Leaving the Throne: History’s Most Memorable Abdications

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Leaving the Throne: History’s Most Memorable Abdications

By: James Smith

Earlier this week, it was announced that, while the seemingly ageless Queen Elizabeth II keeps on plugging away in the UK, fellow monarchical matriarch Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands will step down on April 30th to allow her son to take over the role as the Dutch Head of State. While this transition in monarchy gives the impression that abdications are genteel and civilized affairs, that's not usually the case. It's always messy when power changes hands, especially with royalty. Case in point: the recent announcement of the discovery of remains positively identified as England's infamous Richard III, a man who very likely murdered his nephews to obtain power....and died from a smashed in skull. And while most kings and queens don't go out that violently, many who've left the throne before their death have done so surrounded by shameful and tawdry goings-on. Here’s our list of the most memorable abdications in history, in reverse historical order.

King Farouk of Egypt in 1952

As an emblem of the set of Middle Eastern rulers who abdicated in advance of the abolition of monarchy in their respective countries, Farouk’s story is as pertinent as any. Farouk ascended to the throne at the tender age of sixteen and reigned for the next sixteen years, but had the misfortune to reign at a time when the British Empire hadn’t given up its Middle Eastern territories. He was also known for being the head of a particularly corrupt government. Like several of his fellow Middle Eastern monarchs, he was forced to abdicate after a military coup in 1952.

Edward VIII of the United Kingdom in 1936

This one has been made famous again recently due to its portrayal in a couple of movies, most notably in The King’s Speech but also in Madonna’s execrable movie W.E. The fall of Edward VIII captures people’s imaginations because its trappings are either tawdry or romantic, depending on your point of view. At issue was Edward’s desire to marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee — a fact which meant that, under the laws of the Church of England, their marriage would not be valid. Of course, the other issue at hand was the fact that Edward was a closet Nazi at a time when war with Germany was becoming more and more inevitable. Edward was forced to abdicate to make way for his brother, the stammering George VI.

Tsar Nicholas II of Russia in 1917

Like Farouk, Nicholas II’s abdication was forced by a coup, but his fall was even more spectacular, and is stamped on the cultural imagination because of the brutality of the Russian Revolution. Nicholas II was the last in the long line of absolute rulers in Russia. When Russian involvement in World War I didn't go as victoriously as people expected, long-standing tensions boiled over, leading to one of the bloodiest revolution in history. The Tsar was forced to abdicate, but that wasn’t enough to save him or his family: in 1918, he, his entire family, and several members of his household staff were executed by the Bolsheviks.

Napoleon I of France in 1814...and again in 1815

Napoleon Bonaparte has the unique honor on this list of having abdicated not just once, but twice. Bonaparte, as you probably know, was the dominant figure in post-Revolutionary France, conquering most of Europe before making the monumentally dumb decision that he would be well-served by invading Russia during the winter. His army destroyed, he retreated back to France and ended up losing a major battle at Leipzig, leading to his being forced to abdicate in 1814. At that point, he was sent into exile on the island of Elba in the Mediterranean. Naturally, Napoleon couldn’t stand for that, so he busted out and returned the mainland, launching a hundred-day stretch in which he tried to regain his throne. When he was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo by English forces under the Duke of Wellington, he had to abdicate a second time, this time being sent much further away to the island of St Helena in the middle of the South Atlantic.

James II of the United Kingdom in 1689

This one is memorable because, though historical record has supported one point of view, there’s actually much debate about whether or not James II can actually be considered to have abdicated. In what the British refer to as the "Glorious Revolution," opponents of James’s absolutist tendencies essentially invited William of Orange to invade England; when James fled to Ireland, Parliamentary supporters announced that that was tantamount to abdication. Unsurprisingly, James disagreed with this point of view, waging a war in Ireland against supporters of the new regime. He ultimately lost, and, according to the historical record, abdicated in favor of his sister Mary and her husband William, but there are still supporters of the Stuart regime who insist that no King or Queen has been legitimate since the Glorious Revolution.

[Top pic via Flickr - elPadawan. All other pics via Wikimedia Commons. King Farouk -  Bibliotheca Alexandrin. Edward VIII - Unknown. Nicholas II - A. A. Pasetti. Napoleon I - The Yorck Project. James II - Bolton Museum and Art Gallery.]

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