Thousands turn out to bid farewell to Greece’s former king

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A man holds a picture of the former king of Greece Constantine with his wife, as others wait to enter in the Chapel of Saint Eleftherios as the coffin of the former king of Greece Constantine lies in repose in Athens, Monday, Jan. 16, 2023. Constantine died in a hospital late Tuesday at the age of 82 as Greece's monarchy was definitively abolished in a referendum in December 1974. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

ATHENS – As a crowd of thousands chanted “Long live the king” and “Constantine, Constantine,” the casket carrying the former and last monarch of Greece emerged from Athens' metropolitan cathedral Monday after a funeral service attended by royalty from across Europe.

Constantine's wife, Anne-Marie, the sister of Denmark's Queen Margrethe II, and his eldest son, Pavlos, followed at the head of the funeral procession. The casket, draped with the Greek flag, was loaded into a hearse for the trip to Tatoi, a former royal estate north of Athens where Constantine was to be buried near his parents and ancestors.

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Once a richly forested site popular with Athenians for picnics and nature walks, Tatoi was ravaged by a wildfire about two years ago and had remained mostly blackened and derelict ever since. Cleanup crews worked feverishly since Constantine's death last week at age 82 to clean up the site in time for Monday's funeral.

A referendum definitively abolished Greece's monarchy in 1974. Constantine, a controversial figure during a turbulent time in Greek history, spent decades in exile before returning to settle in his home country in his waning years.

“By the grace of God, you drew your last breath in our country, which you always loved above all else throughout your life,” Pavlos said in a eulogy to his father. Constantine's children and grandchildren, Pavlos said, “are ready, as you had always been, to offer Greece whatever the country asks of us.”

European royals, many closely related to Constantine, descended on Athens for the funeral, including Margrethe and the Spanish royal family. Constantine's sister Sophia is the mother of Spain's King Felipe VI and the wife of former King Juan Carlos I.

Constantine was one of the godparents of Prince William, heir to the British throne. William's aunt, Princess Anne, represented the British royal family in Athens.

Juan Carlos, walking with the aid of a walking stick, attended with Sophia at his side. It was a rare public appearance for the former king, who has lived in Abu Dhabi since being cut off from the Spanish royal family in 2020 amid financial scandals.

The Greek government had announced Constantine would be buried as a private citizen without honors reserved for former heads of state. A limited lying in state was allowed from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m in a chapel next to the cathedral.

Thousands of people turned out, some traveling from across Greece and lining up for hours in the predawn darkness and winter chill.

“He was a constitutional leader of the country. It was a monarchy then, so we must honor this man who stayed in Greece for so many years and who is Greek,” Athens resident Georgia Florenti said while waiting to pay her respects to the former monarch.

Some mourners expressed disappointment that Constantine was being buried without the honors awarded to former heads of state.

“I feel anger because I consider it petty for funerals to be held at public expense for actors and singers, and for us not to honor a person who, for better or for worse, was king of Greece,” said Irene Zagana.

Constantine acceded to the throne in 1964 at age 23, already an Olympic sailing gold medalist. The young king and his wife enjoyed huge popularity, which quickly eroded because of Constantine’s active involvement in the machinations that brought down the elected government of then-Prime Minister George Papandreou.

“There was social adoration for the young king. Any dislikes there were concerned his mother,” Thanassis Diamantopoulos, a political science professor at Athens’ Panteion University, said. "He himself was beloved, but unfortunately, through the mindless and thoughtless management of the 1965 crisis, he managed to squander this sympathy very quickly.”

The episode involving the defection from the ruling party of several lawmakers destabilized the constitutional order and led to a military coup in 1967. Constantine eventually clashed with the military rulers and was forced into exile.

When the dictatorship collapsed in July 1974, Constantine was eager to return to Greece, but was advised against it by veteran politician Constantine Karamanlis, who returned from exile to head a civilian government.

After winning a November election that year, Karamanlis called for a plebiscite on the monarchy. Constantine wasn't allowed to return to campaign, but the result was widely accepted: 69.2% voted in favor of a republic.

Constantine “should be given credit for something that other deposed monarchs have not done: he never threatened, challenged or undermined the state not headed by a king after he was dethroned,” Diamantopoulos said. “He accepted the 1974 referendum. He did not create a party of monarchy nostalgics. ... Thus, with his silence, he contributed to cementing the new system of government.”

There have been no opinion polls measuring possible support for the former king since the monarchy was abolished. Public discourse in Greece tends to be significantly negative concerning the monarchy.

The number of people waiting patiently for hours in Athens to pay their final respects suggested Constantine was still much loved by a segment of society.

“He is a former high-level official to whom we should certainly show the necessary honors, a person who is serious, who is noble, who is decent,” said lawyer Giannis Katsiavos, who was among the crowd. “We will remember him forever.”


Raphael Kominis contributed to this report.

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