ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece’s former and last emperor Constantine, an Olympic gold medalist before spending decades in exile after becoming embroiled in his country’s turbulent politics as king in the 1960s, has died. He is 82 years old.
Doctors at the private Hygeia Hospital in Athens confirmed to The Associated Press that Constantine died late Tuesday after treatment in the intensive care unit, but an official announcement was pending.
When he ascended the throne as Constantine II in 1964 at the age of 23, the young monarch, who was already an Olympic gold medalist in sailing, achieved great fame. Over the next year he squandered much of that support by actively engaging in maneuvers to topple Prime Minister Georges Papandreou’s elected central union government.
The episode, which involved the defection of several lawmakers from the ruling party, and is still widely known in Greece as “the apostasy”, disrupted the constitutional order and led to a military coup in 1967. Eventually Constantine was forced into conflict with the military rulers.
The dictatorship abolished the monarchy in 1973, while a referendum after democracy was restored in 1974 dashed hopes that Constantine would rule again.
Reduced in subsequent decades to quick trips to Greece, each time stirring a political and media storm, he was able to settle back in his home country during his dry years. With minimal aspiration for monarchy in Greece, Constantine became a relatively controversial figure.
Constantine was born in Athens on June 2, 1940, to Prince Paul, younger brother and heir to the throne of King George II, and Princess Frederica of Hanover. His older sister Sofia was the wife of former King Juan Carlos I of Spain. Greek-born Prince Philip, the late Duke of Edinburgh and husband of the late Queen Elizabeth II, is an uncle.
The family, which has ruled Greece since 1863 except for a 12-year republican hiatus between 1922–1935, is descended from Prince Christian of Denmark, later Christian IX of Denmark, of the Schleswig-Holstein-Sanderburg-Glucksburg branch of the Danish branch. The ruling family.
Before Constantine’s first birthday, the royal family was forced to flee Greece during the German invasion of World War II, moving to Egypt, Alexandria in South Africa, and back to Alexandria. King George II returned to Greece in 1946 following a controversial referendum, but died a few months later, leaving Constantine as King Paul I’s successor.
Constantine attended a boarding school, then attended three military academies and Athens law school classes in preparation for his future role. He also participates in various sports including sailing and karate and wears a black belt.
In 1960, at the age of 20, he and two other Greek sailors won a gold medal in the dragon class – now no Olympic class – at the Rome Olympics. While still a prince, Constantine was elected a member of the International Olympic Committee, becoming an honorary life member in 1974.
King Paul I died of cancer on March 6, 1964 and Constantine succeeded him, a few weeks after the Center Union Party defeated the Conservatives with 53% of the vote.
Prime Minister George Papandreou and Constantine initially had a very close relationship, but it soon soured over Constantine’s insistence that control of the armed forces was the king’s prerogative.
As many officials toyed with the idea of dictatorship and considered the conservative government soft on communism, Papandreou wanted to control the Ministry of Defense, eventually demanding to be appointed Minister of Defense. After an acrimonious correspondence with Constantine, Papandreou resigned in July 1965.
Constantine’s insistence on appointing a government composed of defectors from the centrist party, which won a narrow parliamentary majority at the third attempt, was not well received. Many considered him manipulated by his scheming mother, the dowager Queen Frederica.
“People don’t want you, get your mother!” In the summer of 1965, the protests turned into a rallying cry that rocked Greece.
Eventually, Constantine made a truce of sorts with Papandreou and, with his agreement, appointed a government of technocrats and, later, a conservative-led government to hold elections in May 1967.
But with the polls heavily favoring the Central Union and Papandreou’s left-wing son Andreas rising in popularity, Constantine and his courtiers feared reprisals and prepared for a coup with the help of high officials.
However, a group of lower-ranking officers, led by colonels, prepared their own coup, announced Constantine’s plans through a mole, and declared a dictatorship on April 21, 1967.
Constantine was surprised and his feelings towards the new rulers were evident in the official photograph of the new government. He pretended to accompany them while preparing a counter-plot with the help of troops in northern Greece and a navy loyal to him.
On December 13, 1967, Constantine and his family flew to the northern city of Kavala with the intention of marching on Thessaloniki and setting up a government there. The counter-plot, poorly managed and infiltrated, collapsed and Constantine was forced to flee to Rome the next day. He will not come back as a reigning king.
A military junta appointed a regent and abolished the monarchy on June 1, 1973, after a foiled naval counter-plot in May 1973. A July referendum, widely considered, confirmed this decision.
When the dictatorship collapsed in July 1974, Constantine was eager to return to Greece, but was advised against it by the elder statesman Constantine Karamanlis, who headed a civilian government in exile. Karamanlis, who headed the government between 1955-63, was a conservative but clashed with the court over what it considered its excessive interference in politics.
After winning the November elections, Karamanlis called a referendum on the monarchy in 1974. Constantine was not allowed to campaign in the country, but the result was unequivocal and widely accepted: 69.2% voted in favor of the Republic.
Soon after, Karamanlis famously claimed that the nation had rid itself of cancer. The day after the referendum, Constantine said, “National unity must be prioritized…I wish with all my heart that the developments justify the result of yesterday’s referendum.”
Until his final days, Constantine accepted that Greece was now a republic, continuing to style the king of Greece and his children as princes and princesses, even though Greece no longer recognized titles of aristocracy.
For most of his years in exile, he lived in the London suburb of Hampstead Gardens and was said to be particularly close to his second cousin, Charles, Prince of Wales and now King Charles III.
It took Constantine 14 years to return to his country, briefly, to bury his mother Frederica in 1981, and since then he has increased his visits and, since 2010, has made his home there. Disputes continued: in 1994, the then socialist government revoked his citizenship and confiscated what was left of the royal family’s property. Constantine sued the European Court of Human Rights and was awarded 12 million euros in 2002, a fraction of the 500 million he had sought.
His wife, former Princess Anne-Marie of Denmark, younger sister of Queen Margrethe II; five children, Alexia, Pavlos, Nikolas, Theodora and Philippos; and nine grandchildren. ___ Contributed by Derek Katopoulos in Athens.