When Rulers Abdicate: 4 Monarchs Who Chose To Give Their Thrones Up

Sometimes, the greatest responsibility that comes with power, is knowing when to let it go.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Unlike an elected official, a monarch is usually born into their future role. They are usually never chosen and even if elected, are very difficult to remove. Generally, once you become a monarch, you’re expected to stay in that role until the day you die.

However, throughout history, there have been a few monarchs who willingly chose to step aside and live the rest of their lives away from the arduous responsibility of the top job. It raises the question as to why someone bestowed with such great power would choose to give it up. This list will explore four notable abdications in recent history in order to understand why and how each monarch abdicated and what effect, if any it had on their respective countries.

Emperor Akihito preparing for his abdication ceremony. Image: Reuters

Starting with one of the more well known abdications in recent memory, Japan’s Emperor Akihito’s abdication of the Chrysanthemum Throne in 2019, made him the first Emperor in over 200 years to abdicate. Unlike many other rulers, Akihito’s abdication did not catch his nation off guard or come as any surprise to his people. In fact, it was a process that was years in the making with prior notice given and new laws passed to ensure a smooth transition.

Having ascended the throne in 1989 at the age of 56, Akihito worked tirelessly to redefine the image of Japan’s monarchy and the country as a whole. Unlike his father, Hirohito who was revered as a deity so distant from his people that the very sound of his voice made national headlines, Akihito was far more accessible and visible. With a friendlier disposition, Akihito enjoyed meeting and getting up close with his subjects, a noticeable instance came after the Tsunami in 2011 where Akihito was seen sitting on the floor alongside the survivors and chatting personally with them.

Despite having no formal powers when it comes to governing his country, Akihito was a massive diplomatic asset to Japan. Having gone on numerous State visits during his reign and hosting various world leaders when they visited, Akihito was able to rehabilitate Japan’s reputation on the world scale and help shed its wartime image. Far from a young man when he first took the job, Akihito knew that he could not do it forever.

Having been treated for prostate cancer, undergoing a bypass and approaching his 80s, Akihito had repeatedly mentioned his desire to step aside and hand over the reins to his son. In 2016, Akihito made an official statement regarding his age and health struggles. Recognising his formal intention to step down, both the Palace and the Government took measures to bring their Emperor’s wish to light. After a three year transitional period, Akihito formally abdicated the throne on 30 April 2019 at the age of 85. It was a smooth, well planned process marked with celebration all around. Akihito was happy to be able to let go of the demanding role and his subjects were happy that their beloved former Emperor could enjoy the twilight of his life in happy retirement.

Sultan Ahmad Shah (front right) made it a point to personally assist his subjects in times of difficulty and enjoyed meeting people in informal settings whenever he could. Image: Astro Awani

Malaysia’s monarchy follows a very unique system unlike any other country in the world. Rather than following a single hereditary line, Malaysia’s monarchy consists of nine State rulers known as Sultans. Every five years, one of the Sultans is chosen by the others as Malaysia’s King who is known as the Yang Di Pertuan Agong. Although officially done by a vote among the rulers, there is a general agreement as to the order of which State Ruler gets to be King. If a Sultan is still alive by the time a full rotation is complete, he can once again ascend the throne for another five years.

In 2019, Malaysia’s then King, Sultan Muhammad V became the first Agong to abdicate. The reason we are not covering his abdication is because he still remains the ruler of his State and could possibly ascend the throne once more should he still be alive when his State’s turn comes again. Instead, we shall look at the abdication of the man who was to have succeeded him, Sultan Ahmad Shah of Pahang.

Ahmad Shah had ruled the Malaysian State of Pahang since 1974 and had previously succeeded Muhammad V’s grandfather to become King from 1979 to 1984. Ahmad Shah was a popular ruler especially within his State. He often visited the homes of his subjects and would spend long periods of time talking personally with them. He regularly visited hospitals and went out of his way to personally meet and assist families affected by disasters. Aside from his Royal duties, he was also a keen sportsman. With a passion for football in particular, Ahmad Shah was President of various Asian football associations and helped put the Malaysian sports scene on the international stage.

When Muhammad V suddenly stepped down as Malaysia’s King, Ahmad Shah was 88 years old and in failing health. Knowing that his current condition would prevent him from effectively serving another five years as King but also wanting to maintain the order of succession, Ahmad Shah decided to abdicate on a State level so that his son would succeed him and ascend to the throne. Respecting the wishes of the ailing ruler, the Pahang State Constitution was amended to allow for this. On the 15th of January 2019, Ahmad Shah’s son, Abdullah was sworn in as the new Sultan of Pahang and just nine days later he was appointed to the role of Yang Di Pertuan Agong.

Ahmad Shah passed away a few months later on the 22nd of May 2019. To Malaysians, his abdication was the last act of service of a gracious and gentlemanly ruler who dedicated his entire life to the people he ruled over. His legacy lives on through Malaysia’s present King who continues to rule in his father’s example.

