince professed not to mind.

“If the lawmaking process is democratic and constitutional, I’ll accept everything,” he said in a recent television interview. “I have no problems with that.”

And if any Dutch have problems with being ruled over by a king instead of a queen, they only need to wait.

Willem-Alexander and Maxima have three daughters and no sons, meaning that unless some unspeakable calamity strikes the family, this country is guaranteed to have a queen again if and when the king steps down.

“She has already asked how many years I plan to do it,” Willem-Alexander said of his eldest daughter, 9-year-old Catharina-Amalia, who becomes heiress apparent Tuesday. “I can probably put a date in my diary now.”