Royalty in the land of equality
How does the Danish royal family retain its relevance - and popularity - in a country known for equality?
Photographs: VisitDenmark - Martin Heiberg
Text: Sarah Redohl
I hesitate to admit how long I lived in Denmark without any knowledge of the Danish monarchy. I never carry cash, send snail mail, or eat butter cookies from tins bedazzled with Queen Margrethe II’s face. All those palaces scattered about? I assumed they were as empty as those I’d found in France or Germany.
When I learned they housed royalty, I was already familiar with Denmark’s trademark equality. What could be more antithetical to egalitarian sensibilities than hereditary privilege, I thought. And not only does Denmark have royalty - the Danes love them.
Royal, but normal
Support for the Danish monarchy hovers around 80 percent - double what it was when Queen Margrethe ascended the throne in 1972. I’ve been told that part of their appeal is the appearance of normalcy: a modern Danish family who bicycles to school with their children and dons Wellies in the garden. They marry for love (neither Prince Frederik nor Prince Joachim married royalty), and sometimes, love doesn’t work out (as with Prince Joachim’s first wife, Alexandra. The couple divorced in 2004). Even among royalty, life isn’t always a fairytale.
That impression of normalcy has been cultivated for generations. When on summer holidays in rural France at the château de Cayx, the Queen invites the press and greets them wearing open-toed sandals and oversized plastic daisy earrings (in reference to her nickname, Daisy). Her father, Frederik IX, had tattoos! “What other royals have tattoos?” one Dane asked me. And her grandfather, Christian X, was known as “A bloke who liked horses,” said another Dane - so much so that he rode the streets of Copenhagen unguarded during the Nazi occupation of Denmark in World War II.
“They are allowed to be themselves and follow their own interests,” said royal expert Steffen Løvkjær. He teaches a graduate course about the royals at the DIS Institute in Copenhagen and founded the tour company Historic Talks. “If [the royals] didn’t express their own identities, others would create identities for them,” he said, whether by the royal court or the media.
Furthermore, the Danish royals’ identities are generally perceived as genuine. As one long-time supporter told me, “I trust that they are who they say they are.” Part of this trust is simply because people see the royals out and about. “They live out in the open,” Steffan said. The Queen does her own leisure shopping, and the Crown Prince strolls to Joe & the Juice a few blocks from Amalienborg for coffee.
Not only does the royal family appear authentic, but they are also authentically Danish. “They wouldn’t be so popular if they didn’t fit that quintessential Danish ideal,” Steffen said. Historically, this makes sense. For generations, royalty was the symbol of a nation. The Queen’s own lineage dates back to Gorm the Old; Gorm’s son, Harald Bluetooth, unified Denmark in the late 900s.
Now a constitutional monarchy, Denmark’s royal family retains its symbolic relevance. “If you look at the royal family politically or academically, it doesn’t make sense today,” Steffen said. “But it links us to our past, our roots. The royal family is proud of their country and expresses this pride beautifully.”
“They live out in the open,” Steffan said. The Queen does her own leisure shopping, and the Crown Prince strolls to Joe & the Juice a few blocks from Amalienborg for coffee.
Court of public opinion
If ever the royal family falls short of expectations, they are subject to the court of public opinion. For example, when Prince Frederik crossed a closed bridge, the backlash against this special privilege was swift - as was his explanation and apology. When concerns grew about their annual state contribution, the royal family announced that Prince Christian would be the only child of the next generation to receive such funds.
Steffen summarised it well: “They behave.” They lead delegations, promote Danish interests, and appear at public engagements. “They operate within the constitution, and they do the job that we pay them to do.” They may not be elected, but they must be responsive as if they were to maintain their popularity.
Support for the Danish monarchy is conditional, not categorical. “It only works,” Steffen said, “because both parties know how to behave in this strange paradox.” The concept of a monarchy may not fit Denmark’s egalitarian sensibilities, but as long as the members of the Danish royal family appear to, long live the Queen!