Royal refuseniks

Gathering pace: 10 royals have given up their roles in the past 20 years.

Prince Harry is to step back from royal duties and earn his own income – but what does that really mean? The history of rulers resigning from their duties is fascinating and surprising.

  • What is abdication?

    Formally giving up what should, in theory, be a job for life. The word comes from Latin: ab, meaning away from, and dicare, to relinquish. In Roman law, it meant disowning a family member, such as disinheriting a wayward son or daughter. Now, it describes walking away from a supreme office of state, such as the monarchy.

  • Why do rulers abdicate?

    In many cases, they don’t really have a choice. The first Roman emperor to abdicate was Diocletian, in AD305. Ravaged by illness, facing a challenge from his junior emperor Galerius, he made a teary-eyed speech to the people explaining his weakness and will to resign.

    Or take Mary, Queen of Scots. In 1567, her lords rebelled against her and imprisoned her in a castle on an island in the middle of a loch. There, she was forced to sign letters handing the crown over to her son, on account of her “grief” and “weariness”.

    James II of England faced a similar predicament. James’s Catholic religion enraged a Protestant English elite so, in 1688, Parliament invited the Protestant William of Orange to take over as King. James fled to France, but Parliament decided he had given up the throne rather than lost it, and passed a law declaring he had “abdicated the government”.

  • Have any monarchs been forced to resign in our time?

    More recently in 2014, the King of Spain, Juan Carlos I, made a personal choice to abdicate, leaving the crown to his son – but only after he came under enormous pressure from the public for indulging in elephant hunts while the country suffered from financial hardship, and an embezzlement scandal.

  • What about those who leave voluntarily?

    Rulers leaving of their own accord has become more common in the 21st Century: 10 have done so in the last 20 years. As monarchs live longer and their roles become more ceremonial, many have opted to retire in old age: a decision that would have baffled their ancestors.

    Last year, Emperor Akihito of Japan stepped down, aged 85 – the first to do so in over 200 years. And 2013 saw the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. He stressed he was abdicating in “full freedom”, only because of his age. The last papal renunciation was in 1415.

  • How often has abdication happened in history?

    In many societies throughout history, being king or queen until your death was taken for granted – unless you were deposed. To give up your authority would be an outrageous abandonment of your royal duty. However, in other cultures, abdication was a routine part of rule. Japan during the Heian period (794-1185) was governed by a process known as “cloistered rule”. An emperor would reign for around 10 years, then abdicate. They would then live in pampered retirement, influencing behind the scenes.

  • When did it last happen in Britain?

    The greatest abdication crisis of recent history was triggered by King Edward VIII of the UK in 1936, when he proposed to marry a divorced American woman named Wallis Simpson. The marriage was deemed unacceptable by the royal family and the British government, but Edward chose love over duty and resigned as king. In his place, Edward’s brother Albert (the father of our current Queen) reluctantly became King George VI.

  • Is Harry and Meghan’s exit really comparable?

    The Sussex’s royal exit has sparked many comparisons to Edward VIII’s abdication. It has been pointed out that Meghan Markle, like Wallis Simpson, is also an American divorcee. Meghan was even driven to her wedding in the same car that took Wallis to her husband’s funeral.

    But Harry is not – and is very unlikely to be – king. So while the royal family will be forced to adapt, the immediate leadership of the monarchy is not at risk.

You Decide

  1. Is it correct to call Prince Harry’s decision an “abdication”?


  1. Research another famous abdication, King Richard II of England. Who was he, and why did he relinquish his role?

Word Watch

To voluntarily cease to keep or claim; give up.
Changing one’s will or taking other steps to prevent (someone) from inheriting one’s property.
A bit difficult to control or predict.
The Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Scots word for a lake or for a sea inlet.
The Catholic Church is the branch of the Christian Church that accepts the Pope as its leader, and is based in the Vatican in Rome.
A member or follower of any of the Western Christian Churches that are separate from the Roman Catholic Church, in accordance with the principles of the Reformation, including the Baptist, Presbyterian and Lutheran Churches.
The theft of funds placed in one’s trust or belonging to one’s boss.
Just for formal public events.
Papal renunciation
Occurs when the reigning Pope voluntarily steps down from his position.
Removed from office suddenly and forcefully.

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