Pope Francis kisses his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict’s hands before a ceremony to appoint new Cardinals. Benedict’s resignation meant that there would be two living Popes for the first time in over 600 years. Image: Reuters

Believe it or not, the Pope is considered a Monarch. The Vatican is recognised as Europe’s only Absolute Monarchy and is the most unique Monarchy in the world. A purely elective Monarchy, nobody is ever born into the Papacy. In fact, the Papacy is not bound by a particular bloodline or Nationality. All a person needs to be in order to be eligible to become Pope is to be a Roman Catholic male with the relevant religious knowledge required to effectively perform those duties.

While nobody is born into the role, there is the expectation that those appointed Pope will stay in that position until the day they die. That made Pope Benedict’s decision to step down from the role in 2013 very surprising. Citing health concerns and old age, Benedict was the first Pope in almost 600 years to resign and only the fifth known Pope to have resigned in the past thousand years. Although ill-health and old age might be a perfectly understandable reason to step down from any other profession, it seemed unfathomable for a Pope to leave their duties while they were still living.

Despite being the oldest known person ever to be elected Pope at the age of 78, the thought of Benedict resigning did not cross the minds of many people. Especially when compared to his predecessor, John Paul II who carried on with his duties all the way up to his death in the face of old age, all manner of illnesses and even an assassination attempt, many felt that there were other factors behind Benedict’s resignation besides just worries about his age and health. Coming just a year after the infamous Vatican Leaks scandal, speculation was rife over how much this factored into Benedict’s reason to step down as Pope.

Regardless of whether Benedict’s resignation was indeed purely due to his concerns about his age and health or to avoid further scrutiny following a scandal, his relinquishment of the Papacy made way for a successor who arguably seemed more fitting to carry on the responsibilities of Pope in today’s time. Younger and with a more liberal outlook, many see Pope Francis as being both more physically able and more in tune with today’s climate. Although retired from the Papacy for the past eight years, Pope Emeritus Benedict continues to live in the Vatican and makes the occasional appearance. He is now the longest lived Pope in history at 93, having spent just as long in retirement as he had as Pope.

A rare meeting between two English Monarchs, the Duke of Windsor (far left) meets his niece and successor Queen Elizabeth II(far right) as Wallis Simpson stands between them Image: Getty

Concluding this list, we have what is arguably the most famous abdication in modern history. Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936 not only impacted the United Kingdom but arguably the entire world as a whole. A polarising figure, there have been many differing reactions to the former King of England’s decision to abdicate after less than a year on the throne.

Seen by some as a sympathetic figure forced to leave his kingdom to marry the woman he loved, and viewed by others as a selfish man who had forsaken his duties to fulfil his own personal desires, Edward VIII’s abdication has been featured in numerous books, movies and television shows. So why exactly was Edward’s abdication still so talked about to this very day?

Firstly, it had to do with the circumstances behind the abdication itself. Rather than choosing to step down due to no longer being capable of bearing the responsibilities of being King, Edward abdicated in order to marry the woman he loved, Wallis Simpson. As King, Edward was also head of the Church of England and based on the rules of the Anglican Church, could not be allowed to marry the twice divorced Simpson. His decision not only created a constitutional crisis in his country but also brought tensions between Edward and his family to a breaking point. In many ways, the only solution to bring stability to both England and the Monarchy was for Edward to step aside.

Secondly, the legacy of Edward’s abdication can be seen till this very day. As a result of his abdication, Edward’s younger brother Prince Albert was forced into the role of King. Under the name of King George VI, the naturally shy Albert was horrified at the prospect of being King but rose up to the occasion and stayed the course. However, just 16 years later, King George VI died at the age of 56. Although attributed to cancer and smoking related health issues, many in the Royal Family including George VI’s wife and mother blamed Edward for leading his brother to an early death by forcing the job onto him following the abdication. King George VI was succeeded by his daughter Queen Elizabeth II who continues to rule England today as it’s longest reigning Monarch.

The years after Edward’s abdication were somewhat tumultuous to say the least. Essentially banished to France for the remainder of his life, Edward and Wallis Simpson lived as socialites and minor celebrities. Now demoted to the title of Duke of Windsor, Edward never had another significant role again aside from a brief tenure as Governor of the Bahamas in the 1940s. Living off an allowance from his estranged family and with his job prospects limited in no small part due to the revelation of his Nazi sympathies, Edward’s life was still somewhat lavish but dull. He found his life to be without purpose and found the way he was treated to be demeaning. At the end of the day, he married the woman he loved and remained with her for the next 35 years until his death. In the process he had lost his kingdom, his family, his job and to a degree, his reputation. Whether this was the ultimate sacrifice for love or a well deserved punishment for being selfish is really a matter of individual perception. Regardless, the unique circumstances that led to him stepping aside and the far reaching consequences it has had makes Edward VIII’s abdication the quintessential example of a Monarch who chose to give up his throne.

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