The Strange, Luxurious London Lives of Ex-Royals

Spain's former king Juan Carlos joins a strange club of former monarchs Daniel Ochoa de Olza/Pool/Reuters

How bright his future seemed as a young man. In 1964, when Constantine of Greece was 23, he succeeded his father as king and married a beautiful young Danish princess. Yet three years later, King Constantine II committed the blunder that was to cost him his throne.

In 1967, when a group of Greek colonels overthrew the government, he agreed to swear them into office. As he put it later, "My whole aim was to avoid civil war. I tried to gain time by swearing in these people, so I could later overthrow them and restore the democratic process." The problem with this plan was that having surrendered his one opportunity to exert peaceful, moral pressure against the colonels, he proved unable to defeat them by military means.

King Constantine's countercoup was a flop, and he was driven into exile. Very soon he found himself living in Hampstead Garden Suburb in London. His life became an enforced holiday, a sort of privileged emptiness, where he was still addressed as "King," despite having been chased out of his own country, which would not allow him to return.

King Constantine had five children and set up a Greek school in London, which has since closed, for them to attend. He pursued his hobby of sailing: At the Rome Olympics in 1960, Constantine became the first Greek since 1912 to win an Olympic gold medal, in sailing (Dragon class). He moved in grand and plutocratic circles. As an astute observer said, "Constantine's real role is to be an elegant, convenient and discreet go-between for moguls who want to meet monarchs."

Other monarchs have always treated him with respect, for he is sublimely well connected. His wife's sister is the queen of Denmark, he is a good friend of the U.K.'s Prince of Wales (their grandfathers were brothers), and his sister is married to King Juan Carlos of Spain, who recently abdicated.

London is rich in ex-monarchs, leading shadowy and, in many cases, rather melancholy lives. They find themselves living in limbo: Almost nothing is recorded about their lives, because almost nothing happens to them. They are reduced to waiting for something to happen.

They have lunch at the Goring Hotel near Buckingham Palace, a favorite of the late Queen Mother. King Zog of Albania stayed at the Ritz hotel after being forced into exile by Mussolini in 1939. Crown Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia was born in 1945 at Claridge's, which was declared for the day to be Yugoslav territory. His godmother is Queen Elizabeth II.

He now lives in the Royal Palace in the Dedinje district of Belgrade and is in favor of recreating a constitutional monarchy in Serbia. When in London, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, who abdicated last year in favor of her son Prince Willem-Alexander, prefers to entertain in the private room at Le Colombier, a French restaurant in Chelsea.

During the summer season, it is hard not to go meet dispossessed royals. They still have smart clothes and like to attend the Chelsea Flower Show, Queen Elizabeth's Birthday Parade, Ascot races and Wimbledon, where they sit discreetly at the back of the Royal Box. They may also be found sipping an iced coffee among the worthy guests at Queen Elizabeth's garden parties.

Queen Elizabeth II is a woman with a strong sense of family. As on all occasions, her sense of duty impels her to do the right thing. Each year, just before leaving London to spend Christmas at the Sandringham Estate, she holds a lunch at Buckingham Palace to which she invites every relation, including many from German royal houses. She is also good at keeping in touch by telephone and at holding smaller lunch parties when members of her extended family are in London.

But what almost all ex-kings want above all is to return to the land where once they reigned. One might imagine that in an age of democracy this is an impossible dream.

Constantine's brother-in-law, King Juan Carlos of Spain, was born to a life of exile. His grandfather, King Alfonso XIII, was driven out of Spain in 1931, and in 1939, the year after Juan Carlos's birth, the fascist general Francisco Franco established himself as head of state in Spain. With a military dictator in charge, there seemed to be no place for a hereditary monarch. But Franco needed a successor, and his choice fell on Juan Carlos who, in 1975, was crowned king of Spain as soon as the dictator was dead.

Juan Carlos emerged as a champion, not of dictatorship but of democracy. When an attempt was made to overthrow the new parliamentary system in 1981, he went on TV and declared, "The crown, symbol of the nation's permanence and unity, can tolerate no action or behavior on the part of those who would forcibly put an end to the democratic process." The coup failed, and the king's role as the guarantor of democracy was assured.

Recent history is surprisingly rich in monarchs who have managed, after decades in exile, to return home and play at least some role in national life. Mohammed Zahir Shah reigned for 40 years as king of Afghanistan before being overthrown in the pro-Russian coup of 1973. He lived for the next 29 years in exile in Italy, in a modest villa north of Rome, playing golf and chess and tending his garden. In 2002, he was able to return to Afghanistan, where he was given the title "Father of the Nation," which lapsed with his death in 2007.

Michael I, king of Romania from 1927 (when he was 6) to 1930, and again from 1940 to 1947, was forced at gunpoint to abdicate. In exile, he earned his living as a commercial pilot, but in 1990 he was able to return to Romania, and he now divides his time between Romania and Switzerland.

Tsar Simeon II of Bulgaria, who was born in 1937 and reigned from 1943 to 1946 before being driven into exile, not only returned home in 1996 but managed to get himself elected prime minister in 2001, in which capacity he served until 2005.

As for King Constantine, last year he was able to return, at last, to live in Greece.