If you know anything about the histories of the world's various monarchies, you know that traditionally there's only one way to leave the job: being carried out feet first. The lucky ones go by natural causes, a few meet their end in battle, and many more succumb to the assassin's blade (or whatever device is current at the time). Hereditary monarchies usually operate on a lifelong basis, but occasionally, ruling kings and queens have stepped away from the throne voluntarily.
This can happen for a number of reasons. Being the head of state and, depending on the country, the head of the church and the nation is a taxing job, full of onerous duties that the average person might not wish to put up with. As understandable as an unforced abdication might be, it's still a surprising and sometimes even scandalous turn of events. And by definition, it's never a private choice, because the fates of millions can hang on a change of regimes.
Here are the stories of some monarchs who walked away from the throne, and why they gave it all up.
The resignation of Japanese Emperor Akihito is an example of a modern abdication that was much less scandalous than that of Juan Carlos of Spain, but historic nonetheless. In 2019, the then-85-year-old emperor asked permission from the Japanese government to resign, pointing to his advanced age and declining health.
The government granted the figurehead the go-ahead, and he became the first Japanese emperor to step down from the Chrysanthemum Throne in 200 years. He was succeeded by his son, Prince Naruhito, who became the country's 126th monarch.
Upon his abdication, Akihito gave an address to the Japanese people, saying:
Today, I am finishing my duty as emperor. Let me express my deep appreciation for the remarks Prime Minister Abe has just given as the representative of the Japanese people.
It is fortunate that I have been able to perform my duty as emperor with profound trust in and respect for the Japanese people for 30 years since my ascension to the throne.
- 278 VOTES
In 303 CE, the Roman Emperor Diocletian became "seriously ill" during a visit to Rome, which coincided with the 20th anniversary of his becoming emperor. This was most likely a stroke, but whatever the illness was, it convinced Diocletian to retire to his fortress-like palace in his hometown of Split, in modern-day Croatia.
By the time of his voluntary abdication, Diocletian had accomplished a lot. Said to be the son of a manumitted slave, he had risen through the ranks of the military to become emperor in 284 CE. When he took the throne, he realized the Roman Empire had become too large and unwieldy for one person to govern, so he divided it in half and ruled the eastern portion (then divided the empire again to form the tetrarchy). Dividing the empire brought stability to the territories and the military, putting a cap on the so-called Crisis of the Third Century that had threatened to shatter the empire, and extending its existence for almost two more centuries.
Given all those accomplishments, it's possible that Diocletian just needed a break. After retiring to his garden, his fellow co-ruler Maximian asked him to return to power. Diocletian reportedly replied, "If you could show the cabbage that I planted with my own hands to your emperor, he definitely wouldn't dare suggest that I replace the peace and happiness of this place with the storms of a never-satisfied greed."
- 363 VOTES
Sultan Murad II Stepped Away From The Ottoman Throne - Until His Son Dragged Him Back
Sultan Murad II of the Ottoman Empire resigned in 1444 CE, handing over power to his son Mehmed II. Today, scholars believe his voluntary abdication might have been due to the fact that he wanted to help establish a peaceful continuity of power instead of the dynastic struggles that usually accompanied changes in Ottoman leadership. It's also possible that Murad II just needed a break after 23 years of fighting to preserve the empire from internal and external threats. He also (wrongly, as it turned out) believed he had reached an accommodation with the European powers after signing a peace treaty with the Polish and Hungarian king, Ladislaw III.
Whatever the reason, Murad's retirement lasted less than a year. Ladislaw broke the peace treaty and led a multinational force into Ottoman-controlled Bulgaria, with the intention of ejecting the Ottomans from Europe altogether. With the support of the Ottoman nobility, Mehmed asked his experienced father to return and lead the army against the crusaders. When Murad refused, Mehmed wrote back, "If you are Sultan, command your armies. If I am Sultan, I order you to command my armies."
Murad reluctantly returned and commanded the Ottoman army, which defeated the attackers at the Battle of Varna. He was officially reinstated as sultan in 1446 and reigned for five more years. Upon his passing in 1451, Mehmed II took over again. Now more seasoned, Mehmed went right to work planning the conquest of Constantinople, which was completed two years later.
By the time Holy Roman Emperor Charles V voluntarily abdicated the last of his titles in August 1556 CE, the emperor and ruler of the Netherlands, Bohemia, Hungary, Naples, Sicily, and Sardinia had been suffering from health problems for years. These included terribly painful gout, insomnia, and severe depression.
The Habsburg ruler first handed over the day-to-day operations of the empire to his brother Ferdinand in 1554. Next, he gave the Netherlands to his son Philip of Spain in 1555, followed by Spain, Spanish territories in America, and finally the Holy Roman Empire itself.
After his resignation, Charles V spent the remainder of his life in a house near a monastery, where he enjoyed gardening and pigeon hunting.
In 1936, the English monarch was also the head of the Church of England. At the time, tradition dictated that the monarch couldn't be married to someone who had been divorced. This was a problem for Prince Edward of Wales, who was in a relationship with his American "mistress" Wallis Simpson when his father George V passed that year and the prince became King Edward VIII.
Edward proposed a workaround that would allow Wallis to marry him and retain the role of Duchess of Cornwall. When the British parliament refused, Edward gave up the crown for "the woman I love," as he said in his address to the nation. The throne passed to his younger brother Albert ("Bertie"), who became George VI.
Edward had a conflicted and ambivalent relationship with the royal family for the remainder of his life; the Queen Mother never forgave Simpson for her role in foisting the throne on Bertie, whose life - she believed - was shortened by the arduous task of ruling during WWII.
Edward's decision had an important knock-on effect for history. With his abdication, the line of succession shifted to George VI, whose daughter, Elizabeth, would go on to reign for 70 years. Had Edward stayed King and fathered children, Elizabeth would have remained a princess. (Although, if her uncle were childless, the throne would still have passed to her.)
- 637 VOTES
Spain’s Juan Carlos Stepped Down Amid Scandals - Including An Elephant Hunting Trip
Modern monarchs are known to voluntarily leave the throne, as well. Since most modern monarchs aren't also heads of government, the stakes admittedly aren't as high, but their resignations can still be plenty scandalous.
Spain's King Juan Carlos, who had reigned since 1975 and guided the country through its post-Franco years, resigned from office in 2014. Juan Carlos resigned for several scandalous reasons: his son-in-law Iñaki Urdangarín was on trial for corruption after he was accused of running fraudulent charities, which Juan Carlos was connected to; accusations that Juan Carlos had embezzled from the government himself; and a controversial elephant hunting trip that took place during Spain's 2014 financial meltdown.