Ashes to Ashes: King Michael

Some months ago, my wife and I found ourselves watching a television program hosted by Ollie North. I am under the impression that he has a series on military affairs, or heroes, or something in that vein. In any event, on this evening he was interviewing King Michael of Romania.

Unless they are as old as I am, readers will scarcely know who this king is. He is the son of Carol II, upon whom the world press briefly focused in 1940 in connection with Hitler’s imminent takeover of his country. The upshot of it all was that the king abdicated, and his teenage son, Michael, inherited the crown, only to find himself an exile in Switzerland—for life, as it has turned out. If the exact historical details seem a trifle sketchy here, may I say that I was five years old at the time, and my main recollection is of hearing my parents speak much of King Carol and his son Michael.

What my wife and I saw on the screen was an old man, craggy-faced but handsome, who spoke with immense dignity, courtesy, and reticence. It was precisely this dignity—shall we say majesty?—that struck me. Here was a man who has lived 65 years in exile from his native country—indeed, from his kingdom—surely with what must be insupportable sadness over his loss of the royal patrimony. He has watched his country suffer for decades under two bestial tyrannies. As a teenager, what could he do?

The crumbling of one’s entire world is devastating in a particular way to men, I think, since historically it has been the men who ordinarily have found themselves with such “worlds”—ruling kingdoms, sailing the seas, controlling commercial enterprises, or writing poetry, music, and philosophy (Louis IX, Magellan, Cecil Rhodes, Shakespeare, Bach, and Kant might be cases in point here), and generally bearing the weight of achievement or public responsibility. The sudden collapse of such a world can crush a man, and who will take up a lofty view if such a man gives way to a sour and querulous spirit?

Hearing King Michael speak, one heard none of that. There was no smallest tincture of bitterness, self- pity, or vituperation, all of which attitudes come, alas, too naturally to us mortals in the face of calamitous reversals, especially if such reversals seem to have occurred at the hands not only of one’s enemies, but of those who would seem to be, like the Huns, Ostrogoths, and Pechenegs, the destructors.

Having only the sketchiest knowledge of modern Romanian history, I consulted two people before attempting these remarks here. One is a young Romanian classics and theology scholar of the most daunting order who is both a splendidly orthodox Eastern Catholic believer and a good friend. Among his comments to me was his opinion that Michael is “a hero and saint.” I was happy to find that my impressions of the interview were not mere fantasy on my part.

The other consultant is a woman in Oxford—the very icon of intelligent, civilized, Catholic woman-hood—who has in past years acted as secretary to one of King Michael’s five daughters. This daughter, who has suffered these long years of exile and disfranchisement along with her family, said that their father had taught them all to live their lives, and to rest their case, in hope rather than bitterness. Perhaps things would one day change in Romania. But if not, one does not thereby win the warrant to shrivel up in recrimination and despair.

Not many of us are monarchs. We have no crown to lose. But which of us could not trot out a hundred occasions of disappointment or calamity? I suppose a question as to how I have borne it all will arise at the Sapphire Throne. Meanwhile, the dignity of this king points to something.


  • Tom Howard

    Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

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