Retiring royals: 9 rulers and royals who stepped down through history
Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, will step back from their roles as senior royals, it has been announced. Here, historian Seán Lang considers nine other royals or leaders who have retired through history…
Prince Andrew’s decision in December 2019 to step back from his royal duties, in light of the Jeffrey Epstein scandal – and now the news that Prince Harry and his wife Meghan will "step back" from their roles as senior royals – is far from the only time a royal or a ruler has, whether willingly or not, stepped down from power and out of the public eye.
Probably the most famous royal retirement was Shakespeare’s King Lear, though few would think him a particularly encouraging role model. Leading politicians sometimes step down unexpectedly – US president Lyndon B Johnson’s decision in 1968 not to seek re-election took his supporters by surprise, as did Harold Wilson’s unexpected resignation as prime minister, most probably on health grounds, in 1976. More typical are leaders who seem determined to keep hold of power, either hanging on (like Churchill and Thatcher) or else storming back out of retirement, like Gladstone.
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Of course, many rulers have been forced from power against their will, and by no means did all of the following examples give up their power voluntarily. However, here are nine rulers and royals who acquiesced in giving up their power.
Cincinnatus (5th century BC)
The story of the Roman leader Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus has been much mythologised, but scholars agree that he was a real person and that his main claim to fame, his victory over the Italic Aequi people, did actually happen.
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According to tradition as recounted by the Roman historian Livy, the Aequi, a neighbouring Latin people seeking to expand their territory at Rome’s expense, had cornered a Roman army under Minucius at Mount Algidus, in the Alban hills south east of Rome. If they took the height, they would be in a position to strike at the city itself. According to the constitution of republican Rome, in an emergency – which the Aequian invasion unquestionably was – the Senate could appoint an individual as dictator, with full military and political powers to deal with the situation. There was always the risk, of course, that the dictator might choose to keep hold of the powers after the emergency was over, but the Romans put their trust in a shared sense of civic duty to prevent that happening. In the case of Cincinnatus, called out of retirement on his farm to save the Republic, that trust proved well-founded. In a lightning campaign he routed the Aequi and relieved Minucius and his men; he then returned to Rome, resigned the dictatorship and returned to his farm – and all within 16 days.
The story of Cincinnatus was much embellished by later writers as an example of Republican selflessness and virtue – the city of Cincinnati in the United States is named after him. Not all historians approve of Cincinnatus’s unapologetically pro-patrician and anti-plebeian outlook, but he is a rare example of a leader who held supreme power and voluntarily gave it up.
Anne of Cleves (1515–1557)
It might be stretching definitions a bit to say that Anne of Cleves retired from the Queenship. Both Anne and Katharine of Aragon had their marriages to Henry VIII declared null and void – but Anne certainly acquiesced in the arrangement more than Henry’s other spouse did.
The marriage had been arranged by Thomas Cromwell to tie England to the Protestant princes of Germany as a counter-balance to what looked likely to be an anti-English alliance of the King of France and the Holy Roman Emperor. Contrary to the often-repeated story, Henry was probably not so dismayed by her features that he compared her to a Flanders mare – the first mention of that story is from the 17th century. However, there were doubts about Anne’s marital status: she had been betrothed to the son of the Duke of Lorraine, and the ambassadors from the Duchy of Cleves were suspiciously dilatory about providing written evidence that a marriage between the pair had ever taken place. Henry’s concern about Anne’s appearance, indeed, was not her face, which seems in fact to have been quite attractive, but her full figure, which he thought more suggestive of a married woman than of an unmarried virgin.
In addition, the political threat from France and the Empire seemed to be receding, which rather negated the whole point of the marriage. Henry had already fallen for the ill-fated Catherine Howard anyway, and it also seems likely that his marriage to Anne had revealed his embarrassing inability to consummate it. In the end, the uncertainty surrounding Anne’s marital status provided the grounds for an annulment; Henry also seized the opportunity to have Cromwell executed, in effect for having suggested it in the first place.
Anne chose to remain in England and was provided for quite generously, though she was also kept under careful watch. She seems to have got on rather better with Henry after the marriage than during it, and there was even speculation that she might re-marry Henry after the fall of Catherine Howard.
However, her retirement from the court proved a difficult and frustrating time; she never learned to speak English well and she missed her homeland. After Henry’s marriage to Catherine Parr she had no real role to fulfil: as queen, Catherine was both wife to Henry and a mother-figure to his children. Under Edward VI, Anne lost much of the property with which Henry had endowed her and long negotiations to improve her position or allow for her return to Germany proved fruitless. Hers was a sad and lonely retirement, though she was aware of her good fortune in escaping the fate of Catherine Howard, the woman who had replaced her only to end up executed.
