A retired Foreign Service Officer shares recollections of his meetings with royalty in England, Spain, and New Zealand. One was assassinated in a military coup, one became prime minister, one died, and two still reign. – Ed.
I have met only three kings in my life and two queens — well, I didn’t actually meet one of the queens.My first royal encounter was on a fine, sunny day in June (1956) in the garden at Buckingham Palace on Queen’s Birthday (not actually her birthday, which is in April.) A great many people were there. As the junior aide to the American ambassador, Winthrop Williams Aldrich, one of my tasks was to distribute, primarily to his friends and distinguished guests from the United States, some invitations to the garden party which the Lord Chancellor had made available to the ambassador. My mother was visiting me, and she was as distinguished a guest as I could imagine, and besides, her name was Elizabeth. So I put one aside for her, and escorted her to the party. There was a large crowd, but the garden is huge.
While we were waiting for Her Majesty to come out and join us, my mom saw a young man alone, walking around the edges of the garden looking at the flowers and shrubs. She thought, at a big party like this, nobody should be alone. So she walked over to him, with me close behind, and said “Hello, I’m Elizabeth Williams from Wilmington, North Carolina. What’s your name?” He smiled, bowed courteously, and said “My name is Faisal, and I am from Baghdad, Iraq.” I had seen the guest list. I asked, “Are you King Faisal II?” “Yes,” he replied. We had a very pleasant conversation with him, and he asked us to come and visit him in Iraq. My mom was really planning to take him up on that invitation. However, two years later, in 1958, one of his generals led a coup d’état and assassinated him. Two weeks later, the U.S. government recognized the assassin’s new government.
To go back a bit, while my mom and I were still talking to King Faisal, we heard a commotion indicating that Her Majesty had emerged from the Palace, so we went over and stood behind the rope separating the guests from the passage leading from the Palace to the royal pavilion in the center of the lawn. Queen Elizabeth passed by within a few feet of us, so I can’t say I met her, but I got a good look. She’s a year older than me, but didn’t look it, and still doesn’t.I was transferred from London to the U.S. embassy at Madrid, where I was put in charge of the visa section. One day I had a visit from a gentleman who introduced himself as Head of Household to His Majesty King Simeon II of Bulgaria, who needed a visa to visit the United States. I told him that regulations required that all visa applicants personally had to sign the forms and be interviewed by a consular officer, but I offered to visit the king rather than making him come to my office. The offer was accepted, and I went to his palatial home. He was a young man, age 20, who planned to attend the Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania. We had a long conversation, and I gave him the student visa. He had become king at age six on the sudden (and suspicious) death of his father, King Boris III, in 1943. Three years later, the Russians installed a communist government, and Simeon and his mother were forced into exile. She was the former Princess Giovanna of Savoy, daughter of King Victor Emanuel of Italy, and her family owned lots of real estate in Spain. On his father’s side, he is a Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, which means that his great-grandfather was a first cousin of Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert. Simeon told me that he had a good intelligence network in Bulgaria, and he got reports at least twice a week. He said he fully believed that one day, communism would fall, and he would again be king.
As we know, communism did indeed fall. In 1996, I read that Simeon had returned to Bulgaria for the first time since his exile. I had his Madrid address and wrote him a letter, reminding him of our encounter in Madrid, and congratulating him on what I understood to be a very warm and enthusiastic reception by the Bulgarian people. I received a reply including a signed photo of him and Queen Margarita being driven in a top-down convertible through a street lined with cheering people, plus a note thanking me for remembering him. (These are hanging on my wall.) Since then, he has chosen to relinquish (though not formally) the title “king” and has formed a coalition of political parties, through which, for several years, he was prime minister.My third king was not yet a king when I met him in Madrid in 1957 or 1958. He was (then) Juan Carlos de Borbón y Borbón, Prince of Asturias — the Spanish equivalent of the Prince of Wales. He is the son of Don Juan de Borbón y Battenberg, and grandson of King Alfonso XIII. I met Juan Carlos at a party given by (I think) the Duchess of La Unión de Cuba, or maybe the Duke of Sueca. There were lots of parties given by the Spanish nobility, and American diplomats were favorite guests. I was talking to the young Duke of Arión, to whom I had recently issued a visa, when a friend of his came over and was introduced as Juan Carlos de Borbón. They started talking about sailing a yacht across the Atlantic. (I suggested that they aim for the port of Wilmington, North Carolina.)
