Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2002


Richard Jenkins (2002) 'Modern Monarchy: a Comparative View from Denmark'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 7, no. 1, <>

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Received: 1/5/2002      Accepted: 27/5/2002      Published: 31/5/2002


Using as its centre piece a Royal Visit, this article draws upon ethnography from a small town in Jutland, Denmark, to examine the role of the monarchy in Danish society. By focussing upon performance, and upon the management of the local cultural contradictions of equality and hierarchy, and modernity and tradition, the delicate balance between the sacred and the profane in the legitimation of monarchy in social democratic Denmark is explored. Comparisons are drawn with the United Kingdom monarchy, arguing that there are no transferrable lessons for the House of Windsor from the relatively successful adaptation to modernity of the House of Glucksborg.

Monarchy, Denmark, United Kingdom, Sacred, Profane, Anthropology


Royalty deserves more attention than it receives from social scientists trying to understand modern western European democracies. With the exception of some discussion by constitutional historians (e.g. Bogdanor 1995; Prochaska 1995) and Billig's analysis of popular discourse about the British monarchy (Billig 1992), the only other significant literature concerns the 'Diana effect' (e.g. Davies 2001; Frazer 2000; McGuigan 2000; Walter 1999; Watson, 1997). It is as if monarchy, much like religion, is seen as irrelevant in a modern, secular, democratic world. However, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom are all constitutional monarchies. Given the significance of their kings and queens in public life - witness the present Golden Jubilee in the United Kingdom and the pomp and circumstance of the Queen Mother's death - this lack of attention is not justified. Something important is being overlooked.

In this paper I will draw on ethnography from Denmark to shed some comparative light on the British monarchy. Between September 1996 and July 1997 I carried out field research in Skive, a small town in mid- Jutland, Denmark. I was interested in identity: in the everyday uses of national symbolism, in how Danes understand and draw upon history, and in their orientation to the European Union (Jenkins 1998, 1999, 2000). Even without these foci I would have become interested in Danish royalty: their salience in the media and in everyday conversation means that they would have been impossible to ignore.

A Royal Visit

Queen Margrethe and her husband, Prince Henrik, visited Skive two years before my fieldwork, in September 1994, the town's first official visit by a reigning monarch since 1949. A film produced by the kommune provides a window on the day: although it is an 'official view' it is nonetheless revealing. That a municipal documentary was commissioned at all suggests that this was an extraordinary event for the town (as does the fact that the video had sold out by the time I tried to buy a copy[1]).

The film opens with the preparations: everything from street cleaning, to the municipal steering group handling the visit, to the distribution of paper flags to the children excused school for the day. The mayor, a Social Democrat, is interviewed. The visit proper starts with the artillery saluting the arrival of the royal yacht Dannebrog, with all flags flying, accompanied by a naval escort and local sailing boats. The quayside is jammed with a sea of faces and red-and-white flags.

As the royal couple step ashore to the sound of a brass band playing King Christian, the royal national anthem, hurras are called for, nine in all. They get ten, the last a little ragged (the local children obviously don't know the rules). The Mayor, surrounded by television crews, makes a speech of welcome, before Queen Margrethe unveils a memorial stone commemorating the visit, the 125th anniversary of the harbour's original foundation, and the official opening of the new port facilities. She dutifully passes along a row of the local great and good: some bow their head, there is the occasional hint of a curtsey. All shake hands, many look their Queen straight in the eye. Following a flag salute by the representatives of local associations drawn up on the quayside, the royal party returns on board briefly, to change clothes. Prince Henrik exchanges his admiral's uniform for a grey suit, then it is on to an exhibition in the harbour buildings.

Here the film offers a revealing moment, after the Prince has been given with a presentation box of bitters and the local Hancock beer. It is decorated with freshly-picked bog myrtle, and Queen Margrethe leans over, very casually, rubs the leaves between her fingers and then smells them. Her pleasure in the herb's texture and smell is as palpable as her spontaneity and lack of reserve.

The film becomes a collage of all the places the royal couple visited that day: the Museum, the Theatre, a walk down Frederiksgade - where a flower shop is selling 'Queen Bouquets' - to Adelgade, The Square and the Town Hall. A row of national flags fly overhead and everywhere is a mass of waving red and white. The local girls' band is drawn up entertaining the waiting crowd. People in wheelchairs are in the front row. The accessibility of the Queen as she walks through the town is, to my eyes, remarkable. People can and do reach out and touch her. Security is present, and obvious, but it is light and unobtrusive.