Emperor Charles V (1500–1558)
In 1557, the emperor Charles V, who held the titles of Holy Roman Emperor, King of Spain, Duke of Burgundy and lord of territories from north Africa to the New World, announced that he was stepping down and retiring to a monastery to spend the rest of his days in prayer and contemplation. His decision took Europe by surprise – though, looking at his life story, it is not difficult to see why he had had enough. His whole life had been one of constant battle on every front: geographical, political and religious.
Charles had first inherited the Habsburg title to the duchy of Burgundy, which consisted essentially of the Low Countries, before inheriting the throne of Spain through his mother in 1516. Three years later he was elected Holy Roman Emperor by the princes of Germany. He inherited vast territories: in addition to Spain, Burgundy and the leadership of Germany, he ruled the Habsburg dynastic lands in central Europe and Spain’s recent conquests in Italy, North Africa and the New World. However, these territories brought their own conflicts. Both as king of Spain and as king of Hungary and its dependent territories, Charles found himself in the front line of resistance against the relentless and seemingly unstoppable expansion of the Ottoman Empire. His Spanish title also brought with it a similarly unending war with his great rival, Francis I of France, who was seeking to expand France’s frontiers into Italy. His Spanish title embroiled him in Henry VIII’s quarrel with the Pope, since Queen Katharine of Aragon was his aunt and he resented the insult both to his family and to the Church that Henry’s annulment of the marriage would entail.
However, the conflict that took the heaviest toll on Charles was the Protestant challenge to the Church posed by the German monk, Martin Luther. As German Emperor, Charles granted Luther safe conduct to state his case at the 1521 Diet of Worms [an imperial meeting to determine Luther’s fate], but thereafter he sought to eradicate Lutheranism, by force if need be. However, a number of German princes rallied to Luther’s defence: they took the name ‘Protestant’ from their formal protest against Charles’s ban on Luther and his ideas. The war with the Protestant princes dragged on through Charles’s reign: as a devout Catholic, Charles took his duty as a Christian ruler very seriously, and he was deeply disappointed at having to sign a compromise peace with them at Augsburg in 1555. He was even more grieved by the hostility sometimes shown him by the papacy, some of whose rulers regarded him as a rival for their claim to the leadership of the Catholic world. Exhausted and convinced he had failed in his duty to God, Charles divided his realms between his son Philip, who received the Netherlands and Spain, and his brother Ferdinand, who received the Empire and the Habsburg dynastic lands, and retired to the monastery of Yuste in Spain.
In retirement, Charles kept in touch with events, but he turned his thoughts towards death and the passing of time: his room was lined with clocks. He died a sad and disappointed man, broken by a role that was too big for him – or, probably, anyone.
James II (1633–1701)
King James VII of Scotland and II of England would be spitting with fury at being included in this list, because in his own eyes he did not stand down at all: he was forced out by the illegal foreign invasion and palace coup normally known to history as the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. However, a key element in the story of 1688 was the contention that James had not been overthrown at all – but had abdicated the throne. It was, therefore, empty when Parliament chose to fill it with James’s daughter, Princess Mary, and her Dutch husband, William of Orange, whose invasion force had forced James to flee his own kingdom. Although this idea of abdication was clearly a convenient fiction, it did form the constitutional basis for the revolution, and therefore qualifies James for inclusion here.
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James was the brother and therefore heir of Charles II, who regained the throne in 1660 after the end of Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate but who, while perfectly capable of producing children with his many mistresses, proved incapable of producing a legitimate child with his wife. What alarmed the English court, however, was James’s conversion to Catholicism: it was widely feared that a Catholic monarch would not only seek to turn all of England Catholic but would turn the country into a puppet state of the papacy and of King Louis XIV of France. When it was reported that there was a vast Catholic conspiracy to kill the king and bring about a Catholic take-over, leading politicians launched a determined attempt to exclude James from the succession to the throne; the threat was only finally defeated when the plot was finally revealed to be totally without foundation.
