A real Prince of Denmark tries to live a normal Washington life

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What does it mean to be a modern prince?

If you follow the British royal family, it means an heir and a spare, locked in a spiral of history, melodrama and betrayal. If you watch Hallmark movies, princes are invariably handsome but restive kings-in-waiting who find true love with scrappy American commoners.

And then there’s Denmark’s Prince Joachim, who moved to Washington, D.C., last summer. The prince, 54, is the son of Queen Margrethe II and the younger brother of King Frederik X, who was crowned in January when their mother abdicated after 52 years on the throne. Joachim is a working royal, a military defense expert, a husband, a father and a racecar aficionado. His job — and it is a job — is to represent Europe’s oldest monarchy and carry it into the future.

“You reach back in time — in the Danish case, more than a thousand years,” he said last month, “and you are — it may sound odd to say — the living legacy of that national identity.”

He’s instantly recognizable in Copenhagen but can walk around Washington unnoticed. The nation’s capital plays hosts to royals from all over the world — usually when they are students — thanks to a huge international community and the anonymity it affords those born into these dynasties. This is his best shot at a drama-free life away from royal reporters who obsess over the comings and goings of even minor European nobles.

And yes, the Danish royals have had their share of family drama. The queen made international headlines two years ago when she stripped Joachim’s four children of their royal titles — a surprise, seemingly random move that is still a touchy subject. Then she shocked the country this past New Year’s Eve when she announced she would abdicate. In a low-key ceremony, Frederik became king just two weeks later, leaving the two brothers to navigate a new, more formal relationship.

So it’s a good time for a fresh start, a chance for Joachim (pronounced Yo-ahh-cheem) and his family to have some fun away from the spotlight. He’s come to the United States to serve as defense attaché for the Danish Embassy — working with the Pentagon and other NATO allies — and, in a broader sense, teach Americans about Denmark. (Was Hamlet a real prince of Denmark? Sorry, no.)

And so the prince and his wife, Princess Marie, have agreed to sit for a rare interview at the Danish ambassador’s residence. He’s tall and lanky with almost perfect English; his wife, a French native, is petite and elegant and also fluent in English, thanks to a stint in New York years ago. He’s in a suit; she’s in a pink blazer. No pomp, no circumstance, no flash.

His brother, just a year older, was destined to be king. But the role of a second royal son is always a balancing act: It comes with a title, expectations and an income but no real job description. It’s the ultimate choose your own adventure. By the time he was 8 years old, Joachim thought he would be a gentleman farmer, a profession he studied and pursued with mixed success: He was, he joked, very good at “the gentleman part.”

Instead, he found his calling in the Danish military. After completing his education (he speaks Danish, French, English and German), he enrolled in the reserves while also a working royal. Five years ago, he was invited to enroll in the elite École Militaire in Paris, a year-long program for officers and defense experts. Then he was named a Danish brigadier general and a military attaché at the embassy in France. Last year, the palace announced he would be moving to Washington, where he would also focus on defense.

“It’s about defense industrial cooperation,” Joachim explained. “My main task here is to pave the way — boost, help, inspire — for Danish defense industries, large and small, to enter the U.S.: Either provide or sub-supply, get into that big chain of regenerating and resupplying our armed forces.” In short: One of the thousands of diplomats in this town (who happens to be a member of the royal family).

Rufus Gifford, who became a celebrity in Denmark during his years as the American ambassador, got to know the royal family well. “Joachim has been such a force for good,” he said, “in that he has always understood his role.” Here’s a prince, he said, developing the relationship between the United States and Denmark as a NATO ally, taking on a serious and sensitive responsibility instead of coasting on his title. “For him to keep his head down and do this work and be a fantastic representative of the country is something I think is extremely admirable.”

Aside from crown princes and princesses — whose career paths are decided at birth — other royals have to find a role beyond the occasional state appearances. Most opt for nonpolitical jobs: Norway’s Princess Martha Louise stopped using her title professionally after criticism she was exploiting it for business purposes; Prince Philippos, whose father was the last king of Greece, works in New York finance; Willem-Alexander, king of the Netherlands, flew as a KLM pilot for years.

Joachim had the freedom to choose a profession, and that was doubly true in his personal life. The Danes are pretty open-minded when it comes to the royals, who are allowed to marry for love instead of bloodlines. King Frederik famously met his Australian wife, now Queen Mary, at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney and married her four years later. In 1995, Joachim married a Hong Kong marketing executive and had two sons, Nikolai, 24, and Felix, 21. The couple divorced 10 years later. In 2008, he married Marie Cavallier, a French marketing and advertising executive; they have two children: Henrik, 14, and Athena, 12.

As Kate and Meghan know all too well, marrying into royalty isn’t the fairy tale one might assume, even though you can become an actual princess. You fall in love with a person; you marry a country.

“I had high expectations,” Princess Marie said. “I wanted to speak Danish perfectly. I wanted people to be proud of me. I wanted to fit in. So I think I put a lot of pressure on myself. But Denmark is actually an easy country to live in. Why? Because people respect each other a lot. I don’t feel there’s a lot of conflicts. Things work well.”