Council members and senior municipal employees are waiting at the Town Hall and there are more presentations. Here my non-Danish eyes see another revealing moment. Queen Margrethe unwraps the ribbon on the present which the Mayor has just given her, a small sculpture in a presentation box. At the same time she is leaning over, curious to see what her husband has been given. Before handing the gift to her lady-in-waiting, the Queen re-ties the ribbon herself. It is literally unthinkable that the British Queen would have even looked at this present, never mind re-tying the ribbon herself. Afterwards, the royal couple, standing up now, thank their hosts for their presents and a toast is drunk.

All the while, the children waiting outside the Town Hall are shouting: 'Dronning, Dronning, kom nu frem, ellers gå vi aldrig hjem...' (Queen, Queen, come out now, otherwise we are never going home...). Once again, the little ones make their own protocol. The Queen emerges, to walk with the Mayor and the rest of the party along Adelgade towards Post Office Square, where separate cars wait. Prince Henrik, in a convertible with the top down, is off to the local abattoir and meat plant The Queen, in her limousine, makes the short journey to the Church of Our Lady with the Mayor. Her interest in the medieval murals seems genuine, as one might expect of someone with an archaeological education who is also an artist in her own right.

Then the royal party is off again, driving between a long avenue of flags to their lunch date at a hotel where the Post Band wait to play them in, and there are yet more flags and banners. In the meantime, Prince Henrik has clearly been back to the ship to change. He is uniform again, this time the Army. If you were on the guest list for that lunch, you were really someone in Skive.

In the afternoon the royal couple visit the garrison. The North Jutland Artillery Regiment is celebrating 25 years in Skive. Although it is raining, the only royal concession to the weather is a multi- coloured raincoat. The troops give three cheers, the Colonel salutes the regimental colours with his sword, and King Christian is played again. Indoors there is a reception, with some officers in everyday field uniform, some in full dress uniform, and lots of civilians. People are smoking. Her Majesty unveils a painting of a regimental United Nations post in the former Yugoslavia, a reminder of the local garrison's peace-keeping assignments.

At the end of the film, and the day, the Mayor thanks the royal couple at the quayside. They chat to one or two people before being piped back aboard. There are fewer flags in the crowd now, but still lots of people. As Dannebrog swings gently away from her mooring and makes her way back out into the fjord, a trad jazz band is getting into the swing on the quayside.

Hierarchy and Equality

Rules specify the respect that the monarch should receive in public life: no-one should sit down before her, there should be nine hurras, and there is an appropriate number of guns for a full royal salute. Otherwise, protocol was be most obvious during this royal visit in the spoken word. 'Your Majesty' is how the Queen must be addressed, 'Your Royal Highness' is appropriate for other members of the royal family, including Prince Henrik. These conventions of public address were strictly adhered to. However, when conversation was captured on film - at the harbour exhibition, for example - it was more relaxed and informal.

This was the full extent of ceremonial: the formalities required by ordinary politeness and a tight schedule were observed but there was little other visible ritual. This combination of formality and informality summarises a complex performative balance between hierarchy and equality, distance and proximity, the untouchable and the touchable. The residual regal sway (or not) over the bodies of subjects is alluded to in a range of ways: from the short bow - rare now, even in the older generation - to the unadorned democratic hand shake. In modern Denmark it is possible to stand upright and look the sovereign in the eye, and many people do. It may even be obligatory to look a Prince in the eye.

That day Queen Margrethe met and talked to members of various local élites. Even so, the overall impression is of relative openness, informality, and closeness between royalty and ordinary citizens. Talking to those who were there, several years later, this is recalled again and again. Images of the Queen walking along streets she could easily have been driven through, accessible, on the same level and occupying the same space as everyone else, provide food for thought. As does the sight and sound of the children outside the Town Hall, unrestrained by their adults, raucously and good-naturedly demanding the royal presence.

Nor was it, apparently, strictly necessary to dress formally when in the royal presence. In the Council Chamber, one man, conspicuously, did not wear a suit and tie. A Councillor representing the Socialist People's Party, he was exercising his democratic right to wear a cardigan and an open-necked shirt. Whether he was standing on political principle or making a sartorial point, it could not be ignored. But, crucially, it wasn't an affront either.

In this respect, the Mayor's interview is worth a second look. She stressed that to her personally the visit didn't actually mean so much: its real importance was to put Skive on the map as a port - with a new harbour that had cost about 31 million kroner - in the middle of Jutland. Municipal ulterior motives are, of course, often the 'real' point of royal visits, and supporting such enterprises is one of royalty's modern functions. What may be a little unusual, however, is the Mayor's frankness in emphasising it so publicly. It seems to me that it isn't accidental that the video is as much, if not more, about the kommune - and, perhaps, the Mayor - as it is about Queen Margrethe.