As king, James actually allowed French Protestant Huguenot fleeing persecution in France to settle in England, but his insistence on allowing toleration for Catholics seriously alarmed the political establishment. When a son was born to his Catholic Queen, Mary of Modena, the prospect of a Catholic line of succession to the throne prompted Parliament to act. It negotiated with William of Orange for a Dutch invasion force to land in Devon and James rapidly found support for him melting away. The most convenient outcome for William and Princess Mary was for James to vacate the throne and escape the country: they did not want him lingering on in prison. James’s first attempt to flee was frustrated when he was recognised and detained; he had to be ‘allowed’ to escape a second time and this time he got away to France.
He was granted sanctuary in France by Louis XIV, who placed the Chateau of St-Germain-en-Laye at his disposal. His attempt to regain his throne via an invasion of Ireland was defeated at the battle of the Boyne in 1690 and thereafter he lived his days in a sort of courtly limbo, maintaining the fiction that he was still king and attracting the support of ‘Jacobites’ (from Jacobus, Latin for James) who calculated that either he or his son, ‘James III’, might be able to return to power in London. As long as they remained Catholic, that was never going to happen.
Charles X of France (1757–1836)
Charles, Count of Artois, was the younger brother of two French kings, Louis XVI and Louis XVIII, and all three brothers learned what it was to be overthrown. Louis XVI had lost his throne (and his head) during the French Revolution, and his two brothers, the Counts of Provence and of Artois, fled, settling eventually in England. The two brothers’ responses to their long exile were significantly different. The Count of Provence sought to learn lessons for France from Britain’s constitutional monarchy, and when he returned to France in 1814 as King Louis XVIII after Napoleon’s fall, he sought to heal the divisions of the revolution period by instituting a royal Charter guaranteeing many of the rights that the French had established for themselves during the revolution. Louis XVIII was forced to flee when Napoleon briefly returned to power in 1815, but on his return, he instituted his more moderate form of monarchy, hoping to avoid making the same sort of mistakes that had led to the revolution of 1789.
His brother the Count of Artois, however, drew the exact opposite conclusion from his experiences in exile. He thought the revolution and Napoleon’s regime demonstrated that the legitimate form of monarchy should be reinstated quite unapologetically, showing no mercy to those who had overthrown his brother or who sought to introduce constitutional rule in France. In 1820, Artois’s son, the Duke de Berry, was assassinated; Artois took this as a sign that liberals and Bonapartists posed a serious threat to the monarchy and should be dealt with severely. When he came to throne in 1824 as King Charles X, he determined to give his full support to the reactionary ‘Ultras’, who sought to suppress liberty of speech and free political assembly.
Faced with a full-scale revolution, and possibly not wanting to cause more bloodshed, Charles X decided to abdicate in favour of his grandson, the Count of Chambord
In the short-term Charles X had some success. He made use of the elected Assembly that Louis XVIII had granted, to compensate nobles who had lost lands in the revolution and to strengthen the position of the Church, and by 1830, faced with a hostile Assembly, he sought in effect to by-pass it and rule by his own authority. Street protests in July 1830 grew dangerous, especially when they were joined by some of his troops, and Charles X had to withdraw his family to Versailles for their own safety. Faced with a full-scale revolution, and possibly not wanting to cause more bloodshed, he decided to abdicate in favour of his grandson, the Count of Chambord. However, his cousin, the Duke of Orleans, had already declared himself King Louis Philippe , meaning Charles and his family were forced to flee into exile in England.
Charles’s enforced retirement was not a happy time; he settled in Edinburgh before eventually moving to Prague. He had a difficult relationship with his widowed daughter-in-law, the Duchess of Berry, and he found it difficult to get a permanent home in Habsburg territory. He died in 1836, victim of a cholera outbreak.
Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807–1882)
Giuseppe Garibaldi was a professional soldier of great personal charisma, one of the most gifted guerrilla leaders of the 19th century. He learned his military craft fighting alongside nationalist rebels in South America, but the cause closest to his heart was the liberation of Italy.
The idea of overthrowing the Austrian-backed regimes in the Italian states and establishing a single Italian state was pioneered by the political theorist Giuseppe Mazzini. Mazzini conceived of Europe as a federation of nation states, and he wanted the Italians to give a lead in the process. After failed uprisings in 1820 and 1830, the major opportunity for nationalists to achieve Mazzini’s vision came in the great year of European revolution, 1848, when Italy was rocked by constitutional revolts, from Sicily and Naples through to Piedmont in the north. The revolts were centred on cities, especially Milan, Venice and Rome, and each was declared a republic, in a revival of the old Italian city states of the middle ages, as a precursor, they hoped, to the creation of a large united Italian kingdom. However, the Austrians, whose control of Italy the rebels were hoping to break, proved too strong for them, and by the summer of 1848 the risings were beginning to crumble. One of the last to hold out was Rome, under the command of Garibaldi, fresh from fighting against the Austrians in Milan.
