In the musical Hamilton, King George III of England is shocked when he hears that the first president of the United States is retiring. “They say George Washington’s yielding his power and stepping away,” he sings, “Is that true? I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do.”
Many royals, including his great-great-great granddaughter Queen Elizabeth, certainly held to the belief that the role of monarch was a lifelong position, a God-given duty that had nothing to do with democratic elections or defections. But over the past 10 years, several aging monarchs—including the scandal-ridden King Juan Carlos of Spain, Belgium’s King Albert II, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, and Emperor Akihito of Japan—have willingly abdicated in favor of their children.
Even young senior royals, including Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, former princesses of Japan now known as Mako Komuro and Ayako Moriya, Princess Madeleine of Sweden, and Norway’s Princess M?rtha Louise have taken early retirement, stepping away from some or all dynastic duties, forging new destinies far from the pomp and palaces of their former lives.
Mere commoners have often expressed surprise that rich, cosseted royals would voluntarily leave their exalted positions of privilege. “The little insignificant band of kings who voluntarily descended from their thrones lived scattered throughout many countries and various ages,” The New York Times intoned in 1923, “and in their characters there must have been some strange lack or some strong quality that made them indifferent to that which appeals to most men.”
However, the statement above is not entirely true. According to Monarchs Retired From Business, the definitive two-volume chronicle by scholar John Doran, for many centuries it was quite common for monarchs and their relatives to personally choose to renounce their royal duties, worn out or just fed up with their overwhelming public lives and responsibilities.
When the Roman emperor Diocletian abdicated in 305 AD, he retired to a serene villa in Italy, peacefully tending his garden. When asked if he would retake the imperial throne, he allegedly quipped (per The New York Times), “If you could see the fine cabbages I am growing, you would not wonder that I no longer desire to rule.”
There is also another possibly apocryphal tale, told by Doran, of an early Polish king who simply ran away from his turbulent throne. He was eventually found at a local market, disguised as a porter hauling goods. Doran writes:
He was entreated to return to the vacant throne, but he obstinately refused, declaring at the same time, that he had carried no weight on his shoulders, since he had been porter, half so heavy as that which had nearly crushed him while monarch. He had slept more, he added, in four nights, than during all his reign before; had good health and appetite, no cares, was king of himself, and did not care … who was King of Poland.
According to Doran, during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance many kings, princes, and princesses retired to monasteries, worn out by the violence, court intrigue, and military campaigning that dominated the age. Widowed or abandoned queens, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, often retired to monasteries. While some took the veil and became abbesses, asserting a new kind of power, others continued to be active in politics, and enjoyed a sumptuous life filled with theatricals, playwriting, and gourmet food and drink.
One of the most famous monarchs to willingly abdicate was Charles V, Holy Roman emperor. During the 16th century, the serious, pugilistic monarch was the most powerful person in Europe. For 36 years he was constantly on the move, waging war and attempting to keep his vast empire together, with a seemingly unquenchable thirst for power.
However, the emperor had a long-held wish. According to Doran, Charles and his beloved wife, Isabella of Portugal, exhausted by court life and their constant travels, long spoke of retiring once their children were grown—he to a monastery and she to a convent. When Isabella died in 1539, it seemed Charles had forgotten their pact, but he had not.
In the 1550s, Charles began to plan for his retirement, splitting his empire between his son King Phillip II of Spain, and his brother Ferdinand I. In 1556, as part of a long farewell tour, he traveled to his newly chosen home, the monastery San Jerónimo de Yuste in Spain.
But while Charles claimed to now be a “private man,” his new life was anything but monastic. He moved into a well-appointed eight-room home at the monastery, complete with many servants. His bedroom was attached to the monks’s chapel with a window that allowed the ex-emperor (often unwell due to gout because of his gluttonous ways) to watch mass from his sumptuous bed. He continued to drink beer and eat to excess, dozing in the sun in his garden, fishing in a nearby stream, attending concerts and celebrations at the monasteries, and visiting with his two sisters, who had retired nearby.
Scholars, dignitaries, and the curious still flocked to visit him. Now retired, Charles was finally able to fully indulge in his passion for clock-making and mechanics, spending hours with the Italian engineer and mathematician Gianello della Torre, who would delight him with his latest clocks and inventions.
So obsessed was Charles with his favorite hobby, his harried master chef claimed that the picky ex-monarch, suffering from intense stomach issues, would only be pleased with a “pie stuffed with timepieces.” Self-important and grand to the last, Charles died in 1558 at the age of 58, a “private” and free man.
Some retired monarchs would lead post-royal lives that scandalized the world. The brilliant, energetic, eccentric, non-gender-conforming Queen Christina of Sweden became queen when she was only five, and she appeared to hate every minute of it. Once, when two courtiers appeared on official business, she turned to her cousin and sighed, “I would soon see the devil, as see these people.”
Ignoring pleas from her people, 27-year-old Christina abdicated in 1654. She fled the freezing cold of Sweden for the warmth of Rome, reportedly crying “free at last” as she left her former country. For the next 35 years, she did whatever she pleased, attempting to claim the thrones of Poland and Naples, converting to Catholicism, attempting to transmute metals into gold, shocking the proper court of France with her strident, informal demeanor, and presiding over a lively informal court filled with “thieves, assassins, and debauched women.”
