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There was cannabis and champagne on the canals. There was the world’s biggest flea market for a day. Mobile music systems blasting out from bicycles. It all happened in a 17th century Golden Age church. But it was a secular, not a religious ceremony, solemn but not trying to confer mystique.
Very Dutch. Very Amsterdam. The day Crown Prince Willem-Alexander became King of The Netherlands.
The 46-year-old redhead was enthroned as the first Dutch king since the 19th century on Tuesday amid just enough pomp and circumstance for the entire population watching on TV or on the giant screens erected across the squares of Holland.
But the ceremonials were also very Dutch: sober, pragmatic and, in a sense, conditional as Queen Beatrix returned to her previous status as a princess and the first Dutch king since 1890 swore himself in before people he described as “citizens”, not “subjects.”
Beatrix abdicated – uniquely among Europe’s royal houses it has become the tradition in The Netherlands – on her 75th birthday, ending a 33-year reign, and passing the torch to one of her three sons, at a stroke rejuvenating the ageing stock of Europe’s crowned heads.
Except that King Willem-Alexander, in another peculiarly Dutch tradition, is not a crowned head at all. This was no coronation, rather an investiture or an inauguration, almost republican with some red ermine attached. The crown sat on a table in front of him in the 17th century church. It is never worn.
Decked out completely in orange from his wig to his shoelaces and waving a Dutch flag, Karel Knispel appeared every inch the ardent monarchist. But amid the street parties, the ubiquitous celebrations and the huge, sometimes impassable crowds in Amsterdam, appearances could deceive.
“I like the tradition that on one day every year everyone is united in the same colour. That’s a good principle,” said the 46-year-old from Arnhem, adding that as a little boy, on the monarch’s birthday he would cover his bicycle in orange crepe paper. “Orange is a good colour for this, a friendly colour. But this is not about the monarchy; it’s about uniting everyone. I’m not a monarchist. And I hope Willem-Alexander doesn’t interfere in politics like his mother did.”
It was a common sentiment on a joyous, if grey and blustery day. “I’ve got nothing against him if he does a good job,” said Wout Van Bavel, a retired businessman in the obligatory orange pullover and shirt. “I don’t mind the monarchy. But I wouldn’t mind also if it wasn’t there.”
The new king and Maxima, his Argentinian former New York banker wife, struck the right note of modesty and sureness in what is the bi-centennial of the House of Orange. “For the course of two centuries, the Dutch royal house has been linked with parliamentary democracy,” Willem-Alexander said.
There were no archbishops nor cardinals nor Calvinist elders presiding over the events in the 17th century New Church beside the royal palace in the centre of Amsterdam. Instead, it was the politicians who took centre stage, the assembled elected members of the first (upper) and second (lower) chambers of parliament in The Hague.
Individually, they stood to declare their loyalty to the throne or to profess their monarchical agnosticism. The latter included Geert Wilders, the rightwing populist who has been the anti-Islam, anti-immigration, anti-EU scourge of Dutch politics for the past few years.
Outside, if you paid a euro, you could throw eggs at a Wilders’s face, alongside the stallholders peddling 10-euro orange T-shirts with Will and Maxima depicted as the king and queen of hearts. They reported business was booming, but despite the boisterous determination to have a good time on the national holiday, the Dutch evinced little sense of unlimited devotion to the newcomer to the throne.
If he does a good job, fine; if he doesn’t, we’ll see, was the commonsense verdict. “I never really saw him as a king, and I don’t even know if I’m a monarchist” admitted Paul Van De Grampel, a financier in the City of London who took a snap decision on Tuesday morning to rush home for the big day. He attended school and university with the king and knows his two brothers, too.
“He is very down-to-earth, has really matured,” he said. “In the past 10 years, he has become a much more balanced person. And Maxima’s just great. She’s giving a real shine to the whole family.”
Willem-Alexander did not wear a crown, but many people did, plastic orange inflatable crowns, turning the city of Amsterdam into one giant car-boot sale on an urban scale. It seemed that every pavement in the city was converted into a flea market. Parents emptied their children’s toy cupboards on to the streets and put everything up for sale. Secondhand clothes fluttered in the breeze. Crockery, CDs, creaky furniture and old kitchen gadgetry made it hard to navigate the pavements. Everyone was selling something. Because on the queen’s birthday, and next year on the new king’s birthday, April 27, you are allowed to put anything on the street and sell it. The only day of the year this is allowed.
“We’re free to sell anything today,” said Van Bavel offering an old pair of candlesticks and an unwanted picture frame. “The other 364 days of the year it’s not allowed. Only on the queen’s birthday. I’m a bit sad she’s going. He’s going to have to prove himself.”