ATHENS, GREECE (AP) — Constantine, the former and last king of Greece who won an Olympic gold medal before becoming embroiled in his country’s volatile politics in the 1960s as monarch and spent decades in exile, has died. He was 82 years old.
Doctors at the private Hygeia Hospital in Athens confirmed to The Associated Press that Constantine died late Tuesday after receiving treatment in the intensive care unit but had no further details pending an official announcement.
When he ascended the throne as Constantine II in 1964 at the age of 23, the young monarch, who had already achieved glory as an Olympic gold medalist in sailing, was hugely popular. By the following year, he had squandered much of this support by taking an active part in the machinations that brought down the elected Center Union government of Prime Minister George Papandreou.
The episode involving the defection of many legislators from the ruling party, still widely known in Greece as “apostasy”, destabilized the constitutional order and led to a military coup in 1967. Constantine eventually clashed with the military rulers and was forced into exile.
A dictatorship abolished the monarchy in 1973, while a referendum after the restoration of democracy in 1974 dashed any hopes Constantine had of ruling again.
Reduced in the following decades to only occasional visits to Greece which raised a political and media storm each time, he managed to settle down again in his homeland in his later years when dissenting his presence was no longer a badge of a vigilant republic. With minimal nostalgia for the monarchy in Greece, Constantine became a relatively uncontroversial figure.
Constantine was born on June 2, 1940, in Athens, to Prince Paul, younger brother of King George II and heir presumptive to the throne, and Princess Frederica of Hanover. His older sister, Sofia, is the wife of the former King Juan Carlos I of Spain. Greek-born Prince Philip, the late Duke of Edinburgh and husband of the late Queen Elizabeth II, was an uncle.
The family, which had ruled Greece since 1863 except for a 12-year republican interlude between 1922-1935, was descended from Prince Christian, later Christian IX of Denmark, of the Danish family of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderborg-Glücksburg. the ruling family.
Before Constantine’s first birthday, the royal family is forced to flee Greece during the German invasion in World War II, moving to Alexandria in Egypt and South Africa and returning to Alexandria. King George II returned to Greece in 1946, after a disputed referendum, but died a few months later, making Constantine heir to King Paul I.
Constantine was educated at a boarding school and then attended three military academies as well as classes at the Faculty of Law of Athens in preparation for his future role. He also participated in various sports, including sailing and karate, as he held a black belt.
In 1960, at the age of 20, he, along with two other Greek sailors, won a gold medal in the dragon—now no longer an Olympic class—at the Rome Olympics. While still a prince, Constantine was elected to the International Olympic Committee and made an honorary life member in 1974.
King Paul I died of cancer on March 6, 1964, and Constantine succeeded him weeks after the Union of Center party defeated the conservatives with 53% of the vote.
The prime minister, George Papandreou, and Constantine initially had a very close relationship, but it soon soured due to Constantine’s insistence that control of the armed forces was the prerogative of the king.
With many officers toying with the idea of dictatorship and seeing any non-conservative government as being soft on communism, Papandreou wanted to take control of the Ministry of Defense and eventually demanded that he be appointed Minister of Defense. After a scathing exchange of letters with Constantine, Papandreou resigned in July 1965.
Constantine’s insistence on appointing a government made up of centrist dissidents that won a narrow parliamentary majority on the third attempt was largely unpopular. Many viewed him as being manipulated by his scheming mother, Dowager Queen Frederica.
“People don’t want you, take your mom and go!” It became the rallying cry of the protests that rocked Greece in the summer of 1965.
Eventually, Constantine made a truce of sorts with Papandreou and, with his approval, appointed a government of technocrats, then a conservative-led government to hold elections in May 1967.
But with opinion polls heavily favoring a union of the center and with Papandreou’s left-wing son, Andreas, gaining popularity, Constantine and his entourage feared reprisals and with the help of high-ranking officers prepared a coup.
However, a group of lower-ranking officers, led by colonels, were preparing their own coup, and declared the dictatorship on April 21, 1967, after being briefed on Constantine’s plans by a mole.
Constantine was surprised and his feelings towards the new rulers were shown in the official portrait of the new government. He pretended to accompany them as they prepared a counter-coup with the help of the forces in northern Greece and his loyal navy.
On 13 December 1967, Constantine and his family traveled to the northern city of Kavala with the intention of marching on Thessaloniki and forming a government there. The counter-coup, poorly managed and infiltrated, collapsed, and Constantine was forced to flee to Rome the next day. He will never return as a reigning king.
The junta appointed a regent and, after a failed military coup by the navy in May 1973, abolished the monarchy on 1 June 1973. A July referendum, widely considered to have been rigged, confirmed the decision.
When the dictatorship collapsed in July 1974, Constantine was anxious to return to Greece, but veteran politician Constantine Karamanlis, who had returned from exile to head a civilian government, advised against it. Karamanlis, who also headed the government between 1955 and 1963, was a conservative but clashed with the court over what he considered excessive interference in politics.
After winning the November elections, Karamanlis called a plebiscite on the monarchy in 1974. Constantine was not allowed into the country, but the result was clear and widely accepted: 69.2% voted for the republic.
Soon after, Karamanlis famously said that the nation got rid of a cancerous growth. The day after the referendum, Constantine said that “national unity must take precedence… I sincerely hope that the developments will justify the outcome of yesterday’s vote.”
To his last days, Constantine, while accepting that Greece was now a republic, continued to style himself King of Greece and his children as princes and princesses even though titles of nobility were no longer recognized by Greece.
For most of his years in exile he lived in Hampstead Garden Spring, London, and was said to be particularly close to his second cousin Charles, Prince of Wales and now King Charles III.
While it took Constantine 14 years to return to his country, briefly, to bury his mother, Queen Frederica in 1981, he doubled down on his visits thereafter and, as of 2010, made his home there. The disputes continued: in 1994, the then socialist government stripped him of his citizenship and confiscated what was left of the royal family’s property. Constantine sued in the European Court of Human Rights and was awarded 12 million euros in 2002, a fraction of the 500 million he had demanded.
He was survived by his wife, the former Princess Anne Marie of Denmark, younger sister of Queen Margrethe II; five children, Alexia, Pavlos, Nikolaos, Theodora and Philippos; and nine grandchildren. ___ Derek Gatopoulos in Athens contributed.