Garibaldi’s defence of the Roman Republic became a celebrated tale of heroism against the odds: his enemy this time was not the Austrians but French forces sent by Louis Napoleon Bonaparte to put Pope Pius IX firmly back in control of the Eternal City. After heavy fighting Garibaldi was forced to withdraw. He headed northwards, hoping to join the resistance in Venice, which was still holding out, but he was forced to leave Italy. In a moment much loved by romancers, his wife Anita, who had accompanied him on campaign, died in his arms.
There followed a long period of exile, much of it spent in the United States and England. But in 1859 the state of Piedmont, with support from France, launched an attack on the Austrians that gave it control not only of Lombardy, but also of the smaller states of northern Italy. Garibaldi was angry with the Piedmontese for allowing the French to take over his home town of Nizza (Nice), but in 1860 he asked the Piedmontese government for help to take advantage of a separatist revolt that had broken out in Sicily. The Piedmontese prime minister, Count Cavour, cautiously agreed to provide Garibaldi’s army of a thousand ‘redshirts’ with some antiquated guns and equipment, and, to general astonishment, Garibaldi launched a successful invasion, establishing himself as dictator of Sicily, nominally in the name of the King of Piedmont, before crossing the Straits of Medina and ousting the King of Naples too. Alarmed that Garibaldi, a committed republican, might invade the Papal States and re-establish a republic in Rome, Cavour and the King of Piedmont, Victor Emmanuel II, decided to strike first: they launched an invasion of the Pope’s territories and finally met up with Garibaldi at Teano. There Garibaldi handed his conquests over to the king, recognising that a united Italy would be a kingdom, and retired, Cincinnatus-like, to his farm on the island of Caprera, accepting only a packet of seeds as payment for his services.
Garibaldi was a professional soldier of great personal charisma, one of the most gifted guerrilla leaders of the 19th century
In fact, Garibaldi did not fade out into retirement: two years later he launched a military attack on the French garrison that still occupied Rome, and he led troops in Piedmont’s successful 1866 war with Austria to get hold of Venice. He took a keen interest in political developments in France, after the fall of his enemy Napoleon III, and he was elected to the Italian Parliament. But his days of power and influence were behind him and he died in 1882 on Caprera, his memory kept alive by popular cheap portrait busts and the biscuit named after him.
Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859–1941)
Kaiser Wilhelm II’s abdication at the end of the First World War was one of the most reluctant in history: it had been demanded as a condition of peace by the American president, Woodrow Wilson, but the kaiser tried to side-step the demand with the ingenious but unacceptable idea that he should abdicate as kaiser but remain king of the German state of Prussia. In the end the German Chancellor, Prince Max of Baden (himself the kaiser’s cousin) simply announced that the kaiser had abdicated, even though he hadn’t, as a way of forcing the issue, almost daring the kaiser to deny it. He didn’t and headed instead into exile in the Netherlands.
Imperial Germany had been based on the authority of the German Emperor and Wilhelm took his role very seriously, frequently driving his ministers to distraction with his maverick and often damaging interventions in German foreign policy. He had caused immense strain in relations with Great Britain with his support for the South African Boers and a disastrous interview with the Daily Telegraph in 1908. He took close interest and immense pride in the expansion of the German navy, which was correctly seen as a challenge to Britain’s naval supremacy, and when war came in 1914 he relished his role as ‘Supreme War Lord’, though his role was essentially ceremonial; his generals largely ignored his attempts to direct strategy. He was an enthusiastic supporter of unrestricted submarine warfare, which his chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, correctly predicted would bring the United States into the war.
President Wilson’s view was that the war was the product of aristocratic-dominated political and social system operating in European states, and that the only way to prevent future wars would be to recalibrate the continent along democratic lines. In the case of Germany, that would mean dismantling the monarchy and establishing a democratic government which, it was hoped, would never embark on the sort of aggressive war that had marked Imperial Germany’s approach to foreign affairs. For that reason, he made the removal of the kaiser a pre-requisite for the armistice the Germans requested in 1918, after the defeat of their forces in the field. By the autumn of 1918 the patience of the German people with the war was at breaking point in any case: revolution had broken out in Berlin and other cities and the German socialists and communists were making a bid for power. There was no enthusiasm in the army high command for a republic, but no one could ignore the way the Romanov imperial family had been murdered by the Russian Bolsheviks earlier the same year: they concluded that the kaiser would have to go, and for his own safety he would be well advised to get out of Germany.
