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 Märtha 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.