The Danes seem to enjoy their monarchy, which goes back to the 10th-century Vikings. They love the former queen and love her family.

“The Danish monarchy very much is leading the way as it relates to what it means to be a modern royal family,” Gifford said. Their agenda includes climate change, trade, technology — what he calls “next-generation issues.”

The Danish are also very good at being royal without being snobs. “Denmark is the least hierarchical society that I’ve ever lived in, for sure,” he said. “And yet the royal family is the definition of a hierarchy.” The pomp and circumstance is balanced by the things that connect them to average, ordinary people: road races, biking, sitting in the cold or rain (it rains a lot) without complaining.

“Danes like having a king or queen,” said Poul Pedersen, a member of the Danish Club of Washington. “It lends a calmness and stability to the view of Denmark.” Pederson was raised there — he remembers going to Copenhagen as a child to see the royals in person — and has met the queen three times. Danish politicians actually run the country, Pedersen pointed out, and it is the royals who preserve the traditions and history. “But they are expected to work for a living.”

The elephant in the throne room is the question of money. In most constitutional monarchies, the royal families are supported by taxpayers who are increasingly vocal about what they’re getting. The British royals, already personally very rich, receive more than $100 million in public funds per year. To counter criticism, many of the smaller monarchies in Europe have downsized over the past few years, limiting the amount and number of people who receive anything from the public dole.

In 2016, the queen reduced the number of working royals who receive an annuity from the government to just her household, the crown prince (now king), her sister Princess Benedikte and her younger son. She also stipulated that Frederik’s oldest son, Christian, would be the only grandchild to receive an annuity as an adult; the other royal grandchildren are expected to work in paying jobs as adults.

The royal budget is public information: The 2023 financial report lists a total of $13 million in public funds; as a full-time working royal, Prince Joachim receives about $575,000 a year.

“There are some who say that if you look at it in a tribal way, everybody has to contribute, right?” said the prince. “And what you contribute is what you will be measured by. That means thanked for or blamed for.”

Money is one thing; titles are another. In 2022, the royal family found itself in a rare and public drama after the queen announced that Joachim’s four children would no longer be called royal highnesses and downsized them to “excellencies,” although they retain their respective places in the line of succession. They were prince and princess when they were born; they would now be known as the counts and countess of Monpezat (their grandfather’s family title). The queen explained that she felt this was necessary for the future of the monarchy, and the children would be better able to shape their lives without the formal affiliation to the Royal House. (King Frederik’s four young children are still princes and princesses.) The queen’s decision echoed Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf, who in 2019 demoted five grandchildren who were not in direct line for the throne.

“I always feel great love for my entire family,” the queen said in her December 2022 New Year’s Eve address to the nation. “Difficulties and misunderstandings may arise in any family, also in mine. The whole country has witnessed that. That the relationship with Prince Joachim and Princess Marie has run into difficulties makes me sad. We have now had a quieter period and time for reflection, and I am sure that our family can embark on the new year together with confidence, understanding and new courage.”

Titles are a clearly a sensitive subject for the Danish royals. Then-Princess Margrethe married French native Henrik Marie Jean André de Laborde de Monpezat in 1967; throughout their long marriage, Henrik was publicly unhappy that she never upgraded him from Prince Consort to King Consort. So unhappy, in fact, that when he died in 2018, he refused to be buried in the tomb reserved for the couple. Instead, he was cremated and his ashes split between a palace garden and the sea.

Fast forward to 2022: Joachim and both wives — former and current — were united in their displeasure about the way the young princes and princess were downsized, saying they were blindsided and disappointed.

“We weren’t happy about the way it happened,” Marie said. “But it’s a family thing. It’s complicated.” What some people might see as frivolous is something more, she said: “It’s also their name. It’s their identity since they were born. So it’s more than just what people see as a title.”

But what’s done is done: The queen always gets the last word in any argument. “We’ve moved on,” Joachim said. (He was all smiles at his brother’s coronation.)

In the smaller world of European royalty, it matters — but only to a certain extent. They all know one another — many are related — and the difference between being a prince or a count may not be a game changer in the larger scheme of their lives.

Joachim’s older sons are launched (Nikolai is a fashion model; Felix is in business school) and his younger children are thriving in an international school here in Washington.

“We’ve lived here for seven months now, and very few people know who we are, Danes apart,” said the prince. The prince and princess can fly under the radar or use their titles to leverage attention for causes they care about. He’s a patron to 60 organizations; she’s been working on the issue of hunger and food waste for years, and since arriving in Washington has partnered with Veteran Coalition International, a Danish American nonprofit that focuses on long-term care for international/NATO veterans and their families.

But you also might spot the Danish royals at a Formula One race. The prince calls historical cars and motor racing “my passion.” He has his own racing car, and won “five or six” Danish championships. The princess is also a fan; the family expects to attend races in the United States.

So, no fairy tale. Just a guy — son, brother, husband, father — with a famous family trying to live his life. A modern prince, for those who care about things like that.

This story has been updated.

correction

A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Poul Pedersen, a member of the Danish Club of Washington. The article has been corrected.

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