I do not know whether the Mayor was just doing her job and emphasising local priorities, making an old-fashioned Social Democrat point, or expressing a fundamental theme of Danish culture, that no-one is better than anyone else. She may have intended none of these things. Either way, it could have been worse. In 1928, when King Christian X and Queen Alexandrine visited Skive, the mayor, Carl Hansen of the Radical Party, and legendary long-time editor of the Party's local newspaper, reported sick and the royal party was formally welcomed in his stead by Deputy Mayor Andersen, a Conservative. Much political capital was made out of this episode by a rival right-wing paper: reporting a sighting of Hansen and his wife out walking in Torvegade that same day, it accused the Mayor of boycotting the royal visit in protest against the King's dismissal of Zahle's Radical government, eight years earlier. For the same reason, Social Democrat members of the council also stayed away on that occasion.

Whatever the Mayor's personal sentiments may have been in 1994, she was not being disrespectful. Not only would that have negated the whole point of the visit, it would have been unthinkable: this Queen is genuinely well-regarded by her people. The enthusiasm of the thousands who turned out that day is too authentic to mistake. Although I have heard some criticism of one or two members of the Danish royal family, I can hardly find any even mildly critical comments in my fieldnotes about Queen Margrethe. Even from those on the far left. She is respected and cherished. Loved may be too strong a word - let a Dane decide that - but she is certainly widely liked.

The Ambiguity of Legitimacy

The nature and role of our constitutional monarchy is a lively and unresolved topic in Britain. A succession of scandals, the trauma of Princess Diana's death and the out-of-step royal response to it, an increasing social and cultural distance between royalty and people, and the ongoing transformation of the political unity of the Kingdom, have produced an uncomfortable political vacuum where there should be a measure of agreement. Whether the celebrations and mourning of 2002 have made a difference is as yet unclear. The British may not actually be against the monarchy - not yet, at least - but it is telling that awkward questions are being asked, really for the first time.

There seems to be no such problem in modern, egalitarian, social democratic Denmark. Why? The answer is not as simple as, for example, the absence of scandal. Several times I had conversations with Danes along the following lines. First, I was asked my opinion of the British royal family, and we agreed that they were an embarrassment, except perhaps Diana (the research, remember, was during her lifetime). A few indelicate stories might have been told at this point. This was followed - somewhat contrarily perhaps - by condemnation of the way that the British press writes about our royalty. Danish newspapers, by contrast, would, of course, never do such a thing. 'Everybody' might know this, that, or the other story - about this, that, or the other member of the Danish royal house - but it is not the business of the press to print them (which, of course, offered just the right opportunity to re-tell those stories).

The point is that kings and queens, princes and princesses, do not necessarily have to behave better than the rest of us. A degree of transgression may actually be part of the royal job description (and there is historical precedent for this on both sides of the North Sea). In a modern democracy - and this is also true for a presidency - the head of state's job is to symbolise the nation, to provide a point of collective identification that is to some extent above partisan political divisions.

Far from demanding exemplary private morals, what may be needed - and this was central to Diana's appeal - is an intriguing combination: sufficient mutually-recognisable experience and human frailty to allow for a degree of identification, and sufficient other-ness to serve as a focus for our more noble aspirations and desires. The same as us, but very different too. This is at the heart of the modern regal function. While the House of Windsor is finding it increasingly impossible to achieve, their Danish cousins in the House of Glücksborg seem to be doing nicely. Once again, why?

The Sacred and the Profane

The power of symbols to move and inspire comes from the many meanings which have been invested in them over time, and are still condensed within them, waiting to be conjured up. Shared symbols can thus mean different things to different people (Cohen 1985). A measure of contradiction is at their heart. Because symbols are often abstract and arbitrary, the range of meanings they can convey is not limited to the concrete representation of what they 'stand for'. The Christian cross, for example, evokes much more than the Crucifixion. Thus symbols, in that they are abstract and arbitrary, allow men and women to come together under their enchantment without having to explore their differences from each other in destructive detail. They allow us to imagine that have something in common despite everything that divides us (Jenkins 1996: 104-118).