He lived out his years of exile at Doorn in the Netherlands. He never entirely gave up his dream of returning to Germany, though this was ruled out both by the Weimar Republic and the Nazi regime. He kept in touch with political events in Germany and developed a deep admiration for Adolf Hitler. It was also during his exile that he gave full expression to his deep antisemitism. Not surprisingly, he welcomed the German forces which invaded the Netherlands in 1940 and was treated by them in turn with respect. He died in 1941, an unrepentant German expansionist.
Edward VIII (1894–1972)
The abdication of Edward VIII in 1936 is probably the most celebrated example in modern times of a ruler deciding voluntarily, albeit under pressure, to step down. As Prince of Wales David (as he was then known) had been a very popular figure, something of an international celebrity, and it was widely hoped that he would bring a breath of fresh air to a monarchy that had begun to look rather tired and remote under George V and Queen Mary. Even George V’s radio broadcasts at Christmas could not compete with the impact of the new king’s visit to unemployed miners in South Wales, whose poverty clearly moved him as he assured them that “something will be done for you”.
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What the public did not know, though anyone who moved in court circles was well aware of it, was the new king’s relationship with the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. As Prince of Wales he had tended to enter into relationships with married women, though this was kept from public attention: there was still widespread disapproval of divorce. The relationship mattered because when George V died in 1936 it soon became clear that the new king intended to marry his lover and make her his queen. Constitutionally there was no objection to an American queen but there was to a divorcee: Edward VIII would be Supreme Governor of the Church of England, which denied divorced people full communion and made it clear it would refuse to accept such a marriage. Since Edward refused to accept other suggestions, such as a morganatic marriage by which she would be married to him but not become queen, and the Dominions made it clear they would not accept him as their king if he insisted on marrying Mrs Simpson, the prime minister Stanley Baldwin had no alternative: the king would have to go. Edward put his private wishes before his public duty and became the first British monarch to sign an Instrument of Abdication.
At the time the public, which had not known the full story of his private life, was confused and angry: it was widely felt that the king should be free to marry whomsoever he wished. However, his brother, the Duke of York, who assumed the throne as King George VI, quickly proved a popular figure, especially in the war that followed shortly afterwards.
Edward married Wallis and they paid a much-publicised visit to Nazi Germany, where they were warmly received by Hitler. This has led to speculation that Edward was a Nazi sympathiser and might have played the role of puppet king had the Germans occupied Britain. The pair narrowly escaped from France and in 1940 were packed off to the Bahamas, where Edward was appointed governor, essentially to keep him out of the way.
The former king was made Duke of Windsor, a royal title that had the (intended) effect of preventing him from standing for election to the House of Commons; his wife Wallis, however, was not given the royal title of Her Royal Highness though she was made Duchess of Windsor. Elizabeth, George VI’s consort, never forgave Wallis Simpson for the abdication and for forcing her husband into the role of king. Edward and Wallis spent most of their retirement in Paris, still bitter about what they saw as their unfair treatment at the hands of the British establishment – though many nowadays think the abdication saved Britain from a highly unsuitable monarch.
Pope Benedict XVI (1927–)
In 2013, Pope Benedict XVI surprised the world by announcing he was going to step down and make way for a successor. The last pope to abdicate was Gregory XII in 1415, whose resignation was needed to end the long schism that had seen the Catholic Church split between two, and even on occasion three, rival popes. The right of popes to resign was established by Pope Celestine V in 1294; he promptly took advantage of it and tried to retire to his monastery, though his successor, Boniface VIII, had him imprisoned to prevent any chance of his changing his mind and reclaiming his title.
Benedict XVI, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, had been a powerful figure in the Roman Curia under the papacy of John Paul II, and was widely tipped as his successor. He was known as a conservative figure and a strong critic of modern secular values, though he also came under criticism for blaming the clerical abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church in recent years on the sexual liberation of the 1960s.
There is still much speculation about Benedict XVI’s surprise decision to retire. He had only been elected pope eight years previously and had seemed an energetic figure, especially after the painfully visible frailty of his predecessor. He gave failing health as his reason, though there has inevitably been speculation that other factors were involved. His successor, Pope Francis, was elected a month after Benedict’s announcement and, although Francis is the only actual pope, Benedict still wears the papal white robes and is still referred to as Your Holiness.
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