At that time, nobody thought the monarchy would be re-established anytime soon, and, though Juan Carlos had been designated by Franco as his successor head of state, Don Juan had refused to accept this and maintained his (legitimate) claim to the throne. Despite all Franco’s misdeeds, the Spanish people (and the world) owe him a debt of gratitude for preparing Juan Carlos to be king, including seeing that he was educated at various universities and military academies in Spain. Old Don Juan was a real dinosaur and would have been a disaster as king, whereas King Juan Carlos has been a steady, unifying force. He was proclaimed king on Franco’s death in 1975, and Spain became a constitutional monarchy. I didn’t run into Juan Carlos again after that party, but it was a memorable occasion.Now comes my second queen — the Maori queen, Dame Te Ata-irangi-kaahu. She was not a queen in any internationally accepted sense, but was paramount chief of the Maoris, the Polynesian people of New Zealand. In the 1820’s and 1830’s, British immigrants were settling in New Zealand and buying land from local Maoris. In 1840, the British Administration of New Zealand decided that they needed to make an agreement with the Maoris to formally bring Ao Tea Roa (the Maori name for New Zealand) under the British Crown. So they gathered as many Maori tribal chiefs as they could, and made the Treaty of Waitangi, which is still in force. Many chiefs did not attend the gathering because there was rivalry between many of the tribes.
Unfortunately, a few years after the treaty local wars broke out between the British and their Maori allies and some other Maori tribes. The Maori Wars went on through the 1850’s. The Maoris who were allied with the British, knowing that there was a queen in Britain, felt they needed an equivalent sovereign, and pressured their own tribes and the British to name a king. So, in 1857, an old tribal chief whose ancestry went back to the great canoes, each with its chief, which brought the Maoris to New Zealand in the fourteenth century, was named the Maori king. Several hundred square miles in the Waikato tribal area (between Auckland and Wellington) was designated King Country, where the king shared powers with the New Zealand Government. In 1966, the then Maori king died without sons, and his daughter, Te Ata, was proclaimed queen. In 1970, she was named by Queen Elizabeth as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire
When I arrived in Auckland as the U.S. consul general in 1975, one of the first ceremonial calls I made was on Dame Te Ata at her marae (estate) near the town of Ngaruawahia, about 80 miles south of Auckland. She received my (then) wife and me with gracious hospitality. She showed us around her estate and explained the Maori art we saw everywhere. I asked about some jade weapons that were displayed in her ceremonial chamber, since I had just ordered a similar one to be made by a Maori jade craftsman. She told me the history of each one, each owned and used by a different ancestor. Each had its own mana, depending on who had owned it and how many people he had killed with it. We also saw a huge, ancient canoe which she said was one of the original ones that brought her people to Ao Tea Roa. It was a very pleasant visit.I only saw her a few times after that, on ceremonial occasions in Auckland, and she always greeted me in a friendly way. Once, at a reception, I was called upon to comment on a book by an American author about the relationship between the Polynesians of New Zealand and those of Hawaii, and she complimented me graciously. She was a lovely lady. She died in 2006, at age 75. According to Maori legend, her spirit went to Cape Reinga at the northern tip of New Zealand and departed from there to the northwest, bound for Hawa’iki (not Hawaii), the legendary home of all Polynesians.
Ed Williams, secretary of the board of directors of American Diplomacy Publishers, was a U.S. Foreign Service Officer from 1955 to 1981. He served in Washington and at six posts abroad.