Heredity is among the most arbitrary of principles, blind and fickle. The identity of the monarch is individually the unearned result of an accident of birth, and in terms of lineage of usurpation in some distant past. Which royal house occupies which throne is not completely arbitrary, however. There has to be legitimation, and history is disproportionately significant in this respect. In Denmark the long line of royal descent which is traced with pride, even if indirectly, between Margrethe II and Gorm (died 958) comes into its own as a source of legitimacy. A plausible claim can be made, despite a conventionally international European royal family tree, to a timeless and authentic Danishness. The other claim which this lineage allows, that the Danish is the most ancient European royal house, is the icing on the cake.

In modern Europe, however, these distinctions are not enough. Another important characteristic of symbols is their affinity with the sacred, and another characteristic of royalty is its claim to represent the sacred. Monarchy - the throne and all that goes along with it - is definitively sacred, anointed with a necessary enchantment. Which is where the present Queen comes into her own. The Danish royal house has been so successful because it understands that the sacred nature of kings and queens is not compromised if, in many contexts, they behave like relatively ordinary people.

During the great rituals of state, that the monarch is the monarch is the monarch - regardless of who the monarch actually is at the time - is signified by symbolic trappings and regalia. The abstract institution is in important senses independent of its successive incumbents. Almost outside time, monarchy is consecrated in a way that monarchs are not. In other senses, however - and no less significantly - of course it matters who kings and queens are, and what they do as individuals. In Denmark, it is not simply that Queen Margrethe can be confident that relaxing and enjoying herself in public, walking the streets beside mayors and fellow citizens, even smoking in public, do not profane her high office. The key point is, in fact, almost the complete reverse. In Denmark, with its strongly-held post-1849 myths of homogeneity and equality among Danes[2], if she and the other members of her family are truly to represent the nation - represent it to itself, in the first place - then some ordinariness is actually required. It is, and only superficially paradoxically, part of the magic.

Why else should I be told stories of the time that so-and-so - and needless to say it is always someone else in this particular urban myth - bumped into the Queen while shopping in Copenhagen? Exaggerated ordinariness is an important part of the stereotypical Danish national self- image and Queen Margrethe's 'ordinariness' is part of what makes her special. The remnants of Imperial Denmark collapsed in ignominy nearly two centuries ago - in retrospect, the best thing that could have happened, of course - so an excess of grandeur would not only be a delusion, but would be seen as such.

As Danish society has changed, so the monarchy has changed with it. Much has happened within the last fifty years or so. When Christian X celebrated the 25th anniversary of his coronation in 1937, a large crowd gathered - in his absence, needless to say - on The Square in Skive. The Town Hall was decked out with garlands and no fewer than fifteen large national flags. This was not so different to the town's decoration in honour of the golden wedding anniversary of King Christian IX and Queen Louise in 1892. By contrast, Queen Margrethe's Silver Jubilee in 1997 was marked by television programmes - including a frank press conference with the Queen and Prince Henrik, screened on December 30th 1996 - state celebrations in Copenhagen and Århus, and, in Skive, the sale of commemorative magazines and other souvenirs. Times have changed.

A Modern Balance

This delicate royal balancing act between the sacred and the everyday, the magical and the ordinary, offers no convenient lessons for the present British royal house, however. It has evolved as a Danish solution to what was, increasingly obviously towards the close of Christian X's reign, a Danish problem. Since a sense of authenticity is one of its touchstones, the common touch is difficult to feign, nor can it easily be conjured up out of unpromising material. What works in one society - I am thinking here of differences between Britain and Denmark with respect to their class systems, cultural hierarchies, and national and imperial histories - will not necessarily work in another.

The issue of 'race' is a litmus test in this respect. Twice now, Queen Margrethe has used her New Year's Eve address to the nation to attack popular racism and hostility towards immigrants. Her daughter-in-law, Princess Alexandra, is not only a commoner, but a Eurasian commoner from Hong Kong. Neither would be even imaginable in Britain, where the Queen does not express herself politically, and her husband has publicly-quoted opinions about the Chinese which I will not repeat.

Here is more food for thought. Every nation needs a head of state of one sort or another, and the alternatives offered by the republican ideal are not all as attractive as Nelson Mandela or Mary Robinson. Royalty on the present Danish model is not the worst option (although the key question is whether the Glücksborgs can continue to walk their tightrope in coming generations). If the Danes have the royal house that their political culture deserves, a comparison poses uncomfortable questions for the United Kingdom.


1 My thanks to Lone Knudsen of Skive Kommune for lending me her personal copy of the video.

2 1849 marked the end of absolutism, and the granting of the first Constitution.


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Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2002