Work Hard, Play Hard, Bernhard

There are royal consorts, and there is Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. The German-born dandy stood six feet tall and loomed large not only in the war years but during Europe’s recovery. Two decades after his death he remains, as they say, a divisive figure.
The prince consort posing for a portrait on his 43rd birthday.

If the function of a royal consort is to keep their head down and wave, then Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands was a disaster. Debonair to the point of flamboyance, the life companion of Queen Juliana made Britain’s Prince Philip look shy and retiring, overshadowing his wife throughout her reign in almost every way imaginable. loafers, a formal pocket-square with the beaded bracelet of the Californian hippy, and aviator sunglasses with anything at all. He made little effort to hide his tattoo, a snake coiled around a staff that was a nod to the doctor’s symbol of the staff of Asclepius, in memory of an early life dogged by serious illness. His trademark, though, was the white carnation he wore in his buttonhole throughout his life. This, a habit adopted as a student, took on meaning way beyond his personal style when the Netherlands adopted it on his birthday in 1940 as a symbol of resistance against the invading Germans. Over the course of his 93 years, Bernhard was both hero and villain. To some, he helped save his nation; to others, he was an egotistical, immoral, even evil figure. Twenty years on from his death, the country remains undecided on how it feels about him: shame, mockery, admiration, or a combination of the three. Like all royals, he is an enigma, obscured by official secrecy and backstairs gossip, but a life lived to the full on the world stage has left a lasting legacy that still spawns television series, books and conspiracy theories to this day.


James Medd


April 2023


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