On Saturday 16 December 2017 bells of all churches in Romania tolled, mourning King Michael of Romania who started his last journey from the Royal Palace in Bucharest to the royal necropolis in Cathedral of Curtea de Arges (The Court upon river Argeș), a little town in the Carpathian Mountains, once the capital of medieval principality of Walachia in the 13th century. The legend of this cathedral built in early 16th century is a tale about human sacrifice, love for work and death for creation.
Foreign royals, including former King Juan Carlos of Spain and Queen Sofia, King Carl Gustaf of Sweden and Queen Silvia, former Queen Anne-Marie of Greece, Prince Charles of Wales, the Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg, Prince Lorenz and Princess Astrid of Belgium, joined the President of Romania Klaus Werner Iohannis to bid farewell at the catafalque.
Tens of thousands of Romanians came to pay their respects to King Michael and an impressive state funeral service took place in Bucharest, led by Patriarch Daniel, the head of the Romanian Orthodox Church, in the same cathedral where The King was crowned on Sept. 6, 1940. Thousands of people acclaimed The King when the Royal train entered the rail stations of towns located on the way between Bucharest and Curtea de Arges. When soldiers from the 30th Guard Brigade “Michael the Brave” carried the coffin on their shoulders to the tomb, the long way of King Michael to his ancestors came to an end, and his legend begun.
For Romanians, King Michael was a moral symbol and an anchor of hope in an age dominated by totalitarian regimes. Historians believe that his decision to remove Romania from its alliance with the powers of the Axis on 23 August 1944 has shortened the duration of the Second World War by at least six months. He was forced to abdicate on 30 December 1947 and allowed to return to Romania only in 1992, where he was acclaimed by a crowd of one million people in Bucharest.
I first met The King in 1997 in Brussels when, at the request of the Romanian Government, he visited several capitals to lobby in favor of Romania’s accession to NATO. As a young diplomat in love with history, meeting King Michael was like a fairytale, because he made history. I always believed that in many aspects the past shapes the present and anticipates the future.
When I was appointed ambassador to Belgium, and later to the United Kingdom, I had the privilege to meet The King sometimes in tete-a-tete, as he and Queen Anne honored me and my wife by accepting to be our guests for lunch or dinner at our residences in Brussels and London. Listening King Michael talking about crucial moments he personally witnessed was fabulous, as he had a special gift of transposing his audience back in the times of events.
A most memorable moment in my life was in 2008 when, alongside Ivor Porter – a British diplomat and SOE operative parachuted in Romania during WW2, who later wrote two books about his Romanian experience (one devoted to King Michael), and Jonathan Eyal – director at the Royal United Services Institute, I received from The King’s hand “The Cross of Romania’s Royal Household”, in a moving ceremony at 1 Belgrave Square, in the same room when in 1939 Sir Winston Churchill met the Romanian Foreign Minister Grigore Gafencu.
I saw The King at the royal wedding in April 2011, then at the service of thanksgiving in St. Paul’s Cathedral celebrating HM Queen Elisabeth II Diamond Jubilee in 2012, and again that year in the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy, when King Michael celebrated 75 years since he was awarded the British Royal Victorian Order. He is the first foreign sovereign to have the coat of arms in the Savoy Chapel.
I remember a lunch once we had at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall. In the RAC hall a pre-WW2 car was exhibiting and when seeing it King Michael, who loved cars, said without hesitation: “This is a Bugatti 1931!” Checking the note on the car-side I went speechless, because he was right.
In the years which followed I wrote to him in Switzerland on his birthdays and Christmas Eves. His private secretary took time to politely respond, but not anymore after Queen Anne passed away in August 2016. I attended the Queen’s burial, but I couldn’t leave New York for the King’s funeral. Instead, a candle burned for him in my apartment in Manhattan. While writing these lines, Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” comes to my mind: “You lived your life like a candle in the wind, never fading with the sunset…, and your footsteps will always fall here. Your candles burned out long before, your legend never will”.
Indeed, the man rests in his grave, The King found his well-deserved place in history, but his legend will continue to magnify over the years. What will stay with us and the generations to come is his moral compass, his dignity, patriotism and unconditional loyalty to his Country. I can only add the inspired words of the Romanian-American writer Dorin Tudoran: ”Good night Your Majesty!”
*Ambassador Ion Jinga is the Permanent Representative of Romania to the UN, New York.