But not all retired monarchs found retirement as satisfactory as Queen Christina. In 1730, 65-year-old Victor Amadeus II, the celebrated, heroic but shifty King of Sardinia-Piedmont, was weary of official duties and in love. According to Doran, on the same day that he married his (alleged) longtime mistress Anna Canalis di Cumiana, he abdicated in favor of his son, Charles Emmanuel III.
Initially, the ex-monarch seemed fully invested in living a “normal” life, moving into a relatively modest chateau, employing few servants, and insisting on few luxuries except his stately curled wig. But according to Doran, his 50-year-old wife Anna was not pleased with her simple life. He writes that “she resolved to allow no tranquility to the aged Victor, until he had resumed his royal authority and conferred on her—what he had not ventured to do before his abdication—a crown.”
Weakened by health problems, and clearly missing his status, in 1731 Victor Amadeus attempted to rescind his Act of Abdication and take the throne back from his son. Things came to a head when Victor attempted to retake an important stronghold in the country.
“Charles was informed that Victor had appeared, on horseback, before the citadel of Turin, and had demanded the keys of that fortress,” Doran writes. “On the respectful but determined refusal of the commandant, the old King, in a towering passion, had turned his horse's head back.” When Charles Emanuel discovered his father’s betrayal, he “burst into tears, but he ordered his father to prison.”
And thus, a raging Victor Emmanuel was dragged away to a comfortable captivity, while his screaming wife was taken to a convent. He died in confinement in 1732.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, a series of revolutions, coups, and world wars forced dozens of rulers and their families from their lofty pedestals. Most monarchs that remained were relegated to ceremonial figureheads, busy less with governing and more with endless public appearances, perhaps not as stressful but in their own ways exhausting. Forbidden love would famously play a major role in King Edward VIII’s decision to abdicate the British throne in 1936, retiring into a jet-setting life of dissipation with his wife Wallis Simpson.
The last three queens of the Netherlands have gracefully bowed on their own terms. Queen Wilhelmina abdicated in 1948 (writing her autobiography Lonely but Not Alone in retirement), and her daughter Queen Juliana abdicated in 1980 after 32 years on the throne. “As one gets older one realizes sooner or later that one’s powers decrease and that one cannot fulfill one’s duties as before,” she stated.
In 2013, Queen Beatrix, Juliana’s gregarious and extremely popular daughter, also abdicated after a 33-year reign. Explaining her decision, she explained that she believed it was time for “a new generation.” On the royal balcony after her abdication, it was Queen Beatrix who had the honor of introducing her son to the cheering public, saying, “I am happy and grateful to introduce to you your new king, Willem-Alexander.”
The grateful ex-queen, now styled Princess Beatrix, appears to be enjoying herself, appearing occasionally at public events and posing for portraits with her growing family.
Another ex-monarch currently in retirement is Emperor Akihito of Japan, who formally abdicated the Chrysanthemum throne in 2019 in favor of son Naruhito. The lives of Japanese royals are known to be isolating, regulated, and old-fashioned, reportedly leading to mental health issues within the family. It is not surprising that Akihito is said to be enjoying a “quiet and peaceful” retirement, featuring morning walks with his wife, Empress Michiko. He spends his days watching nature and history programs, reading, and researching goby fish, often going to the Imperial Palace’s lab to study the specimen.
While Queen Elizabeth II never left official life, her cousin Prince Michael of Kent has, as did her husband, Prince Philip. While the retirement of these elderly men was no surprise, Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, who officially quit life as working royals in 2020, shocked the world.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, said to have been inspired by Princess Diana walking back her public role after her divorce, are being joined by a small band of young royals who are dedicated to forging new careers beyond their jobs as hereditary royals. With their status as global celebrities, an independent life and career—something that was unthinkable in past centuries—seems increasingly enticing to a new generation of royals.
In 2021, former princess Mako of Japan chose to give up her title and noble status (required by Japanese law when a princess marries a commoner) when she married her university sweetheart, commoner Kei Komuro. The relationship caused a public scandal, and Mako announced she was suffering from PTSD due to the ordeal. But the couple soldiered on. “We will be starting a new life,” Mako said at the time. “I am sure we will encounter difficulties along the way. But just as we have until now, I want to continue joining forces [with Kei], and walking together side by side.”
Determined to forge her own path, Mako declined the $1.3 million payout Japanese princesses are offered when they marry a commoner. She and Kei relocated to New York City and moved into a luxury one-bedroom apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. Unlike the Sussexes, the couple has truly become private citizens with Kei working as a lawyer and Mako reportedly interning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mako has been photographed casually strolling markets, shopping at places like Bed Bath & Beyond, and asking for directions.
And then there is Princess M?rtha Louise of Norway, the eccentric spiritualist who has long confused her country with her mystical beliefs (including her claim that she communes with angels). In 2022, her commercial ventures with her fiancée, the controversial American self-professed shaman Durek Verrett, and her own personal path led her to withdraw from her official duties in order to “distinguish between myself as a private person on the one hand and as a member of the Royal Family on the other.” Currently, M?rtha Louise is living the life she wanted. Whether promoting her clothing line Hèst, praising the movie Barbie, or partying at concerts with Verrett, M?rtha Louise’s Instagram appears to be that of a liberated, happy woman. Perhaps she has finally found a world where "all of us can breathe freely, be who we are meant to be, grow and expand into our true selves from love."
Only time will tell which royal will next clock out of their shift in the gilded cage, to breathe freely and be who they truly are.