The quirkiest queen? How a chain-smoking monarch made the Danish royal family one of the world's most popular

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Queen Margrethe II of Denmark - BEST IMAGE / BACKGRID
Queen Margrethe II of Denmark - BEST IMAGE / BACKGRID

Queen Elizabeth II has steered the nation through turmoil and trauma, counselled 14 British Prime Ministers, and set the tone with her measured, stoical addresses.

But she has always kept a regal distance, giving little sense of her real feelings, and rarely disclosing an anecdote from 70 years of meetings with celebrities and statesmen.

Not so for Denmark's Margrethe II.

"She's not afraid of giving her personal impressions," says Lars Hovbakke Sorensen, a Danish historian. "When President Clinton was in Denmark in 1997, she said a lot of positive things about his personality afterwards."

Queen Margrethe of Denmark working on the costumes and set design for the Nutcracker ballet, 2012 - Handout
Queen Margrethe of Denmark working on the costumes and set design for the Nutcracker ballet, 2012 - Handout

Denmark's queen celebrated 50 years on the throne on Friday and is now readying for a Covid-postponed golden jubilee party later this year.

And quite a party it is set to be. Huge crowds of Danes are expected to flood the streets of Copenhagen. During her reign she has presided over an unusually strong revival in support of the royals.

When she became Queen, only 45 per cent of Danes were in favour of having a monarch, a number that rose to more than 80 per cent by the 1990s, where it has remained.

Danish Queen Margrethe and her husband Prince Henrik pose with their dog Celimene at the Caix castle, southwestern France, where they are on holiday Wednesday August 14, 1996 - Christophe Ena/AP
Danish Queen Margrethe and her husband Prince Henrik pose with their dog Celimene at the Caix castle, southwestern France, where they are on holiday Wednesday August 14, 1996 - Christophe Ena/AP

Who is Queen Margarethe?

Educated at Cambridge, the LSE and the Sorbonne, and speaking five languages fluently, she is not afraid to make nuanced, often subtle arguments in her New Year speeches, which are watched by three million people, more than half the population.

"It's not just a formal speech, but to a much larger extent than other monarchs in Europe, she gives advice to Danes on how to live their lives," says Mr Hovebakke Sorensen.

At the same time, she is lively and fun, an unapologetic smoker with a ready, husky laugh. She can even be quite flamboyant, wearing brightly coloured, self-made outfits to events. In her younger days, she sometimes went shopping in Copenhagen on her own.

"The general security level of society has changed since then," says Karin Palshøj, author of Royal Denmark. "But she still attends performances of ballet and theatre, and she is a frequent churchgoer, where she sits among the other churchgoers."

This is not to say she is informal, and she insists on being addressed with the Danish polite form for "you" (now more or less reserved for her alone), and is always well turned out.

Queen Margrethe II of Denmark smokes a cigarette in this Sept. 16, 1991 - Joergen Jessen/AP
Queen Margrethe II of Denmark smokes a cigarette in this Sept. 16, 1991 - Joergen Jessen/AP

At 5ft 11, she is the tallest of Europe's queens and princesses, and she cuts an elegant figure, her hair tied up in a tight silvery bun.

She is popular with other European royals. For her 80th birthday in 2020, royals from Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Spain, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg (all, like her, descendants of Queen Victoria), wished their "Dear Aunt Daisy" a happy birthday.

She inherited the nickname from her English grandmother, Princess Margaret of Connaught, Queen Victoria's granddaughter and a crown princess of Sweden, who died two years before she was born.

Margrethe has combined her royal role with a successful parallel career as an artist, illustrator, and translator.

Her drawings have adorned a Danish edition of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and her paintings have been exhibited in some of Denmark's top museums and galleries. She has designed costumes for the Danish Royal Ballet and her colourful embroideries hang in churches across Denmark, as well as, in the form of chasubles, on priests and bishops.

Together with her late French husband, Prince Henrik, himself a published poet, she translated Simone de Beauvoir's All Men are Mortal.

"Had she not been Queen of Denmark, she would have been an excellent artist, archaeologist, or poet," says Gitte Redder, Mrs Palshøj's co-author. "She is considered our 'intellectual Queen' with a lot of talents and vision."

She has weathered minor crises, such as the divorce of her younger son and the frustrations her husband, Prince Henrik of Denmark, aired over his unclear role as royal consort and the fact that he was never named king.

Why is she so popular?

Part of her success has been how deftly she has modernised the monarchy, without allowing the Danish royals to become mere celebrities.

"She has made a step-by-step modernisation of the monarchy, where she kept some of the old traditions so that you keep this impression that royal people are special," says Mr Hovebakke Sorensen.

During a state visit to the UK in 2000 - Ian Jones
During a state visit to the UK in 2000 - Ian Jones

While both she and her children were privately educated, her grandchildren in Denmark have so far gone to an ordinary state school.

Over the last 10 years, she has also started to give occasional live television interviews, and she takes part in press conferences at all incoming and outgoing state visits.

"She answers questions from members of the press - always in a gifted, humorous way," Mrs Palshøj says.

"We spoke to several of the ministers of foreign affairs for our book, and they all state that their presence is not needed: the Queen knows exactly what to say and where the limit goes, and she has a great knowledge of international affairs."

South African President Nelson Mandela is welcomed by Danish Queen Margrethe in Copenhagen Airport in 1999 - Nordfoto /Reuters
South African President Nelson Mandela is welcomed by Danish Queen Margrethe in Copenhagen Airport in 1999 - Nordfoto /Reuters

As a keeper of tradition, Queen Margrethe would never break with Danish royal practice and abdicate. But many in Denmark see the golden jubilee as marking a kind of conclusion to her reign.

"After we have had the big public celebration in September, she will wind down her activities and give more and more space to the Crown Prince," Mr Hovbakke Sorensen believes.

"Formally, she will be the Queen until she dies."

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